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'Game of Thrones' TV Book Club: 'High Sparrow' changes (almost) everything

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Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich talk about “High Sparrow,” the episode that decisively altered the destinies of several characters and continued Thrones‘ foregrounding of Margaery Tyrell. Check out James Hibberd’s full recap of the episode, then join us as we venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)

HILLARY: Pick up your jaw from the floor, DarBear, because we’ve got a LOT to cover this week. ‘High Sparrow” is the episode I’ve been waiting to discuss since season 5 formally began—because it’s the hour that officially marks the moment ASOIAF and Thrones completely diverged. What moment would that be, you ask? Three words: SANSA IS “ARYA.”

At first, this twist wholly infuriated me: Sansa would never agree to marry into the house that betrayed and murdered her family, even without knowing what a monster Ramsay is! The more I think about it, though, the more I’m kinda into the idea—because, at the very least, this is going to give Sophie Turner some real meaty material. (Which, according to David Benioff and writer/producer Bryan Cogman, is why the Thrones team decided to match Sansa with Ramsay in the first place.)

Which side of the divide are you on—or are you vacillating like me?

DARREN: I know that sometimes I can be a real Khal Killjoy with regard to book-to-TV changes. (“What about Quentyn?” he asked, a single tear falling down his face.) But this was my favorite episode since the Purple Wedding. Call me a sucker for nightmarish nuptials, because I am Team Samsay. He’s a psychopath who wants to be a real boy; she’s a onetime innocent with vengeance on her mind.

I like this for a few different reasons. It gets a Stark back in Winterfell. It twists Sansa’s dynamic from King’s Landing. There, she had to stay on a sociopath’s good side in order to survive; now she’s SORT OF doing the same thing, but (arguably) with more agency. And it further twists our family loyalties—in the long term, does this make Arya and Sansa enemies?

But hit me with your vacillations, Hilltown. Are you just bummed to see Darth Sansa back in stealth mode?

HILLARY: I mean, it’s kind of a bummer to see my new favorite Stark (sorry, Arya–we’ll get to you) passed between a series of increasingly evil men, even if that’s pretty much the same thing that happens to her in ASOIAF. More than that, though, I just feel like placing Sansa in Ramsay’s clutches makes her a damsel in distress once more, which she hasn’t really been since she escaped King’s Landing last season. When she moves to the Vale and stays there in the books, though, Sansa changes her identity, which gives her a greater degree of agency as well as a chance to actually breathe. (See the recently released Sansa chapter from The Winds of Winter for proof.)

And on a more fundamental level, it’s still just really, really difficult for me to buy that these characters would actually allow this match to happen. I understand that combining Sansa and “Arya”‘s storylines allow Benioff and Weiss to trim a good bit of fat from ASOIAF and give already-introduced characters more stuff to do. But seriously: Beyond liking this development on a theoretical level, do you truly believe that things would ever play out this way? Do you think Sansa could actually get over her hatred of the Boltons enough to say she’ll marry Ramsay, even if only so she can murder him on their wedding night? And maybe more importantly, do you honestly think Littlefinger would ever be so cavalier about giving away his prized possession? 

DARREN: Long answer: Yes, with an if. Short answer: No, with a but.

Long answer: Yes, if the show makes it clear that Sansa HAS a mission. My initial takeaway is that, like Arya, she is pursuing vengeance—but she is doing it her own way. Sansa is not a warrior. She was bred to be married. This is helplessly retrograde, but it’s also what Sansa was most looking forward to when we first met her. I like the idea that Sansa, in a twisted way, WILL become a princess—and I like the fact that Littlefinger gives her a choice (even though he knows it’s not really a choice.) It also works if the show makes clear that Baelish-Bolton is the new Tyrell-Lannister: a marriage of convenience between two sides who are more powerful together, even if they both want to kill each other.

Short answer: No, but the show needs to do something to make the North interesting—and I’m okay with Winterfell becoming the Island of Misfit Subplots. Sansa and Littlefinger, Ramsay and Theon, Brienne and Roose: That’s a lot of potential fireworks.

