Category Archives: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones 6.10: The Winds of Winter

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Greetings all! Welcome to the final recap/review/exegesis on Game of Thrones season six, as executed by myself and my wonderful friend Nikki Stafford. It’s hard to believe, but the season is now over … how quickly it flew. The finale did not disappoint, however, and it gives us a whole lot to look forward to in season seven.

It was a long episode—the longest yet aired—so we have a lot to get through. So, without further ado …

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Christopher: Game of Thrones has gotten us used to having a pretty spectacular penultimate episode, followed by a finale that is more about housekeeping than anything else, with perhaps one or two “Holy shit!” moments to prime us for the next season (see: Jon Snow, murder of). But I think it’s safe to say that this finale was wall-to-wall holy shit moments. To wit: Cersei blows up EVERYBODY real good; Tommen offs himself; Varys shows up in Dorne; Jon Snow’s lineage is CONFIRMED, and he’s named King in the North (much to Littlefinger’s, and possibly Sansa’s, dismay); Arya, having presumably left Braavos with a bunch of spare faces in her carry-on, feeds Walder Frey’s sons to him and cuts his throat; Daenerys finally sets sail for Westeros; and Cersei, dressed like every evil sorceress from every 80s fantasy film, is crowned the MOTHERFUCKING QUEEN OF WESTEROS.

All I can say is: enjoy it while you can, Cersei. Dragons a-comin’.

We begin with a rather lovely view of King’s Landing, as Cersei looks down from her rooms over the city, peering specifically at the Sept of Baelor. Then follows an interesting musical montage of several key individuals dressing (or in the case of everyone but the Sparrow, being dressed). Knowing as we do that Cersei and Loras’ trials are nigh, this sequence feels not unlike the sequence in a sports film when the athletes don their gear. It is, in essence, a pre-battle scene, except that two of the four people pictured do not show up: only the Sparrow (clad in what I assume is his formal burlap) and Margaery go to the sept. Tommen remains broodingly in his chambers, and Cersei is well into her morning wine.

I loved the use of music in this sequence. It was just this side of verging on overdone, but the rather anachronistic piano score lent the scenes a melancholic, almost dirge-like quality—especially when, as Lancel is stabbed, it changes from piano to pipe organ. And it’s worth noting that there was a lot more cutting between scenes than this show tends to employ: usually we have little parlor dramas that go on for five to ten minutes before cutting away to a different story. In this case however, we get the scene in the sept, Cersei in her chambers, Tommen in his, Pycelle’s murder, and Lancel’s discovery of the wildfire. All of which is brought together as we watch Cersei watch the Sept of Baelor go up in flames.

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I should note that there is an interestingly tangential intersection with A Dance With Dragons in terms of Qyburn’s use of murderous children to do away with both Lancel and Pycelle. Two episodes ago, Varys departed from Meereen for unspoken reasons, referring cryptically to a “mission” he was undertaking. I, and presumably everyone else who has read the novels, speculated that perhaps he was heading to King’s Landing to stir the pot. Dance’s epilogue has Ser Kevan Lannister (who is a far more sympathetic character in the novels) cautiously optimistic: having done her walk of shame, Cersei seems properly contrite and sedate, and unlikely to rock the boat; and after a long period of unrest, things seem to be settling down in King’s Landing, and in the Seven Kingdoms more generally. He receives a message from Grand Maester Pycelle asking to see him, but when he arrives at his chambers he finds him dead. He is himself shot with a crossbow … shot by Varys, in the eunuch’s first appearance since he abetted Tyrion’s escape in A Storm of Swords, two novels ago.

Why has he killed Kevan? Because he was “threatening to undo all the queen’s good work,” by which he means Cersei’s catastrophic misrule that has continued the chaos of the war. In bringing stability, Kevan threatens to undermine Varys’ ultimate goal—the re-installation of Targaryen rule in Westeros. And while Varys has shot him with a crossbow, it is not the eunuch that deals the killing blow:

Ser Kevan was cold as ice, and every labored breath sent a fresh stab of pain through him. He glimpsed movement, heard the soft scuffling sound of slippered feet on stone. A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind the Grand Maester’s chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together. And in their hands, the daggers.

But as it turns out, Varys has gone to Dorne, to stir the pot in an entirely other fashion. More on that later.

Meanwhile, the children with daggers are in the employ of Qyburn, and visit death first upon Pycelle in a manner that very closely mirrors Ser Kevan’s death in Dance. Qybrurn’s apology, indeed, is almost identical to Varys’ in the novel. And one of the children lures Lancel away into the vaults in what is, unfortunately, a rather contrived sequence. Why does he follow the child? What does he care if some urchin runs down the cathedral steps? His task, after all, is to go and bring Cersei, kicking and screaming if necessary, to her own trial. I have to imagine this is a task he relishes. But no, he follows the kid down into the basement of the sept, only to discover that part of Bran’s wildfire vision was not of the past, but the future.

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Margaery, meanwhile, gets the screaming heebie-jeebies when Cersei doesn’t show, and when she attempts to share her fears with the Sparrow, is condescendingly mansplained to. It is unthinkable to him to end or postpone the trial—this, after all, is his moment of triumph. He has cowed and humbled two great houses, robbing one of its heir; he makes it clear that he’s entirely prepared to level judgment on Cersei whether she shows up or not.

And then … BOOM.

What did you think of this episode’s opening, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’ve often referred to episodes of television that cause one to feel all kinds of emotions (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use the term “all the feels”) as the best kinds of rollercoasters. But if other TV episodes are rollercoasters, this is the Leviathan. I don’t recall ever screaming, gasping, and throwing my hands up in the air as often as I did with this one. There were no tears, so I guess that would be the only thing it was lacking, but to use the word “lacking” with any part of this episode would be nitpicking in the extreme. I think the episode was damn near perfect.

In the previous episode, as Daenerys talked about burning her city down, Tyrion calmly reminded her that her father had once stuffed all of King’s Landing’s underground tunnels with wildfire, and that the reason her father was truly the Mad King is that he was willing to burn to death every man, woman, and child, every innocent person in the way, just to get to the few people he wanted to kill. Only a truly mad person would do such a thing. I wondered why they were repeating this story — just last season he told the same story to Daenerys as the two of them sat across a table and he explained what her father was really like, and how in her quest to become queen she must never, ever be like him. And now I realized they needed that story fresh in our minds, because as Tyrion is warning Daenerys about her father planting the explosives in the first place, it never even occurs to him that his own sister might be the one to use it.

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And use it she does. My GOD when Lancel looked up and I saw the glowing green goop on the ground I dropped my pen and gasped aloud. “WILDFIRE!!!” And immediately the consequences of the action — before it had even been set off — were in my head. She’s going to kill everyone in the Sept of Baelor.

Now, I will admit to some, um, stupidity on my part. It never occurred to me that the sept and the castle were in two completely different locations — for some reason I always pictured them as adjacent to one another. They always seem to be in their chambers, then say, “Walk with me” in an Aaron Sorkin sort of way and then… they’re in the sept. I thought the buildings were pretty much attached. And yet now I realize well DUH, Cersei had to have done her walk of atonement from the sept to the castle, and therefore they must be in two different spots. But I never realized they were THAT far apart. That was one long walk of atonement.

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I also had a horrifying moment when the Mountain stopped Tommen in his doorway that Cersei — bedecked in her black dress as if vying for the role of Evil Queen in some King’s Landing Disney musical production — had actually ordered her own son’s death in retaliation for him removing her right to choose a champion and have a trial by combat. And I was baffled: no matter what Tommen would do, she would NEVER kill one of her children. They mean everything to her. Of course, she wasn’t going to kill Tommen — she was just going to destroy him emotionally and psychologically, and kill everyone he ever loved. No big.

We go from the wildfire killing everyone and everything to Cersei waterboarding a nun (or maybe “wineboarding” would be the more accurate word), and I couldn’t help but think, “Cersei, seriously, you’re OK with wasting all that wine?” The only person worse than Cersei in this scene is Septa Unella, who has been a hateful, horrible character from the moment we first saw her. Despite everything Cersei had done, watching Unella ring that bell and shouting, “Shame!” in that holier-than-thou voice of hers put our sympathies with a Lannister, and for that alone, she should be punished. Cersei tells her to confess that she enjoyed torturing Cersei, before Cersei happily lists all of her favourite things. And no, they don’t include whiskers on kittens or snowflakes that stay on her nose and eyelashes.

I drink because it feels good to be drinking
I killed my husband because he was stinking
I fucked my brother and clipped Sparrow’s wings,
These are a few of my favourite things!

But she can’t reach Unella and her piousness. The nun just looks at her smugly and says she’s ready to meet her god. To which Cersei has a hearty chuckle, and in lumbers Ser Gregor Clegane. I was chatting about what to expect in this week’s episode with another parent at my son’s soccer game last week, and both of us thought they were going to show the Mountain’s face this week. I didn’t want to see it; he totally did. “This is Ser Gregor Clegane,” says Cersei as she walks out, leaving Septa Unella to untold amounts of torture. “He is your god now.” And with the tiniest bit of joy she can muster, Cersei begins chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as she shuts the door.

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If I must be tortured, I would choose wineboarding.

And we cut to Tommen looking out over the city. You mentioned the gorgeous score in this episode, Chris, and because it’s so different than the music we heard before, you’re right in that it stands out a lot. It was gorgeous. But in this scene, there’s no music whatsoever — the only score is the screaming coming from the streets below as green smoke billows out of the Sept of Baelor. Which is why no one was prepared for what happened next. When Tommen removes his crown and turns to leave, the camera holds on the window for what seems like too long a time, I suddenly gasped in horror about two seconds before Tommen came back into view, realizing exactly what was going to happen. It’s a horrifying moment, and he acts quickly before he can think his way out of it. And there’s no heightened drama in the moment at all — no music, no sound effects, no opening of his arms and screaming, nothing. He simply walks back to the window, steps up onto the windowsill, and falls forward silently, like a log.

His mother has just killed his wife without a second thought. And his wife’s father and brother. And the High Sparrow and the acolytes — to which Tommen had just pledged his fealty. He loved Margaery, even if she didn’t love him, and he was willing to change his entire belief system to match hers. And now he realizes his mother is a monster. That his personal happiness doesn’t mean anything to her because if she doesn’t like someone, she will have them killed. It doesn’t matter if it happens to be Tommen’s beloved wife.

And with that, Cersei has lost all three of her children. Joffrey died because he was a sadistic tit, but he had always been that way, urged on by Cersei, who never said no to him and who encouraged his evil ways. Myrcella died because Cersei made the ill-fated decision to have the Mountain squash Oberyn’s head like a melon, and it forced Ellaria to wreak her revenge on Cersei in the most painful way. And now Tommen, her youngest, who was just a kindergartner when this whole story began, is gone. All their deaths were caused by her desire for power, but we know she would do anything for her children. They’re all gone. How does a mother continue after this? What is there left to even live for? Any piece of humanity that Cersei had left in her body went out the window with Tommen, and her heart is nothing but a sliver of flint now. She wept and screamed and raged at Joffrey’s death. She cried quietly when Myrcella died and wondered if she’d just lost the only thing that reminded her she was a good person. And now, with Tommen’s death, she bears it without even changing her demeanour. “Burn him and bury his ashes where the sept once stood,” she says.

