Greetings and valar morghulis, once again dear friends. Welcome as I and the inestimable Nikki Stafford recap, dissect, and expound upon the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
This week saw the return of everyone’s favourite Scottish breed, the Jon-and-Sansa Tour of the North, an argument for why all of the Seven Kingdoms should be run by ten-year-old girls, and we finally get an answer to that timeless question: what does it take to kill Al Swearengen?
Westeros. You just bring him to Westeros.
It’s Nikki’s turn to lead us off, so …
Nikki: The episode begins with what we thought was a technical problem: where’s the epic opening credit sequence? We had already zipped past the “Previously On” bit, and suddenly we’re in the episode. We backed it up again, nope, we didn’t appear to have missed it, and just as my husband is asking if they’ve ever had an episode without the credit sequence and we’re watching some Tower of Babel–type building going on, who should come striding towards us but Ian McShane!!
And I swear, in that moment, I heard the loudest squeeeeee, followed by a thunk, from my writing partner Christopher Lockett as he fainted with joy several provinces to the east of me.
Last week we joked about what it would be like if Swearengen played Randyll Tarly, and suddenly, as if we conjured him by wishing very hard, here he is. And the writers didn’t disappoint: in the first full minute of his speech, he says the words “shit” and “fuck,” though I was a little disappointed they didn’t throw in a single gratuitous “cocksucker” for all of us Deadwood fans. But I guess we can’t have everything.
And also last week, when discussing Benjen, I mentioned that if GRRM doesn’t actually show someone die, they probably aren’t dead. And once again, that statement came through this week with the reveal of The Hound. The thing is, we thought we did see him die. Arya sat there and watched him die, as you pointed out in our discussion of the episode at the time, Chris. And only after she watches him die slowly — refusing to give him the mercy of pushing a sword into him herself — she gets up and leaves. She removed him from her list, and moved on.
And when Brother Ray (McShane) finds him, he thinks he’ll just be there to bury him… and then Sandor coughed. “What kept you goin’?” Brother Ray asks him. “Hate,” Sandor replies. But that hate has turned into shame, and it seems Sandor has been doing his own Walk of Atonement these last few months/years (it’s very hard judging how much time has passed on this show, to be honest…) He doesn’t lie about what happened to him — he could have embellished and said it took an entire army of men to bring him down, but instead he fesses up that it was one… woman. Brother Ray laughs and laughs, and Sandor goes back to chopping wood. Sandor has done terrible things in his time, and he knows it. They talk about religion (Brother Ray appears to be heading up some sort of group of penitents, including himself), and Brother Ray doesn’t subscribe to any one belief — as he says, maybe the Seven are real, maybe they’re not, maybe the Lord of Light is real, who knows. All he knows is whatever god(s) is out there, it has big plans for Sandor Clegane. “If the gods are real,” Sandor asks, “Why haven’t they punished me?” Brother Ray glances over at him. “They have,” he replies, and leaves him alone to continue eating his food.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the “god” who has big plans for Sandor Clegane might have the initials GRRM, and if so, I can’t wait to see what they do with him next. He is clearly the Broken Man of the title of this episode, but he’s going to take that brokenness and turn it into something useful.
While the Hound is going through his own walk of atonement, Margaery continues to brilliantly pull the wool over the High Sparrow’s eyes. I’m actually loving her character in these scenes, because I haven’t fallen for her crap once, and always assumed she’s playing him like a fiddle (I’m just sad to see Tommen caught in the middle of all of it). What did you think of our fair maiden this week, Chris?
Christopher: I will confess, she actually had me going a bit … last week I observed that her little maneuver with Tommen and the High Sparrow actually left her and House Tyrell in an advantageous position, with the Lannister’s sidelined, Cersei awaiting trial, Jaime sent off to Riverrun, and Tommen effectively functioning as Margaery’s puppet. It seemed unlikely that her conversion was genuine, and yet this week there were one or two moments when I found myself thinking “Wait … she doesn’t really believe any of this, right?” Of course, as soon as she passed her little note with the Tyrell flower on it to Olenna, we knew she’s still the same Margaery, just somewhat more subtle.
