Monday, 4 May 2015

"He Realized That Crows Had Always Reminded Him Of Time"

History repeats itself. Or so we're told, at least; you could be forgiven for thinking that literally nothing could repeat itself more often than people smugly insisting upon the cyclic nature of time. Though I guess they've been pushing that line for long enough that they've entered history themselves, so eventually they've proved themselves right, like stopped clocks somehow invited to dinner parties to spout obvious bromides as an alternative to engaging with or caring about what is unfolding in the present.

I've strayed off the subject. I'll start again.

History repeats itself. So naturally fictional history has to as well, though of course given its nature it can do so with more precision and panache than reality can generally lay claim to. "High Sparrow" is packed with the past resurfacing in the present. But when the ghosts of history arise in the utterly changed landscape of now, the results can never play out in quite the same way they once did.  This episode is about how different the show's first steps look after we've spent four years learning about the world they happened in. Put another way, this is an opportunity for us to review the opening moves of the game, now we have a much better grasp of the rules.

(TV spoilers follow)

No-one seems able to agree on whether or not Mark Twain actually said that history doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. Whomever really did come up with the idea, though, you can see the usefulness of the idea. The idea of history repeating can be a useful one, but like all useful ideas is it not immune to being misinterpreted, misrepresented, misused, and misunderstood, and ultimately turned into a weapon against itself. Those who cannot, will not or are paid to not face what is coming argue the minutiae, claiming this cannot be a repeat of events of the past because this is in a slightly different part of the world, or the lies that suffocate everything are aimed at a slightly different target, or because the sky was slightly more cloudy the last time we declared war. It has always been the way of the callow and the cowardly to dissect the metaphor rather than confront it (a related way to say this is that storytelling will always have its enemies).

But history rhymes. The small variations matter less than the freight-train rhythm of a poem surging towards each line's end. Rhyming though is just one way we can consider the phenomenon of history again and again finding itself returning to the same events, lazily shuffled.  Another way to process the idea is that the past always finds itself reflected in the future, just not through a mirror you'd want to trust when shaving with a cut-throat razor.

Everywhere in "High Sparrow" we see twisted reflections of what has passed. Sometimes the reflection is anti-parallel; two vectors that run parallel to each other but are pointed in opposite directions.  Arya's time in the House of Black and White - up until now rather thematically separate from the rest of the season - provides strong visual links to this idea. What else are the black and white doors themselves but inverted mirror images of each other? What is a man hair mixed red  (which often fades first to blonde and then to silver whilst the owner is still young) and white, but a reflection of someone's past and their future framing the same face? And what is The Kindly Man's teachings but a muddied reflection of the tutoring Arya enjoyed under Syrio Forel, which Arya now finds frustrating rather than fascinating.  I mean, The Waif even hits Arya with a wooden stick, for Old Gods' sake.  No-one is trying to hide this idea.

Indeed, including Arya I count no fewer than five nods towards the show's first four episodes here - and at least two more to season one as a whole - but each of these echoes underline how far the game has moved on since the first swords were drawn in what became The War of Five Kings. The lynch-pin of this idea is Tyrion. As the only character to have both been with Jon Snow at the Wall and (almost) met Dany in the warm climes of central Essos, Tyrion has travelled further than anyone else, at least over the time period of the show (Melisandre and Ser Jorah both have him beat overall). Already then he has traversed through the inverted mirror the show has set up with its geography; the frozen north west with its Wildlings and its ice zombie mages, and the sweltering sub-tropical east with its fire priests and dragons. This anti-parallel is fairly heavily underlined by "High Sparrow" ending with Tyrion being abducted, four years almost to the episode since Catelyn Stark did the same thing at the conclusion of "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things". Whether heading from the North or to the East, it seems Tyrion can't get too much mileage under his belt without someone jumping him so he can be dragged before some authority figure who wants to punish him for something he didn't do. I'm not sure how one says "Plus ├ža change..." in Valyrian, but the idea translates easily enough.

So much for the slave cities.  Let's return to where it all started, in the north, since returning to where it all started is our central theme. Parallels and reflections abound in Castle Black, starting with little Olly, picked as steward for explicitly identical reasons to Jon's own choosing in season one: to learn the ways of command. One might question whether murdering the current Lord Commander's ex-girlfriend is the best evidence of fitness for a management position, but we as viewers know Olly less well than Jon does, whereas we knew Jon better than Mormont did when Snow underwent the Choosing. This difference is important, actually, because it very much goes against the grain of "High Sparrow", which as I've said is in general focused on how much more thoroughly we now understand the game than we did four years ago. Consider the two main decisions Jon makes this episode (we'll skip over his grotesque anti-ginger bias, which if nothing else proved Fliss' love for me since she didn't smash the television to kindling the instant it was revealed). First he promotes Alliser Thorne to First Ranger.  Four years ago Jon himself was hoping for that role, only to have it forever denied to him as Thorne looked on, smirking horribly. The implication (made explicit in the book) was that Jon suspects Thorne's interference here; a petty act of vengeance for his popularity in the practice yard that has ruined the rest of his life.  It takes Sam to patiently spell out what's really going on, which is helpful for the angst-riddled Jon, but also for us as viewers, who could be forgiven for not seeing what Mormont's decision implied simply due to our unfamiliarity with a world to which we were still new.

