"Someone who inspires priests and whores is worth taking seriously," Lord Varys tells us, and say what you will about the Spider: He's got a way with words. "The High Sparrow," this week's fabulous installment of Game of Thrones, appeals to both the sacred and the profane in just such a fashion. It's a double-barreled blast of heady, horny stuff.
The episode starts on the spiritual side, as Arya Stark's old "friend" Jaqen H'ghar takes her inside the House of Black and White, home to the fearsome Faceless Men. With apologies to the Wu-Tang Clan, these residents appear to be an order of killer priests, worshipping death as a single god that wears different faces depending on your denomination. (The show doesn't aim for your inner middle-school fantasy nerd very often, but it sure hits the D&D/Frank Frazetta paperback-cover bullseye here.)
Equally appealing to your seventh-grade psyche, albeit in a completely different way: the wedding of King Tommen and Queen Margaery. Or more accurately, the wedding night, a wet dream come true in which a kind, beautiful older woman teaches an eager but innocent young lad exactly why the Gods gave him man parts. It's hard to pull this off [ahem] without seeming creepy, but that's part of the fun, and actors Natalie Dormer and Dean-Charles Chapman handle the material with charm and humor as well as heat.
None of this sits well with Tommen's mom. The Small Council may be firmly under Cersei's control, but her son is slipping through her fingers and right into Margaery's...uh, let's go with fingers here as well. Even a "friendly visit" (#airquotes) to her daughter-in-law earns her veiled insults ("I wish we had some wine for you — it's a bit early in the day for us") and tales of ribaldry about her baby boy's bedroom antics So when the Queen Mother sees an opportunity to acquire influence over church as well as state, she grabs it with both hands.
But in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, "How can you catch the sparrow?" As indicated by his casting alone — Jonathan Pryce is the biggest name to join the show since Sean Bean, or at the very least, Diana Rigg — the High Sparrow may prove a more slippery customer. Sure, the holy man makes self-effacing jokes about his unusual alias: "Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Like Lord Duckling, or King Turtle." Yet he's presiding over a bona fide fundamentalist movement, one capable of marching the High Septon naked through the streets and converting the Lannisters' lanky lord cousin Lancel into a true believer. Humiliating some pampered bastard who stages perverted rituals with prostitutes (it's sacreligious!) is all well and good, but does Cersei strike you as someone who's sinless enough to avoid incurring the judgment of her pious new BFF for long? The High Sparrow could be every bit as dangerous as the undead monstrosity that the Queen's crony Qyburn is keeping under wraps in his lab.
Up at the Wall, the Night's Watch's newly minted Lord Commander, Jon Snow, has also entered the alliance business, with equally mixed results. He's gracious to his archenemy Alliser Thorne, naming the grumpy old warrior First Ranger. But his attempt to placate the even douchier Lord Janos Slynt by giving him a castle of his own to command does not go well. As the former head of King's Landing's City Watch — a position in which he betrayed Jon's father and killed babies for King Joffrey — the man simply refuses to follow orders. This insubordination costs him his head.
Abandoned by his pal Thorne, surrounded by more loyal troops, and under the watchful eye of King Stannis, Slynt slowly realizes Snow isn't fucking around. By the time his noggin hits the block, he's baring his soul: "I'm afraid! I've always been afraid!" This only angers the young Lord Commander; his decapitated dad was no doubt frightened too. The blade falls, the King approves, and Jon is now a lord not just in name but in spirit: As Ned Stark used to say, "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword."
On this, at least, the Starks and Boltons could agree. Crazy-ass Ramsay is applying his own hands-on approach to executions, though in his case they involve skinning people alive. His father Roose has other plans for his mad bastard: marrying him off to Sansa to cement the family's control over the North. Littlefinger isn't omniscient after all: If he knew what this kid was capable of, he wouldn't dare hand off his prize possession. She's has been able to handle some rough customers, from Cersei and Joffrey to Brienne (who's still tailing her), but she's never had to sleep with any of them. And as we've seen, Lord Ramsay is not a vanilla kind of guy.
But it's Lady Stark's ex, Tyrion Lannister, who closes out the episode. When he and Varys reach Volantis, a massive slave city where red priestesses are talking about "the Dragon Queen" like she's part Abraham Lincoln and part Jesus Christ, their first stop is a whorehouse. (Classic Tyrion!) Unfortunately for the Imp, its star attraction is a Daenerys lookalike — which means that her exiled adviser Ser Jorah Mormont has set up shop there as well.
Likely haunted by the murder of his former prostitute girlfriend Shae, the exiled Lannister discovers he can't bring himself to have sex again. It's a moving moment, and one that doesn't last long: Jorah kidnaps Tyrion, growling "I'm taking you to the queen." Which regent he means remains an open question, but the coolness of seeing these two characters cross paths after four-plus seasons on separate continents is beyond dispute. So is the excellence of this episode.
Previously: Rock the Vote