Before I go on with the intrigues at King’s Landing, however, I want to acknowledge my squee upon seeing Ian McShane grace the screen. He’s such an amazing actor, and while his turn as Al Swearengen remains my favourite role of his, I have yet to see him be anything less than mesmerizing on the screen.
I should also point out that, while Game of Thrones has certainly been parsimonious with its cold opens, there have been a few down through the seasons, most obviously with the very first episode when we get our first glimpse of the White Walkers. There were also cold opens for episode 3.01, “Valar Doheris,” which features Sam fleeing through a blizzard and attacked by a wight; and 4.01, “Two Swords,” in which Tywin watches as the Stark sword Ice is melted down to make new swords for Jaime and Joffrey. I seem to think there might have been one or two others, but cannot call them to mind.
This episode’s opening was done for dramatic effect, but also to take viewers by surprise, so they saw the resurrected Hound before they saw Rory McCann’s name in the credits.
But back to Margaery … we come upon her in the High Sparrow’s favoured chapel, apparently deep in study, reading the Book of the Mother—reading a verse whose premise is that it is the woman’s role to smooth out man’s rough and jagged edges. “As water rounds the stones,” the Sparrow begins to recite, but Margaery takes over, “smoothing what was jagged, so does a woman’s love calm a man’s brute nature.” It is a lovely bit of contrast: the Sparrow, didactic and sententious, is pleased when she proves to have memorized the verse herself, while remaining oblivious to the nuances of her words. Here and there in this episode I wondered if the Sparrow has truly been taken in by Margaery’s pretense, or whether he’s playing along for tactical reasons; but in this moment he seems entirely taken with her, and perhaps even a little too pleased with himself for making such a significant convert.
The subtleties of power at play in the room are completely at odds with the simplistic sentiment of the scripture, which is such unreconstructed religious misogyny that it plays to contemporary audiences quite simply as cliché. The metaphor of the water and the rocks rehearses all-too-typical conceptions of gender roles: men are hard, women soft; women’s role is to smooth down men’s jagged edges; men are brutes by nature, and women are obliged to accept that fact and do what they can to soothe their savage tendencies as best they can. Hearing Margaery of all people mouth these platitudes introduces a profound dissonance into ideas that are already (I would devoutly hope) entirely discordant with today’s audiences.
But the scene does not stop there: the Sparrow’s business is to address Margaery’s absence from the marriage bed since her reunion with Tommen. It is her duty, the Sparrow tells her. But Margaery counters by saying that the desires that once drove her are now absence. To which the Sparrow asserts: “Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part … only patience.”
In my mind I imagined a chorus of disgust hurled at millions of television and computer screens around the world in response to the Sparrow’s words. Certainly, there were a handful of scornful harrumphs in my living room at this moment. It was, I thought, a clever gesture by the writers to taint the High Sparrow’s broader message of equality and humility and to undo whatever sympathy he might have garnered by this point. Mind you, if we pull back for a wider-angle view, it’s not as though women have much in the way of rights and agency in Westeros at large; the women of GoT who do are among the privileged elite who either have the ability to play the game (Margaery, Olenna, Cersei), the strength and skill to disrupt social mores (Brienne), the will to persevere with the help of provisional support systems (Arya, Sansa), or in the case of Daenerys, possess a talismanic family name, preternatural charisma … and, well, dragons. The dragons are important.
With this in mind, the argument could be made that the Sparrow’s world-view, while scripturally reinscribing women’s subordinate place in society, nevertheless would eliminate the larger economic inequalities in Westeros. To which I would say: interesting thought, but you don’t think the Sparrow ultimately gets to win, do you? After the show just made us viscerally hate him? This is one of those moments when the possible broader socio-economic implications of the scene are at least somewhat besides the point: more significant here in the way the scene plays thematically is watching Margaery play the penitent and rehearse scriptural words so completely at odds with the character we’ve come to know (and in Nikki’s case, instinctively dislike).
