We’re in the final week of #GOT50! We’ve done it, folks- waited all these months, and there are only seven more days until we’re watching the season premiere of Game of Thrones. Almost hard to believe! And our lengthy Memory Lane is nearing its end. Walking us through “Sons of the Harpy” is a WotW regular, who you can also find on Twitter at @JKozal. Please give a warm Watchers welcome to Jared Kozal! – Sue the Fury
“Go, Ser Barristan. Sing a song for me.”
So passes a bold warrior into legend. The main song of Game of Thrones, as we all know, is the Song of Ice and Fire. But there are other songs as well, for those who don’t make it to the final verse of the main one. The myriad legends and stories – not only of ice and fire, but of love and loss – that populate this world represent a true legacy, for those fortunate enough to earn them.
The weight of the past and the shadow of legends are ever-present in “Sons of the Harpy.” It’s an episode packed with both action and mythology, deftly directed by Mark Mylod and written by Dave Hill (David Benioff & Dan Weiss’s former assistant, writing his first script for the show).
The hour begins in Volantis, where Jorah steals a fisherman’s boat, tossing the unconscious man a few coins for his trouble. He tosses Tyrion into the boat with a similar lack of ceremony, and sets sail. Luckily, Tyrion’s fears that Jorah is taking him to his sister are alleviated when he realizes they’re heading east rather than west. Jorah declares that he means to deliver the Imp to the only Queen he serves – Daenerys Targaryen. For once, fortune hasn’t played a cruel joke on Tyrion – it just so happens that he was headed there anyway!
Tyrion quickly deduces Jorah’s identity, and wastes no time needling him about the risky nature of his plan. Tyrion muses (correctly, as it turns out) that perhaps Dany will be more interested in employing him than she will be in forgiving a man who betrayed her. He makes too much sense for Jorah, who responds by knocking Tyrion out. That’s one way to get to sleep without wine.
Back in Westeros, Cersei is unaware that her despised brother is sailing further away from her clutches (off to serve a younger and more beautiful queen, perhaps). The Iron Bank has called in one-tenth of the Crown’s debt – far more than they can afford to pay back. Cersei dispatches Mace Tyrell to Braavos to negotiate better terms, and gives him his own personal Kingsguard for his journey – the illustrious Meryn Trant. Mace is proud as punch, though judging from the sour look on Meryn’s face and the satisfied look on Cersei’s, he shouldn’t be.
“The small council grows smaller and smaller,” mutters Pycelle. “Not small enough,” Cersei retorts. She’s not done yet.
Cersei’s next move is to meet with the High Sparrow, who is the new High Septon…though he refuses to join her for a celebratory glass of wine (You’d think Cersei of all people would know better than to trust someone who doesn’t drink. Suspicious). Nevertheless, she offers to reinstate the Faith Militant, granting the High Sparrow an army. “The Faith Militant was disarmed more than two centuries ago,” the High Sparrow reminds her. He claims he never wished for such power. The gleam in his eye says otherwise.
Obviously, this particular relic of the past was buried for a reason. But Cersei isn’t in the mood for a history lesson – she believes she’s found a sword that she can wield against Margaery, and she’s keen to use it. The way that High Sparrow stares directly at her when he says “All sinners are equal before the gods” seems to be lost on the Queen Mother. “What would you say,” Cersei ventures, “if I told you of a great sinner in our very midst, shielded by gold and privilege?”
The High Sparrow smiles. “May the Father judge him justly.”
Justice is an inelegant word for what happens next. The newly-empowered Faith Militant rampage through the capital, doing things that violent religious fanatics freed from all accountability love to do. They smash idols. They break up games of chance. They dump out casks of wine and ale. They invade private establishments to shame and torture all the men and women engaging in consensual activities for money or pleasure. One such encounter between two men receives a particularly harsh sentence from the sneering sparrows, a sentence that Olyvar – who has a personal interest in the matter – witnesses in horror. It ends with Lancel, blood from his newly-carved facial star still wet on his forehead, leading a party of his brothers to seize Loras Tyrell for his supposed crimes – again, all in the name of “justice.”
