[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Faith is an interesting concept in the world of Game of Thrones. It is sometimes mentioned in loose terms by those discussing “the old gods and the new,” but the importance of having faith has really only been explored obliquely through characters like Melisandre, Stannis, Jaqen, and a handful of others. There’s certainly value in having faith in a religious sense – as Melisandre and Berric Dondarrion appear to have proven on more than one occasion – but what about those who have faith in another sense? What is the value in having faith in myths and legends, or, for the truly brave (and perhaps reckless), like Sansa or Ellaria and her Sand Snakes, future plans?
That seems to be the theme of ‘The Sons of the Harpy,’ which examines the idea of faith, from the fanatical to the guileless, by asking nearly every character to use faith in one way or another to their advantage. Jaime believes that his trip to Dorne with Bronn is the right thing to do for his niece. There’s an inflection in Jaime’s tone when he says the word “niece” that suggests he knows it’s hopeless for him to believe that Bronn is going to just let that one slide.
Bronn’s response is to repeat the word, but with a very pointed question mark tacked on to the end. Bronn’s inflection is more telling than someone simply buying into the gossip that Cersei’s three children are the product of an incestuous relationship; it implies that Jaime has been made considerably less dangerous after having his hand removed, and the Lannisters as a whole, especially in the wake of Tywin’s death, have lost a considerable amount of power. And with that loss of power comes the loss of any pretense of respect someone in Bronn’s position might grant a man like Jaime.
Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, Cersei uses the idea of faith to her advantage – which is interesting, considering how so many of her recent actions are the result of a prophecy she believes may yet come to pass. As the small council continues to shrink – with Mace Tyrell being sent off to negotiate new terms with the Iron Bank – Cersei continues to consolidate what little power she has left. It is here that she calls in her new friend High Sparrow to bring back the Faith Militant – possibly the most overt reference to the notion of faith in the episode – as a means by which she can leverage power over Margaery.
The scenes involving the newly reestablished Faith Militant feel like they could have been the episode’s climactic sequence, but they also establish what a strong grip on theme the episode actually has, and how well it can use it. Quick cuts of a new power rising in King’s Landing are born out of Cersei’s fear of being replaced, both in her son’s life and in terms of proximity to the throne.
And while High Sparrow’s followers race through the city, taking care of anyone they deem impure, the extreme nature and devotion to their faith is effectively unsettling. Men in robes running around clearing out brothels is one thing, but men having insignias carved into their foreheads before arresting Loras Tyrell is another. Cersei is playing a game, betting on the fanatic faith of High Sparrow’s followers, but she’s failing to leave that power unchecked. If the Faith Militant will openly challenge the king in the streets of King’s Landing – while voices from below can be heard shouting things like “abomination” and “filthy bastard” – how long will it be before they challenge the power of the woman who gave them all that power in the first place?
That raises an interesting question about Tommen. Until now, he’s been something of a cipher, a child lording over cats. Now, if anything, Tommen has become the physical manifestation of the power vacuum in King’s Landing. He’s ineffectual no matter who he’s talking to. Despite bearing a title making him the most powerful child in Westeros, his role in the episode deftly establishes how, without a demonstration of power, or the belief of the people to back it up, that title can mean as little as any other.
There is a trio of great scenes featuring Tommen that establish how little faith anyone has in him. First he has his lunch interrupted by his angry wife. That sets into motion an ineffectual confrontation with his mother, wherein she sheepishly asks, “Did I arrest him?” in response to the boy king’s question of why his brother by law was suddenly behind bars. By the third time a conversation ends with Tommen looking more confused and disappointed than when it began, it’s clear that Cersei’s plan has instilled greater power in the concept of faith, than what little faith remains in the concept of power around the name Lannister.
The episode wraps up with some interesting thoughts on the faith people put in stories. While there’s some interesting storytelling going on in Castle Black as Melisandre attempts to seduce Jon Snow (but settles on leaving him with a few choice words), and Stannis wins the heart of the audience in a touching exchange with his daughter, there are no more vexing examples of the faith people put in stories than the two swirling around Rhaegar Targaryen. While hanging out in her family crypt with Littlefinger, Sansa mentions him in passing while discussing Lyanna Stark. That story is far removed from the one Barristan Selmy tells Dany before he and Greyworm are apparently struck down in a battle with another fanatical group: The Sons of the Harpy.
As with the Faith Militant, The Sons of the Harpy demonstrate one very potent fact about the role of power. There is authority in an overwhelming force, but if people choose not to have faith in that power, the power of the force will always be in question. As Greyworm and Selmy apparently lie dying it becomes clear that real power comes from what people choose to believe in most.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘Kill the Boy’ @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO