A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Game of Thrones came roaring back from the slight misstep of last week (including an atrocious fight scene) with a classic episode united by the thematic thread of the titular gifts and the visual connection through flickering candle flames. The candle flames serve as gifts of illumination, allowing one to see things and information that otherwise would be swallowed up by the abyss of darkness. That same golden, flickering flame is spread from one character to another, often illuminating information that quickly becomes crucial to them surviving in this harsh, harsh world. The Gift most directly ties into the a crucial patch of land that lies right beneath the Wall and right above what’s considered the official North. The Gift is quite literally that, a donation from House Stark to the Watch so they can be largely self-sufficient in terms of resource management. It’s also a region that has been raided often by wildlings, a fact that was brought up when Sam previously mentioned the abandoned villages that lay about. It’s a gift Jon Snow promised to the wildlings as a peace offering so that they future Lord Commanders and indeed the Watch as a whole, but it may become something that proves itself to be far too expensive for him to have even offered himself in the first place. The relative disgust that seems to be on the face of all the crows that are left doesn’t seem to bode well for this endeavor or indeed, what comes after it.
Sam begins the episode by giving Jon the gift of dragon glass with the hopes that he won’t have to use them (which means he will). His friend and commander’s departure makes his stay at Castle Black that much more tenuous and that tenuous position becomes all the more so with the death of Maester Aemon Targaryen. He shared a sweet scene with Gilly and both Sams before his departure, giving one last gift of advice: “Get him South, Gillyflower.” It was his final words, however, that gave the most emotional heft I’ve felt in a long time on Thrones: “I dreamed that I was old.” Perhaps it was because Maester Aemon spoke those words so softly and with such regality, but they hit me like a pile of rocks. For so long in this series, we have become accustomed to sudden, violent deaths and to see someone understand that and reflect how he had dreamed that he would die of old age just as he was at that moment is one of those rare moments of fulfillment that just leave an everlasting impact. Maester Aemon’s demise is not surprising considering that old age, but the Wall lost a key member, one whose vast experience had served the Watch incredibly well for so long. His ability to see beyond prejudices and find the larger picture is something that the Watch is going to miss sorely, whether or not they all realize it.
Outside of being a kind and wise man, Maester Aemon had become one of the few true friends to Sam and Gilly. Alliser’s words “You’re losing all your friends, Tarly” are proven true just a short bit later when Gilly is accosted by two brothers of the Watch. Sam tries to fight but he’s not a fighter and Gilly resists of her own volition. Sam gets right back up, bloodied and bruised, ready to die in Gilly’s defense if necessary. Thankfully we don’t see Sam dying or Gilly being raped (the implications were enough) with Ghost arriving to the rescue. Gilly bemoans Sam trying to rescue her, advising him to stand aside if that threat is ever repeated again. Sam notes that he cannot do that, in spite of Gilly’s true insistence that he’s not a warrior. But she, as pointed out last season, is a survivor. What she endured at Craster’s Keep was horrifying in ways that no rational person can truly try to understand but she survived just like she has against every other wrench life has thrown her way. What the brothers of the Watch attempted here was nothing she hadn’t endured and indeed was tamer than what her own father had done to her. She had come to understand the differences between assault and sex, using the latter to take the traditional male role when she consummated her relationship with Sam. There’s an inherent iron will in Gilly that has developed within her over the years through her pushing forward and not allowing the tragedies of her life to rule her existence that for me is beyond impressive.
While Gilly and Sam gave each other the gift of love, Sansa’s situation has grown markedly worse in many ways. As it turns out, Ramsay has been abusing her on a regular basis and for a second it seemed that the show was going to take Sansa’s rapes and turn them into a motivation for Theon to break out of being Reek and save the day. That would have been utterly reprehensible, taking a vile act of violence and giving the heft of the narrative weight to someone else entirely. At first, it seems they’re going that route when Sansa emphasizes that Reek is Theon Greyjoy and hands him a candle to light, a signal for which Brienne is still waiting. As Sansa thinks of that hope, she grabs a quick dagger as she’s walking behind Ramsay in what can only be Chekhov’s Dagger-Like Weapon. She reminds him none too subtly of the potentiality that Fat Walda would give birth to a boy and that legitimate noble births are always of higher value than legitimized bastards. Ramsay tries to dismiss her fake doubts, emphasizing strongly that he has been legitimized, but the cracks in his voice are all too apparent. Sansa’s going to have to double down on the duel gifts of the dagger and her sharp political strength displayed this week, however. Reek took the candle instead to Ramsay. Old Nan, who had given her the tool to begin with, now lay flayed, her body in gory repose amidst a snowstorm. There’s no one Sansa can rely on but herself and it’s gratifying to see the show take the right steps with her character after the fallout from last week.
