In the world of Game of Thrones, "The Gift" is not only the name of this episode, but a region of land just south of the massive Wall - a barrier made of magic and ice that separates the land of the seven kingdoms from whatever lies beyond.
The Wall was erected so long ago that few who know of it remember why it was constructed in the first place, but we the audience know well the terrors beyond-the-wall. Men were garrisoned along its borders, coast to coast, but instead of hunting the true enemy, The Night’s Watch grew accustomed to merely fighting Wildlings; the men unfortunate enough to still be living north of the divide, and who frequently try to find their way south.
At the conclusion of Season four we saw the height of such conflict, with an army of Wildling men and mammoths and giants attempting to break through the Wall's gates before the military forces of Stannis Baratheon saved the day like the Spanish Inquisition (The Stannis Inquisition is a joke easily and frequently made regarding that turn of events).
The massive group of peoples were forced back to the north, and in the show we’ve learned they retreated to an abandoned and reportedly-cursed Wildling settlement on the coast for refuge. The hundreds of families forced away simply want a place to live safely, which the Night’s Watch finds hard to believe.
The Lord Commander Jon Snow, however, knows what they’re running from. He sees that people group as a possible resource to aid in the fight of what’s surely to come.
Jon proposes the Wildlings be made allowed to settle in the vast lands on the south-side of the Wall, the region called "The Gift." (Bonus points if you remember the New Gift as well.) Will he be warmly welcomed at Hardhome, the settlement he sails to? Likely not! The gift of freedom is not easily given, as was on display throughout this episode.
At the wall several story lines diverged. As the Commander Jon Snow departs to save the "Free Folk" – as Snow has learned to call them - from themselves and the monsters elsewhere, he is forced to leave the keys to the castle with someone who despises him and his rule, the man who lost the vote for Lord Commander: Allister Thorne.
That was a gift he would rather not give, but with so many friends dead and the majority of The Watch in opposition of Jon’s appeal to save the lives of the Wildlings to fortify their defenses, he had little choice.
"It is my duty to tell you I find this mission to be reckless, foolhardy, and an insult to all the brothers who have died fighting the Wildlings," Thorne informs The Lord Commander. It’s that last part which remains the sticking point for so many in The Watch, not much unlike his glaring squire Ollie, whose family was cut down in front of him by a Wildling party.
After a gift of "dragon glass" obsidian blades, which Samwell Tarly used to cut down a White Walker in a desperate attempt to rescue a Wildling woman, Jon rode out the gates, leaving Sam and just one other true friend back at the gates: Maester Aemon Targaryen.
Once in line for the throne, Aemon forsook his claim to study at The Citadel in Oldtown to become a Maester and joined the Night’s Watch in the pursuit of knowledge and duty to the realm. His younger brother "Aegon" (nicknamed "Egg") took the throne and from his line came the Mad King (Egg's grandson) who earned his nickname of "Mad" in a long decent of foolish decisions and the burning of great house lords at the stake, including Ned Stark’s father. An attempt at rescue killed the heir to Winterfell in that moment as well, which also facilitated Ned's rule of Winterfell and fueled the Fire of Robert's Rebellion. Aemon essentially gifted the throne to his baby brother, and that move proved disastrous for the realm.
In this episode, blind in his old age, the laugh of a baby boy reminded the dying Aemon of his younger brother, whom he called out to in his dying breath. You might say that death was a gift to the aged man in and of itself.
Before he passed, Maester Aemon’s foreboding warning that Gilly (lovingly nicknamed "gillyflower") should take her son south, combined with her possible abuse by rogue members of the Night’s Watch the following day, has cast her safety at The Wall in doubt. A direwolf will not always be there to protect her, and at his best Samwell Tarly will not be enough. But his bravery against the men who would rape the woman he secretly has loved was inspiring. Gilly repaid his bravery with a gift of her own: his de-flowering.
