This Caligula-esque storytelling motif is disappointing not just for its redundancy (Ramsay Bolton being smarmily evil is Thrones' weakest note) but because the most electric moments in this episode danced between Westeros's most powerful women: Queen mother-regent Cersei Lannister and the elderly but canny Lady Olenna Tyrell.
The complex circumstances behind their confrontation informs a scene notable for how perfectly and wonderfully it fails the Bechdel test. Two women who have navigated the labyrinthine restrictions of a patriarchal society, to assume unprecedented power and control over its two most powerful families, find themselves exposing the extent of that power, and mutually annihilating it, in a conversation about a man's sexual preference for other men.
It's directed and acted with considerable skill. In Cersei's disclaiming of power over yet another man (the High Sparrow, boss of the religious order she's ceded too much power to) and Olenna Tyrell's inability to appeal to that which they share, there are the constraints that the episode's later rape scene mocks. That scene assaults victim and viewer, but it's the understated power-play of this scene that seems the real target.
Thrones knows what power is and how it appears to be exercised in high places, but it's much more at home depicting its simpler, nastier forms.
Sunday's episode commenced in the creepy grandeur of the House of Black and White, where the fugitive Arya Stark washes, cleans and grooms corpses. It seems a strangely meditative activity, carried out by someone who has endured (and, with some justice, dealt) deadly suffering. But she still hasn't figured out what they're doing with the bodies, and she still hasn't figured out who she is supposed to be.
"You will know," warns her nameless companion, who yields some personal background only to use its unreliable nature to further Arya's sense of confusion. Here, Arya seems, again, a child, ready to learn but unable to let go of what she knows.
To her mentor, Jaqen, she refuses to abandon the plain truths of her past. He whips her until she drops.
Later, a sickly girl visits the temple in search of peace. Arya tells her to drink its deadly water, promising that it will bring her suffering to an end. This killing, observed from the darkness by Jaqen, may be a mercy killing. But it is also a murder, and in it is the death of Arya's own truth and the birth within her of that of the House. She thereby earns a trip to the cult's inner sancta, where a vast selection of faces, mystically impressed upon vast columns, are held for its agents to use as their own.
Now she knows what they do with the bodies.
To the east, traveling companions Tyrion Lannister and Jorah Mormont gripe at one another. Having lost their boat in a fight they barely survived (and which Mormont may not have, in the long run), their circumstances seem dire.
"You're the worst traveling companion I've ever met," Tyrion snaps. "As miserable as you are, at least your father was a good man."
Jorah, it turns out, was not aware his father had died. And for once, his silence means something.
Just as the two men are finally warming to one another, their increasingly amicable conversation ensures that they do not observe slavers surrounding them. They are captured.
The slavers plan to put Mormont to work, and to kill Tyrion to avail themselves of the medicinal value of his dwarf penis. The little fellow buys time by convincing them that it must be attached to its owner to prove its origin. Moreover, he buys passage to their destination by further convincing them that Mormont is the greatest fighter in Westeros. A perfect candidate for Queen Danaerys's fighting pits.
"Take me to Slaver's Bay, put a sword in my hand, I'll prove my worth," Mormont says, but it is the slaver captain that gets one of the best lines of dialogue ever uttered on television.
"The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant."
Back in King's Landing, Lord Baelish returns from the north to find the city effectively under the control of the Sparrows, the religious order granted policing powers by Queen mother Cersei.
Some more on the context: her son, King Tommen, is young and easily-led, and married Margaery Tyrell. The Tyrells, and Margaery in particular, represent an unacceptable challenge to Cersei's power. But as Queen mother, whose regency has no basis in law, all she can do is machinate and manipulate the forces around her.
The strike at the House of Tyrell is aimed through Sir Loras Tyrell, whose sexual interest in men aligns perfectly with the religious opprobrium of the Sparrows and the political opportunism of Cersei Lannister.
"The city has changed since you were here last," sparrow Lancel Lannister warnes Baelish, whose brothels have been shuttered by the cult.
"We both peddle fantasties, brother," he replies. "Mine just happen to be entertaining."
He was, after all, summoned by Queen Cersei. She wins from him a suggestion of loyalty, but he offers something more useful in return: the fact that Sansa Stark is not only alive, but about to marry Ramsay, the son of Roose Bolton, king of the north.
