Spoilers abound, so read with care.
If it’s tough to be Stark, it’s even tougher to be a Stark direwolf. In a rare Stark win, Jon Snow is indeed alive, but fiction’s most hapless family can’t have two good weeks — so Rickon is “gifted” to the hated Ramsay, Shaggydog’s head is on a desk, Bran learns that his honorable father lied about at least one key event at the Tower of Joy, and while Arya can see again, it’s unclear whether she’s still Arya Stark.
In other news, I’m hoping we’re getting all this Ramsay Bolton screen time as a prelude to his demise by season’s end (the season trailers clearly previewed a major battle between the Wildlings and the Boltons), but so far the season has spent more time with the most sadistic man in Westeros than it has with the Mother of Dragon. Unless there’s a payoff, that’s a net loss for the viewers.
But I’m less interested with the twists and turns of the episode than with the show’s emerging portrayal of faith. No one could confuse Game of Thrones with Lord of the Rings, but I have been intrigued by the insightful way it portrays both its god figures and its believers.
It is clear from the show that there is a supernatural, god-like force, and it has its own will. It does not respond like a trained seal to the incantations and rituals of its followers, but rather does what it likes and has its owned purposes — which its followers dimly grasp, if at all. The priests and priestesses of the “Lord of Light” — R’hllor — seem to be capable of incredible supernatural feats, but the greatest of them all — resurrecting the dead — has happened only when they’ve seemed drained of faith, lost in the depths of despair. It seems that neither Thoros of Myr nor Melisandre actually believed that their lord would resurrect the fallen, but they asked anyway, and their god responded.
The show is artfully showing the longstanding theological struggle between and among religious believers, where there are always those who reduce God to a formula. If the believer does “X,” then God responds with “Y.” Entire Christian industries are built around discovering exactly how to trigger God into giving the believer health and wealth. In a far more sinister way, much of jihadist ideology is built around the notion that Allah will respond to militant devotion with concrete earthly victories. This is the formula that the followers of R’hllor are attempting to follow, but R’hllor has his own plans and his own champions.
Further, in the world of the show, believers truly gain power when they surrender their own will and identity. Jaqen H’ghar is asking Arya Stark to sacrifice everything to the Many-Faced God, including her own name. The High Sparrow flummoxes Jaime Lannister with his willingness to die — despite his admitted fears — and with his frank admission of his own irrelevance. He disarms Tommen by instructing him in the primacy of the gods’ laws over even a king’s decrees. This is the Game of Thrones version of the classic religious paradox that a believer grows in power when they surrender themselves. The Greyjoy religious words echo this truth — “What is dead may never die.” Why fear death if you’ve already given your life?
In the Christian faith, the believer is specifically asked to “die” to self, to “take up their cross” in service of Christ. This willingness to completely abandon one’s own self-interest — even to the point of death — has been responsible for many of the world’s greatest acts of kindness and charity. Conversely, the Satanic counterfeit — where he demands a similar level of devotion in slavery to darkness — has been responsible for many of the world’s greatest acts of cruelty and savagery.
Finally, it is interesting to see the ruling class interact with faith. They recite the words, and some of them seem to have at least some degree of belief, but they’re simultaneously fascinated and fearful of the true believers. They are people outside of their immediate control — who are not in awe of their wealth and power — and this creates an unsustainable tension. In King’s Landing, a showdown seems imminent. In the rest of the world, the followers of the Lord of Light seem to have their eyes more firmly fixed on finding a champion, not on overthrowing empire. To oversimplify, the red priestess wants her crusader king. The High Sparrow cares not for kings. It’s thus the High Sparrow who most decisively conflicts with the culture and ethos of Westeros, and his head will likely be the first to roll.