A great many gifts are at the heart of tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones. As Jon (Kit Harington) heads north to liberate the Wildlings with Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), Sam (John Bradley-West) hands him the dragonglass dagger with which he slew a White Walker. Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) presents Sansa (Sophie Turner) with the flayed corpse of the elderly woman who swore to protect her, Reek (Alfie Allen) having betrayed her and the Starks once again. Melisandre (Carice van Houten) promises Stannis (Stephen Dillane) certain victory in Winterfell, but only if she’s given royal blood—specifically that of his daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram). Bronn (Jerome Flynn) gets exactly the sort of crazed flirtation from a Dornish woman when Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) withholds the antidote to her dagger’s “Long Farewell” until he admits that she’s the prettiest woman he’s ever seen. After success in the fighting pits, Jorah (Iain Glen) is able to present Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). And finally, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) presents Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) with the same sort of gift that he provided Cersei (Lena Headey): the poisonous confession of a young man, in this case, that of the incestuous Lancel (Eugene Simon).
As you’d expect from a series with such a dismal track record of successful weddings, its idea of presents isn’t much better, and even the most sincere, like Sam’s, comes with a disclaimer: “I hope you don’t need it.” That said, there’s a special sort of O. Henry-like “Gift of the Magi” twist wrapping up some of these plots. For instance, there’s the way in which Daenerys, a woman adamantly opposed to slavery (perhaps a result of the fact that she herself was essentially “sold” to Khal Drogo), receives a man—Tyrion—as a gift. Cersei’s “gift” is an especially biting one, as she’s only just come from gloating over the imprisoned Margaery (Natalie Dormer) before being thrown into a cell beside her. And then, of course, there are the unpaid costs of these offerings: Just a few episodes ago, viewers softened their view of Stannis after hearing the lengths to which he would go to protect his daughter. In the light of his speech to Davos (Liam Cunningham), we must now ask how far Stannis will go to avoid being known as “The King Who Ran” or to save the kingdom from the coming winter: “We march to victory or we march to defeat. But we go forward, only forward.”
Then again, viewed another way, these might not be presents so much as just deserts. Those with the best of intentions are, eventually, rewarded for it, though they may have to sacrifice much. Jorah, against all odds, has managed to find himself before his Khaleesi, even if it’s as a slave infected with greyscale. (You might say, too, that Tyrion, in demonstrating bravery enough to defy his slavers and get sent to the fighting pits alongside Jorah, has been saved—at least from the more immediate peril of a cock merchant.) Bronn, who left a boring woman to travel to Dorne, may have met his match in Tyene: At the very least, his life’s been spared on account of his ability to fight well. And Sam, finding himself without allies in Castle Black now that the watch of Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) has ended, nonetheless stands up against two so-called brothers and would-be rapists. Though it’s the strength of Ghost that saves both Sam and Gilly (Hannah Murray), it’s Sam’s brave thought that counts, leading him to greater intimacy with Gilly.
Those with selfish goals, on the other hand, are brought low—a thought that eerily parallels the austere thinking of the High Septon (Jonathan Pryce). When this unshod, rag-cloaked religious zealot meets with the well-coiffed Queen of Thorns, Lady Olenna, he points out how uncomfortable she must be to have to deal with a man who can’t be bought, who wants for nothing but the justice of the god he believes in. It’s hard not to read this scene as a bit of social commentary regarding America’s waning opinion of the 1%, especially as the High Septon cautions what happens “when the many stop fearing the few.” These ideas are even more pointed when he mirthlessly imprisons Cersei at the end of the episode, using the analogy of the unnamed and relatively unadorned temple that now serves as a prison to royalty like Queen Margaery to insist that the people need simple, solid, and true things: “What will we find,” he asks her, “when we strip away your finery?”
Similar thoughts are expressed in Dorne, which Bronn once summed up as a land of fighting and fucking. But why must that be seen as a reductive society? If anything, it’s a more honest and simpler way to live, and that’s what Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) tells Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when he attempts to explain why she must leave the city. The politics are complicated, he insists, but he’s rebuffed by his secret daughter: “It’s not complicated at all. It’s simple. I love Trystane. I’m going to marry him, and we’re staying right here.” Meanwhile, while Tommen may be too naïve to see his mother clearly enough, or to tell her off in the same fashion (“You don’t know me”), Cersei proves the unspoken sentiment as she claims, “Your happiness is all I want in the world,” even as she rejoices that the woman he loves remains imprisoned.
There’s a certain sort of simplicity in Winterfell itself, too, though those who were disappointed in the depiction of Sansa’s rape last week will continue to be disappointed with the way she’s treated here. To begin with, Ramsay objectifies her when talking about her as if she were a gift given to him by his father, but then she’s also locked in her room throughout the day, used only—when Ramsay wills it—for sex. This isn’t to say that Sansa doesn’t have agency, but it’s of the starkest sort (pun intended). To those wondering what they’ll find when her finery is stripped away, the answer clearly rests in the corkscrew she manages to pocket as Ramsay parades a flayed corpse before her. Sometimes the greatest gift is the absolute clarity and certainty that comes from desperation.
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