Margaery confronts her husband to demand that, as King, he take action. Tommen’s action turns out to be telling his mother to do something about it, a plan which fizzles when Cersei feigns innocence and ignorance over the lip of her wine glass. Cersei suggests that Tommen speak with the High Sparrow himself. This seems like a bad idea given her stated desire to protect her son at all costs, but serves her short game of screwing over the Tyrells quite nicely.
When Tommen visits the Sept of Baelor, he finds himself in a standoff with the Faith Militant. The High Sparrow is praying, and will not be disturbed. One of Tommen’s Kingsguard offers to make the holy steps run red with blood, but the young king, with cries of “bastard” and “abomination” ringing in his ears, loses his nerve and retreats. When he returns empty-handed, a disappointed Margaery departs to summon her grandmother. Unfortunately, Cersei may have unleashed a beast too great for even the Queen of Thorns to handle.
Far from the chaos his twin sister/lover has wrought, Jaime travels south to Dorne – passing by the Sapphire Isle of Tarth on the way. (The wistful look on his face when he sails past Brienne’s home adds no shortage of fuel to the shipping fire, for those so inclined). Below decks, Bronn quickly deduces that Jaime’s mission to rescue his “niece” is actually a form of penance to atone for setting Tyrion free and getting his father killed. Bronn tells Jaime to give Tyrion his regards if he sees him, but Jaime isn’t quite ready to forgive his brother just yet.
After rowing ashore at night, the two knights take a break from their quest to rescue the princess (“Sounds like a good song to me.”/“Sounds like all the rest.”) to discuss their preferred means of death. “I’ve had an exciting life,” Bronn sagely declares between bites of fresh-grilled snake. “I want my death to be boring.” When asked how he’d like to go, Jaime smiles. “In the arms of the woman I love.”
“She want the same thing?” Bronn inquires. Jaime’s silence is telling, but this is no time for soul-searching. The interlopers quickly run afoul of a Dornish patrol, and Bronn’s knife proves to be even quicker than his wit. He takes down three of the riders, leaving the “slow” one for the Jaime to handle. Jaime’s left-handed fighting abilities still aren’t quite up to par, but his golden hand proves to be a surprisingly useful tool that helps him survive and kill his opponent. As a bonus, it also gets him out of the hard work of digging the men’s graves.
Alas, news of Jaime and Bronn’s arrival has already reached the viper’s nest, where Ellaria unites with the Sand Snakes – Obara, Nymeria, and her own daughter Tyene. They’ve captured the Pentoshi merchant captain who ferried Jaime to Dorne, and buried him up to his neck in sand and scorpions. With Doran unwilling to sully Oberyn’s memory by condoning the murder of an innocent girl, Ellaria decides they must get to Myrcella first if they are to start the war that no one but them seems to want. She asks Oberyn’s daughters to join her cause. Tyene and Nym readily agree. Obara delivers her own answer via a speech about her origins, and punctuates it by throwing her spear through the merchant’s skull. Poor greedy fool. He should have been content with Jaime’s heavy bag of gold.
At the Wall- as far as it’s possible to get from Dorne without leaving the Seven Kingdoms – Stannis Baratheon and his wife watch Jon train members of the Night’s Watch. The king is notoriously hard to please, but Selyse notices that her husband is visibly impressed with the young Lord Commander – the son he never had, perhaps? Deeply self-conscious about providing Stannis with a deformed daughter rather than a living son, Selyse jealously muses that Jon can’t be all that special. The Bastard of Winterfell is just the spawn of some tavern girl, right? Right?
“Perhaps.” Stannis muses. “But that wasn’t Ned Stark’s way.” The mystery deepens!
Presumably having exhausted the contents of Castle Black’s meager library, the daughter of whom Selyse is so ashamed visits her father’s office to find out if he feels the same way. In response, Stannis tells Shireen the story of how she contracted Greyscale through his own well-meaning gift. Rejecting all pronouncements of doom, he fought a determined battle to save her life, calling in every maester, healer, and apocathery to stop the dreaded disease. “Because you do not belong across the world with the bloody stone men,” the One True King declares. “You are the Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon. And you are my daughter.”
