Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote that “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” A corollary to this, as taught by Game of Thrones, is that it’s better to be respected than powerful, because power is nothing but a currency used by the especially clever. Considering how many people are neither feared nor loved in “Sons of the Harpy,” respect is all that matters—that, and the dangerous Dangerfield-ian consequences of not getting any respect.
This is the credo that Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) has always lived by, and it’s what he leaves Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) with, reminding her that while she may despise her current situation, there’s no better way to retake control of Winterfell than by marrying Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), just as her aunt, Leanne, made the most of her once-upon-a-time kidnapping by a Targaryen. The currency of necessary respect for needed power is also what Jon Snow (Kit Harington) continues to rule by: Distasteful as it may be to request aid from Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), the man who killed his brother, there’s no other way to maintain the Night’s Watch. Even the cryptic Melisandre (Carice van Houten), attempting to seduce Jon into accompanying Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) on his siege of Winterfell, inadvertently makes this point when she points out the “greater whole” that man and woman can unite to make. Jon rebuffs her, out of honor, only to be told once again, in a move that hauntingly channels his dead lover, Ygrette, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, the stakes for a lack of respect are much higher. In King’s Landing, Cersei’s (Lena Headey) manipulations against the queen, Margaery (Natalie Dormer), begin to spiral out of control. First, she sends Margaery’s father, Mace (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), to the Iron Bank, escorted only by her deeply loyal guard, a mission the other members of the Small Council instantly realize he’s not supposed to return from. Second, having promoted the leader of the Sparrows (Jonathan Pryce) to the position of High Septon, she now allows them to maintain their own army, the reborn Faith Militant, and then points them toward a “great sinner” to whom she wants harm done: Margaery’s brother, Ser Loras (Finn Jones).
The problem is that the Sparrows are bloodthirsty zealots with a hatred for homosexuals, prostitutes, and anybody else they deem to be immoral. According to Pryce’s character, “All sinners are equal before the gods,” but it’s unlikely that extremists like Lancel (Eugene Simon), who’ve carved a religious symbol into their foreheads, will ever fail to find fault with the common people they’re meant to protect. Nor are they a controllable force: When King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) comes begging his mother to release his wife’s brother, she can’t help him, and when he attempts to peacefully speak to the High Septon, he’s rebuffed by a chorus of stern faces who call him “an abomination,” since he’s largely known to be the product of incest. Tommen isn’t respected, not even by his wife (Margaery runs off to contact her grandmother, the woman secretly responsible for poisoning Joffrey last season), and Cersei is despised: Without real power to back them up, they’re now both in a precarious position.
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds herself in a similar situation. Her own currency of power has been squandered attempting to cash personal checks, first in the botched trial of a Son of the Harpy and the execution of his murderer, and most recently in continuing to ignore the pleas of the diplomatic Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry), who insists that without reopening the fighting pits—tradition—there will be nothing to bind the fractious citizens of Meereen together, no way for them to find glory or make a name for themselves without turning to extreme violence. Just as the Sparrows’ bloody riots more or less open the episode, it concludes with a lengthy massacre in which the Sons of the Harpy set about slaughtering Daenerys’s unsullied troops, a battle that leaves her allies Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) bleeding out together, surrounded by a mountain of enemy corpses.
If these two are dead, it will be ultimately be meaningless, not heroic, which makes the glorious music that plays as they fight on all the more upsetting. They’ll have been spent coins, and nothing more. This, at least, according to the musings of Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who insists to Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—even as they set out to dangerously infiltrate Dorne by ship—that, having led an exciting life, he wants his death to be boring. Respect is fine in his eyes, but safer still to be entirely ignored; when a quartet of Dornish horsemen discovers him and Jamie, his first instinct is to hide, not to fight. When that becomes impossible, he doesn’t aim for a fair fight; he catches two of the men off guard, killing them within seconds, and Jamie wins against his unhorsed opponent through blind luck (his false, metallic hand catches the sword intended to split his skull open). Heroism, then, is nothing more than the fortunate result of desperation.
This is how things sit, at least for Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), whose reluctant valor continues, now that he finds he’s been kidnapped in order to be returned not to his vengeful sister, but to Daenerys, by a man, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), who seeks only to redeem himself. The same goes for Stannis, who reveals much about his own motivations as he comforts his daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram), after she asks him if he’s ashamed of her. After finding out that she was ill, his desperation turned him into a hero, the sort of man who wouldn’t stop until he’d had every apothecary attempt to heal her condition. Ultimately, this is what draws the line between apparent villains like Cersei and heroes like Stannis: Though both would burn anybody to the ground if it would bring them a moment of respect, Cersei acts for herself, whereas Stannis works for others. The Seven Kingdoms have had a mad king, a drunkard king, and two boy kings; perhaps it’s time for a philanthropic one.
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