“I imagine this is strange for you,” the High Sparrow tells Olenna, always good for drawing a monologue or two out of her enemies. “Everyone you meet has a hidden motive, and you pride yourself on seeking it out. But I’m telling you a simple truth.” And yet “The Gift” reveals the High Sparrow to be exactly like the Game of Thrones power players the Queen of Thorns is used to dealing with. For one, he delivers that line during the most Game of Thrones-y scene possible: two people, alone in a room, having an eminently quotable verbal tennis match.
The Sparrow also turns out to have something of a hidden motive, or at least a hangup that motivates his actions more than simple piety. Just as Cersei has her vanity (and foreboding prophecy) and Ramsay his naked sadism (more on that later), the High Sparrow is an “eat the rich”-type extreme populist; his faith may be genuine, but he relishes the opportunity it provides him to take down the Lannisters and Tyrells of the world. Olenna, being Olenna, sniffs this out right away—there’s a reason, she points out, why the High Sparrow is making an example of her grandchildren and not one of the capital’s thousands of petty criminals. He admits she’s right, albeit in the most menacing way possible: “You are the few. We are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few…” He leaves the Queen of Thorns speechless, a sight that’s more terrifying than any closeup of an old woman’s flayed body.
And to get what he wants, the High Sparrow manipulates Cersei in a long play straight out of the King’s Landing playbook. It’s even implied that Littlefinger, the ultimate two-faced politico, has a role to play here, handing Olivar over to Cersei and now Lancel to Olenna and the High Septon. I prefer, however, to believe the High Sparrow has known about Lancel and Cersei all along—he’s just avoided acting on it until Cersei has helped him land the queen in jail. Such a move could be justified in the name of maximizing justice for the gods, but it also demonstrates that the High Sparrow’s not nearly as straightforward an operator as he claims to be.
As for Cersei, her story ends up mirroring that of her erstwhile protegé Sansa’s almost exactly, albeit more predictably (and deservedly). Both women have embraced their traditional gender roles to work from inside the system, rather than reinventing themselves outside it in the vein of Brienne or Arya. And both women achieve small victories before getting a harsh reminder of their own powerlessness. In Cersei’s case, what she achieves mirrors what she wants so exactly that the impending comedown is almost painfully obvious. Gloating over a dejected Margaery, not Tommen’s happiness, is what Cersei truly wants most; like the High Sparrow, Cersei’s real motives turn out to be considerably less noble than what she says, or even thinks, they are.
Now both women are prisoners, and defiant ones. Sansa’s aggression is less naked than Cersei’s (“Look at my face. It’s the last thing you’ll see before you die” would sound cheesy if Lena Headey didn’t make it so convincing), but her defiance is real, whether she’s baiting Ramsay with reminders of his flimsy claim to the North or enlisting Theon to help her escape. That’s when Sansa’s subplot reveals itself as the worst possible thing it could be: another installment in Game of Thrones’ worst arc, a dynamic that’s no longer content to suck in isolation and has now metastasized into the rest of the show.
As triumphant music plays, Theon marches Sansa’s candle up a tower—and relays it straight to Ramsay. Both sides of this bait-and-switch feel off; the buildup plays Sansa’s suffering as a catalyst to Theon’s redemption, while the letdown gives us more of the relentless, borderline pointless misery that Ramsay inflicts wherever he goes. At least for now, the suspicion viewers, including this one, felt towards Sansa’s assault last week (and many times afterward, as both she and her horrifying bruises tell us) remains well-founded.
Hence my conflicted feelings towards this week’s Sam-and-Gilly storyline, in which a) a sexual assault is used to further a man’s character development, b) the gender role reversal in the ensuing sex scene fails to get the bad taste out of my mouth, and c) Gilly’s baby brings up memories of this spot-on SNL parody from a few weeks ago, further killing the vibe. There are aspects of Sam and Gilly’s relationship I truly enjoy—how Sam will clearly always fall short of warrior masculinity’s ideals, for example, and how Gilly acknowledges and accepts this more than he does—but I’m still too wary of how Game of Thrones handles rape to embrace them.
More depressing still is the father-daughter mini motif that runs through the rest of “The Gift.” Shireen and Stannis’s quality time, it turns out, was there to make her proposed human sacrifice even more repellent; Jaime and Myrcella have a face-off that’s equal parts amusing (“You don’t know me, Uncle-Dad!,” plus the reminder that she’s been in Dorne for literal years at this point) and tragic (Jaime doesn’t really know any of his children). This week’s only bright spot is the collision of Tyrion Lannister with Daenerys Targaryen, an event that’s sure to inject both momentum and much-needed levity into a stalled plot line—if Jorah doesn’t kill everyone with a greyscale plague, that is. And if there’s a sign this show is getting too dark, a patricidal alcoholic getting an episode’s only happy ending might be it.