While I harbor no sympathy for assertions of quality for one work over another across media (i.e. “the book was better…“) and have zero tolerance for people who complain that an adaptation isn’t sufficiently representative of their personal experience with or perception of the source material (“wah wah wah, they cut this, they changed that“), I will freely admit that as someone who has read and loved the Ice and Fire book series, there is something extremely disconcerting about watching what was once an exceedingly faithful adaptation begin to diverge from the source text to such an extent that it fundamentally changes the experience of viewing the series. I don’t mean this as a total negative; it is exhilarating as well as disconcerting to know that in any given sequence one of my favorite characters I haven’t prepared myself to say goodbye to because they’re alive in the books might be killed off. This must be what the non-readers feel when watching Game of Thrones.
In all seriousness, though, this episode was slightly uneven and dragged on occasion, but the bits that were solid were simply outstanding. Even in the sections that didn’t quite work for me, however, there was a very consistent dichotomy running through this episode: freedom vs. captivity. Each main character featured in “The Gift” was engaged in a struggle along these lines, whether they were physically incarcerated or enslaved, as was the case with Sansa, Tyrion, Jorah, Jaime, Bronn, Margaery, and eventually Cersei, or held captive figuratively or metaphorically, such as Sam vis a vis his vows, Stannis to his strategic objective, Tommen with his lack of political capital and leverage over the Faith, or Dany to her sense of duty and “justice.”
The highlight of this episode for me was unquestionably the Cersei material. The quality of the writing and the dramatic tension in the scene between her and the High Sparrow was superb and Lena Headey’s performance in her scene with Tommen was her finest work to date and some of the best acting featured on the entire series. Her reaction to Tommen’s desperate declaration of love for Margaery was absolutely stunning.
Lena Headey is one of a handful of Game of Thrones cast members who are so consistently great on the show that I get lulled into a strange complacency when it comes to examining their performances, so moments like the one in this episode deliver a huge impact when they’re delivered. Cersei’s reaction to Tommen in the aforementioned moment was so subtle, so raw, so genuine and un-fakeable that it takes the breath away. You can physically feel the energy in the room change with moments like that. It’s a truly exquisite bit of acting by Lena Headey and an amazing testament to the camera’s ability to capture such uncanny human moments so richly.
That reaction shot was such a turning point in that scene that it transformed an otherwise typical and unremarkable Cersei monologue into a passage that nearly moved me to tears, even on successive viewings. The second half of that scene was literally phenomenal; an unforgettable (and in many ways un-writable) moment in an exceedingly rich series. I really can’t say enough about it.
The Winterfell sequence was quite strong as well, especially in the way that they’re solidifying Ramsay as “the new Joffrey.” The scene in which Ramsay shows Sansa the flayed body of the woman who was helping her try to escape harkens back to the scene in Season 1 where Joffrey shows her Ned’s head on a pike. In both cases it demonstrates for her how trapped she really is.
Maester Aemon will certainly be missed, much unlike Sam Tarley’s virginity, I daresay. To be completely frank, I think institutionally imposed chastity vows are total bullshit, so, for that reason alone I’m glad Sam got laid. Gilly is more than a little annoying to me, but Sam is rather fond of her and I like Sam, so, good for him. As for the attempted rape that preceded that event, I have seen countless versions of that same sequence that are never any different than the ones that were done before in any significant way and I’m honestly just tired of watching it. The damsel in distress trope is beyond played out, and for a series that does an otherwise great job of either avoiding it all together or subverting/tweaking it (as is arguably the case with the Sansa storyline), so much of the Gilly material undermines that, which is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of her character.
This episode was notable for the sheer amount of deviations from the books, some of which have proven more rewarding in the short term than others. I, like so many others, have been waiting very impatiently for Tyrion and Dany to meet, but I must say that I think that for the television series this event was rushed, which David Benioff basically admits to doing intentionally. Additionally, the sequence itself in which it occurred was rather weak, mostly due to Jorah’s almost parodic “Russell Crowe moment.”
It’s hard not to get the sense that Weiss and Benioff (and likely, HBO) are in something of a hurry in general, which I can’t really blame them for given how difficult it is to sustain projects on this scale and the physical, emotional, and creative toll it must be taking on them to keep something like this going. That’s part of the reason I admire them so much as screenwriters and showrunners; it’s no small feat to sustain such a massive series at such a consistently high level of quality over this amount of time, and deviating as they are from the book can only add weight to that lift. There is a difference, however, between urgency and rushing, and I fear that this season has slipped into the latter category in a lot of places, the Dany-Tyrion meeting now being one of them.
Having said all that, now that the Dany-Tyrion meeting has actually taken place, I’m nothing but completely excited for their scenes together and the developments to come. Not only are these two characters well suited for each other and each other’s storylines and goals, but I think Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke will work well together. The book fundamentalists can get as upset as they want to about the deviations from the source text, but it’s hard to argue that the narrative isn’t interesting anymore.