"Game of Thrones" recap: When the enemy is already inside the gates

The Sons of the Harpy make a bold move on Dany's regime, while Cersei courts danger with religious extremists

Published May 4, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

For as much turbulence and strife inhabits the whole of the “Game of Thrones” universe, it’s really no surprise that nearly every corner of the globe is overrun with extremists, religious or otherwise. In times of discontent, fringe elements seem to thrive, and Westeros and beyond prove no exception to the phenomenon, as evidenced pointedly in this week’s episode, “Sons of the Harpy.”

Let’s start then, by looking at that group that gives the episode its name, the forces who continue to plague Dany’s time in Meereen. This week, the Sons of the Harpy have the audacity to try and kill Ser Barristan Selmy and Grey Worm alike. Time will tell how effective their attempts are, but their latest siege on Dany sympathizers spills plenty of blood all around. This fringe element is likely populated with noble-born men, underwhelmed by an upstart woman freeing their slaves and going to radical lengths to try to drive her from the city and recapture their way of life.

Meanwhile, in Dorne, Ellaria Sand gathers the Sand Snakes and urges them to take action against Myrcella Baratheon, now that her uncle/father Jaime has arrived in the country to attempt to secret her away. These are strong, impassioned women who yearn for justice and have no issue taking matters into their own hands, regardless of whether it brands them vigilantes or not, and in short order the women are united in their quest to strike back against the Lannisters.

Such extremists aren’t limited to political or social interests, either — one needs only look as far as the Wall to see evidence of that. Seemingly restless while stranded in the North and coming on the heels of Stannis enquiring what exactly she wants, Melisandre turns her eyes on Jon, looking for a new conquest. Melisandre’s drum-beating for the Lord of Light is equivalent to being an old world flirty fishy, and her pitch to win Jon Snow over to her side is basically “Hey, you’re powerful, here are my boobs, let’s do it.” It’s certainly a less violent approach than many extremists take, but it’s guerrilla warfare all the same.

Ultimately, this is all a long-winded way of saying that in arranging her devastating power play and reinstating the Faith Militant, Cersei may have single-handedly orchestrated her own downfall. The thing about extremist groups is that there’s no way to empower them without completely losing the ability to control them. The moment that Cersei gave ultimate power over to a man and an institution that does not answer to her, she gave away everything. This is best evidenced in the scene between the High Sparrow and Cersei, in which she tells him that there is a great sinner in their midst, shielded by gold and privilege. She means, of course, Loras Tyrell and his scandalous homosexuality. However, she could have just as well been talking about herself, given the fact that she has many children with her brother. Rumors are one thing, but “Game of Thrones” has already taken pains earlier in the season to show Cersei and newly-converted Sparrow Lancel having a conversation in which he begs forgiveness for their previous (incestuous) relationship, which means that Cersei has just forfeited power to an institution that contains a member who knows exactly how perverse her own sins are.

The resonance of Cersei’s folly is how often it occurs in modern geopolitical affairs, time and again. The most recent season of “The Americans” featured echoes of this, with Russia embroiled in ongoing violence with Afghan forces, forces that received billions of dollars of funding and weapons from the United States in an attempt to win the Cold War through other means. It was during this time, and likely with at least some of the billions funneled into the country by the US that the foundations of al-Qaeda were laid, a group that the United States would wage its own war against decades later.

Perhaps more telling would be to examine what was happening in the world at large when George R.R. Martin was developing this storyline in “Feast of Crows.” Published in 2005, after “A Storm of Swords” (2000), Martin wrote the bulk of "Crows" during the first George W. Bush administration, wherein he witnessed the rise to power of the religious right, many of whom wielded their faith like a club, hoping to bludgeon the other side into submission or, at the very least, silence. The fervor of extremists can be alluring and their capacity to do your dirty work appealing, but they are not a force that can be controlled and all too soon Cersei will almost certainly experience the brutal truth of the matter.

Of note:

Cersei isn’t the only one whose hubris is going to get the better of her. All throughout Littlefinger’s motivational speech (and smooch?) it became increasingly clear that Sansa would destroy him by the time the end times hit. “The most dangerous men can be outmaneuvered,” he tells her and it’s pretty clear she’s thinking, “Just you wait and see.”

For the uninitiated, it feels like it’s finally time to discuss the imaginary elephant in the room. There are repeated references to Rhaegar Targaryen this episode, a character who died long before the events of the series took place and is an extremely controversial character, as made clear by the two decidedly different tales we hear about him in this episode, one involving singing for fun and the other, you know, raping and such. If you want to know what some people may read into this extensive Rhaegar talk then you may want to proceed here and read about what is likely the most fundamental “Game of Thrones” theory in circulation. While I can’t imagine it would ruin it for you, especially seeing as it’s just a fan theory, if you are particularly spoiler-phobic, you may want to skip it. For the rest of us, I find it all fascinating and wonder if the repeated mentions are merely Weiss and Benioff tweaking book readers.

Oh, hey, Meryn Trant is getting sent to Braavos. I wonder if he’ll run into anyone who has his name on a “to kill” list while he’s there. (Related: Arya was missed this episode.)

The fight to end the episode was beautifully choreographed and if either character dies it will be deeply upsetting. Ser Barristan was in full BAMF mode.

Tyrion and Jorah are no Tyrion and Varys but they do seem to be good boat friends. Also, since we’ve lost the thread on our wacky Tyrion/Varys road movie, Jaime/Bronn is an acceptable substitute.

By Libby Hill

Libby Hill is a culture writer, specializing in television, for the New York Times, Vulture, and The A.V. Club. Follow her on twitter at @midwestspitfire

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