Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: Andrew, I'm not sure I can do anything better than explaining "High Sparrow" in eight beheadings, so I think I will pivot to something else entirely: religious fundamentalism.
The Sparrows are kinda, sorta the same as they are in the book A Feast for Crows, which was written in the early 2000s, during a period when many thought (and feared) the religious right was in ascendancy throughout the United States and would rule for generations to come.
That obviously didn't happen, but it was something in the cultural ether at the time, and I've always read the Sparrows as a bit of commentary on the movement from George R. R. Martin, or, at the very least, as a way of talking about how political movements deal with their most recalcitrant members.
And if anything, the show underlines this even more forcefully. Cersei goes to visit the High Sparrow in this episode, and if we know Cersei, we know she'll use just about any advantage she can find. The Sparrows could become a very handy cudgel she can use to continue wielding her power. As Andrew points out, this is something of a change from the novel, but it's in the same general spirit of what Martin was trying to do, which is explain how the money behind political movements can use extremists to play a bit of a shell game.
While everybody is distracted by the Sparrows making examples of anyone who doesn't live up to their moral code, Cersei is not-so-quietly consolidating her power. The Lannisters are the closest thing the show has to a deep-pocketed Super PAC (I'm really straining the boundaries of this metaphor, but go with me), and even if they're essentially out of cash, no one's going to believe it, as a Lannister always pays his debts. Thus, the Lannisters can still buy essentially whatever they want, so long as they keep everybody looking the other way. The Sparrows, then, become a useful tool.
But the Lannisters also have something that makes them much more entertaining than most real-life political dynasties — a rapacious willingness to just embrace their love of power. You see the way the Tyrells sort of tiptoe around the idea of having that much power, trying to sweet-talk their way into a bigger chair at the table. But Cersei knows from power, and she's ready to shut that shit down the second it starts up.
That's what makes Margaery such a threat to her. Of all the Tyrells, Margaery both knows how to wield power and is young enough for society to let her. (Much as I love her grandmother, she'll always be at the edges of society at her age.) Cersei recognizes a skillful opponent when she sees one, and Margaery is one of the most skilled she's faced.
Of course, her most skillful opponent was her own brother, who's off on another continent entirely, confronting his own brand of religious fundamentalism, as a follower of the Lord of Light brands Dany as the savior this land has been waiting for. Ever the cynic, Tyrion mostly scoffs at such religious fervor, but even he's a little curious about the way Daenerys has stirred up such sentiments (to the degree that the most popular prostitute at a brothel dresses like her).
A thick weight of prophecy hangs over this season. It began, after all, with that scene where Cersei learned about her own future, and there's a strong sense of destiny clinging to both Dany and Jon. But only Dany seems to have had this sense filter out to the people around her. Other characters in the world increasingly seem aware she's the protagonist of a fantasy novel and want to get on board the Targaryen bandwagon.
But this is what ultimately makes me think Dany is a feint on Martin's part. For as much as I like the character and hope she brings her dragons to Westeros, there's the dim sense that she's almost too set up to be the ultimate victor here. What's more, as recent weeks have shown us, she has little to no idea how to lead just yet. She doesn't even take time to do her own beheading, which Ned Stark would tell us is non-optimal.
I wonder just how much we're supposed to be thinking this, however. Maybe Martin's long series of unexpected reversals is meant to distract us from the fact that this is heading to the place it seems to be, with Dany (or maybe Jon) on the throne. If I know the author by now, however, I wouldn't be surprised if he had more tricks up his sleeve.
Read the recap. Come back for more thoughts tomorrow.
Next: Kelsey on why Dany or Jon will win in the end