It’s quite possibly the most touching declaration of love that this lonely little girl has ever heard in her entire life. Shireen’s eyes well up, and she runs to her father to hug him tightly. At the time, my heart swelled. Now, it shatters into a thousand pieces, and there’s only pain.
Meanwhile, Jon and Sam petition lords and ladies across Westeros to send whatever men they can spare to the Wall. But when Sam presents Jon with a letter bearing Roose Bolton’s name, he freezes. “Not him.” Desperate as the Watch is, he can’t stomach the idea of begging the man who murdered his brother for aid. It’s only when Sam tells him they can’t defend the Wall without help from the Warden of the North that Jon reluctantly signs the letter.
As Sam departs, Melisandre arrives to ask Jon yet again if he’ll join Stannis’s campaign to take Winterfell. When Jon insists that his place is at the Wall, Melisandre responds by opening her robe, and her jar of flattery. “There’s power in you,” the Red Woman murmurs, as she guides Jon’s hand over her warm and beating heart. “You resist it, and that’s your mistake. Embrace it.”
Jon is clearly tempted, but resists on the grounds that he swore a vow to the Night’s Watch. Melisandre shoots him an incredulous look – she thinks very little of that excuse. With honor failing him, Jon falls back on his love for Ygritte. “The dead don’t need lovers,” Melisandre whispers, as she reaches down to undo Jon’s tunic “Only the living.”
At that, Jon catches her hand. “I know.” He declares. “But I still love her.”
Our hearts melt at Jon’s touching display of loyalty to the girl who was kissed by fire. But Melisandre is less impressed. She evokes Jon’s dearly departed in another way – by speaking five very familiar words as she leaves. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The look on Jon’s face reveals that he’s just as unsettled as we are.
At Winterfell, Jon’s “half-sister” Sansa visits the crypts to pay her respects to the deceased members of her family. She lights a candle before the statue of her aunt, Lyanna Stark (and discovers the feather that Robert Baratheon left there in the series premiere). Her private vigil is interrupted by Petyr Baelish, who shares his memories of a fabled moment in Westerosi history.
“I saw her once,” Baelish says “Lord Whent held a great tourney at Harrenhal…”
Oh, how many people had been waiting years to hear someone say those words! Littlefinger recounts how Rhaegar Targaryen defeated Barristan Selmy in the final tilt, and how the crowd exulted in their prince’s victory “until he rode past his wife, Elia Martell, and all the smiles died.” When Rhaegar lay “a crown of winter roses, blue as frost” in Lyanna’s lap, the song of ice and fire truly began. It would prove to be bloodier than most.
“How many tens of thousands died because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger asks as he stares at the likeness of a woman whose wild beauty started a terrible war. Sansa expresses her belief that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna. From the way Littlefinger looks at her, it’s clear he knows there’s more to this particular story. But for once, the mockingbird remains silent.
Instead, he turns his attention from the distant past to the immediate future – he’s returning to King’s Landing to answer Cersei’s summons. Sansa will remain in Winterfell. When she balks, Littlefinger tells her his plan (well, part of it, anyway). Stannis is coming south to take Winterfell from the Boltons. When he does, he will name Sansa the Wardeness of the North.
Sansa is understandably skeptical, raising the question of what will happen to her if the Boltons defeat Stannis. In that case, Littlefinger asserts, she will exert her influence over Ramsay, who’s surely already fallen for her by now. He seals his poisoned promise with a kiss from which Sansa doesn’t exactly pull away – but she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it much either. “I expect I’ll be a married woman by the time you return,” she says. Littlefinger smirks – that fact changes nothing for him. But if and when the two meet again, it will be under vastly different circumstances.