Margaery’s audience with the Sparrow ends with an implied threat against her grandmother: he speaks admiringly of Lady Olenna’s strength and character, while calling her “an unrepentant sinner.” It is Margaery’s obligation, he says, to teach her the new way, “Or I fear for her safety … body and soul.” In this warning, he makes clear the newfound confidence and audacity of the Faith Militant, with the King and Queen under his sway: confident enough, he implies, to wrest august lords and ladies out of their homes and subject them to the same punishment Cersei, Margaery, and Loras have endured.
Segue to the irascible Queen of Thorns herself, grating against the fact that Margaery is accompanied by an unsmiling, implacable septa, whose expression does not change even when Olenna threatens her with a beating. It is quickly obvious there can be no private conversation, and throughout Margaery maintains her calm and pious demeanour in the face of her grandmother’s ire—even when Loras is mentioned. And Loras’ only recourse makes clear just how much power the Sparrow has arrogated to the faith: he can confess his sins and repent, but as part of his repentance he must surrender his family name and live out his days as a penitent.
This, to Olenna, is madness of course. It is only when Margaery begs her to return to Highgarden, a note of pleading entering her voice, that she seems to listen. Unfolding the paper Margaery slipped into her hand, she sees the charade she has been playing, and hears the true warning in her words.
From the penciled image of a flower to the frozen north, where Tormund pleads Jon’s case to the wildlings. What did you think of the Giantsbane’s speech, Nikki?
Nikki: I’ve never wished more for Brienne to be present in a scene than I did that one. Maybe she wouldn’t be so disgusted by the guy after all. The various stories in this episode are broken up by Jon Snow, Sansa, and Ser Davos gathering as many pledges of fealty as they can so they can lay a siege upon Winterfell and take back the North. And they begin with the Free Folk, arguably the strongest army they know, and the one with which they have the greatest chance of aligning themselves. At Castle Black, it seemed that the Free Folk were a no-brainer, but now that the battle lines are being drawn and armies are being formed, they’re not so sure. Dim argues with Jon that they were willing to help the Night’s Watch when they were fighting White Walkers and wights, but that’s because it was on their turf, and it was their battle. This, he argues, isn’t their battle.
Tormund steps up and argues that Jon Snow was the one who saved them all, and without him they’d be dead or captured by the king. Dim spreads his arms to show the extent of the wildling army, and says they were once legion, and there’s barely anyone left, so why should they go with Jon? He says if they fight, they’ll be the last of the Free Folk. Jon argues that if they don’t join forces with him, they will definitely be the last of the Free Folk. He agrees: it’s not their fight, they shouldn’t have to join him, but he needs them. “I need you with me, if we’re going to beat them, and we need to beat them if we’re going to survive.” Tormund tells them Jon Snow died for the wildlings because he was sticking up for them. And if they’re not willing to die for him, then they deserve to be the last of the Free Folk.
It’s a fantastic scene, with some of the best courtroom back-and-forth of the episode, and what makes it so great is that everyone is right. Dim is correct — they’ve been decimated because of joining forces with the south, and generations of Free Folk have been wiped out completely. But Jon is correct in saying that it’s in their best interests to help them. And Tormund is correct in his argument that Jon Snow has sacrificed everything for them, so their sacrifices were merely a return favour. This last argument seems to be the most convincing one, and suddenly the giant stands up. Wun Wun looks around, then stares right at the former Lord Commander, and simply says, “SNOW.” And with that vote cast, everyone else falls in line. Jon has secured his wildling army.
Back at King’s Landing, Olenna is sitting and writing letters, presumably letting her family know she’s coming home. Cersei enters the room with the Mountain, and demands to know why Olenna would leave, when her son is rotting in a jail. “Loras rots in a cell because of you. The High Sparrow rules this city because of you. Our two ancient houses face collapse because of you and your stupidity.” And Cersei… agrees with her. She says she made a mistake, she led an army of fanatics to their doorstep, but now they must fight them together. Olenna looks up. “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” she says. “At a certain age it’s hard to recall. But the truly VILE do stand out through the years. Do you remember the way you smirked at me when my grandson and granddaughter were dragged off to their cells? I do. I’ll never forget it.” Cersei tries another tactic. She agrees that Olenna loves her grandchildren, just like Cersei loves her own children. “It’s the only truth I know,” she says. She says they must defend them. But Olenna will not be coaxed. She’s leaving King’s Landing before that “shoeless zealot” throws her into a cell, and warns Cersei that if she’s half as smart as she thinks she is, she’ll do the same. Cersei says she’ll never leave. But Olenna says her brother is gone, her family has abandoned her, her people hate her, her enemies are all around her. “You’ve lost, Cersei. It’s the only joy I can find in all this misery.”
