Widescreen battles on one hand, intimate one-on-one dialogues on the other: Game of Thrones has long excelled at balancing the macro with the micro, the grand and sweeping with the up close and personal. Tonight's very strong episode, "Sons of the Harpy," is a case in point. Even as major political plotlines start bloodily barreling forward, simple scenes of odd couples in conversation more than hold their own amid the melées.
Let's start by focusing on the High Sparrow, who's as adorable as his fanatical followers' actions are appalling. It's his clout, not his cuddliness, that Cersei is counting on. With the Tyrell patriarch Mace on his way to bargain with the Iron Bank in Braavos — and the Queen Mother's brutal kingsguard lackey Meryn Trant riding shotgun — nothing's stopping her from making her move on her rival Margaery. Our lady of Lannister is a shrewd enough operator to do it indirectly, tipping the religious leader off to the homosexual leanings of Marge's brother and letting intolerance take its course. Sure enough, King Tommen's inability to bring his brother-in-law home drives the first serious wedge into his marriage.
In the long run, though, Tommen may have worse problems to face than sleeping on the couch thanks to his mother's meddling. Sure, arming religious fanatics to fight your own cold-war enemy seems like a good idea at the time, but ask the CIA how they feel now about giving the Afghan mujahideen Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet aircraft. A mass religious movement with a charismatic true-believer leader has just been empowered to assault and arrest the brother of the queen. Think they'll stop there? This is not your father's Faith of the Seven — it's the ISIS of Westeros.
And please note: People are already heckling Tommen as an "abomination" in the streets. That's true enough in his awful brother Joffrey's case, but it's truly upsetting to hear when directed at this sweet kid; all he's got in common with his sibling is blond hair and the incest that spawned them. And if the rumors of inbreeding between Cersei and Jaime are still so widespread, the Sparrows may soon aim their persecution at a whole different pervert — especially when a potential star witness, the queen's other incestuous lover Lancel Lannister, is literally carving his commitment to the Faith into his forehead.
Still, it could be worse: King's Landing could be Meereen, where the Sons of the Harpy's terror tactics against Daenerys and her supporters have metastasized into full-fledged fighting in the streets. Much has been made of the show's deviation from the books this season — the storylines for Sansa, Brienne, Jaime, and Jaqen have all been heavily altered — but the decision to place eerie gold masks on the faces of the rebels, instead of on loyalist troops as is the case in the novels, is the shrewdest switch-up yet. It's the Ice and Fire equivalent of the balaclavas that have been a staple of insurgent movements for decades, and it adds an eerie Eyes Wide Shut vibe to their fight scenes. Not that final battle against Ser Barristan and Grey Worm in that cramped corridor needed any help: impeccably choreographed in a compelling setting with super-high stakes, it was one of the show's best.
Down in Dorne, Jaime and his buddy Bronn saw their fair share of action too, running afoul of an enemy patrol almost before their mission to rescue the Kingslayer's secret daughter Princess Myrcella from House Martell could begin. Lannister grabbed the hour's most fun moment with his golden hand when he used it — totally unintentionally — to block a killing sword-stroke. But it's just as entertaining to hear these two talk about how they'd prefer to die as it is to watch them survive. Jaime says he'd like to cash out "in the arms of the woman I love," which sounds like a "Monkey's Paw" wish if ever there was one. Bronn says "I've had an exciting life — I want my death to be boring," but given the prominent introduction of the late Red Viper's vicious daughters the Sand Snakes…well, best of luck with that, buddy.
More moving than either of their ideal demises, though? The golden boy's wistful expression as his ship passes Tarth, the home of his old friend Brienne. In a way, he's as much a stranger in a strange land as Tyrion, getting dragged to Daenerys by Jorah Mormont, or Sansa, left to fend for herself in Bolton-occupied territory by Littlefinger. A glimpse of the Sapphire Isle, home of the only person around whom he's ever let his guard down, had to have meant a lot.
Far to the north, another former hardass reveals his softer side when King Stannis comforts his deformed daughter Shireen. Clearly blaming himself for giving her the doll that passed the greyscale plague to her, he refused to send her to a leper colony and fought like hell to cure her. His expression of love for her is powerful and touching, though the princess's zealot of a mom doesn't share the sentiment.
So let's hear it for Melisandre for shutting the lady up—and for trying to get Jon Snow to get it on. The Red Woman's blunt-force approach to seduction is funny, now that we've seen the frequency with which she deploys it (her feminine wiles are hot enough to melt the Wall). But it's also revealing in another way entirely: Here's a person with complete and utter faith in her course of action and the god who steers it. Jon passes up the chance to be "kissed by fire" yet again, but Mel must have seen his ex-girlfriend's catchphrase in the flames, because she drops a "you know nothing, Jon Snow" on him that gets under his skin. Which raises this epic fantasy's core question: Personal, political — does any of it matter when magic rears its ugly head?
Previously: Sins of the Flesh