Stannis finds himself with more of a curse than a gift as a snowstorm causes some major problems in his whole lets-retake-the-North campaign that pretty much everyone is on board with here. Forty of his horses have died and the Stormcrows rode off in the night with five hundred men in tow. While Ser Davos suggests caution and a retreat to Castle Black, Stannis shuts that argument while noting that it simply isn’t possible for them to go back considering that winters can last for years and then they’ll simply be stuck at Castle Black. At this point, the only feasible option in his mind is marching on Winterfell and that’s that. Melisandre has a twisted gift for him, noting that it his destiny and the other crap she usually spouts. We do get further confirmation of what the two saw in the flames at the end of the second season, Melisandre confirming visions of fallen banners of flayed men and so forth. But her gift is a despicable one, the kind you get without a receipt to a store you don’t shop at. She offers to sacrifice Shireen for his ambitions, but Stannis quickly dismisses her, telling her to get out of his tent. The camera lingers on his face for a while, as if the flickering candle flames around him had illuminated an unspeakable line he might have to cross so he can become King before the Long Night arrives. Will he cross it?
Meereen begins with Daario lying naked in bed with Dany and giving her a pretty shitty gift of advice: slaughter all of the masters in one swoop. She dismisses that stupendously vapid notion quickly, her lack of taste for unnecessary bloodshed established at a sort of pre-fighting pits fighting pits. No one expected the queen to show up and after a few minutes it becomes quite clear that she isn’t that interested in being there, either. The free-for-all stabbing spree doesn’t sit well with her, but that’s before a helmeted knight comes in and beats the utter crap out of everybody without having to stab them in the neck. The helmet comes off and Dany’s expression of being impressed quickly turns into a quiet, seething anger. But don’t despair, Mother of Dragons! For Jorah has brought along a gift and the gift’s name is Tyrion of House Lannister. It’s hard to underscore what a huge, momentous occasion this is for Game of Thrones. Two of the largest characters of the entire series have come face to face and it’s incredibly exciting just to imagine how all of this is going to play out next week and beyond. Their past, shared history is of course centered around the Lannisters massacring the Targaryens within King’s Landing, but if the two of them can somehow move past that, this might be a pair of reckoning.
The show’s introduction to Dorne was crap and we all know it, but unless they can film that stuff over again, this is what we have and there’s that. But this episode was at least a step upwards in terms of quality. We begin with a thoroughly bemused Myrcella, who has absolutely no idea of what is going on around her. Jaime tries to tell her that he’s taking her back home because Dorne isn’t safe (I’d stay there, personally), but Myrcella isn’t having any of it. She’s in love with Trystane and as it was, she was sent there outside of her own volition anyway and now she’s suddenly expected to go back to the capital on the words of a man who doesn’t even know her? Jaime in that instance clearly wants to say the truth, but he can’t. The Sand Snakes get a significantly improved scene in the dungeons, with Tyene getting the most personality yet. She’s equipped with daggers, but they’re coated in an Asshai poison called the Long Farewell. The poison quietly has a breaking down affect on Bronn, but she has the antidote ready on her necklace. For some, that is annoying, but it makes perfect sense to carry the poison and the corresponding antidote with you at all times. Tyene using her sexuality to quicken Bronn’s heart rate and thus make the poison affect him faster was a neat little character moment that has the quiet danger that truly works well here. It is apparent that Tyene giving Bronn the gift of life isn’t simply out of kindness or even lust, but to exactly what intentions she gave him the antidote with remains to be seen. It ultimately might prove to be an expensive one for Bronn to bear.