I adore whoever writes Olenna’s dialogue. Cersei has an answer for everything. But now Olenna has a new purpose: she knows her granddaughter is planning something, and she knows there will be an end to this torment. She’s received Margaery’s warning, and is leaving, knowing that Cersei will NOT win. Cersei brought the High Sparrow to King’s Landing for the sole purpose of landing Margaery and Loras in jail, and ridding herself of both of them. Now she’s stuck having to fight with the Tyrells to get them out because she must save her son and get the High Sparrow out of the city. But Highgarden is no longer going to be played that way. Two episodes ago, Cersei entered the High Council with her brother and the Mountain, and convinced the Tyrells to join forces with her. That backfired spectacularly when Margaery had other plans, and pulled Tommen over to the side of the High Sparrow whilst planning her own escape from him. And now Cersei is stuck: her son is aligned with the High Sparrow, the Tyrell army is leaving her behind, Margaery is going to leave all of them high and dry while she finds a way out, and Jaime has headed off to Riverrun. She truly is alone, and it’s unclear how she’s going to get out of this one.
Meanwhile, in Riverrun, it’s the Blackfish versus, well, everybody. What did you think of the scenes of Frey’s army coming up against the Lannisters, Christopher?
Christopher: Can I say how much I loved this scene? Not least because, out of a season where we’ve gone off map, this one scene unfolded almost precisely the way it did in A Feast for Crows, and the series captures it perfectly. The ineptitude of the Freys, Jaime’s towering contempt for them, the towering contempt of the Blackfish for Jaime … yup, it was all good.
One exception to the overall fidelity of this scene to the text is the presence of Bronn—who by this point has more or less faded into the background of the novels. I’m glad the writers have made the obvious choice to keep him around, considering that Jerome Flynn’s portrayal of the cheerfully cynical sellsword has been one of the best performances of the series (and that is saying a LOT). One of the delightful things about the way he’s been written and played is that, unlike his novelistic other, he has developed and evolved. Jaime, like Tyrion, sees his worth—but Jaime, unlike Tyrion, can give him a more significant role to play in the larger affairs of war and peace. “Now that is a sorry attempt at a siege,” Bronn says as he surveys the deportment of Frey forces. “Someone needs to teach those fat twats how to dig trenches.” To which Jaime replies, with a suggestive sidelong look, “Someone certainly does.”
Bronn’s irritation is hilarious: reminding Jaime of everything he’s been promised, he interrupts him when Jaime begins to repeat the Lannister mantra, re: debts and payment. “Don’t say it,” Bronn says, disgusted. “Don’t even fucking say it.” This would easily be the funniest line of the episode, were it not the episode in which we meet the ten-year-old Lady Mormont of Bear Island. But more on her later.
The little tableau in which the Freys threaten to hang Edmure while the Blackfish looks on plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel, and it serves to cement our sense of the Freys as shrewd and opportunistic, but inconstant and militarily hapless. Oh, and whiny. Did I say whiny? As they shout their threats at the walls of Riverrun, we get our first glimpse of the Blackfish, played with understated strength and gravity by Clive Russell, since season three. He is unmoved by the Freys’ threats to Edmure. “Go on, then,” he says contemptuously. “Cut his throat.”
(I’m using the word “contempt” a lot in describing this scene, aren’t I? Well, I think if we had to identify the dominant emotion expressed between the characters involved, “respect” or “affection” wouldn’t exactly make the list).