So as Jon rides with the promise of freedom, Thorne receives the freedom to finally command, Sam receives the freedom of self, and Aemon receives the freedom of peace.
Sansa attempted to give Theon a different sort of freedom: redemption. Locked away in her tower and abused, she appealed to the man now known as Reek with an appeal for help. Brienne and Pod are waiting just outside the walls of Winterfell, awaiting a candle in the window of the highest tower for their signal that Sansa’s situation has necessitated rescue. Theon could connect those dots, but faced with the choice of being loyal to family or loyal to his torturer, he chose safety from what "could always be worse." He retreats to Sansa’s husband with the news.
In turn, Ramsay Bolton gives Sansa a gift of his own creation. True to his house’s sigil, that of a flayed man, is the flayed body of the woman who promised Sansa help from friends in the north, and gave the instructions of that candle scheme.
Sansa’s plotline has descended from one of abuse, to one of abuse and isolation. Redemption of her storyline would be so sweet, but Game of Thrones has promised nothing more in that regard.
The Red Woman, a.k.a the sorceress Melisandre, offered Stannis Baratheon her own sort of gift: victory in his march through the snow, and victory at the castle of Winterfell. Freedom to rule. This was promised through the sacrifice of "King’s Blood," a requirement in the magic performed by the Red Woman, but one not seen as required by other Red Priests in Westeros, such as Thoros of Myr and his strange healing abilities. Thoros merely required prayer, but the satisfaction of Melisandre’s magical prophesies has been in constant restraint of her key ingredient.
Blood Magic is something real and powerful in the world of ice and fire, as we saw it resurrect three Dragons at the conclusion of season one. But does Melisandre truly know the fire she claims to wield? It would seem that King-claimant Stannis lets that same question linger, and when Melisandre asks for his only and beloved daughter to bring the gift of victory in dire conditions, he promptly dismisses her from his sight.
Stannis faces insurmountable odds, and his determination for "Forward, only forward" to Winterfell trudges through danger and risk, nearly out of character for his military prowess. But with winter beginning to fall on the show’s world, he sees the path back to safety as merely a retreat.
A few gifts to the viewers this week:
- Queen Daenerys has given the gift of freedom, and we know how difficult that has been to give, but King Tommen unable to give freedom to just the one person he loves. And as his grandfather told him, if you have to tell anyone you are a King, it likely isn't true. But the true gift here was watching Lena Headley act the heck out of all her scenes this week.
- We the viewers were also given a gift in Bronn surviving his poisoning at the hands of a Sand Snake. Bronn was so relaxed in his cell, she even had to get his blood flowing for it to finally kick in, than after some banter offered him the antidote in exchange for flirtation and compliments.
- Littlefinger offers the gift of a handsome young man to Lady Olenna, after her deft jabs at the High Sparrow fell on deaf ears. It’s not actually his gift to give, it’s merely the knowledge that Cersei’s fate is not as secure as she believes. Finally having the High Sparrow utilize his knowledge of Cersei's debauchery was a gift too, I was tired of waiting for that hammer to drop.
- Jorah gives the gift of Tyrion Lannister, delivering a man likely knowledgeable of dragons (due to his voracious appetite for reading) to the only person in this known universe to own any dragons at all. This was another finally-gift in my book, as was the joy of watching Jorah go Daredevil on the pit fighters.
- Cersei attempts the gift of her leftovers to Margery, and goes so far as to call her sister, a nod to a season three threat made by Cersei to Margery. Now she's locked in her own cell. Never go into a sept of religious fanatics alone, kids. The gift for the viewers? Seeing how the royalty will perform out of their element and in the muck.
Thanks for reading, and apologies for the delay. My work schedules demands did not align well with giving this recap the speed it deserved, but I hope you enjoyed my take.
This was my only week on the Game of Thrones recap; praise the gods, baseball and Manu. He'll be back from his euro-trip next week and will surely grace us with twice the quality, timing, and interpretation.