And all of THAT, our dear readers, was just the opening of the episode. Jeepers. The only downside to all of this? Now we’ll never know what Margaery had been planning all this time. But one thing’s for sure: Grandma Tyrell is gonna be pissed.

And now we’re back over to Riverrun and Walder Frey, who is aligned with the Lannisters. (Snicker.) What did you think of Jaime and Bronn’s verbal sparring here, Chris?

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Christopher: It was a lot different on rewatching as I realized that the girl Bronn’s initially ogling, whom he assumes is all hot and bothered for Jaime, is actually Arya in disguise. The first time around, the scene was just vaguely annoying—I love Bronn as a character except when he goes all frat-boy—but the second time around the coy look the serving girl gives Jaime is vaguely chilling. Knowing that’s Arya, in my head I was imagining her calculation: “Can I kill Walder Frey AND the Kingslayer? Nah, best to stick with Frey. Jaime was never on my list.” That little shiver up Jaime’s back is his lizard brain being suddenly grateful that Arya doesn’t know he shoved Bran out a window.

I’m beginning to think that the worst fate in Westeros is to be born a Frey, as it seems to entail being congenitally petty, incompetent, and jealous of other people’s successes. Walder Frey’s little speech at the beginning of this scene is quite possibly the most insufferable bit of oration we’ve heard in this series, and I’m including all of Joffrey’s pronouncements. His suggestion that from this day forth, everyone in that room should accompany killing blows to their enemies with the words “The Freys and the Lannisters send their regards!” is a bit of piggybacking self-aggrandizement that would make Erlich from Silicon Valley blush.

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(Walder Frey is one of those characters I can insult just because of whom he played in another fantasy franchise. During his speech I kept thinking, “Oh, just shut the fuck up Argus Filch, you fucking squib wizard wannabe”).

Jaime is quite obviously unimpressed. Wait, did I say unimpressed? I think I mean he would sooner cut off his other hand and use it to gouge out his eyes than listen to another word from Walder Frey. But these are the tasks nobility drops on the 1%, I suppose. His indifference to Bronn’s frat-boy banter is one indicator of his desire to be Anywhere But Here. He manages to divest himself of Bronn by being wing-man extraordinaire, but must immediately regret his helpfulness when Bronn’s seat is immediately taken by none other than Frey the Elder himself.

I loved Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in this scene. I think he’s done a fantastic job of realizing Jaime Lannister anyway, but in this moment he’s the audience’s proxy, radiating contempt for this useless cocknapkin of a lord, and finally expressing what we’re all thinking throughout the scene: precisely what fucking use ARE you, Walder Frey? The expression on his face as Frey tries to equate himself with Jaime is priceless. “Here we are now. Two kingslayers! We know what it’s like to have them grovel to our faces, and snigger behind our backs. We don’t mind, do we? Fear! It’s a marvelous thing.” If we recall Jaime’s account of what led him to kill the Mad King, it’s a bit of miraculous self-control that he doesn’t just beat Frey to death with his golden hand. Instead, he settles for pointing out that no one fears the Freys—they fear the Lannisters, and if the Lannisters have to ride north to recapture the Riverlands every time the Freys lose them, “then why do we need you?”

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We cut from a discomfited Walder Frey to Sam, Gilly, and Little Sam as they arrive at Oldtown—which is a moment probably somewhat more poignant for readers of the novels, as this ancient southern city has been imbued with so much myth and legend and significance. It is the site of the Citadel, the university (basically) that trains maesters, as well as being one of the oldest cities in all of Westeros. It’s worth noting that as Sam and Gilly arrive, they see a flight of white birds leaving the city—one of which we later see gliding into Winterfell. Theses are the white ravens, which in the GoT world are sent from the Citadel when the Maesters agree that yes, in fact, winter has arrived.

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I loved this scene, as Sam’s first view of the Citadel’s library is essentially book lovers’ porn. I remember having a similar expression to Sam’s the first time I walked into the Robarts Library Rare Books Collection at U of T … except that the stacks there are far less impressive than what CGI has done for the Citadel. I also loved that Sam’s nascent feminism founders on the shoals of books. “No women or children!” the functionary at the desk thunders at Gilly, and Sam’s expression—in which apology wars with excitement—is priceless. “Sorry, babe. I’d express solidarity with you, but … BOOKS!”

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I hope that next season we just cut from whatever momentous events are happening to Sam reading an ever-growing stack of books. Just for a few seconds. DRAGONS LAYING WASTE TO LANNISTERS! Sam reading. WHITE WALKERS ASSAULTING THE WALL! Sam reading. CERSEI DRINKING WINE! Sam reading.

Repeat as necessary, GoT writing room. You’re welcome.

We then cut to one of those white ravens Sam and Gilly see (Jeebus, these birds fly as fast as Yara’s ships can sail) gliding down to Winterfell. Jon is having a bit of difficulty adjusting to his new position, observing to Melisandre that he was never permitted to sit at the high table during feasts. “It could have been worse, Jon Snow,” she points out. “You had a family. You had feasts.” Good observation, murderous red woman! It’s that kind of common-sense advice we’ll miss because you thought it was a good idea to burn the innocent child of the would-be king whom you thought, erroneously, was the child of prophecy.

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How awesome was Liam Cunningham in this scene? Twelve years ago I saw Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, with Sam Waterston as Leonato. The speech he delivers to Claudio, in which he accuses Claudio of essentially killing his daughter, Hero, from grief, was spoken with such spitting, shuddering, barely contained rage that even sitting in the back row I felt it in my bones. That’s what I thought of while watching Davos put Melisandre on the spot. “If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil!” You know what? That’s a fantastic rule of thumb when it comes to choosing your deity. “I loved that girl!” Davos thunders. “Like she was my own! She was good, she was kind, and you KILLED her!” Honestly, my heart was breaking in these moments. Davos has lost everything—his sons, his family, the man he believed should be king. And he’s lost Shireen, the little girl who taught him to read and who might have given Lyanna Mormont a run for her precocious money.

In a promising moment of wise compromise, Jon Snow sends her south. He can’t ignore the fact that he’s only alive because of Melisandre, but he also cannot ignore the enormity of her trespass. I doubt Davos thinks it sufficient, but it’s a good first gesture for the man who’ll become the King in the North by the end of the episode.

Jon watches her ride away from the battlements, and is joined by Sansa, who addresses the fact that she hadn’t shared her communications with Littlefinger with him. In our last post, I said that Sansa’s omission was bad writing; others have suggested that Sansa is actually far more savvy and ruthless than I was giving her credit for. What did you think of her apology, re: Knights of the Vale, Nikki?

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Nikki: First I just have to concur that Sam walking into that room of infinite books almost made me forget every other moment of the entire series. If you get to choose your heaven where you will spend all of eternity, the showrunners just gave everyone a glimpse of mine. I pictured Gilly and little Sam sitting out in the waiting room for YEARS as little Sam grows up, hits puberty, moves out of the Citadel, all while Sam Tarly just stood in that same spot, mouth agape, staring at the wonder and beauty that surrounded him. And Chris, I thought EXACTLY the same thing when I saw it: I had the same reaction you did when I walked into the Robarts Rare Book room (maybe you and I were in the same bibliography class?) and when they pulled out the original Shakespeare folio I thought I was going to faint. I remember putting on the gloves to slowly turn the pages of a first edition of Dickens, and my eyes kept glancing upwards at all of the stacks of books around me all the time. GLORIOUS.

People always imagine what character they’d want to be on Game of Thrones. In that moment, it was clear to me: I want to be Samwell Tarly.

But now back over to our Sansa. Yes, you said Sansa’s omission was bad writing, others said it was just more evidence of Sansa’s stupidity and that Rickon’s death was on her head, while I held my ground that we all know Littlefinger is a complete dick so why are we assuming that Sansa knew he was coming and that she is the bad guy? And of course this scene didn’t really answer anything. All she said is that she’s sorry she didn’t tell him, but she didn’t elaborate what there was to tell: that she’d sent the raven to Littlefinger? That she’d gotten a raven back saying he was coming? That she knew all along or that it was a mere possibility? Either way, Jon is clearly far more forgiving than the fans, and has a much longer memory and knows they’re stronger as a family than breaking apart. He knows what his sister has been through, and he knows that where he was shuffled off to the Wall, she was betrothed to Joffrey, mocked by the court, ridiculed by Cersei, watched her own father’s execution, became a prisoner, thought she would die at the Battle of Blackwater, heard of the deaths of her mother and brother, assumed Arya was dead, was married to a monster against her own will, escaped at the last minute before she could be executed for standing nearby while Joffrey died, was brought to the Eyrie and was there when her aunt died, had creepy Uncle Baelish come on to her, then was shuffled off to House Bolton where she discovered what a REAL monster was and where her memories of Winterfell would forever be tarnished, thought her two brothers had been murdered, was raped and beaten repeatedly before finding the fortitude to escape, found out what her ward/brother had gone through at the hands of Ramsay, escaped through the snow chased by Ramsay’s dogs, and THEN was reunited with Jon. So yeah, she’s been through some stuff, and while the men have been trained in weaponry and war from the moment they were big enough to pick up a wooden sword, she was trained in embroidery and how to curtsey, and yet by osmosis this little girl has grown into a woman who can help strategize against the enemy.

In that moment he realized the fault was as much his as it was hers — she didn’t tell him about Littlefinger, and he didn’t listen to her when he should have. He tells her they have to trust each other, because right now, they’re all the other one has. He tells her that he’s going to have the lord’s room made up for her — she should have the chamber that had previously been occupied by Ned and Catelyn. She says he should have the room, because he’s the lord. (It wasn’t clear to me if their chamber was the same one in which Ramsay had repeatedly raped her — if it was, I can imagine it’s not a room she’s keen on having.) He shakes his head and says no, he can’t, because he’s not a Stark. “You are to me,” she says, and for all they know, she’s the last surviving Stark, and if she says he’s a Stark, he’s a Stark. (Even though we know he’s also something else, but more on that later.) She tells him that a white raven has come from the Citadel: “Winter is here.”

I don’t know about you, but that line elicited a gasp from me that was as loud as anything else in the episode. For SIX YEARS we’ve heard that “Winter is coming,” which was something Ned Stark said all the time. And it seemed like it would never come — it was just that thing that everyone warned about, but I started to wonder if the show would end with winter still on the horizon. Here come the white walkers.