This time round, no exposition is required. Jon's move is clever, but not at all mysterious, and after four years of watching how power is exercised in Westeros we should have no need of dialogue to lay out what we already know: Thorne is experienced and brave enough to do the job, and by promoting him Jon both separates him from the malcontents and demonstrates the era of his command will not look back to the petty squabbles of yesterday. In short, we and Jon both now know how this game is played.

And Jon, it seems, has learned to play it very well, Dangling the most literal of shitty jobs in front of Thorne before making him First Ranger was a masterful demonstration that his largesse to his former opponent was entirely voluntary; that Thorne has got his new role because he has Jon's respect, not because there wasn't anything else the Lord Commander could think of to do with him.  As clever as that was, though, waiting until after promoting Thorne to give Janos Slynt[1] his marching orders is smarter still. With Slynt's primary ally suddenly peeled off, the former commander of the Gold Cloaks is dangerously exposed. This is painfully obvious to anyone who has spent as long studying the game as we have, but apparently Slynt has learned nothing from his humiliation at the hands of Tyrion, or how totally ill-equipped he is to understand the way the north works (remember how grave Thorne looks whilst Slynt is laughing about the idea of giants when Jon is reporting back on his Wildling excursion), and as a result he gets his head chopped off.  This too is an obvious nod to the first season, indeed the very first episode, where Jon's own father was forced to execute a Night's Watchman for failing to follow orders.

But think back to those early moments of season one, and that beheading amongst the stark wilderness of Eddard's lands. That scene was only the second to feature Eddard Stark, the apparent hero of the story, and the execution leant him a sense of distance, even danger; it was our first hint that this story wasn't going to play out according to fantasy trope and cliche. Our first clue that perhaps we wouldn't know the rules as fully as we might believe. In contrast, Jon finally dealing with the unbearable Slynt is confirmation of what we've long known: being an arrogant prick around those with real power is an exceptionally stupid idea. Slynt downfall here is precisely because he's failed to learn even the most basic of the rules the rest of us have picked up over four years.

(Indeed, Jon himself represents a reflection of events far away in space and time, when you consider he was chosen to accompany a mighty leader and warrior, acquired power as a result, and has now taken on the position vacated by that leader's death. It's a far less disturbing and rapey version of Dany's season one arc, but in the broadest strokes there are clear similarities.)

It is this idea that our experience over the course of the show should change our viewpoints on the action that powers "High Sparrow". Another obvious link between this episode and the show's first season (and again, it's first episode) is a reception in the Winterfell courtyard. Four years ago it was the Starks waiting on the Baratheons to arrive, wondering all the while if the visitors had more on their agenda than it seemed. This time, it's the Boltons who have gathered at the gate, wondering just how on the level the incoming Baelish/Stark party will be. What's critically different here, of course, is that we already know the answer, or at least we do insofar as we can trust Littlefinger to work towards the vengeance he has promised Sansa. Season one was about trying to figure out who wanted what. Season five is about knowing what everyone wants (or at least, having good reason to assume we do) and seeing how the resulting clashes play out. Jon, Dany and Doran want peace. Littlefinger wants to gain power, and the Boltons want to retain it. Cersei and Margaery want rid of each other. Tyrion wants to drink himself to death before he might have to get involved in politics once again. The endless schemes of the first season are now generally played out, or at least fully revealed (again, assuming we can trust confessions such as Varys's). The uncertainties we see going forwards are those of conflict and interaction more than they are of motivation.

Which brings us at last to the High Sparrow, a scene so important the whole episode got named after it. When first we visited the Seven Kingdoms, our information on the plots of Cersei Lannister was pretty thin on the ground, though admittedly extrapolation on this point was not exactly impossible. Now though we have almost half a decade of experience of how Cersei's schemes work out to judge how successful an alliance with the High Sparrow might prove. On the surface this might seem difficult, since the High Sparrow, along with Prince Doran, are by dint of their newness exempt from the general feeling that everyone now stands essentially fully revealed. But that would be missing the point. The lack of knowledge we and Cersei have regarding the High Sparrow precisely demonstrates how unwise an alliance might prove to be.  Literally the first thing our new religious leader did was to seek out the most powerful religious figure on the continent and beat the shit out of him for enjoying sex. This is not a man likely to be open to compromise, and yet Cersei's pitch to him is - in our terms -that the monarchy is too big to fail. As spectacular misreadings go, that's right up there with believing in Supply-Side Jesus.

And so we have one final link to the first season: Cersei has become Eddard, separated from those whose advice they needed and facing people she cannot possibly understand the motivations of (and not just the High Sparrow; the basement lab of Qyburn doesn't look like whatever comes out of it could possibly be good), and so easily fooled into believing she has their support because she's given what she would want in their place.  The implication here is clear: Cersei has learned no more from the last four years than did Janos Slynt, and in the the end that cost him his head. Is Cersei heading for so final a fate? Is Ramsay Bolton? There's surely only so far an endless cycle of "flay alive, boast about flaying alive" can get one, surely?  More worryingly, are Jon and his half-sister Sansa as on top of their respective games as they will need to be to survive?

The peace remains in force, but the most important battles of that peace are about to kick off.  Place your bets.

[1] It took me thirteen years to realise why Janos Slynt has the name he has: he's Janus Sly/Janus Slant, a two-faced schemer clearly not on the level.  I might even have called that heavy-handed, if it hadn't taken me over a decade to see it. Well played, Martin. Well played. -

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