Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones Explained: It’s Story Time in Westeros

By  · Published on May 4th, 2015


This week’s episode of Game of Thrones is yet another important frame for the show. It’s not just the fact that they finally included Dorne in the opening credits montage. Or that the show continued its trek off-book with several potentially major changes. This week’s episode, “The Sons of the Harpy,” honored one of the best part of George R.R. Martin’s books: it dug into the history of Westeros in a way that fleshed out a number of characters and situations.

It is in these stories that we will find our most interesting talking points for season five’s latest installment. In my weekly column explaining the show, which doesn’t include any future spoilers but does use some book knowledge to fill in the blanks, we’re going to take a look at these stories and explore why the matter.

The Story of Rhaegar and Lyanna


In the crypts of Winterfell, Littlefinger tells Sansa the story of the Tourney at Harrenhal, where Robert’s Rebellion and the entire story of A Song of Ice and Fire were born. As he explains, the tourney involved the Crown Prince, Rhaegar Targaryen (Dany’s eldest brother) defeating Ser Barristan Selmy in the final of the joust. Upon winning, Rhaegar placed a crown of winter roses at the lap of Lyanna Stark, deeming her the queen of love and beauty.

This was problematic for two reasons. One being that Rhaegar was already married to Elia Martell (sister of Oberyn and Doran). The other being the fact that Lyanna was betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Rhaegar would later abduct Lyanna, inciting Robert’s Rebellion, but this is clearly where all the trouble started.

This story is important to Littlefinger for a very specific reason. As he explained to Roose Bolton in last week’s episode, he is now in control of the Knights of the Vale via his Regent status over Lord Robin Arryn. And the last time the Knights of the Vale and the Lords of The North teamed up, they brought down the Targaryen dynasty. By placing Sansa as Wardeness of The North (if she can survive her slumber party with the Boltons), Littlefinger stands to have a lot of influence over both The Vale and The North, which would put him in possession of a major fighting force with which he can do as he chooses. This is the clearest we’ve ever been on Littlefinger’s schemes. He’s always played the game a few steps ahead of everyone else, but now his plan seems to hinge on Sansa’s ability to both survive the Boltons and potentially control Ramsay. That last part makes this particular plan shaky, to say the very least.

Rhaegar the Singer


In Meereen, Ser Barristan tells Dany a story about her eldest brother, completing The Rhaegar Targaryen History Hour with an anecdote about how Rhaegar was a fierce warrior, but also a kind and intelligent leader.

Why does Barristan tell her this story? For one, it’s a show trope for characters to have a touching moment with their most beloved compatriots prior to their demise, so they had to find some way for Dany and Barristan to have a sweet moment before he falls to The Sons of the Harpy in the episode’s final moments.

Beyond the narrative service this scene provides, it’s also an important character moment for Dany. As she’s discovered this season, not everything can be dealt with in a black and white manner. In fact, that sort of hard certainty was one of the things that defined her father The Mad King’s rule (and eventual downfall). Ser Barristan believes in many ways that Rhaegar would have been the best leader of all of them, so he tells the story to show Dany that leadership is more than power, more than black and white ideology. That her family has ruled in different ways, and that her worldview (influenced mostly by her brother Viserys) is somewhat incomplete.

Now that Barristan is likely gone, Dany has lost her last connection to Westeros. Her advisors no longer include anyone who can teach her things about the Targaryen dynasty. This was an important parting lesson from Barristan the Bold.

The Faith Militant


In King’s Landing, we see Cersei aligning herself further with the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) in an attempt to create an ally in her battle against Queen Margaery. This leads to the seemingly desperate act of arming a group known as the Faith Militant.

The history of the Faith Militant dates back to the early days of the Targaryen Dynasty. They are basically the fundamental, militant wing of the Faith of the Seven. They patrol the land defending not just the Faith, but fanatically enforcing the morals of the Faith.

In this instance, Cersei has given the High Sparrow reign to bring them back in an effort to root out corruption and sin within King’s Landing. As the Sparrow explains, “all sinners are equal before the gods.”

We watch as the Faith Militant strike against brothels, barrels of wine and ultimately capture Cersei’s prime target, Ser Loras Tyrell. At the moment, Cersei seems to have the Militant doing the work that she wants them to do. But what happens if they turn their gaze toward anyone in King’s Landing who is corrupt or has some sexual indiscretions in their past? That would mean that Cersei, free of her father’s harsh but pragmatic rule, is now playing with fire.

Stannis the Family Man


Stannis’ story for his daughter Shireen is one of the sweetest moments the show has enjoyed in a long time. For all the hyper serious conversations and beheadings that it delivers, it’s always nice to see some humanity squeak out here and there.

In this instance, we are treated not just to a nice story in which a father is comforting his daughter, we’re also seeing the layers that exist within the hardened persona of Stannis. He loves his daughter, even if his wife sees her as a mark of shame. It also continues to inform us of Stannis’ relentless nature when it comes to fighting for what he believes is right. When everyone advised him to send his greyscale-stricken daughter away, he did everything in his power to stop the spread of the disease and keep his daughter where she belonged. What will he be willing to do to put himself where he believes he belongs (ie. on the Iron Throne)? I’m sure that no matter what obstacles are in his path, Stannis believes that nothing will stop him.

Stannis’ story also furthers this season’s talk about greyscale. It has me wondering whether or not greyscale will become more relevant to the story. A greyscale outbreak could throw a wrench into the plans of any number of our Iron Throne contestants.

The Sand Snakes


I’ll take any episode that involves stories about my dearly departed favorite character Oberyn Martell. When we meet the Sand Snakes (the three eldest of Oberyn’s eight daughters), it is with a visit from the late Oberyn’s paramour Ellaria Sand. Following her rather contentious meeting with Prince Doran, Ellaria has come to the Sand Snakes to sign them up to start a war with the Lannisters.

The important story here is told by Obara, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes. She speaks of her first meeting with her father Oberyn and his decision to teach his daughters to be warriors. The entire speech feels a little out of place, but it explains a lot about these three women. They are, above all other things, their father’s daughters. They are filled with the same fiery desire for vengeance. They are just as dangerous, each in their own way. Their world view is a reflection of Oberyn’s, which creates a dangerous situation for anyone who crosses them.

These Sand Snakes are going to be all kinds of fun.

The Honeymoon is Over and Other Final Observations


Ser Barristan will be missed: Ask any book reader and they will tell you that the death of Ser Barristan (something all but confirmed by the Next Week On segment that followed the episode) is something that has not happened in the books at all, so it’s existence in the show is very shocking. It’s also sad, as Ian McElhinney has been so consistently excellent, elevating a smaller character (at least early on) to one that came back in a big way when he met up with Dany. His presence will be missed not just by the Mother of Dragons, but by the audience, as well.

Tyrion the Detective: In all of about 30 seconds, Tyrion gave Ser Jorah a thorough dressing down the likes of which only a few characters on this show are capable of delivering. As much as Tyrion and Varys were an enjoyable traveling duo, this one could be even more fun.

Grey Worm: Surely he is the one who survives that final scene, right? There’s no sense in the show setting up his little romance with Missendei if they were going to kill him off before the storyline ever paid off in any significant way.

Poor Tommen: In the scene in which Tommen has to explain to Margaery that he didn’t free Ser Loras from the captivity of the High Sparrow. You can see all of his entire sexual future being abruptly assassinated. He’s being played by two of Westeros’ most cunning women and even though we all know it, he doesn’t. Poor Tommen.

Until next week, my watch continues.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)