But as the snowflakes swirl in the air above Winterfell, we now move to Dorne, where Lady Olenna is dressed all in black, showing us that she knows, and she is FURIOUS. And she’s gone to the one place where she knows she has a bunch of women with a SERIOUS beef against the Lannisters, and most importantly, Cersei. Olenna has never hidden her disdain for Cersei Lannister, as if she knew if House Tyrell ever had a downfall, it would be at Cersei’s hand. But of all the Tyrells Cersei killed, she left the most powerful one still standing, which is her biggest mistake. As I said earlier, everything that has happened to Cersei happened because of her own mistakes — the deaths of her children, the rise of the High Sparrow — and two of the three children died because someone took revenge on them to get back at Cersei. And in the case of the first child, it was Lady Olenna who did it. And now she’s back. She can’t come at Cersei through her children, so she needs to think bigger. Cersei took away her future — she killed her son and both grandchildren. What does Cersei have left? King’s Landing and Westeros. OK, let’s take that from her. Ellaria looks at Olenna (who is not threatened one bit by the Sand Snakes, telling them to shut the hell up and telling Elbara she looks like an angry little boy) and tells her that she will give Olenna her heart’s desire. “And what is my heart’s desire?” asks Olenna, with an eyeroll and a pfft. “Vengeance,” says Ellaria.

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“Justice.”

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Varys.

Last week the soccer dad and I were discussing where Varys could have gone, and we both agreed it was Dorne. If he basically lives to see Daenerys Stormborn take back Westeros, who are the people who hate Cersei the most? Who are powerful enough to topple empires like they did in Dorne? Who are, like Daenerys, women? (Her alliances now are with the Sand Snakes and Yara Greyjoy.)

“Fire and blood,” he says as he emerges from the shadows, all Doctor Evil–like. And…

We cut to the fire: Daenerys Targaryen. Guys, it is ALL COMING TOGETHER!!! Daenerys is making her plans to go to Westeros, and tells Daario that he has to stay to keep peace in Meereen, but he’s having none of it. And she’s having none of him having none of it. She holds her ground and tells him she needs to think politically now, and needs to marry someone with power to gain power, but Daario loves her fiercely, and won’t let her go. She just stares at him coolly and tells him his instructions are awaiting him, there shall be no more dalliances with this dragon. It’s a heartbreaking scene, mostly because of the lack of emotion she shows and Daario having nothing but emotion. He blames Tyrion, and she says this isn’t Tyrion, it’s her decision (it’s Tyrion’s) and Daario pleads with her. “Let me fight for you,” he says. But Tyrion knows Daenerys really does have a single-minded purpose, and Cersei didn’t: Cersei wanted the power, but she loved her children so much she allowed her enemies to get at her through them. When you love someone, they will become your greatest weakness. And Daenerys can’t afford any weaknesses right now. “You’ll get the throne,” says Daario. “I hope it brings you happiness.” He tells her that he pities the lords of Westeros right now, for they have no idea what’s coming for them.

She shows far more emotion with Tyrion, and tells him that she just said goodbye to a man she loved and felt nothing. And we realize what she just didn’t wasn’t some tough love act to save Daario’s life — she truly never loved him the way he loved her. Tyrion says this is all happening right now: all she’s ever wanted are ships, armies, and dragons, and now she has all of them. “You’re in the great game now,” he tells her. “And the great game is terrifying.”

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And then, like Spike to Buffy in the penultimate episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he looks at her and tells that he’s never believed in anything in his life. He was taught to believe in certain gods, in family, in power, in the monarchy, in the military, in his father, in his brother and sister, even in himself, and believing in any of those things never got him anywhere. “And yet, here I am,” he says. “I believe in you. It’s embarrassing, really… I’d swear you my sword, but… I don’t actually have a sword.” And with that she makes him the Hand of the Queen, even pinning the brooch on him that Ned Stark wore back in season one. The pin didn’t get Ned anywhere positive. And when Tyrion himself wore it as Joffrey’s Hand, things were just as bad. But he’s not following Robert Baratheon, or Joffrey Baratheon — he’s the Hand of Daenerys Stormborn, a woman who has shown herself to be an excellent leader, and who has learned to listen to her advisors, which is something no other monarch in Westeros has done in recent memory. He looks genuinely touched, and bows before her.

And from there we cut to Walder Frey eating what looks to be a delicious pie! How much were you squeeing in this scene, Chris??

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Christopher: Squeeing and throwing up a little in my mouth. That finger in the pie didn’t look like it had been washed. That’s how you end up with the Norwalk virus, you know.

It occurs to me that Arya’s actually done a pretty impressive job of checking the names off her death list. A man wonders if she’ll be the one to finally take Cersei off the board? Wouldn’t that piss off Olenna and the Dorne women!

There isn’t much to say about this scene aside from how perfect it is. As revenge killings go, it’s almost as satisfying and poetic as Ramsay’s. Walder Frey spent his long life obsessed with the status of his family, creating many Freys with his succession of young wives, to the point where he’s not sure if the serving girl is his daughter. And when he is assured that she is not, he proceeds to be gross and gropey. Ick. That just kind of puts the cherry on the vengeance cake, though, as the random girl he feels so entitled to take liberties with fools him into literally eating his family legacy before revealing the face of a Stark Who Got Away. It’s particularly satisfying that he dies while sitting in the very same seat from which he presided over the Red Wedding.

A lot of viewers have expressed dissatisfaction with Arya’s sojourn in Braavos. Two seasons worth of apprenticeship to the Faceless Men, only to finally reject them and head home? Isn’t that just a whole lot of wasted storyline? I must admit, I felt a little like this myself … until this moment. If the payoff of the Braavos storyline is that Arya becomes an uber-assassin who starts knocking off Stark enemies, starting with the man who killed her mother and brother, then I say that was time well spent. It’s almost a little sad that Joffrey is no longer around for her to kill.

arya

From one Stark daughter to the other, we cut from Arya’s satisfied smile to the Winterfell godswood, where Littlefinger finds Sansa hanging out under the weirwood tree, reflecting on all the times as a child she’s prayed to be elsewhere. She’s come full circle, returning to one of the sites of her childhood, and in this moment we see how much she has grown, learned, and matured. She has certainly learned enough not to trust Littlefinger. “What do you want?” she asks him, and he responds with one of the more shocking revelations of the season. “Every time I’m faced with a decision,” he tells her, “I close my eyes and see the same picture. Every time I consider an action, I ask myself: will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes.” As he speaks he leans in closer to her, his voice dropping conspiratorially, suggesting that he’s about to confess his love and desire for Sansa. But what is the picture in his head? “A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by my side.”

Wow. I’m not surprised or shocked that Littlefinger’s end game will be a play for the crown; I’m gobsmacked that he would say it out loud, and make clear his overweening ambition to Sansa. We’ve always known, as Varys once put it, that Littlefinger would watch the world burn if he could be king over the ashes, but it seems at least a little presumptuous to declare as much when there’s really no path for him to claim the throne outside of outright conquest.

littlefinger_denied

Sansa has learned enough to take everything he says with a boatload of salt, and the moment she pushes him away when he goes in for the kiss made me cheer almost as much as I did when Arya pulled off her disguise. He might have told her that the picture in his head includes her at his side, but Sansa knows too well by now that if he had a choice between the Iron Throne but no Sansa, or Sansa but no Iron Throne, you wouldn’t get the sentence out before he plunked his arse down on the ugly old chair. “It’s a pretty picture,” she says dismissively, and when he points out that he has very publicly allied himself with House Stark, she says, “You’ve declared for other houses before, Lord Baelish. It’s never stopped you from serving yourself.”

I think it’s safe to say that this is the season in which Sansa came into her own (and I may or may not have said “You go, girl!” when she tells him off), but Petyr Baelish is not so easily ignored. “Who should the North rally behind?” he asks her. “The trueborn daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark of Winterfell? Or a motherless bastard born in the south?” Sowing the seeds of dissension already … I have a feeling that next season will see a lot of that sort of thing.

Maybe Arya will arrive and take care of him.

We then cut to “the motherless bastard born in the south” by way of a quick scene far to the north as Benjen brings Meera and Bran to the Wall. He cannot pass the Wall, he tells them, as it has ancient spells carved into its foundations. “And while it stands,” he says, “the dead cannot pass.” Which raises an interesting question for the coming war: will we see the destruction of the Wall when the Night King and his minions come south in force? Because if they’re just kind of stymied by the Wall, standing there saying “Well, fuck,” that would be a bit anticlimactic.

coldhands

But having arrived at a weirwood tree, Bran is like an impatient binge-watcher who’s been away from the DVR too long, and just has to get back to the interrupted story of his father. “I’m the Three-Eyed Raven now,” he tells Meera, “I have to be ready for this,” but really, he’s just saying “Let me get back to my stories already!”

Which, let’s admit it, is what we were all thinking, and what we have been thinking since Bran first had his vision of the Tower of Joy. FINALLY, we basically have confirmation of the most pervasive fan theory about Jon Snow’s parentage. Or … well, mostly.

To back up a moment for those casual viewers who somehow missed all the hints (but honestly, I doubt that any of those strange creatures would be reading this blog), it’s always been suggested that Jon Snow is not, in fact, Ned Stark’s son. Rather, it’s believed by almost everyone now that he is in fact the child of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ brother) and Lyanna Stark—the latter of whom we see in this scene. The “official” narrative put about after Robert Baratheon took the throne was that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, and that she died from his abuse. Is however more popularly believed (and there are a lot more hints to this effect in the novels than in the show) that Rhaegar did not kidnap Lyanna; that the two of them were in fact in love, and she willingly ran off with him; and furthermore that the child she births in the Tower of Joy is Jon Snow, whom Ned pretends—at Lyanna’s desperate plea—to be his own bastard fathered on a nameless woman in the south.

This he does to protect Jon. Remember, the Targaryen dynasty is toppled, and Robert Baratheon has a very acute and specific loathing for them—he sends assassins after Viserys and Daenerys, and later Ned attempts to resign the Handship when Robert tries to have Daenerys murdered. Anyone with Targaryen blood would be a threat to the crown, and therefore in danger.

It is one of the sticking-points of Ned’s character in the novels that Mr. Honour would have dishonoured himself and his new bride (he married Catelyn to cement the allegiance between Houses Stark and Tully) by fathering and acknowledging an illegitimate son. It is the one grievance held by Catelyn in their marriage. If you’ll recall, way back at the start of season one, just as Ned heads south to King’s Landing and Jon heads north to the Wall, Ned promises that when he sees Jon next, they’ll have a long and serious talk. Presumably, he meant to reveal to him his parentage.

But of course, Joffrey put an end to that when he peremptorily decided to execute Ned rather than let him take the black. Can Qyburn resurrect him too, so that Arya can kill him all over again?

jon_snow-baby

jon_snow

Of course, the scene does not unequivocally establish, as the equation on the interwebs has gone, that R + L = J. We don’t hear what Lyanna whispers to Ned, but the graphic match edit that cuts from the face of the baby to that of Jon Snow makes it pretty damn clear that he’s not Ned’s son, but Lyanna’s. The scene that follows, in which the northern houses pledge their loyalty to the new King in the North, plays a little ironically on what we now know. Littlefinger has planted the first seed of doubt for Sansa, and we see her smile fade when she meets his gaze at the end of the scene. The North rallies around a “motherless bastard” whom they all assume is Ned Stark’s son; but we (think we) know that he is in reality equal parts Stark and Targaryen, which would seem to signal that he will be one head of the three-headed dragon when Daenerys finds out his parentage and discovers that he is, in fact, her nephew.

