Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Gift,” wasn’t much for challenging Westerosi status quo. Most in-progress plotlines carried on, more or less, as expected. All the worst things in the world kept happening to Sansa, Daenerys continued bowing to pressure from the Masters, Littlefinger continued spinning his inscrutable web of double- and triple-crossings, and Cersei kept right on digging herself into a hole that even she can’t extract herself from anymore. But the episode did deal viewers a true rarity, something we’ve possibly never seen on this show: a painless, natural death.
Aemon Targaryen, maester of the Night’s Watch, passed away in bizarrely normal fashion this week: in bed, surrounded by people who care about him, experiencing flashbacks to his childhood with little brother Aegon, a “jolly fellow” with an endlessly amazing nickname, “Egg.” Before he dies, he advises Gilly to fly south before winter comes—advice that would suit Sam, now entirely friendless at Castle Black, just as well. Sam gets beaten unconscious in an attempt to rescue Gilly from two would-be rapists (just another Tuesday in Westeros), highlighting his now-precarious position at the Wall. Perhaps now’s the time for a trip south to that Citadel he gushed about to Stannis?
Gilly’s almost-rape is foiled by a well-timed appearance from Ghost—the direwolf Jon left behind while he rallied the remaining Wildlings north of the Wall with Tormund Giantsbane—and comes with bonus vow-breaking rewards for Sam “Oh, My” Tarly. Not quite as rousing as Missandei and Grey Worm’s first kiss, but Sam’s I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-happening look, plus the earlier moment when Gilly breaks free from one attacker and flies at the other with her teeth bared and claws outstretched, snarling “LEAVE HIM ALONE!” felt like this bleak episode’s biggest wins.
And now we come to where last episode left us, with the show’s second most recent rape victim, Sansa Stark. We find her covered in bruises from head to toe, disheveled and sobbing in bed. Waiting around for Littlefinger to return is no longer an option; Ramsay has been raping Sansa every night and keeping her locked inside her room during the day. The whipping girl of Westeros’s perpetually miserable life has somehow never been worse.
But while, say, Season 2 Sansa would have met her fate with little more than sheer resilience (and lots of praying), this new Sansa is an active force to be reckoned with! Or so this show keeps telling us. (Waiting for this feels like waiting for Daenerys’s dragons to fly to Westeros: a tantalizing promise that somehow never materializes.) Sansa pleads with Reek to seek help from the Starks’ “friends in the North” by lighting a candle in Winterfell’s highest tower, a symbolic call for rescue from the Starks’ old servants. But once Reek gets up there and unlocks the door, he finds, of course, Ramsay, just as he's settling in for a plateful of dismembered limbs or dead puppies, or whatever it is sadists have for lunch.
Sansa does score verbal points during a later walk with Ramsay by casually pointing out that he is still a bastard, no matter what King Tommen (another bastard) wrote on some fancy piece of parchment. She even sneaks a sharp object into her sleeve (like we all so desperately wish she had done on her wedding night). But her attempts to regain control amount to nothing when she finds herself staring her dead servant in the eye, the woman’s flayed body pinned to a wall. Surprise: Ramsay wins, again. He kisses Sansa delicately on her tear-stained cheek, an assertion of power somehow crueler than a slap or another insult. This guy cannot die soon enough.
In the marginally less depressing setting of King’s Landing, Lady Olenna Tyrell comes face-to-face with the High Sparrow, with whom she bonds over achy joints (because they’re both old—get it?) before trying to bully him into freeing Margaery and Loras. She gets nowhere until Littlefinger gives her the ammo she needs: dirt on Cersei. The Queen Mother’s incestuous indiscretion with her first cousin, Lancel—who helped murder King Robert but is now a devoted Sparrow serving the Faith of the Seven—emerges and Cersei is thrown into prison, the smug look on her face from seeing Margaery in a cell barely evaporated.
Whispers of Cersei’s incest-lust have been getting louder around King’s Landing all season, culminating with actual Flea’s Bottom-level peasants shouting “bastard!” at Tommen in front of the Sept of Baelor. Arming the Faith Militant, a religious organization so conservative they make Puritans look like hippies, was a colossally stupid idea, even for the queen of self-sabotage. Being shown “the Mother’s mercy” is a possibility for her, but only depending on “the acts themselves and the degree of contrition,” according to the High Sparrow. In Cersei’s case, the “act itself” was incest and conspiring to kill King Robert. As for “contrition”—can you imagine the vainest, most hateful woman in Westeros feigning sorry for killing a husband she hated? Yeah, me neither.And over in Essos, Tyrion and Jorah find themselves, as promised, pawned off to Meereen’s fighting pits, reopened as a gesture of Daenerys’s political goodwill. Her marriage to Hizdahr Zo Loraq has mysteriously stopped all Sons of the Harpy attacks (guess we know who was behind that) and she’s agreed to reopen the Pits as a nod to Meereenese culture, even if she hates their barbarity. How much longer is she going to bow to the wishes of noblemen who conspired against her just to maintain peace though? Daario’s advice, to round up the Masters of Slaver’s Bay on the day the fighting pits reopen and kill them all, sounds more appealing (or at the very least, more interesting) with each passing episode.
Shortly before entering his first fighting “pit” (small dirt circle?), Jorah, with that familiar sparkle back in his eyes, glimpses his eternally unrequited love through a gate—then promptly straps on a helmet, jumps his place in line, and gets his Gladiator on to impress her. Like a schoolboy’s daydream come true, he cuts down one enemy after another until he triumphantly takes off his helmet and looks to his queen, eyes screaming “LOVE ME!”Of course, she’s disgusted. This is still the guy that spied on her for King Robert and Varys. She sends him away, but not before Jorah desperately offers his “gift”: Tyrion, who saunters out and comes face-to-face with Daenerys himself. With Ser Barristan Selmy gone, there’s a vacant place in Daenerys’s inner circle for a politically savvy Imp with knowledge of—and a vendetta against—the rulers of Westeros. Will she allow him to join her? These two characters have yet to meet in George R.R. Martin’s books, so whatever happens now is entirely up to the show’s makers. This union has been the biggest promise of the season—now that Daenerys and Tyrion are together, a whole crop of new, exciting possibilities are in reach. Just in time, too. The darkness of this show had begun to outweigh the fun.