King’s Landing brings the second massive event this episode after the meeting between Daenerys and Tyrion. The sparring match between the Queen of Thorns and the High Sparrow begins with a mutual understanding of aging joints but quickly turns ugly. Having discovered that the man can’t be bought simply by gold or threats of withholding grain, she gets the second-best gift she could have hoped for. Meeting Littlefinger in his now destroyed brothel, she threatens him swiftly over their shared regicide of King Joffrey. But Littlefinger, acquiescing to the reality that the two of them have a shared, mutual enemy in Cersei, promises Lady Olenna the exact same gift that he had given Cersei: a handsome young man. He delivers what I presume to be the removal of Olyvar or the changing of his future testimony and or the manipulation of Lancel. The final sequence of the hour is Cersei’s meeting with High Sparrow as she had promised Tommen and after taunting Margaery. In her smug self-confidence, Cersei glosses over something vital about her character that her daughter-in-law has picked up. Cersei may be great at spinning lies, but she’s terrible at trying to present herself as a pillar of virtue because the dirt is always obvious around her. She’s like Ramsay, in that sense. But expectedly Cersei glosses over that scene, instead meeting the High Sparrow in a meeting that spells ominous doom from the start.
Cersei’s inherent problem comes from a tragedy in part due to the ingrained sexism of her era that still continues in large part to today. She is always put down because she’s a woman and that only fuels her resentment and belief that she is indeed smarter than everyone else and is only being held back because of her sex. And when anyone, like Kevan Lannister at the beginning of the season, tries to prove to her that she’s an ineffectual ruler, they go straight for the sexist jugular and not any foundation of logical reasoning. Thus, her belief that the only detraction against her rule is her being a woman is doubly enforced. The High Sparrow begins his quiet conversation by noting how he’s not found of the Sept of Baelor because of its extravagance. “Strip away the gold and the ornaments, knock down the statues and the pillars, and this is what remains. Something simple, and solid and true. What will we find when we strip away your finery?” It sounds all hunky dory even though all of the warning bells are ringing resoundingly throughout. Then he mentions a young man who had stripped everything away and had become whole, a handsome young man perhaps. Cersei’s expression changes oh so subtly but she still is blinded enough by her own power to stay confident. Lancel appearing out of the shadows wipes that smirk off of her face and she suddenly tries to leave. A trio of Septas, led by Septa Unella, throw her forcefully into a dungeon as her self-deluded cries of “I’m the queen!” fall on resoundingly deaf ears. Cersei is of course no longer the queen, but she has believed herself to be for so long that it informed all of her actions, just like the ones that placed her in that precarious position. There has been plenty of fear displayed on Thrones, but the dark storm in Jonathan Pryce’s eyes as he sees Cersei being dragged away towards a dungeon cell may be the most frightening image of them all.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Maester Aemon’s references to Egg, or his younger brother Aegon V, were great
+Maester Aemon noting how Little Sam’s laughter was like Egg’s was quite touching
+“It can always be worse.” Well, isn’t that the truth.
+“And now is watch is ended.”
+Ramsay noting that the Boltons know how to fight in the cold
+Sansa finding out that Jon is Lord Commander
+“This is the right time and I will risk everything.”
+The slaver Makko exaggerating Jorah’s fighting bravado
+Tyrion beating the man who had whipped him was so gratifying to see
+“Then you are the only person in Meereen who is not free.”
+“I am a queen, not a butcher.”; “All rulers are either butchers or meat.”
+“The people will always do the dirty work.”
+“I serve the gods. The gods demands justice.”
+“How do they communicate their demands? By raven or horse?”
+“You are the few, we are the many.”
+“I would do anything to keep you from harm.”
+“Why is it happening at all?” Yes Myrcella, we are wondering the exact same thing.
+“It’s against my code to hurt a woman.”; “It’s amazing how many men we beat seem to have this code.”
+“You think you’re leaving Dorne?”
+The use of lighting was especially effective this week
+“You’ve always been rather impressed with yourself, haven’t you?”
+“And if I should meet with some accident here at your broken little flesh market, they’ll never even find what’s left of you.”
+The shot of Olenna amidst a crowd of the poor all about her, isolating her instantly
+“Stand there. That’s the fucking queen.”
+“Lies come easily to you.”
+“Get out, you hateful bitch!”; “Sleep well, sister.”
+The quiet, germane foreshadowing of the Mother’s Mercy
+“It’s the last thing you’ll see before you die.”
Title: The Gift
Written By: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed By: Miguel Sapochnik
Image Courtesy: Watchers on the Wall