Which probably means she’ll marry him. To paraphrase something Sterling Archer once said, Westeros sometimes seems like the Alabama of fantasy worlds.

lyanna_mormont

I love that it’s everyone’s new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont, who consolidates Jon’s leadership. As the crowd grumbles and rumbles, we get a quick shot of Littlefinger’s calculating expression, and Jon’s own blank one as he peers out over the room. But young Lyanna isn’t taking anyone’s shit, and calls out all the other lords who did not stand with the Starks against the Boltons. The scene ends with a callback to season one, when all of Robb Stark’s bannerman acclaim him “King in the North.” It’s a stirring scene, but also a worrisome one, for that very reason … and because we don’t quite know how to interpret the look that passes between Sansa and Littlefinger.

From the King in the North to the Queen in the South—Jaime Lannister rides up to King’s Landing and is treated to the sight of smoke rising over the city, and the episode ends with images of rival queens.

Take us home, Nikki.

jaime_city-burning

Nikki: I have my money on Daenerys and Podrick, for the record. Ahem.

Yes, I agree that the scene of all of the houses of the North chanting, “King in the North!” was meant to hearken back to Jon Snow’s brother — er… cousin? — Robb when he was proclaimed the same.

While Daenerys, Cersei, and Littlefinger have their eye on the Iron Throne, Jon is looking no further than to unite the north and help lead them in their battle to defeat the white walkers. Cersei and Daenerys don’t have a clue about the white walkers, so they can continue their little battle to the south, but for now, they have a much bigger problem on their hands in the north. And if the white walkers manage to get past them… gods help those who live in warmer climes. The problem is, he’s seen them — as far as the other houses are concerned, the white walkers are just bogeymen they use to scare their children out of staying in their beds at night. He’s going to have his work cut out for them on that front, but he can’t even get them to unite behind him. They all grumble and complain about the winter coming, and since no one thought to put winter chains on their horses’ hoofs they’re itching to get home right now. And as you said, Chris, it’s Lyanna Mormont — Lyanna Stark’s namesake, we shouldn’t forget — who stands up and tells off the room. Here is a room full of the leaders of ancient houses, of Free Folk and warriors, of men who just fought in a battle and who are now weary, all arguing amongst themselves, and sitting in the middle, quietly surveying the room, is a 10-year-old girl.

Let’s just ponder that for a second: she’s 10. The first time we heard of her was last season, when Stannis was at Castle Black and trying to get the northern houses to rally around him, and Lyanna sent a raven to him basically telling him to fuck right off, that she would only bend at the knee for House Stark. And she has stayed absolutely true to her word. She stands up and reminds the first dissenter, Manderly, that his son had been killed at the Red Wedding. “But you refused the call.” She then turns to Glover, and reminds him that despite his fealty to House Stark, “In their hour of need, you refused the call.” Then she turns to the young head of House Cerwyn, and tells him that his father had been flayed by Ramsay. “Still, you refused the call.”

“But House Mormont remembers. THE NORTH REMEMBERS. We know no king but the king in the north whose name is Stark. I don’t care if he’s a bastard, Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins. He’s my king, from this day until his last day.” And then she sits. YAAAAAAASSSSSS!!!!! Oh how I love this young woman. All these men do is fight in every meeting, and then a girl stands up, tells them exactly who each one of them is (and she’s right on all counts, including suggesting that Stark blood runs in Jon’s veins), and they begin to respond, and agree they’ve all been pretty shit at running the houses of the north, and that they should have bent the knee to Jon Snow long ago. Jon just looks gobsmacked, like he doesn’t know where this girl came from but maybe SHE should run the North.

Fiercest 10-year-old EVER.

And then Jaime returns to King’s Landing to see it burning to the ground, and his face is a mix of shock, confusion, and “Oh my god, she didn’t” all over it.

cersei_rearview

We cut to Cersei Lannister walking solemnly and singlemindedly into the throne room, marching straight for the throne with purpose. And can I just pause to comment on that outfit? I don’t know what sort of Badass Queens R Us boutique just showed up in King’s Landing, but I’m so glad she opened an account there. Black leather dress punctured with holes that make it look like metal studs are over it, with actual metal shoulder pads and a chain connecting them in the front, that outfit was ca-ray-zee, and SO PERFECT for this moment. “The Rains of Castamere” begins playing somberly in the background as Jaime wanders into the gallery, and listens to Qyburn make the announcement. “I now proclaim Cersei of the House Lannister, first of her name, queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms.” Some people die on battlefields to become the ruler of Westeros. Some are simply born into it. Others burn down the whole fucking city and walk into the room.

As she sits on the Iron Throne and glances over to the gallery and sees Jaime standing there, her face doesn’t change at all. And we know what he must be thinking: his son is dead. The only way Cersei could be sitting on that throne is if their son is dead. What a way to find out you no longer have any children. And not only that, but there’s nothing behind her eyes but complete deadness. He knows the Cersei he has loved for so long is gone, and what is left is this black-leather-clad person who once loved him and their children. Now all she has is that throne.

And, as I wrote in my notes, “Don’t worry, Cersei, Daenerys will soon be there to ruin everything.” For here she comes, riding across the waves in the fleet of ships that Yara and Theon brought to her

cersei_coronation

Long ago, when Robert Baratheon wanted to have Daenerys killed because he found out she was pregnant, Ned Stark talked him out of it. He said there was nothing to fear with the Dothraki, because, as he said, “I’ll fear the Dothraki the day they teach their hoses to run on water.”

They didn’t have to teach them to run on water; they’ve simply boarded them onto the ships that are now making their way over to King’s Landing.

As the majestic music swirls over this glorious final scene, we see the Greyjoys and their armies on the ships, we see the Dothraki and the Unsullied steering others, and we pan up into the sky to see Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion flying freely over the water, where we finally zero in on the front ship, where Daenerys stands proudly at the prow, Tyrion by her side, and Varys and Missandei right behind her.

Winter has come to the North, and fire is coming to the South.

And with that, we end what is probably the best episode of Game of Thrones ever… and now we have to wait another 10 months for more. Uggggghhhhh… What will be next? Will Arya come straight to Winterfell or will she sneak her way through the countryside, being the girl of many faces? Or could she come to Winterfell not as Arya but as another person, just to check up on her family and see where their loyalties still lie? Speaking of loyalties, will Sansa remain loyal to Jon Snow or could there be dissension between the two? After all, he was named King of the North when she is actually the true heir of Ned and Catelyn’s (as far as they’re concerned) and she was the one who brought the army that won back Winterfell. What will happen between Jaime and Cersei? He already killed one mad monarch for threatening to burn down King’s Landing — will he be forced to kill another for actually following through with it? The Sand Snakes weren’t on any of the ships; are they going to be pulled out as Olenna’s wild card later in the game

All of these questions and many more will be answered… in approximately 300 more days. Sigh.

daenerys_westeros-bound

Thank you to everyone for reading our posts week after week, especially this 8600-word one (yeesh). And thank you, as always, to my partner Christopher Lockett, who peppers his brilliant commentary with phrases like “formal burlap” that have me spit out my tea laughing every time we pass these back and forth. I can’t believe we’ve already come to the end of another season. Until next time, Valar Morghulis.

 

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A Feast of Thrones

All this season of Game of Thrones, my friend Andrew has been coming over to watch, and beforehand I’ve made dinner. I love to cook, so as the weeks passed I set myself the challenge of not repeating a meal (which I failed last week—one of our first dinners was burgers on the BBQ, and last Sunday was so beautiful, simply barbecuing some burgers seemed utterly appropriate. For those unfamiliar with Newfoundland in June, you should know that warm sunny days are not a given, so we tend to enjoy them as much as humanly possible when they happen). I’ve done pork souvlaki, barbecued chicken, jerk chicken, pulled pork, steaks, and a bunch of stuff I can’t recall. A few weeks in, Andrew’s son Nathaniel came home from university and started joining us, as did my girlfriend Stephanie.

For the finale last night, however, I decided something big was in order. And so I invited a bunch more Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and cooked a meal inspired by the show. Specifically, I consulted the website Inn at the Crossroads, whose creators Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer set themselves the task of recreating meals described in A Song of Ice and Fire. Their research is impressive: they find medieval analogues to GRRM’s often lavishly-described dishes, compare them to modern versions, and develop their own recipes. The website garnered them a publishing deal with the cookbook A Feast of Ice and Fire. Based on the recipes I made last night, that deal was very well-deserved.

Last night’s menu:

  • Honeyed chicken
  • Nan’s Beef and Bacon pies (with peas and onion)
  • White beans and bacon
  • Cucumber, apple, and tomato salad (not a GoT recipe, but I didn’t want to send my guests home with scurvy)
  • Sansa’s lemon cakes

I know this isn’t this blog’s usual bailiwick, but I can’t resist being a bit of a hipster foodie in advance of my co-post with Nikki. So bear with me, and trust me: all of these recipes are winners.

dinner-spread

Cocktails

When my guests asked what they could bring, I just told them to bring whatever they wanted to drink. Then after a bit of reflection, I sent them this link to Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, and said that if they wanted to bring the makings of any of these, they were welcome.

 

tyrion-shot

The Tyrion Lannister Shot, courtesy of the lovely and brilliant Jennifer Lokash: pear vodka, elderflower liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, mint. These are dangerous. You wouldn’t know from the taste that they have any alcohol at all.

dragon-cocktail

The Dragon Lady, courtesy of the equally lovely Andrew Loman: vodka, lemon juice, mango juice, Triple Sec, dragon fruit (substituted here with papaya), cayenne pepper. It’s the cayenne that makes this, a nice little afterburn to go with the sweetness.

Honeyed Chicken

I tweaked this recipe a little. The website calls for a basic roasted chicken, which you then cover in a honey sauce. I decided instead to baste the chicken with the honey sauce—which is SO tasty—in the last fifteen minutes of roasting or so, and then let my guests drizzle the sauce to their taste over the chicken on their plate.

chickens-cooked

I also went a little beyond simple roasted chicken. I put a lemon in the chickens’ butts (roll the lemon vigorously on the counter for a few moments, then stab it repeatedly so the juice leaks out while cooking), and made a compound butter of garlic and thyme that I put both underneath the skin and smeared on top. This at once keeps the chicken moist and juicy, and helps crisp the skin.

Oh, and be very generous with the salt and pepper on the chicken. I would say that goes without saying, but it always bears repeating.

chickens-raw

Also: one of my favourite ways to roast a chicken is to place it on a thick slice of sourdough bread. This is a pro-tip I learned from the Food Network (specifically, Ina Garten). The bread toasts as the chicken roasts, and gets impregnated with the chicken juice and fat. This is a fantastic way to make croutons if you’re also serving a Caesar salad; last night I just cut the bread into cubes and served them as is. I had some leftovers this morning, but the bread was totally gone.