Does the Blackfish have the measure of the Freys, or does he just not have much regard for his nephew? Considering the dressing-down he gave Edmure back in season three, and the irritation with which he snatched the longbow out of his hands after Edmure three times missed his shot to ignite Hoster Tully’s funeral boat, I have to imagine he doesn’t think his nephew’s life is a fair exchange for a castle. But as the scene progresses, we come to understand that the Freys in charge of this travesty of a siege don’t exactly grasp the basics of making effective threats. In what would otherwise be my favourite moment of the episode (again, but for Lady Mormont), Jaime calmly says, “Only a fool makes threats he’s not prepared to carry out. Let’s say I threatened to hit you unless you shut your mouth … but you kept talking. What do you think I’d do?”
BAM. Again, precisely as it occurred in the novel, and it was just as satisfying to see it play out on the show as it was to read it.
There aren’t many occasions when Lannister arrogance evokes sympathy, or for that matter fist-pumping exultation, but in the hierarchy of audience hate in the Game of Thrones world, the Freys may rank below Ramsay and Joffrey, but above Lannister entitlement. Watching Jaime and Bronn high-handedly take command of the siege and put the Freys in their place is deeply satisfying—not least because we see the Freys learning something they should have known already, namely, if you ally yourself with House Lannister, don’t ever expect to remain in command.
But even as we’re happy to see Jaime humiliate Catelyn Stark’s murderer, his Lannister arrogance founders on the rock of the Blackfish’s contempt.
Before we get to that charged confrontation, however, we cut to the next stop on the Jon and Sansa tour, and the introduction of the best new character since … well, I’m not sure whom. But before I get to young Lady Mormont, I do want to observe that the pacing and the plotting of this episode is a refreshing change from how this season has been trending. In many past episodes, while we often have a unifying theme, narratively it has felt like the writers have been checking boxes: we get our ten minutes of Sansa, ten minutes of Daenerys, ten minutes of Arya, and so on … with whatever the most important storyline is that week getting two, perhaps three, installments. This week was much tighter, with shorter scenes and more of them. It served the rhythms of the episode well: Jon and Sansa’s attempts to flesh out their army thread their way through like a connective tissue, almost acting as a counterpoint to the four scenes featuring the Hound. The only standalones are Theon and Arya, but the pace of the episode is such that they don’t feel like the writers ticking boxes.
At any rate … Lady Lyanna Mormont! I don’t know where the casting directors of this show go to find their child actors, but they are batting one thousand. I haven’t seen this many talented preteen and tween actors since season four of The Wire. Though but a ten year old girl, she is formidable, and precociously smart. She does not seem inclined to risk her few fighting men, until of course Davos addresses her.
I love Liam Cunningham’s portrayal of Davos for many, many reasons, but one of the biggest has to be his ability to communicate both Davos’ humility and his sharp intelligence. He knows well enough how to treat Lady Mormont—he knows not to talk down to her. He loved Shireen Baratheon like his own child, but he also respected her intelligence, submitting to her tutelage in reading and writing, something a prouder or less self-effacing man would never do. He brings these qualities to the table on Bear Island as he addresses Lyanna:
I’m here because this isn’t someone else’s war. It’s our war … Your uncle, Lord Commander Mormont, made that man his steward. He chose Jon to be his successor because he knew he had the courage to do what was right. Even if it meant giving his life. Because Jeor Mormont and Jon Snow both understood that the real war isn’t between a few squabbling houses—it’s between the living and the dead. And make no mistake, my Lady: the dead are coming.
This isn’t the first time his common sense and simple, no-nonsense demeanour has proved persuasive when others’ aristocratic miens failed to impress. We recall especially his intervention at the Iron Bank of Braavos when Stannis’ prickly pride and sense of royal entitlement fell flat with the pragmatic bankers. I think if I were to assemble a dream team of Game of Thrones characters for the fantasy equivalent of fantasy football (fantasy fantasy?), I’d always be sure to have Davos in my corner.
And from here we switch back to Jaime’s confrontation with the Blackfish … but considering how long I’ve gone on here, I’ll throw that back over to you, Nikki. What did you think of their meeting?
