“Sons of the Harpy” is an episode populated by ghosts, moving the chess pieces of Westerosi geopolitics from beyond the grave. All three Lannister children are haunted by their father and the circumstances of his death; their Dornish counterparts and enemies, the Sand Snakes, likewise. Rhaegar Targaryen, albeit opposite sides of him, comes up in conversations on opposite sides of the globe. And after spending the last three episodes pretending he’s above attachment, Jon Snow finally lets the mask slip a few centimeters, revealing how much he’s still struggling with the deaths of both his family and his first love.
In the world of Game of Thrones, wars are never a matter of resources or even land, but deeply personal conflicts that spiral from intimate face-offs into international incidents. We’ve seen this in the form of, say, a brother-sister love affair that leads to an attempted child murder that leads to a five party free-for-all over a very pointy chair. As Littlefinger’s history lesson in the tombs reminds us, though, the War of the Five Kings wasn’t an anomaly in the Seven Kingdoms’ history, but par for the course. The reason why Robert was on that pointy chair at the series’ start, after all, was Rhaegar Targaryen’s falling in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
Or maybe “love” isn’t the best word for it. Where Littlefinger, best of the maneuverers, sees the destruction wrought by Rhaegar’s inability to put politics above mere emotions, Sansa—Sansa the survivor, Sansa the used, Sansa the traumatized—sees something very different: “Yes, he chose her. And then he kidnapped her and raped her.” Neither the audience nor the characters themselves will truly know what happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna (perhaps one of the reasons, in addition to heaps of textual evidence, they’re at the center of one of the series’ most popular fan theories), but that’s not the point. The takeaway is that history, far from being the dry exposition some viewers dismiss it as, is something that both informs and is informed by the lives of those it impacts. Sansa is about to be left alone with a sadist, a situation that’s no less terrifying for the opportunity it affords her to step out from Littlefinger’s shadow and become a player in her own right. It’s no wonder she can’t ignore the pain her caretaker so casually elides from Lyanna’s life story.
Littlefinger’s airbrushing is still a smear job compared to the Rhaegar his younger sister hears about. Where last week’s sobering portrait of the Mad King taught Daenerys that to dismiss every critic as a liar is to risk the self-delusion that runs in the family, Barristan’s lesson this week is in what her ancestors did right. Dany’s father was a maniac whose irresponsibility killed thousands and eventually himself; Dany’s brother was a man of the people who hated to kill and loved to sing. Once again, the reality of Rhaegar Targaryen is almost irrelevant compared to his role in Dany’s self-image: a positive example to take the edge off a cautionary tale. The exchange also reinforces Barristan’s role as Dany’s only link to a heritage she was too young to experience herself. His apparent death, at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy, severs her connection to Westeros—and reminds her of how much she needs to fix in Meereen before she can return “home.”
Back at the Wall, Jon still maintains his impartiality to Stannis, but lets his guard drop in the presence of a close friend, and now underling, like Sam. He eventually agrees to ask Roose Bolton for troops, though only after some serious convincing. And when it comes to Ygritte, not even Melisandre’s boobs (i.e. her go-to negotiation tactic) can keep him from remaining loyal, albeit to a dead woman. Note that he doesn’t cite the vows of the Night’s Watch when he’s turning down her seduction; his devotion to Ygritte is personal and all the more intense for it. And though Shireen is very much alive and thus doesn’t fit into this week’s theme all that well, Stannis’ fierce attachment to her deserves recognition. Like Jon, Stannis’ love isn’t practical and may even be counterproductive, but he can’t help himself from loving her, despite the princess being everything a king’s only child shouldn’t: shy, diseased, and most importantly, a girl.
Cersei Lannister is perfectly healthy and certainly not shy. She’s still a woman, though, which means she has to manipulate her way into power, now more than ever. The fight against Margaery and her own irrelevance leads her to send Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant off to Braavos, making the Small Council smaller and yet “not small enough.” She also decides to arm the Faith Militant, a fantastically stupid move that illustrates both how much she wants to be Tywin and how futile that wish is. Landing Loras in prison may be a small victory, but while Cersei basks in the glow of plausible deniability (Lena Headey’s delivery of “Did I arrest him?” is straight-up delicious) her sit-down with the High Sparrow is hypocritical to the point of black comedy. “Too often the wicked are the wealthiest”? “A great sinner in our very midst, shielded by wealth and privilege”? Who does that sound like? And how could this possibly go wrong?
Jaime is slightly more self-aware about rescuing his…niece (I can’t wait for the GIF set of that staring contest with Bronn) to compensate for effectively killing his father. The dynamic duo’s first day in Dorne isn’t big on thematic development, but their scenes have plenty to recommend them: one of several well-choreographed fight sequences, some seriously impressive costume design, introducing the Sand Snakes as a threat…and establishing many, many parallels with Tyrion’s own journey.
Both Lannister brothers open the episode on boats ferrying them to their possible redemption. Jaime has literally replaced Tyrion as Bronn’s employer and banter partner. And of course, both are driven by Tywin. George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones each deserve credit for depicting Tyrion’s murders as a lasting trauma rather than a triumphant moment of revenge. Last week, Tyrion couldn’t bring himself to sleep with a prostitute after thinking of Shae. Tonight, he makes a casual reference to needing wine to sleep. This is a man with serious demons, which he subsequently buries under a deeper layer of nihilism than ever before. Tyrion has Jorah Mormont’s number because he’s smart; he lets Jorah know it because he no longer cares what happens to him. Hopefully, Daenerys gives him a purpose—and Tyrion gives her some desperately needed advice.