Game of Thrones’ Mysterious Evil Cult

Who are The Sons of the Harpy? This season, the mask-wearing, throat-slitting vigilantes play a major role, wreaking havoc on Queen Daenerys’s kingdom.

via HBO

Game of Thronesfifth season premiere introduced us to the deadliest threat to Slaver’s Bay since Daenerys Targaryen and her Unsullied army bulldozed their way through: the Sons of the Harpy, a mysterious group of assassins targeting the young queen’s forces.

The Sons wear gold masks resembling the Harpy, a potent symbol for the citizens of Slaver’s Bay (Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen were once colonies of the Ghiscari Empire, which used the Harpy as its main symbol). In Meereen, the Harpy takes the form of a giant gold statue atop the Great Pyramid, aka Dragon Queen HQ, with the face and body of a woman and the wings of a celestial bird. Following the Siege of Meereen, Daenerys covered the harpy atop the Great Pyramid with a black banner bearing the three-headed red dragon insignia of House Targaryen. And in Sunday night’s episode, “The Wars to Come,” Dany established the new regime change by having the Unsullied tear the gold Harpy down from her perch. That’s when all hell broke loose.

In this new season, where politics are more important than ever for characters like Dany, such heavy-handed tactics come with dire consequences. An Unsullied soldier involved in the effort to tear down the statue seeks comfort afterward in a brothel, where he lies for just a few precious moments before a masked Harpy Son slits open his throat. As Ser Barristan Selmy tells a flabbergasted Daenerys after news reaches the Pyramid, “It was only a matter of time … Conquerors always meet with resistance.”

But resistance from who? Mossador, a former slave and Dany diehard, says he thinks the Harpy Sons are controlled by the Masters of Slaver’s Bay, who lost their entire economy, culture, and way of life when Dany, The Great Emancipator, arrived with her sweeping anti-slavery reform. He’s probably right. The Mother of Dragons is a hardline leader, unwilling to budge even on what the Masters see as reasonable concessions, like reopening Yunkai’s fighting pits. On top of that, they’re probably still peeved about the time Daenerys crucified 163 of them during the Siege of Meereen as revenge for the 163 slain slave children left to rot out in the sun. They have plenty of reasons to hate her.

The Masters couldn’t stop the Targaryen queen from toppling their reign during the Siege; she was armed with dragons, thousands of soldiers, and rebelling slaves who outnumbered the Masters 3-to-1. But now that those dragons are out of the picture and her Unsullied are busy occupying themselves with things like brothel cuddle sessions and Missandei, a stealth insurgency has emerged. Daenerys’s Meereen storyline is sometimes compared to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, where insurgents used guerrilla tactics to strike back against an unwanted, foreign presence with a fatally shortsighted plan for postwar reconstruction. In this case, the insurgents are the Sons of the Harpy and Daenerys is the foreigner convinced she has a moral responsibility to rescue Meereen (and Yunkai and Astapor) from itself.

But are the masked assassins actual noblemen skulking around the streets of Meereen, killing unsuspecting soldiers in bed? This seems unlikely; they’ve probably hired lower-ranking citizens to act in their stead. Plenty of non-noble citizens in Meereen hate Daenerys—they’ve had their livelihoods disrupted by the abolition of slavery as well—and will offer their services, for a price. (Plus, if you were rich and powerful, would you risk your life to kill anonymous eunuchs?) Barring that, one questions remains: Who is controlling the Sons?

It’s an open question that has yet to be answered in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (though there are plenty of theories, including one very convincing conjecture about a man in close proximity to Daenerys). At the moment, Dany isn’t particularly concerned either way. She orders the slain Unsullied, named White Rat, to be buried with honor in the Temple of the Graces—which her council members point out is a terrible idea that will piss off the Sons of the Harpy even more. Daenerys’s response is either very brave or very naive: “Angry snakes lash out. Makes chopping off their heads that much easier.”