Nikki: First, I wanted to concur that the Lady Lyanna Mormont scene was my favourite one of the season thus far. The actress playing her — Bella Ramsey — is stunning, and I rushed off to google her after the episode to find out who the heck this glorious actress was. And she has only a couple of (impressive) credits to her name, and wasn’t, as I had wrongly suspected, a girl who had played Matilda in the London West End musical. But she is STUNNING. And like you say, Ser Davos is the only one who knows how to talk to her. He doesn’t talk down to her the way Lady Sansa compliments her beauty, and instead treats her as if she were the head of any other house. And it’s only when he does that she pledges her allegiance to them. I love when they go to all the effort to procure her army and then she declares that the army consists of a total of 62 men, each of which, she adds, fights with the strength of 10 men of any other army. To which Ser Davos replies, “If they are half as ferocious as their lady, the Boltons are doomed.” Best line in the episode.
But now, as you say, back over to Jaime and his discussion with the Blackfish. As you pointed out, Chris, the Blackfish has basically given up on Edmure (why wouldn’t you?) and says his nephew’s been marked for death already, so just slit his throat already and be done with it. Jaime tries to bully him into submission, pointing out their forces compared to Brandon’s, and the Blackfish merely smiles and says they have enough provisions to last everyone in the castle two years without ever having to come out, so if the Frey/Lannister armies are simply going to wait to starve them out, they have a long wait ahead of him. Jaime falters, because of all of the responses he’d envisioned, he wasn’t expecting that one. And then the Blackfish delivers the crushing blow, when he leans in and says he really wanted to see Jaime Lannister — the Kingslayer — in person so he could get the measure of him. The result? “I’m disappointed.”
You know when your parents used to rail and scream and send you to your room or spank you or whatever they did because they were angry? The WORST — absolute WORST — punishment was when they did nothing, and simply said, “I’m disappointed in you.” I don’t think there was a more brutal thing he could have said to Jaime. And with that, he turns on his heel and walks back into the castle.
And we return once again to the Continuing Adventures of Jon Snow and Company, as this time they go to House Glover. What I liked the most about this storyline (aside from Lady Mormont) was that you really got to see the effects of this ongoing war on the other houses. Since season one, we’ve seen the effects on the key houses — the Starks, Lannisters, Boltons — but what about all of the smaller houses. Lyanna Mormont mentions that she lost her mother in battle (a mother who clearly taught her daughter everything she needed to know about being fierce). The Free Folk argue that under Mance Rayder their numbers were legion, and now they’re but a fraction of who they once were. This isn’t their war, Dim argues… until Jon Snow says actually, it is. When they visit Lady Mormont, she echoes Dim’s words: “Why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life for a war that isn’t mine?” she asks. And Davos, as you quoted above, Chris, explains, much like Jon Snow did with the wildlings, that it actually IS their war. It’s everyone’s war. And as with Dim, Lady Mormont agrees and hands over her army.
And now Jon, Sansa, and Davos face the head of House Glover. Like the others, he refuses. As they’ve done before, Jon and Davos argue that this is everyone’s war, and that they should help. And then Sansa steps in and reminds him that his house is pledged to House Stark, and he needs to keep that oath. Robett Glover turns and strides right back over to Sansa, and asks where was King Robb Stark when the Iron Born took his family, imprisoning his wife and children and leaving him all alone? Oh right, he was marrying a foreign “whore,” he spits at her. “I served House Stark once, but House Stark is dead.” And with that, they’ve lost Glover’s army. He’s right: perhaps House Stark no longer shares his values, but considering the alternative — Ramsay Bolton as King of the North — maybe it’s best to just unify the houses to make sure HE doesn’t get in.
Cripes, Game of Thrones is feeling more and more like the U.S. election every day.
And now we head over to Theon and Yara, where she’s taken him to a brothel because, like many a soldier before her, she wants to get it on with a beautiful woman before heading into battle, and she tells him that she’s not worried about what’s going to happen to them. But Theon is. And that’s when Yara finally has The Talk with her brother. I mentioned earlier that The Hound was the broken man of the title of this episode, but Theon Greyjoy was broken long before The Hound was, and it’s not clear if he will ever be able to put himself back together. The only chance he has is Yara believing in him. She tells him to drink his ale, and he does, and she says he must enjoy himself. She says that she needs the real Theon Greyjoy back, because she wants to sail to Meereen, make a pact with the Dragon Queen, and take back the Iron Islands. And the only way she can do that is with her brother by her side, and not a shell of her brother, but her brother and who he used to be. He looks her in the eye and promises that he will be that person. And then she orders him to drink again.
