‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5 Episode 3 Recap: “High Sparrow”

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What does Arya Stark want? Our four main story lines this week see characters making big, ambitious moves. But as Peter “Ambition Incarnate” Baelish reminds us, every ambitious move is a gamble, and it’s not clear any of our protagonists know what it is they’re gambling. That’s especially true of Arya, who’s latched onto the Faceless Men with a ferocity that belies her ignorance of what, exactly, the Faceless Men are. Jon, Cersei, and Sansa, however, don’t seem any more cognizant of the risks they’re taking by walking straight into the lion’s den (or in Jon’s case, smugly staying in it). Some of them can’t be blamed—word of Ramsay’s sadism hasn’t even reached Littlefinger, let alone Sansa. Some of them should know better, and characteristically don’t.

We’ll start with Arya, whose time inside the House of Black and White finally removes some of the mystery surrounding the Faceless Men. They may be assassins on the side, but they are first and foremost a religion—a death cult, to be precise. Arya notes how many gods surround the pool where supplicants come to drink (the Faceless Men may require payment to deal out death to the unwilling, but they’re perfectly happy to give it away for free), but “Jaqen” is quick to correct her. “There is only one god. A girl knows his name. And all men know his gift.” And to serve the Many-Faced God, Arya must become an empty vessel.

Here is where it becomes apparent just how little Arya has thought this through, and by extension, how young she is to be signing her life away. Arya’s reasons for seeking Jaqen out have never been made explicit beyond her general lack of options, but the appeal of killing expertly and with impunity to someone as obsessed with revenge as Arya Stark is obvious. The problem is that a Faceless Man can’t carry out Arya Stark’s revenge, because a Faceless Man has no motivations beyond serving the Many-Faced God. Arya knows this enough to hold onto Needle, the instrument of her vengeance and the symbol of her ability to carry it out. She doesn’t know it enough, however, to give up on the Faceless Men altogether.

Back in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister is playing for considerably higher stakes than one girl’s sense of self. Enraged, albeit for the completely wrong reasons, by the influence (read: sex) Margaery now has over her barely-teenage son—sidebar: I hope viewers were as creeped out by the bedroom scene as I was, given that she was flirting via pet cat just a few months ago; double sidebar: I’m sure most won’t be, given the double standard that comes into play when it’s the man, not the woman, who’s the much younger half of a heterosexual couple—Cersei follows Lancel’s lead and turns to the Sparrows. Who wouldn’t, in the face of epic burns like, “I wish we had some wine for you. It’s a bit early in the day for us.”?

Just like Arya, Cersei doesn’t seem to have any idea what kind of fire she’s playing with. Blinded by rage she’s now powerless to vent with anything but vaguely threatening pleasantries and barely suppressed tears, Cersei simply sees an opportunity to replace a vulnerable High Septon with a more popular one whose loyalty she mistakenly believes she can buy. Cersei has always believed herself to be a more savvy political operative than the hothead she truly is, and nothing captures that better than this new alliance. Only Cersei would see the High Septon’s downfall as richly deserved and not a warning of what’s to come. Only Cersei would hear “Hypocrisy is a boil” and not think about what kind of hypocrite throws a john in prison after having sex with her own brother for decades—or so the High Sparrow might think were Lancel to open his mouth.

For now, though, Cersei has a speck of power that’s not tied to her son. Sansa, too, is attempting to take matters into her own hands, or so Littlefinger says. Petyr Baelish is likely the only person on the planet who could talk someone as traumatized as Sansa Stark into marrying into the family that murdered her own, and he does it with a speech that hits on all her hopes and fears at once: “You’ve been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father. Stop being a bystander. Stop running. There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.” Arguably, Sansa’s new role as Littlefinger’s pawn is equally, if not more, passive than her role as a hostage in King’s Landing. But what’s important is that Sansa herself doesn’t see it that way. Based on that “Avenge them” and the serving woman’s “The North remembers,” it’s her who’ll be the betrayer this time around.

Finally, there’s Jon, who manages the miraculous feat of coming off more stubborn, pigheaded, and generally self-satisfied than Stannis Baratheon. Stannis Baratheon! Over and over again, Jon opts for the moral decision over the pragmatic one. He refuses Stannis’s offer of becoming a Stark, or even using his forces to take on the Boltons. He promotes Alliser Thorne instead of sending him away. He executes a man begging for mercy for all his men to see. To an outside observer, Jon may appear to be making hard choices and denying his baser impulses. But to anyone who’s spent as much time with him as the average Game of Thrones viewer, it’s obvious Jon is yielding to the temptation of his father’s black-and-white moral code, and the confidence that comes with it, instead of allowing for the doubt that comes with any grey area.

It takes Davos, as always, to convince an absolutist that there are other ways to skin a cat (or a man, amirite Ramsay??). The job description of a Lord Commander isn’t to plant himself at Castle Black and stay there, he points out; it’s to protect the people of the realm, from people like the Boltons as much as the White Walkers. Admitting that what feels good might also be the right thing, however, simply isn’t in Jon’s nature. Jon Snow has always been more like his father than any of Eddard’s legitimate children, and because of that, he’s always been the least capable of recognizing his flaws. While his half sisters are doing anything they can to avoid their father’s fate, Jon’s too far in his shadow to recognize that being like Ned might not be a compliment—and it’s definitely not a good survival strategy.