HELEN SLOAN/HBO
By James Poniewozik
May 4, 2015

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Spoilers for Game of Thrones, “Sons of the Harpy,” below:

“What would you say if I told you of a great sinner here in our very midst?”

In King’s Landing? I’d say I’m going to need to grab a scroll and some extra ink, because that’s going to turn into a very long list.

The irony of Cersei Lannister reporting a “sinner” to the High Sparrow–using a mob of fundamentalists as muscle in the service of her morally-selective aims–is obvious. But it also points up a theme of Game of Thrones, which comes up repeatedly in “Sons of the Harpy”: that sin is a moving target in this world, defined by who has the power to punish other’s sins and to obscure their own.

After all, it’s rich that Cersei should be targeting Loras for a specifically sexual sin (being gay, apparently, is no more tolerated by the Faith of the Seven than the medieval Europe it’s based on) when she not only commited incest but is–or was–truly in love with the brother who fathered her children. Cersei and Jaime are not free to be open about this, but they’re at least insulated enough to see that the whispers around them remain whispers.

By empowering the Faith Militant–visualized here as a kind of weird tattooed cult–Cersei is playing a dangerous game, loosing the power of religious absolutism in a land where, in practice, not all equal “sins” are treated equally. Just take, for instance, the very different treatment of a kind of character that is very prominent in Game of Thrones‘ story of power and family—the bastard.

Westeros is crawling with bastards, but not all bastards have an equal lot in life. The realm is ruled by one, after all: it’s not acknowledged that Robert’s children are not his, but it’s not unacknowledged either–sparrows yell “Bastard! Abomination!” at Tommen in the street, and Bronn answers “Your niece?” pointedly when Jaime describes Myrcella as such. In a way, it’s a demonstration of Lannister might that the gossip remains just that. (Would the family’s power crumble if the secret were exposed, or would the secret be exposed because the family’s power had already crumbled?)

The Lannister kids are a special case, of course, being the product of incest. But it’s ironic that Myrcella is believed to be in danger having been sent off to the one corner of Westeros that treats its bastards best. As the late Oberyn Martell said, “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne.” The Dornish, in keeping with their more generally liberated attitudes, acknowledge children born out of wedlock, giving them power and agency–and in the case of the Sand Snakes, whom we meet here, the ability to create big headaches for the Lannisters in the name of vengeance.

And in the rest of Westeros? It’s more a matter of luck. Poor Gendry is still out there rowing his boat somewhere, relatively powerless and yet threatening enough to be pursued because of his royal blood. The Boltons, on the other hand, may have their own trouble playing nice with others, but at least Roose was open to making Ramsay Snow legitimate once he proved his usefulness.

Then there’s the handsomest bastard of all, Jon Snow. Ned Stark did the right-enough thing bringing him back to Winterfell and raising him as his own, and he was able to bond with his siblings–yet always felt a distance from Catelyn, for whom things were understandably awkward. He was a good son, dutiful, protective of his siblings, responsible–and as his reward got to go off to The Wall. In the last episode, Stannis offered him the chance to be legitimized as a Stark, yet he refused it feeling bound to his vows. The Night’s Watch may be a harsh family, but at least it adopted him unconditionally.

But Jon’s situation is complicated, and I’m going to spoiler-protect the next couple paragraphs–it’s not technically a spoiler, since it only involves a theory popular among readers of the books, but it’s enough of a biggie-if-true that I’ll let you decide if you want to read it:

According to this theory, the story I just told you, the story that Ned Stark told when he brought baby Jon home, is not the real story. Jon, the speculation goes, is not actually Ned’s son, but the son of former crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister Lyanna. By this theory, Rhaegar did not rape Lyanna–the story that’s taken hold–but secretly married her, making him the actual honest-to-God legit heir to the Iron Throne. Ned claimed Jon as his bastard son to hide the truth and protect the baby’s life.

True? Not true? The hell if I know, but Rhaegar and Lyanna are suddenly all the hell over “Sons of the Harpy.” We have Sansa visiting the crypts at Winterfell, recalling Ned’s visit to his sister’s tomb and retelling the popular story of the rape. Later, Barristan recalls taking Rhaegar through the streets of King’s Landing, where he loved to sing for passers-by. Game of Thrones, unlike the books, doesn’t like to spend much time on history–let alone characterizing a long-dead character, first as a rapist, then as a sweet boy (who maybe was not a rapist after all?). On top of that we have Melisandre–well-know connoisseur of king’s blood–telling Jon of the power he carries within him.

Overall, “Sons of the Harpy” was a largely piece-moving episode: it set up a bloody conflict in Dorne, multiplied Dany’s troubles in Meereen, set Jorah and Tyrion on the road, and sent Mace Tyrell off to Braavos with Ser Meryn Trant, whom you may recognize as one of the names on Arya’s shortening revenge list.

But it had powerful moments, one of which reminded us that there are ways other than being born out of wedlock for children in this realm to lose legitimacy. See Shireen, Stannis’ only child, disdained by her mother, who apologizes to him for “[giving] you nothing but weakness and deformity.”

Which is why it was a surprisingly affecting scene to see Stannis telling his daughter how he fought to save and keep her after she fell ill with greyscale. It may be the first time that we hear Stannis talking about a decision that he came to, not because of honor or rigid adherence to law, but simple, febrile love. “I told them all to go to hell,” he says. “You are the princess Shireen of House Baratheon. And you are my daughter.”

I’ll admit it, I choked up. Stannis, you soft-hearted bastard, you.

Now for the hail of arrows:

* Whenever I see a new location on the title-sequence map, it’s like Christmas in the spring for me. Welcome, badass snake of Dorne!

* We get a little more clarity on the “What in hell is Littlefinger thinking?” front with regard to Sansa’ betrothal to Ramsay: he believes Stannis will defeat the Boltons and place Sansa in charge of the North. Let’s hope the puppetmaster knows what he’s doing.

* What was it Chekhov said, about how if you have a man buried to his neck in the sand at the beginning of an episode, he’d better get a spear thrown through his head by the end of it?

* I had been thinking that Game of Thrones this season had been doing a little less of the nudity-for-nudity’s sake scenes, but Melisandre’s attempted seduction of Jon felt like it. Yes, life is holy, sex is life, blah blah–and I do wonder what her larger motive was beyond Jon’s general dreaminess–but I couldn’t help but giggling when she disrobed to show him “what you’re fighting for.” (Her boobs?)

* Speaking of which: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” I’m assuming Melisandre was never in a position to hear Ygritte utter the catchphrase. So: coincidence, or legit Red Priestess voodoo?

* “I was drunk through most of the Small Council meetings, but now it’s coming back to me.” Tyrion Lannister, excellent multitasker.

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