I really liked this scene because we’ve never really seen much tenderness between Yara and Theon. But what was truly unsettling about the scene is, Yara ends the scene confident that she’s going to get Theon back, and she strides into the brothel with all the confidence in the world. But the Theon she used to know is gone. Watch how, throughout this scene, every time she orders him to “DRINK” he immediately picks up the cup of ale and does so, just like Reek would have followed every order Ramsay gave him. He’s a shivering mess of a man, not the confident jerk he used to be. The old Theon would have pushed Yara out of the way to get to the brothel and would have already drunk most of a keg of ale before even getting there. And then he would have been too shit-faced the next day to actually engage in battle. That was the old Theon. And to be honest, despite what she says, she does NOT want the old Theon at her side.
For now we have the new Theon. The guy who has been humbled, who knows the dangers of being overly confident, who has had his own arrogance stripped away to the point where he no longer thinks of himself at all. He worries about everyone around him. He takes orders from her, and she’s an excellent leader. His focus is on their future, the battles ahead of them, and their uncle who is coming to get both of them. He is not distracted by the beautiful women around him, or by the ale in his cup. He is entirely focused on the obstacles all around them. His recovery will be a slow and long one, and he’ll never truly be healed emotionally, but Theon was a despicable character in the early part of the series, and now he’s one of the most sympathetic characters on the series. That’s not because Ramsay did something wonderful; it’s because Theon’s true character has been able to come to the fore in the face of the atrocities that Ramsay foisted upon him. And I’m really intrigued about what’s in store for him.
And now it’s back over to Jon in the North once again, before we head back to the Hound and a scene involving something Dead hanging from the Wood. (Didja see what I did there?!) Jon, Sansa, and Davos have time to go over what they’ve achieved and what they’ve lost in their campaign. What did you think of their conversation and what Sansa does next, Chris? Any thoughts on who she’s writing to?
Christopher: Two things before I answer that: while I was watching the scene with Robett Glover, I kept thinking, “Who is that actor?” He looked so familiar … and then it came to me. Tim McInnerny! A venerable British actor with a ton of dramatic roles under his belt, but whom I most fondly remember in the recurring role of Lord Darling in Blackadder. Robett Glover has somewhat more gravitas than Darling ever did, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.
Second thing: what the hell kind of ships did Yara and Theon steal? They’re in Volantis already? That must have been one hell of a following wind. The show has often fudged the geography of GRRM’s world, which would be more forgivable if the opening credits weren’t a FREAKING MAP. To give the casual viewer a sense of the distance traveled:
If their ships were US Navy frigates, that still would have been an amazingly fast journey.
Ahem. But to get back to your question, Nikki …
Having made camp in the same location as Stannis once did seems to have spooked Jon. Davos is sanguine about it, pointing out its defensibility and practicality; but Jon can only think of Stannis’ failures, and worry about the threat of a winter storm. “Aye,” Davos admits. “The snows defeated Stannis as much as the Boltons did.” (Well, that, and the fact that half his men deserted him for burning his daughter at the stake). Sansa is naturally concerned about their numbers; Jon is naturally concerned about time, and has obviously come to the conclusion that continuing to woo the smaller northern houses would take too long for too little return.
We see the anxiety in Sansa’s face as Davos and Jon storm off to intercede in a fight—anxiety, and the fact that she traded away an army in her rage at Littlefinger. Not that she wasn’t totally justified in hating the man who sold her to the Boltons, but she was still uneasy in her dishonesty to Jon in not telling him, as emerged in her answers to Brienne’s questions a few episodes back. The most obvious answer to the question of whom she has addressed her letter to is Littlefinger—swallowing her pride and anger in the name of taking back her ancestral home. I honestly can’t imagine who else it could be, and I’m dying of curiosity to see how this plays out.