Also, aren’t the Greyjoys still in the North? Or are we just not talking about the Greyjoys now?

HILLARY: We can talk about Theon! Because the Ramsay marriage also means a big potential plotline for him, assuming he doesn’t get flayed in this version of the story. (After Samsay, I’m not ruling anything out.)

DARREN: Jesus, can we just rejoice in the fact that we’re FINALLY catching up to Theon actually having a real plotline? The return of Theon in Dance with Dragons is one of my favorite GRRM-brand character-twists—after a long absence, we see him return as a subhuman monster, and then somehow witness his psychological rebirth. Did we really need two seasons of torturin’, castratin’, servitude-in’ downward spiral?

HILLARY: Agreed! Theon’s appearance in this episode would have had a lot more punch if we hadn’t had to watch his looooong Reekification—though if Theon does get a chance to help rescue Sansa, I may forgive the show for subjecting us to that. (Also: If Theon had show up tonight after two years offscreen, what’s the over/under on Unsullied viewers even remembering who he was?)

Speaking of that rescue storyline: Mance Rayder, mastermind of the awesome plot to save “Arya” from Ramsay, is dead in the Show Thrones universe. Another valiant hero, however, is very much alive: Brienne. This means the Maid of Tarth is totally going to step into ol’ Rattleshirt’s rattleshirt, right? Probably around, oh, episode 9?

DARREN: But can Brienne sing? I’m betting Podrick can: There’s nothing that boy CAN’T do. Another thing I loved about this episode: Brienne-Podrick are officially my new favorite Hound-Arya (who were my new favorite Brienne-Jaime.) And now that you’ve opened the Prediction door, Hillary, let me go on the record as saying that the last scene of season 5 will DEFINITELY be a single snowflake falling from the sky and landing at someone’s feet. (Let’s say…Hodor.)

But to be honest, I initially assumed that you had been shamelessly teasing me about another Big Change in episode 3. Can we talk for a second about Tommen Baratheon, Happiest Boy On Earth?

HILLARY: Westerosi Pie: You never forget your first piece. I know Show Tommen is a good… what, 8 years older than his book counterpart? But still: It’s massively gross to watch his TV counterpart sleep with Margaery knowing that in A Feast for Crows, he’s still playing pretend with his beloved kitty, right?

DARREN: Gee—if I knew the High Sparrow was going to show up to this week’s EWGoTTVBC, I would’ve shaved my head and forced corrupt holy men to walk naked through the streets. Get with the times, Hillibuster! Age-inappropriate marriage is the new twincest!

I like how, of all people, Tommen is the most positive image of Baratheon rule we’ve yet seen. Admittedly, he’s only a good ruler because he’s maybe too dumb to be mean, but I like how the show has set him up this season. He’s not really his own person; he’s the disputed land that two equally powerful women are fighting over. He’s just an object! Hurray for equal-opportunity objectification! Is there a more exciting battle going on right now than the Cold War between Margaery and Cersei?

HILLARY: There certainly is not. Their carefully cordial confrontation in the Garden of Secrets was a masterful display of passive-aggression—and I think being robbed of Cersei’s first-person  perspective actually makes their dynamic crackle a lot more than it does in the books, where we only see Margaery through the other queen’s paranoid gaze. I loved watching Lena Headey glower as the poor people of King’s Landing cried out for their beloved Margaery, and I loved seeing her momentary flinch when Margaery apologized for not having any wine—”It’s a little early in the day for us”—even more.

Reading these scenes in A Feast for Crows meant seeing all the subtext of their conversations laid bare, since they were interspersed with Cersei’s crazed inner monologue. Watching them, though, makes them play a lot more subtly—especially because Natalie Dormer is a great enough actress to convincingly play a great actress.

DARREN: Agreed on all counts! I still hope that the show finds a way to indulge its grand guignol instincts with the Cersei storyline this season. Cersei vs. Margaery feels like a pass-aggro dark comedy of manners; Cersei’s arc in Feast for Crows was like a more unhinged Caligula. Still, I could happily enjoy a whole episode that’s just long close-ups of Cersei’s bitchface staring down Margaery’s “Who, me?” smile.