The honey sauce is ridiculously simple and incredibly yummy. I did make a change, though: the Inn at the Crossroads calls for raisins, and I substituted dried cranberries for three reasons: (1) cranberries felt a little more medieval; (2) I don’t like raisins; (3) the tartness of the cranberries offset the acid of the vinegar and sweetness of the honey.

I also roasted the chickens alongside a whack of small new potatoes, carrots, whole garlic cloves, and fresh thyme. Also not strictly speaking a Game of Thrones recipe, but roasting any kind of meat without also cooking some form of potato (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew!) simply goes against my hobbit-sense.

veggies-prepped

Nan’s Beef and Bacon Pies (with peas and onion)

This one was my own creation. I had originally planned to make the pork pies as described on the website, but none of the grocery stores in my area happened to have ground pork this past weekend. So as I was out for a walk on Saturday, I started thinking about the beef and bacon pies Jon Snow and Sansa reminisce about in episode four of this season (“Book of the Stranger”). Nan’s beef and bacon pies, with, as Jon says in his inimitable accent, “peas and onion.”

As it happens, Inn at the Crossroads has a recipe for beef and bacon pies, but as I walked I started working through my own concoction in my head. I was quite proud of what I devised.

I started with stewing beef, which I threw in my slow cooker with beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, and a glug of balsamic vinegar, after browning it in a skillet. (Again, salting and peppering the beef before cooking should go without saying). I let that cook on high for four hours.

stewing-beef

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the grocery store had oxtails (no ground pork, but oxtail? weird), which I used to make my own beef stock. In the same pot I’d browned the stewing beef in, I browned the oxtails, and then threw them in a 450 degree oven with two chopped carrots, one large onion cut in half (skin on), a few bay leaves, and about half a dozen garlic cloves (skin on) cut in half. I let that all roast for half an hour, and then put the pot on a medium burner and added water. That simmered for a few hours.

I then fried some cubed bacon in butter until crisp. Removed the bacon with a slotted spoon, and sautéed roughly chopped onions. When the onions were translucent, I added chopped mushrooms (one carton’s worth), and continued cooking until they were nicely browned.

bacon

onions_fryingonions&mushrooms

Then flour (about ¼ cup), which I let brown (you always want to cook the flour, or else you taste it unpleasantly later) before slowly adding ladlefulls of the beef stock. When that reduced to a nice gravy, I added frozen peas and the beef, which I’d removed from the slow cooker and shredded. You can add some of the stewing liquor now if you like, or else just a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and a glug of balsamic vinegar. And lots and lots of freshly ground pepper. Oh, and put the cooked bacon back in the mix.

peas

filled-tartstarts-unegged

egged_tarts

Uncooked pies with eggwash.

finished_pies

Finished pies.

gluten free pies

The gluten-free option.

Given that one of my guests has a severe gluten allergy, I kept some of beef and bacon aside and made a separate batch with everything but the flour for the gravy, and thickened it with cornstarch. I made some pie pastry with millet flour, which took a bit of experimentation (basically, one cup of millet flour, enough olive oil until it’s the consistency of damp bread crumbs, and half a beaten egg). The regular tarts I made with the recipe off a box of Crisco shortening.

I painted the tarts with egg wash, and baked them until they were nice and brown (sorry, I don’t tend to pay attention to things like time—I usually just eyeball my recipes).

 

White Beans and Bacon

Well, this one is pretty ridiculously simple, and ridiculously delicious. I chose to complicate things by getting dried beans, which means I needed to soak them for twenty-four hours and then simmer them for a further hour or two, but you can simply buy canned beans and skip that step. Again, just sauté the bacon until crisp, remove and sauté a whole chopped onion to desired doneness (i.e. do you prefer pronounced onion flavor? Then undercook it. Prefer sweetness? the caramelize that bastard), add the beans and and bacon, and simmer until cooked through. You’ll need to add a bit of water. If you’re like me and like to complicate things by using dried beans, you can keep the water you used to boil them and add it now.

white beans and bacon

Cucumber, Apple, and Tomato Salad

As I said, not an actual Game of Thrones recipe, but I felt I should offer my guests something that doesn’t contain bacon. And this is a great salad anyway, so you’re welcome.

Basically: chopped cucumber and Granny Smith apples, halved grape tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It’s very simple, and one of the best salads I’ve ever made.

 

Sansa’s Lemon Cakes

This one was also a bit of a cheat, as it wasn’t taken from the Inn at the Crossroads. They offer two variations on lemon cakes, one medieval and one modern, but neither quite appealed to me. So I did a bit of searching, and as it turns out, Sansa Stark’s predilection for lemon cakes has inspired any number of variations on this theme. This recipe is from Bon Apetit, and was quite easily the biggest hit of the night. Given that I followed the recipe to the letter, I won’t narrate my cooking process. I will however say that they surprised me a little by being more custardy than cakey, but holy crap they were sublimely delicious.

 

lemon_slices

If you want to be really fancy, simmer lemon slices in simple syrup for about 20 minutes, and then let dry for 24 hours. Top the cakes with a dollop of lemon creme and a candied lemon slice.

lemon-cake-finallemon-cakes

And that’s all she wrote! Thanks to my guests for a lovely evening.

guests

My lovely guests, clockwise from left: Lady Stephanie the Scrivener, of House Van Der Linde (motto: “We Prefer Not To”), Keeper of the Bulbous Cat; Ser Nathaniel the Gangly, of House Loman (motto: “Um, OK, Sure, I’ll Make Your Poster”), Master Crafter; Lord Andrew the Loquacious, Elder of House Loman, Keeper of Black Cats and Avoider of Meetings; Lord Robert the Apiarist, of House Finley (motto: “Splendid!”), Fledgling Beekeeper and Lord of the Gourmands; Lady Jennifer the Badass, of House Lokash (motto: “You Have A Complaint? Awesome”), Keeper of the Nuthouse; Lady Danine The Recently Deaned, of House Farquharson (motto: “Don’t Even Fucking Start With Me!”), Repository of All Gossip.

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Game of Thrones 6.09: Battle of the Bastards

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings and valar morghulis, friends. Welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog in which we pore with exegetical fervor over Game of Thrones on an episode by episode basis.

Where did the season go? We’re at the penultimate episode, and as in every season of this show, the second-last episode features some pretty spectacular stuff, both narratively and visually: the death of Ned Stark, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the wildlings’ assault on the Wall, and last season we saw Drogon immolate a whole bunch of harpy sons.

But I think this season might be the best yet. What do you think? Nikki?

 daenerys_surrender

Nikki: Welp, in true Game of Thrones fashion, the penultimate episode was SPECTACULAR. Which means next week’s will probably be a wrap-up episode with a lot of exposition in the first half, a few surprises in the second, and something huge happening in the final two minutes.

As is often the case, this episode leaned heavily on the battle (I think every even-numbered season has a battle in episode 9, and the odd-numbered seasons have shocking deaths in episode 9). We all knew this episode would feature the showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (I love that on Father’s Day the show featured a fight between two men whose fathers wouldn’t legitimize them, ha!) but first, we start off in Meereen and another battle that’s already waging.

The episode opened with the men working for the slavers (seriously, that word to me looks like slayers with the y having been cut off) loading catapults on their ships, which they are expertly aiming at various sites on Meereen. Meanwhile, inside the pyramid, Tyrion is discussing the state of affairs with Daenerys. When she was taken away, it seemed she had some grumblings happening, but things were mostly under control. Now she comes back and after a few weeks under Tyrion’s control, the place appears to have gone to shit. The thing is, as he explains, it’s like many cases of new leadership. A new leader is nominated to come in and clean up a country’s mess, but when he first comes in, he encounters so many problems he’s suddenly blamed for everything. But it’s not necessarily his fault — it was the previous leader who caused all the problems, and now it’s his job to use his cunning and patience to actually fix them. Daenerys didn’t fix the city’s problems by freeing the slaves, she simply created new ones by angering the masters for destroying their way of life. As he tells her, the rebirth of Meereen is the cause of all the violence. If her way succeeds, it sends a message to all that a city without slavery proves that no one needs a master. And the masters can’t have that little tidbit getting out, now, can they?

tyrion_nervous

So, Daenerys has a simple solution. She will crucify the slavers, she will destroy their ships, she will go to their cities and burn each one to the ground, and she will win. And so Tyrion must once again stop her and remind her — as he did last season — about who Aerys Targaryen really was. He reminds her that the Mad King had buried wildfire throughout King’s Landing and was planning to set the city on fire, to kill every man, woman, and child in order to get to the few leaders he needed to wipe out. And so Jaime Lannister had to stop him in order to prevent a mass slaughter. If she follows through with her plan, she’ll be no different than the monster her father was, and they need to rise above that.

And so, he says, they need to come up with another plan. Cue the meeting at the top of the pyramid with the three masters Tyrion already spoke to. They tell the slavers they’re here to discuss the terms of surrender. With a smug smile, the masters begin explaining the terms they want Daenerys and Tyrion to follow, before Daenerys cuts them off and apologizes for miscommunicating — what she meant was, they’re here to discuss the terms of the masters’ surrender. Cue faces ranging from shocked to angry to amused. That last one doesn’t last for long.

As we all knew would happen, Drogon shows up and Daenerys climbs on his back. Watching him grow for six seasons is totally worth it (well, it was always worth it) just seeing the looks on the masters’ faces when he lands in front of them. She flies off and Viserion and Rhaegal emerge from the chamber where they’ve remained all season despite the fact Tyrion let them go several episodes ago, but perhaps they needed the scream of Drogon to draw them out through the wall of the place. And now that they’re flying for the first time in months, they get to have some playtime, flying around the harbour and burning everything in sight. It’s a beautifully shot scene as Daenerys, stone-faced, leads her children through the skies and orders them to immolate everyone working for the slavers.

drogon_checkmate!

Checkmate, bitches!

Of course, this only takes care of the people on the ships — the Sons of the Harpy are on the ground, getting all stabby with the slaves and Daenerys followers on the ground. Hm… if only Daenerys had someone loyal to her who could handle th—

Cue Dothraki. We can only imagine the fate of the Sons of the Harpy, but I think it’s a safe guarantee that what’s left isn’t gonna be pretty.

Meanwhile, back up on the pyramid, the masters watch in horror and realize they’ve lost. Tyrion gives them a chance to help him choose one master who will die, and two of them immediately push a third one forward, mentioning he’s low-born and not one of them. As the third one bows and begs for mercy, Grey Worm steps forward and in one motion, slashes the throats of the other two masters. Tyrion steps over to the third one and places a hand on his shoulder. He tells him they will let him go, and he needs to go and find the others, and “remind them what happened when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen.”