We move from Sansa’s letter-writing back to where Brother Ray preaches to his flock, confessing his war crimes from his days as a soldier. There was a lot of speculation within A Song of Ice and Fire fandom that we would hear the now-famous “broken man” speech that appears in A Feast for Crows. In the early stages of Brienne’s search for Sansa, she falls in with an assortment of other travelers, one of whom is a mendicant septon named Meribald. It is the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings; the countryside has been ravaged, and outlaws and broken men prey on unwary travelers. When Podrik asks the difference between broken men and outlaws, Septon Meribald says that while outlaws “are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despairing of the gods, and caring only for themselves.” Broken men, by contrast, “are more deserving of out pity, though they may be just as dangerous.” The speech is lengthy, so I won’t quote it all, but the gist is this: broken men are almost always commoners, called to arms by their liege lord, for whom the thought of war at first is attractive, “a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.”
But when they taste battle, it changes for them as they experience its blood and horror. Some men break right away, others are worn down by countless battles, new wounds taken before the old ones heal. And one day, a man breaks.
He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward after the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds some place to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.
The title of this episode made many assume and/or hope that we would be treated to this speech. But while the writers acknowledge it, and Brother Ray’s speech gestures toward it, they have tailored his words to be, not about the trauma of violence inflicted, but the violence one inflicts—in other words, sentiments more specific to the Hound. “It’s never too late to come back,” Brother Ray says, looking directly at him. Brother Ray confesses his own atrocities; and if we only get Ian McShane for one episode, I’m glad they gave him a character worthy of his talents. As we’ve observed, he would have made a particularly terrifying Randyll Tarly, but there is something particularly poignant and nuanced in his portrayal of a man hollowed out by war and blood. His words are powerful, but it is his haunted eyes that speak volumes.
It is a particularly clever bit of casting, too, because those of us who loved Deadwood see the tortured soul of Al Swearengen lurking beneath this surface, and Brother Ray’s confession of a brutal past is that much more present.
The Hound hasn’t quite got religion yet, however. When Ray tells him, “Violence is a disease. You don’t kill a disease by spreading it to more people,” he replies with a fairly unavoidable truth. “You don’t cure it by dying, either,” he says. We assume that the Hound is the broken man of the title, but in another sense he is one of many: Brother Ray, the brigands from the Brotherhood Without Banners, and perhaps to a lesser extent … Arya.
Arya is not broken, though one could argue that the process of dissolving her sense of self into “no one” was precisely about breaking her. How do you come to kill indiscriminately? By losing yourself, by detaching from your humanity. “We weren’t animals,” says Brother Ray. “Animals are true to their nature, and we had betrayed ours.” Arya might have learned to kill, out of anger and vengeance and the need to survive—but she balks at killing someone whose only crime is being a better actor. And in the waif, we see someone who, though she has apparently passed all of the Faceless Men’s tests, is not so “faceless” that she has transcended petty hatred and jealousy. Her dislike of Arya has been palpable, and the delight she takes in shanking her on the bridge too obvious for anyone to believe she’s genuinely dispassionate (especially considering she has ignored Jaqen’s directive that Arya should not suffer). In this moment she is not an assassin but a straight-up killer who gives the lie to the Faceless Men’s ethos.
Arya escapes, albeit with a grievous wound, and the last we see of her, she disappears into the crowds of Braavos. Does she find her way to the theatre troupe? Does she make her ship’s dawn departure? Is there a doctor in the house? Stay tuned.
We end with the (mercifully) offscreen massacre of Brother Ray and his followers while the Hound is far enough away that he can only return for the aftermath. The perpetrators, we assume, were the Brotherhood Without Banners, which raises at least one pertinent question: what the hell has happened to these guys? The last we saw of them, they were genuinely the protectors of the common folk, and had a reasonable sense of justice. What has happened in the interim? Have they become such fanatical devotees of the Lord of Light that they will cheerfully kill nonbelievers? Or have they, in the process of fighting endless battles and skirmishes, themselves become broken men?
Perhaps we will learn as much in the next few episodes, but for now it is enough to note that they would seem to have interrupted the Hound’s process of atonement. The last shot of the episode is him striding purposefully off, only pausing to grab an axe—a symbolic moment in which a tool of peace becomes a weapon of war.
Phew. That one went on a bit long, but in our defense, there was an awful lot going on in this episode. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you again next week!