Sansa’s low opinion of Rhaegar stands in sharp contrast to that of someone who knew him well – Barristan Selmy. Far away in Meereen, the man who Rhaegar unhorsed in Lord Whent’s tourney regales Rhaegar’s sister with stories about her famous brother. When Dany touts Rhaegar’s legendary prowess as a warrior, the comment elicits a laugh from the old knight. “Rhaegar never liked killing,” Barristan tells his queen with a wistful smile. “He loved singing.”
The reverie is broken when Daario enters to inform Dany of Hizdahr’s arrival. Sensing Barristan’s distaste for such proceedings, Dany releases him for the evening, and settles in to listen to another appeal for the fighting pits to be reopened. Hizdahr asserts that in the absence of such an ancient and sacred tradition to bind them together, former masters and former slaves have nothing in common but mutual hatred. Blood is all they understand. Only blood can bind them together. “All men must die,” Hizdahr declares, “But not all can die in glory.”
But dying in glory is not the same as dying with honor – as we will soon see.
The quiet streets of Meereen that Dany surveyed from her high perch prove to be a mirage. Things are far more hellish at ground level, as the Sons of the Harpy stage their most brazen attack yet. Swiftly they fall upon the Second Sons and the dutifully patrolling Unsullied to cut their throats before vanishing just as quickly. When Grey Worm arrives with reinforcements, the Meereenese prostitute who led White Rat to his doom directs them into a lethal ambush, after which she drops the façade and dries her crocodile tears.
Once the Unsullied enter the kill zone, they’re ambushed by a party of masked assailants. The Unsullied were trained for battle, capable of defeating any foe when fighting as a cohesive unit in the open field. But in the dark and cramped alleys of Meereen, forced to fight as detached individuals rather than as a unit in tight formation, their long spears are a poor match for the Harpy’s short knives. Grey Worm, skilled warrior though he is, is in deep trouble. He fights valiantly, killing many, but as one Son tangles him up from behind, the blade of another pierces his side. Grey Worm screams (no doubt thinking of Missandei in that moment), and rips the blade out. He continues to fight, but it’s clear that the brave warrior is seconds away from death.
That’s when Barristan arrives. Armed with only a sword and shorn of all armor, Barristan kills – count them – thirteen men single-handedly. He slays two as he enters. As the Sons rush to engage him, he fells a third, then a fourth. Five. Six. Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten! After he kills the eleventh, he’s finally hamstrung. Yet he kills two more. A knife pierces his side, then a second. Still the old knight fights, facing his last enemy, though he can no longer stand. The final Son moves in to cut his throat … only Grey Worm rises to impale the insurgent from behind. Barristan falls. Grey Worm tries in vain to rouse him, then collapses himself, as the dust swirls and the bells toll.
“In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave.” Those words are spoken whenever a true knight earns his title. Barristan was more than brave – he was Bold, never hesitant to charge forward, sword drawn, to defend his friends and those in need of help. Most knights his age would have long since retired to a castle by the sea. Instead, Barristan crossed an ocean and a continent to pledge himself to Daenerys Targaryen. “Just once in my life, before it’s over,” he told Jorah “I want to know what it’s like to serve with pride. To fight for someone I believe in.”
Whether or not Daenerys proved herself worthy of his belief is up to the viewer. But ultimately, Barristan fulfilled his truest sense of purpose. “I am a knight,” he had declared, when Joffrey and Cersei ignominiously tried to put him out to pasture. “I will die a knight.”
And so he did. The painter who only used red sang his last song in a back alley of a city far away from the land of his birth. It was not the glorious end that some may have envisioned for a man of his stature. But that doesn’t make his death any less honorable, or the knight any less true.
Introductions: The three eldest Sand Snakes – Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, and Tyene Sand – make their first onscreen appearance in this episode. Gary Pillai’s Pentoshi merchant captain and Christian Vit’s Lead Dornish Guard also debut, only to shuffle off their mortal coils quickly.
Deaths: The merchant captain; four Dornish patrolmen; Numerous Second Sons, Unsullied, and Sons of the Harpy. And of course, Ser Barristan Selmy.
Beautiful Death: The merchant captain (Barristan gets his poster for the next episode).