ALSO! HILLARY! DAVOS SEAWORTH!HAD A GOOD SCENE!

HILLARY: HE DID! Let’s all raise up a two-jointed salute!

DARREN: A scene which, I believe, was wholly original, and which featured ANOTHER extremely interior book character who has had an occasionally problematic time on the show! All this, and no Meereen!

HILLARY: Yeah, this episode ruled. I WILL SAY, though, that having Davos remain with Stannis does rob us of one of my favorite book digressions: the Tale of Wyman Manderlay.

DARREN: But the good news is, the stage is set for a Wyman Manderlay-Strong Belwas spinoff!

One last thing, Hillmatic: How’d you feel about the goings-on over in the old House of Black and White? I know that Unsullied fans in particular love Jaqen H’ghar; I admit to being almost entirely immune to his charms, although I respect the fact that the actor looks uncannily like Klaus Kinski doing Beastmaster.

HILLARY: You know… I’m going to reserve judgment for now, partially because not a whole lot has happened there yet, and partially because my screener was so damn dark that I had a hard time seeing what actually was happening. I am, however, happy that Needle lives, as she does in the books.

Oh, and I was also tickled to discover that thanks to Ramsay’s flayed corpses, tonight’s hour featured a literal feast for crows.

DARREN: Stay tuned for next season, when Drogon and Varys have a tango interlude!

Before we go, Hillary, I wanted to bring one comment to your attention from last week’s boards:

Paris HiltonBron’s travel to Dorne is a bad sign. B&W said some characters that are still alive in the book would be killed this season. Ser Oakheart was killed in Dorne. There ain’t no Oakheart in the TV series, so Bron is a likely stand-in. (Ain’t no way they kill off Jaime). Other possible kills: Podrick (poor Pod); Brienne; Grey Worm; Ser Jorah; Mance (probably already killed for good).

DARREN: Prediction lightning round: Who’s dying this season who ISN’T book-dead? I’m betting Paris is right about Podrick—he’s getting too many grace notes to last much longer—but in the interest of wild leaps, I’m going to say that we lose somebody big in episode 9. Let’s say… STANNIS.

HILLARY: I’m probably most worried about Brienne, mostly because a) for all we know, she’s actually dead in ASOIAF as well and the Brienne who came to lure Jaime to Lady Stoneheart was some sort of R’hllor-facilitated voodoo, and b) if Brienne is, in fact, going to play Mance at Winterfell, things probably won’t end well for her. I shudder at the thought of the Maid of Tarth being trapped in a cage by Ramsay, with only poor Pod’s flayed skin to keep her warm. But that might be too dark even for TV Thrones. Right? … Right?

One more comment to digest from last week’s Book Club:

Frakking Lommy: Ok…with all of the Greyscale foreshadowing: who will get Greyscale? Will it be a major epidemic or outbreak or simply an isolated event? Otherwise, why do they keep bringing up Shireen’s Greyscale? Given that we know Tyrion isn’t traveling with Griff and that Griff gets Greyscale in the book…I think Varys will get Greyscale on the way to Volantis. Additionally, from the leaked photos of the end result of this trip to Meereen, Varys is absent.

HILLARY: The Red Priestess Tyrion oggled in Volantis this week brought up Greyscale as well, making me agree that the disease may strike someone we know and love this season. After all, that disease would be a lot cooler to watch than a bunch of people pooping themselves to death, a la Dance with Dragons. Do you think a named character may be stricken by the same disease as Shireen, Dario NaFranich?

DARREN: Although I don’t particularly look forward to anyone dying a long, slow, Jimmy Smits-on-NYPD-Blue death, I definitely think Lommy’s right about the Greyscale foreshadowing. But my personal bet’s on Jorah. A gradual descent into miserable leper-dom seems about right for our poor, melancholy, twice-disnohored knight.

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