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This isn’t just an episode about battles, but about preparation for and strategy within those battles. Daenerys was just going to push headlong into pure destruction before Tyrion calmed her down and explained that there was a better way to handle this, and he was right. We’ll see more scenes in this episode of discussions for what to do in battle, where not everyone will be as open to the proposed strategies as Daenerys was.

From here we move over to Jon Snow meeting his monstrous brother-in-law for the first time (a scene that included my new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont). What did you think of the initial meeting between the bastards, Chris?

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Christopher: I thought it set a particular theme and tone that ran throughout the episode, which might be best summed up as the sins of the fathers. Bastardy versus trueborn, illegitimate versus legitimate sons, as we’ve seen over the course of six seasons, is a fraught and freighted issue in Westeros. In this respect, GRRM is more indebted to Shakespeare than anyone else: Edmund in King Lear and Falconbridge in King John are two of the most compelling of his creations, both of them attractive villains whose villainy proceeds from a grievance with the universe—and their fathers—that they were born “base,” and therefore ineligible to inherit wealth or titles. “Why bastard? wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact,” Edmund asks, “My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?” Jon Snow has always nursed resentment that he was the odd one out, but of course has given the lie to the charge of bastardy’s “taint.”

Indeed, he has never been more his father’s son than in this episode, and by the same token neither has Ramsay. Ramsay himself might seem to be an argument for the corruption of the bastard; Roose himself explained his proclivities as its product, but it is hard to make the argument that Ramsay is somehow different in kind from his father, or from his family’s historical fondness for cruelty and torture. Roose rebuked him at the beginning of the season for letting his “habits” occlude his strategic common sense where Sansa was concerned, but it has been obvious from the moment Ramsay murdered him that his cold cunning and ruthlessness has metastasized into Ramsay’s sociopathy. Like Jon, Ramsay is very much his father’s son, bastard or not.

The parley between Jon and Ramsay is itself broadly symbolic of the traits that originally set the narrative rolling way back when: courage versus cunning, honour versus calculation, justice versus ambition. Or to phrase it another way, Stark versus Lannister. In spite of the fact that the former categories have not fared well, in Jon Snow we see their distillation, and that should give us pause. It certainly does for Sansa, who explodes in anger and frustration at Jon when they’re alone. In the preceding war council, both Jon and Davos lay out a sound strategy. Let them come to us. With any luck, anger and confidence will send them charging full tilt. Hold your ground. “They’ve got the numbers,” Davos says. “We need the patience.” He then lays out what has often been a winning strategy for inferior forces: let the center give, and surround them on three sides.

Sansa, however, raises a crucial point that Jon is unwilling, or more likely unable, to grasp: that Ramsay is unpredictable, and whatever Jon thinks he understands about him is simple delusion. Sansa understands him in the most horrible and terrifying ways possible. Jon does not, and cannot.

Jon, however, so completely misunderstands Sansa’s concerns that I want to shake him by his man-bun. “I’ve fought beyond the Wall against worse than Ramsay Bolton,” he retorts. “I’ve defended the Wall from worse than Ramsay Bolton.” Oh, Jon—this isn’t about your honour, courage, or masculine pride. Of course he’s fought worse than Ramsay, at least in terms of scale (defending the Wall), and in terms of the enemy’s implacable malevolence (Hardhome). But in both of these cases, he fought an enemy singular of purpose and uncomplicated in motive—the White Walkers, who seek the destruction of all that is living, and the wildlings, who just wanted to get the fuck away from the White Walkers. It’s worth noting that the only time he’s fought an enemy with nuanced motives, they murdered him.

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Ramsay, by contrast, has no desire or purpose beyond the accrual of power to better facilitate his own pleasure and cruel entertainment. He will play with enemies for the sheer fun of playing with them. Jon is thus as uniquely unfit to deal with Ramsay as his father was with Littlefinger and Cersei Lannister. In this respect, for all his experience with battle, Jon is little better than a naïf beside Sansa, who brings not only her knowledge of Ramsay, but her experience of watching her father executed, her torment at Joffrey’s hands, and her confusing sojourn with Littlefinger at the Eyrie. At this stage in the game, she has the equivalent of a postgraduate degree in power and its abuses, while Jon has yet to pass his GED.

If we were unclear on this point, Sansa’s brutally realistic assessment of Rickon’s life expectancy shows us how much she has learned: “We’ll never get him back. Rickon is Ned Stark’s trueborn son, which makes him a greater threat to Ramsay than you, a bastard, and me, a girl. As long as he lives, Ramsay’s claim to Winterfell will be contested, which means … he won’t live long.” Sansa’s words prove prescient, as it is precisely with Rickon that Ramsay will taunt Jon into abandoning his careful battle plan. Two Starks with one stone, one might say.

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I thought Sansa was pretty magnificent in this episode, save for one crucial inconsistency. Why has she not told Jon about Littlefinger and the Lords of the Vale? It is understandable that she would have held back that information when she was determined to reject Littlefinger’s help—shortsighted and selfish, perhaps, but understandable considering the hatred she must feel for the man who married her to a monster. Considering that we know she’s sent a raven asking for his help after all, why would she not tell Jon? It’s not as though he’s ecstatic about attacking a force three times the size of his. “No, it’s not enough!” he shouts, a tinge of despair entering his voice. “It’s what we have!” It really makes no sense to withhold this from him, and that one point nagged at me throughout what was otherwise one of this show’s best episodes ever.

But whatever her reason, her heart or her shoes, she refuses to give Jon Littlefinger’s news. Which leads to bleak parting words that hearken back to season four. Sansa avows that she will not go back to Ramsay alive. When Jon promises to protect her, she says bitterly, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.” I don’t know about you, Nikki, but this line made me think of Cersei’s sad reply to Oberyn’s claim that they don’t hurt little girls in Dorne: “Everywhere in the world,” she says, “they hurt little girls.” Jon’s promise is no doubt sincere, but again, she knows more of the world than he does, and he can never understand what she’s been through. He’s been murdered, and he can’t grasp what she’s been through.

She leaves Jon alone in his tent, brooding, and Davos’ question to Tormund gives us a sound bridge over the edit: “So do you think there’s hope?” War makes for strange bedfellows, none stranger than these two. “You loved that cunt Stannis,” Tormund growls, “and I loved the man he burned … I believed in him. I believed he was the man to lead us through the Long Night. But I was wrong, just like you.” Perhaps, Davos counters, believing in kings is the mistake. Between Mance’s failure and the (not literal) demons whispering the Stannis, between Tyrion’s remind to Daenerys about her father’s madness and Daenerys’ acknowledgement that she, Tyrion, and Theon and Yara all had terrible fathers who left the world a worse place … we get a mini-seminar in this episode about the potentially corrosive aspects of power, and how desiring, getting, and possessing it can deform the mind.

And speaking of the demons whispering in Stannis’ skull, our next stop on our Night Before Battle Tour is Jon visiting Melisandre. Before you comment on that, Nikki, I’m curious: when Tormund thought Stannis’ demons were literally real, did you flash to Guardians of the Galaxy and Drax the Destroyer’s inability to understand metaphor? Or was that just me?

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Nikki: Hahahaha!! Tormund was the BEST in this episode. When Davos says Stannis had demons talking to him, and Tormund says matter-of-factly, “And did you see those demons?” I laughed and laughed. I want to see Davos and Tormund do “Who’s on First” together. Though… I guess then you’d have to explain the concept of baseball to the guy and… yeah, probably wouldn’t be as funny as Abbott and Costello doing it. (Though Abbott and Costello never finished a routine with the punchline, “Happy shitting.”)

And one quick word about Sansa: I could be completely wrong on this one, but my thinking is, Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming until the day of the battle. We saw her send a raven; we never saw her receive one. I’m sure many fans are probably coming down hard on Sansa (though it never occurred to me they would until I just read your thoughts above) but when I watched this episode, I automatically assumed she brought in Littlefinger’s troops the moment they arrived. And leave it to that cock to show up at the last minute after Rickon was already dead. I don’t think Sansa would risk Jon being killed because she wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Petyr? Yes. Sansa? No. I think she was hoping Jon would reconsider the battle, and part of her desperation in begging him to do so is that she hadn’t yet heard back from Baelish.

And why didn’t he RSVP? He received the Facebook invitation saying the battle would be happening on Saturday, and by god he wasn’t going to show up a full night early and have to pay for all of his soldiers to stay at the Best Westeros, so instead he just brought them in the day of, and they showed up a wee bit late. But just in time to stop things from becoming atrocious. Besides, I don’t think I have to go out too far on a limb to assume Baelish is going to want something in return (duh) and that something is Sansa Stark. And since he ALSO wants the North, I would assume he would be quite happy if every other Stark kid died off so Sansa would be the last heir, and he would become king. If Sansa knew he was coming, she would be able to warn Jon to hold off on the beginning of the battle, thus possibly saving Rickon’s life and ensuring Jon wouldn’t die. Baelish ensured the youngest Stark would die and was probably hoping Jon had already been crushed by the time he showed up.

It never occurred to me that Sansa was withholding information — I don’t think she had a clue Baelish was actually coming until he rang her doorbell on Battle Day.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Back to the night before the battle, Jon Snow goes to the Red Woman to seek her advice on the battle, but more importantly to ask her not to bring him back if he should die. She tells him it’s not within her control; if the Lord of Light wants her to bring Jon back, she must do it. “What kind of god would do something like that?” Jon asks. “The one we’ve got,” she replies.

Meanwhile, Davos goes on his traditional walk the night before battle, and finds Shireen’s stag. It’s a gut-wrenching moment where you can see the wheels turning in his head, and he turns back to the camp with only one thought: what monster have I brought into this fray? The same one who gave life to Jon Snow and is vowing to follow him to the end took Shireen’s life when she had vowed to follow another. Remember, it was last season’s penultimate episode where Shireen died, so the show took an entire season to bring it full circle. Also, on a purely production note, as Davos stood on the hill with that gorgeous sunrise behind him and the dark, dark sky above, I thought how long did it take them to line up that perfect shot?

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And these two quick scenes bring us back over to Meereen, where Tyrion and Daenerys are meeting with Theon and Yara. As you mentioned, Chris, apparently they took a TARDIS to get there that fast, but hey, let’s give the writers some artistic license. After all, we really can’t rule out that the Doctor may have spent some time in Westeros.

I really loved this scene. Tyrion won’t let Theon get off easily after making the remarks about his height way back in season one. A Lannister might always pay his debts, but it also seems that a Lannister never forgets. He reminds him of some of the ruder things he said about his dwarfism before telling him how unoriginal they are, and topping it off with a, “So how have things been going with you since then?” Ha! I know Theon has been through hell, and he’s actually become a character I quite like, but I despised him in season one as much as Tyrion despises him now, so I understand why Tyrion would have held onto his resentment.