Context reminder: Sansa was falsely implicated in the murder of Cersei's older son (and King!) Joffrey. Bolton had been given his subthrone in return for wiping out her rebellious family. Everything is now in a very feeble equilibrium, with Bolton having betrayed the Lannisters by taking in the Stark girl to legitimize himself, but himself being attacked by yet another pretender to the thrones of Westeros, Stannis Baratheon.
Cersei is angry, but accepts Baelish's counsel: "Let Stannis and Bolton fight… then move to kill the victor."
He will accomplish this with his wealth, and finally names his price: to be king of the north.
In Dorne, a quasi-captive Lannister princess Myrcella is romanced by a Martell prince. Around them trouble gathers. The two families are badly at odds over the violent death of Oberyn Martell, in circumstances that threw Lannister cruelty, and internal chaos, into sharp relief.
Her would-be rescuers, Jaime Lannister and Bronn, try to blend in as they make their move to take her home. At the same time, however, both they and she are targeted by Oberyn's eminently well-armed and highly-trained daughters, who, with his widow, have their own plan for everyone involved: revenge and death.
"Oh, for fucks sake," Bronn mutters, as these threads knot together in the opulent gardens of Casa del Martell. The fight, however, is cut short before anyone serious is seriously harmed. Anxious but cool-headed Dornish King Doran, smarter than the lot of them put together, knew what was going to happen and had his guards ready for action.
Everyone is, therefore, arrested.
Arrested too, of course, was Sir Loras, by the Sparrows, working on Cersei's behalf but not entirely under her control. It's now that the episode's excellent encounter occurs.
Insisting that pretenses and impostures be dropped, aged Olenna demands the boy's release and admonishes Cersei's crude politicking: "I didn't trust your father, but I respected him. He was no fool."
Cersei does not bend to her plainly unveiled threats, however, and goes as far as to indulge the caprice that her adversary wants disposed with. Cersei insists she lacks the power to influence the Sparrows, but assures Olenna that Loras will be released after a trivial inquest.
Confronted with this wall of self-assured yet obvious spin, Olenna glares. It's not merely a game that doesn't quite reflect reality, but a deliberated refusal to abandon that game when everyone in the room knows it's just a game. But it's not just a game, of course—it's the incompetent yet unyielding reality of the political world that Cersei is imposing on all, and all Olenna Tyrell can do is walk away and wait to see what happens.
At the inquest, Sir Loras is crossexamined by the High Sparrow over his relationship with another man. He denies everything, as expected. The High Sparrow, however, uses legal finery to force Margaery Tyrell herself—the Queen!—onto the stand. Having elicited from her a denial that she had ever seen anything untoward, he plays his hidden card, which which is also Cersei's hidden card: Loras's lover.
He implicates Loras and Margaery in perjury, simply by describing a birthmark that proves Loras was untoward in his and her presence. In Westeros, for some reason, this is enough to secure the imprisonment of both for trial, and King Tommen is too weak and stupid to put a halt to it.
Cersei exults, but Olenna's manifest horror yet has a certain cold resolve to it. It reminds us that Cersei never quite gets what she wants, even when she's winning the game.
In Winterfell, capital of the north, Sansa Stark is bathed by Miranda, the evil lover of evil Ramsay Bolton, to whom Sansa will imminently be wed.
"I shouldn't gossip", Miranda says, before litanizing Ramsay's long list of cruelly murdered lovers. Her tone is intended to be gently insinuating and intimidating: "Have you ever seen a body after the dogs get to it? Not pretty."
But Sansa is not as dumb and sweet as she appears. She cottons onto the threat, mocks Miranda's pretense of a relationship with Ramsay, and executes the bite back: "This is my home and you can't frighten me."
This encounter makes full use of its actors' ranges. It's careful in its staging, too, where candlelight and shadow suggest the physical vulnerability of a bathing scene where a hostile servant has unlimited physical control over her mistress, but no opportunity to act beyond insinuation and threat. The dialogue is sparse, but it perfectly captures the implicit power differentials at play and the unexpected willpower that Stark girls always seem have at their disposal.
Then Sansa is wed to Ramsay Bolton, who brutally rapes his virgin wife.