But the far more important connection in this scene was that between Yara and Daenerys. Half girl-power, half flirtiness, the little smiles and knowing looks between the two were priceless. Theon explains that he’s handing rule of the Iron Islands over to his sister because he’s not fit to rule, but she is. Daenerys looks surprised, and asks Yara, “Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” “No more than Westeros,” says Yara, cunningly. And Daenerys gives her quite the sly smile when she says it. Yara and Theon explain that their uncle Euron plans to come to Meereen and give her his cock in the form of a marriage proposal, and if they were to pledge the Iron Islands back to Yara, that wouldn’t happen. “I imagine your offer is free of marriage demands?” asks Daenerys flirtily. “I wouldn’t demand it, but I’m open to anything,” says Yara. And the two queens smile knowingly at each other again.

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This bit of banter ranked right up there with meeting Lyanna Mormont for the first time.

Daenerys acknowledges that everyone in the room had shitty fathers who were shitty leaders, and that it’s up to the four of them to bring about change in the world. Again, the Father’s Day is about learning to be better than the piece of crap their fathers were. (Now if that doesn’t have the trappings of a Hallmark card, I don’t know what does.) Daenerys steps up to Yara and tells her they have a deal under the condition that the Ironborn can no longer rape, raid, or pillage. “But that’s our way of life,” says Yara, without even the slightest touch of irony. But if she wants to leave the world a better place than her father did, she must change. And with that, Daenerys and Yara grasp hands, and the Daenyara/Yarnerys ship is born.

Before we get to the play-by-play of the final battle, were you as thrilled with this scene as I was, Chris?

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Christopher: I thoroughly enjoyed it, TARDIS and/or jet-powered longships notwithstanding. I was particularly pleased that Daenerys seems to be learning. At least, that is what I took from her willingness to grant the Iron Islands a measure of self-determination in exchange for Yara’s loyalty. She corrects Tyrion when he voices his concern that other regions might demand their independence as well, saying, “She’s not demanding, she’s asking. The others are free to ask as well.” It’s early days, of course, but Daenerys appears to be thinking in terms of alternative political models—perhaps this is part of what she had in mind when she spoke of “breaking the wheel.”

Which brings us to the final battle, which is easily the most spectacular and well-shot of the entire series. And, unsurprisingly, the most expensive—between the dragons routing the slavers’ fleet and the Battle of the Bastards, this episode cost around $10 million to make, the most the show has spent to date. It was money well spent, especially in the latter battle. While the fight for Meereen was necessarily CGI-heavy, for the Jon and Ramsay throw-down, the director (Miguel Sapochnik, who last season gave us “Hardhome”), went a much more Lord of the Rings direction, eschewing the CGI for a far more tactile depiction, employing a legion of extras rather than an army of computer animators. CGI was of course employed, but it is far harder to see where it ends and real people begin than at any other point in the series so far. Though the battle took twenty-four days to shoot, it pays off in one of the dirtiest, bloodiest, and most realistic battles I’ve seen outside of the beginning of Gladiator.

It actually has a bit of the Gladiator feel to it, especially in the opening moments when we see the serried ranks of the forces facing them across the field, as Jon Snow walks his horse to the front. Jon, alas, is no Maximus however, and this battle demonstrates the truth of Ygritte’s repeated charge: he really does know nothing.

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Before getting into a discussion of Jon’s rash stupidity and respond to your thoughts on Sansa’s silence about the Vale knights, Nikki, I just want to point out something that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t until I happened across this article. Namely, this is the first time Game of Thrones has treated us to a proper set-piece battle. By that I mean a battle in which opposing forces draw themselves up on opposite sides of a battlefield and close on one another, with the various stages of the battle itself shown in some detail. All of the other battles we’ve seen on Game of Thrones have been sieges and/or assaults on fortresses, such as the Battle of Blackwater or the wildlings’ attack on the Wall; ambushes or routs, like Stannis’ attack on the wildling or his defeat by the Boltons; or small but bloody skirmishes, like Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep. In fact, the show has done a scrupulous job of keeping all of the other set-piece battle off-screen, usually just showing us the aftermath—perhaps most notably in season one, when Tyrion gets knocked out just as the Lannister army is about to take on the Starks, and he wakes up afterward.

This reluctance to depict large-scale battles in all their brutal glory is understandable. Such spectacles are extremely expensive to shoot, as this episode’s price-tag attests, and can too often end up being underwhelming when not done well (the Battle of Phillipi in season two of Rome comes to mind).

But they got this one right, from start to finish, and as the article I mentioned above points out, it demonstrates a solid grasp of historical military tactics, to the point where the original conception was based on the Battle of Agincourt, with Jon &co. playing the part of the beleaguered English. Though this idea had to be abandoned because of the ever-niggling question of budgets, the prominence of longbows as a crucial weapon lingers on in the thick flights of arrows punctuating the battle.

In fact, never mind Gladiator. It occurs to me just now that this battle’s closest filmic cousin is Kenny B’s Henry V.

The difference of course being that Henry V was not a raging idiot, and was not goaded into a suicidal charge by the Dauphin.

Oh, Jon Snow. You really do know nothing. I wrote in my notes “LISTEN TO SANSA!” as soon as Rickon appeared at the end of Ramsay’s rope. There’s that moment of tension as he raises his dagger over Rickon’s head, but it’s only tense for the characters in the scene and anyone who, for whatever reason, just started watching Game of Thrones with this episode—all the rest of us know that Ramsay’s not going to make things so simple.

And Jon, not unpredictably, falls for it. Sigh. As I said, he is his father’s son. Can we imagine a scenario in which Ned Stark would stand still when a loved one is in danger? Sansa’s dire prediction about Rickon is realized the moment we see him at the end of that rope. The one chance Rickon had of surviving, we realize, was to have been left moldering in the Winterfell dungeon by an overconfident Ramsay.

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Well … shit.

Again, this battle proves to be a distillation of Jon and Ramsay’s characters. Jon is honourable and brave to a fault; Ramsay is cruelly cunning, but also cowardly. He remains comfortably ensconced in his rearguard, from which vantage he can enjoy watching the blood and brutality of the battle. And his weapon of choice throughout this episode is the longbow, which symbolizes both his precision and unwillingness to close the distance between himself and his foe. It is worth remembering that among our first encounters with Ramsay were his “hunting” escapades, when he and the late unlamented Miranda shot fugitives like deer.

By contrast, none can fault Jon for his courage—nor for his skill. While he seems to have a preternatural capacity for avoiding arrows, he is in the thick of the battle from the start. When we’re on the ground and in the midst of the blood and mud, here the filmic analogue is more Saving Private Ryan than anything else. The chaos and confusion is visceral, and Jon’s struggle to escape the press of bodies was not good for my claustrophobia. The sequence did a fine job of shifting between shots establishing the overall shape and geography of the battle, and the ground-level anarchy of the melee.

Before handing it back to you, Nikki, I just want to say another word or three on Sansa’s recalcitrance, re: Littlefinger and the Vale knights. Considering just the story in and of itself, it seems likely that yes, Sansa did not want to say anything because she didn’t know if (a) her message would bring allies, or (b) her message was received at all. But that still makes no sense, mainly because this is no longer the naïve Sansa of season one. Which is why in this case I have to step outside of the story itself and just say that this was bad writing. I understand the need to bring things to a keen dramatic pitch, but in a season that has over-relied on deus ex machinas anyway, this was just hamfisted … especially when there was a way to have the Vale cavalry ride to the rescue and keep Sansa’s behavior consistent. Basically, the arrival of the Vale forces could have been revealed as something orchestrated by Jon and Sansa. If they’d had their fierce argument about the paucity of their forces just one episode ago rather than at the eleventh hour—perhaps ending with Sansa saying something like “There is one possibility …”—we could have had the Vale cavalry summoned by a signal from Davos after Ramsay committed all his men. In this scenario, the battle would have been won by strategy rather than mere chance, it would have been consistent with both Sansa’s character and, well, LOGIC, and it wouldn’t have been yet another deus ex machina but a clever tactical coup.

End rant. Thoughts?

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Nikki: I so agree with you on the Gladiator comparison, and Branagh’s Henry V. I kept expecting to hear the soaring music from Gladiator in this scene (and while we didn’t get it, the score was gorgeous, and kept our hearts pounding throughout the sequence). I’m going to stand my ground that Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming, and yes, she could have mentioned something about having sent the raven, and that in itself was a mistake not to have said something (even Brienne commented on that) but I don’t believe she knew he was coming. I, of course, could be proven 100% incorrect on this in the next episode and if so I’ll admit my mistake, but for now, I’m going to say that one of the themes of this episode was about leaders and advisors. Daenerys wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Tyrion suggested an alternative, she listened to him. Jon Snow wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Sansa suggested an alternative… he disagreed with her. As you pointed out, he believes he knows battle, and as much as he loves Sansa, she’s a girl. What does she know? Daenerys easily and handily wins her battle. And while Jon Snow ultimately wins his, it’s at a very grave cost, and only after Sansa saves them from annihilation at what I’m going to continue to contend was an 11½th hour arrival by Baelish.

But you’re right, Chris, in evoking the modern-day war imagery in what Jon Snow goes through on the ground. We always get the sweeping overviews in these medieval battles, with men on horses and men with arrows and swords. But in WWII epics we get the men in the trenches, in the mud, covered in the blood spatter of their victims while trying not to sink in the muck that surrounds them. This episode featured both.

And I’m going to take this opportunity to announce that my husband has NO FAITH in Jon Snow whatsoever. After Rickon met his horrible and inevitable death at the hands of Ramsay (my notes are just a frantic scribbling of ZIG ZAG… DAMN YOU, ZIG ZAG!!! Isn’t that how you outrun an alligator? Wouldn’t it have worked to throw off Ramsay? Sob…), Ramsay unleashed his army and they went headlong at Jon. “Well, that’s the end of Jon Snow,” said my husband. “No it’s not,” I replied, with an “are you effing KIDDING me?!” tone to my voice. “He doesn’t stand a chance, that’s the end of him,” he persisted.

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So I guess they had SOME viewers convinced he was going to die. I wasn’t one of them. From a purely writerly standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to bring him back to life, wander around the north for a few episodes, and then kill the guy again. That would be terrible writing, and then what? Just bring the dude back to life again? Even I would consider giving up the show if they pulled a stunt like that. That said, this scene was BRILLIANTLY filmed, where you don’t see Jon’s army at all, and when they come it’s an utter shock. Just beautiful. I can’t remember seeing anything like that in any other show. And then the choreography of Jon Snow dodging the horses and swords as he spins throughout the chaos — incredible. Yes, yes, I have no doubt it was green screened but I don’t care. Short of having Lyanna suddenly ride in with a Xena yell and kill them all with her superpower sonic hand cannons, this was everything I could have hoped for in the scene.

The episode didn’t back down on the gore, as you said, Chris. The pile of bodies that form a human death wall is enormous (and I couldn’t help but think, man, whoever ends up taking Winterfell in the end is going to have to deal with one hell of a stench in a day or two) and Jon ends up falling beside a horse just on the edge of the body wall. As the men use him to climb over, not realizing he’s not a dead body, he begins to roll under the actual dead bodies, quickly buried (once again my husband figured this was it for the bastard), and one can see how easily something like this could happen in battle. How often throughout history have men died in battle, not from a gunshot wound or an arrow or a sword, but simply being buried under the dead bodies of their fellow men? The idea is horrific.

And then Smalljon Umber’s men come flying down the hill, and for one brief hopeful moment I thought they were going to turn traitor, and actually mow down Ramsay’s men in fealty to House Stark. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and his men suddenly make the death tally in Snow’s column rise even more quickly than before.

But before Snow can be completely suffocated, he manages to pull himself free, and uses the shoulders of his comrades to pull himself up on top of them. But by this point, Ramsay’s men have surrounded them with shields, and are pushing inward, bit by bit, until they’re being crushed like people in the front row at a Morrissey concert. At this point, I’m yelling, “STOMP THEM, WUN WUN!! STOMP THEM!!” But our poor last giant on earth is being slowed down by the vast number of swords that are hitting him. And then Sansa shows up with Baelish’s men, and they make mincemeat of Ramsay’s men. Or, in the case of Tormund, he, like, eats one of their faces. AAAHHH!!

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ramsay_uh-ohAnd just as you said, Chris, what happens next? Ramsay turns and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, because he’s a coward. And Jon—who is the opposite of a coward— is in hot pursuit, along with Wun Wun and Tormund. I just want to pause here and say that this season has not been kind to the giants of the show, whether literal (Wun Wun) or gentle (Hodor). And in both cases, a door is involved right before they die. Hodor dies holding the door, and Wun Wun dies opening it. There was a part of me that wondered if this might have been a merciful end to the creature; after all, there are no other giants alive besides him, if the legends can be believed, and therefore he is alone. He doesn’t sit around campfires gabbing with the Free Folk; he sits apart. They only want him for battles, where he can take out 15 men in the time it takes them to kill one. Otherwise, I imagine he’s pretty alone. But it’s because of him that everything that happens next, happens.

And I will leave you to break down what happens next, and the very end of the episode, Chris. My last words on this episode are twofold: when the direwolf banner unfurled along the wall of Winterfell, I thought I was going to weep tears of joy. What a beautiful thing, even if at such a cost. And secondly, I think someone got off easy at the end—they could have funded the next 10 years of Winterfell upkeep just selling tickets for people to come and take one thwack at him like a pinata.

Chris, take us through the rest of it.

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Christopher: The simple image of the Stark banner is perhaps the most poignant visual in this episode, much more so than that of Daenerys’ dragons burning the slavers’ fleet—precisely because of what it cost. By the same token, the retaking of Winterfell is far less triumphal than Daenerys’ victory. Her victory was quite literally unequivocal, both in terms of how completely she crushed the slavers, and also because (whatever Tyrion’s mitigating influence) it came without compromise. Indeed, Daenerys returned to Meereen more powerful than ever, as the Sons of the Harpy learned when the khalasar came thundering around the corner.

However many problems she had in ruling Meereen, Daenerys nevertheless comprises a sort of revolutionary ideal, or, perhaps more accurately, an idealized revolutionary. Breaker of chains, freer of slaves, she is an unequivocal saviour and hero.

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By contrast, Winterfell represents the accrual of blood and pain and sacrifice that comes with war. The Starks limp into Winterfell battered and nearly broken. The defeat of Ramsay came at a staggering cost, and everyone is somehow compromised. Winterfell is Sansa’s home, yet it will also always be the site of her rape and systematic brutalization at Ramsay’s hands. For all they know, Jon and Sansa are the last of the Stark children. Rickon was killed. Robb and Catelyn were murdered by the people who took Winterfell from them. Jon came within a hairsbreadth of losing everything. The last of the giants gave his life for people who, a mere year ago, would have happily seen him dead. Davos looks with loathing at Melisandre, who he now knows was Shireen’s murderer. And lest we forget, victory came at the cost of Sansa putting her trust in the man who handed her over to Ramsay to start with. We don’t know what the cost of that compromise will be—what will Littlefinger name as his price?

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That being said, it is not as though the final moments of this episode, from the appearance of the Arryn forces to Ramsay’s ultimate demise, don’t possess a significant number of deeply satisfying elements. Ramsay’s face as the scope of his defeat dawns on him was definitely worth the price of admission; ditto for Jon advancing implacably through his hail of arrows to beat him bloody. And of course his final fate. A few episodes ago, a friend and I started gaming out the Ramsay Death Odds, figuring that there was a reasonably good chance he wouldn’t make it out of this season alive. Given that most of the big bads’ deaths have been at the very least ironically appropriate, I put Sansa killing him at 2:1, and being eaten by his own hounds at even money.

How about that? Called it! As big bads’ deaths go, I rate it Five Tywins On The Shitter.

The final scene was a testament both to Sansa’s evolution as a character, and the quiet strength and dignity Sophie Turner brings to her. She remains silent as Ramsay speaks, until he says “You can’t kill me. I’m part of you now.” His words reflect his particularly pernicious species of evil, which is not merely his penchant for cruelty and torture, but his need to break people, as he did in turning Theon into Reek. It was obvious he had similar plans for Sansa. When she stands outside his cell, with the guttering torches in the background and snowflakes drifting by, it is a visual callback to last season and the shot of her through the cross-hatched casement window as she prepares for her wedding. Though she still carries the trauma of that night and the many that followed, she has survived. The shot through the window turned her tower into a figurative prison cell, but now she looks in on Ramsay in his literal one. The tableau could only have been improved by letting Ramsay know that, as they speak, Theon is on the other side of the world, bargaining with a queen to win his sister a throne.

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“Your words will disappear,” Sansa tells him. “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As she speaks, the camera pans down Ramsay’s battered profile, until we see the hound framed in the open door beside him. “They’re loyal beasts,” Ramsay protests. “They were,” she corrects him. “Now they’re starving.”

As I tweeted after watching this episode: to quote Buffy Summers, as justice goes it is not unpoetic.

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Well, that’s it for now. Join us next week as we wrap up yet another season of Game of Thrones. Thanks for reading, and remember: it’s never a good idea to starve your pets for a week. Not hounds, and especially not dragons.

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Game of Thrones 6.08: No One

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Hello, friends—it is that time again, when Nikki and I recap, review, interrogate, analyze, and generally pontificate over the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Can you believe that this was episode eight? That we have only two more episodes to go this season before Nikki and I are again frozen in carbonite until next year, when we’ll be thawed for season seven?

At any rate, this week we saw the Hound go on a rampage, Varys depart for mysterious reasons, Cersei being mildly impious, the happy reunion of Jaime and Brienne, a Daenerys ex machina, and Arya’s best impression of the film Face/Off. Excelsior!

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Christopher: We begin with yet another theatrical retread of the Purple Wedding, this time focusing on Lady Crane’s portrayal of Cersei’s grief over Joffrey’s death. Much of what we have seen of this play has been broad and crude, with a reliance on fart jokes and highly stylized acting, and a great deal of mugging for the audience. But “Cersei’s” speech is much closer of what modern audiences expect of a stage play: though the speech is written in verse, and declamatory in delivery, Lady Crane nevertheless brings a measure of naturalism to her performance that conveys a palpable sense of grief and brings much of the audience to tears.

The fact that we have now seen segments of this play several times develops several themes, not least of which is a greater sense of how the events in Kings Landing have developed into a narrative divorced from historical reality. The first time we watched the play along with Arya, we felt the profound disconnect: between the play’s presentation of an oafish Ned, murderous Tyrion, noble Joffrey, and maligned Cersei, and our own experience as audience to the “actual” events. There was ironic humour to be found in just how wrong the play gets things, but we were also given pause by the parallel between the play’s broken-telephone storytelling and the truth of Ned’s fight with Ser Arthur Dayne, as witnessed by Bran. And this moment, where Lady Crane channels Cersei’s grief at her son’s death, reminds us of how powerful truths can emerge from fabulation and fiction.

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Cersei did not, of course, deliver a moving speech over Joffrey’s body. She was, in fact, all but inarticulate until she started hurling accusations at Tyrion. But her grief was real, and in this moment of stage acting, Lady Crane communicates a mother’s grief well enough to move an audience; and I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I was impressed with her performance-within-a-performance, not least because it evoked one of Cersei’s few redeeming features. We might laugh when the Queen of Thorns muses about whether or not Cersei is in fact the worst person ever, but we cannot doubt the love she has for her children.

As it turns out, Lady Crane’s eulogy for “Joffrey” effectively sets the key theme for this episode. Coming away from it, I reflected that the title is a red herring: Arya’s erstwhile process of becoming “No One” was all about divesting herself of worldly attachments, of leaving behind name, family, loves and hates, and (apparently) any sense of morality or ethics. But this episode is very much about such attachments, the way in which individuals’ attachments to their very personal wants and needs—whether they be about love of another, the desire for vengeance, a sense of honour, hatred or grievance—drive the affairs of state. Jaime will do anything to get back to Cersei; the Hound thirsts for vengeance, and damn all who stand in his way; the Blackfish will not sacrifice his ancestral home to aid his niece; Brienne will fight Jaime if need be, in order to remain true to her oath to Sansa.

And Arya will desert the Faceless Men at her own peril, to embrace her name and her idiosyncratic sense of self.

I kind of love the fact that, in fleeing the Faceless Men, Arya finds her way to the theatre troupe as a way-station, and that Lady Crane ends up being her saviour, after a fashion. The show has used the theatre and the play (and the players) to good thematic effect this season, not just in terms of highlighting the role played by story and narrative, but also as an interesting parallel to Arya’s apprenticeship with the Faceless Men. The role of an actor is not to become “no one” per se, but to dissolve one’s ego into a role; hence, the best actors are often those who can be literally unrecognizable when playing a part. Acting mimics the way in which the Faceless Men go about their business, and so when Lady Crane tells Arya, “I’ve got a feeling you’d be good at this sort of work,” we’re a little obliged to nod in agreement. (Just as an aside, she adds that they’ll be needing a new actress, as she did something horrible to Bianca; were Arya to join them, would she end up playing Sansa? Weird to think about).

So Arya’s safe—for the moment—and falls asleep in Lady Crane’s care. But on the other side of the sea, the man she left for dead begins his <Archer voice>RAMPAAAAAAGE!</Archer voice>. What did you think of the Hound once again embracing a wee bit of the ultra-violence, Nikki?

 

Nikki: You hit the nail on the head with that introduction, Chris. People commented back near the beginning of this season that the episode on Mother’s Day felt like it had been written for Mother’s Day, but to me, this episode spoke even more to that. The best shows, in my mind — Buffy, Angel, Lost, Babylon 5, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, just to name a few — use plot as a device to convey the deep connections people have to one another, and the sacrifices they are willing to make for those people. Interesting that it was Arya who told Lady Crane to change those words in the opening, and it was only on relying on her imagination of Cersei’s connection to Joffrey — connection being the very thing Arya was supposed to divest herself of — that Crane turns the Punch and Judy show into emotional theatre.

But then we have the Hound, the first of the Clegane brothers who has a very busy day this week. Yeesh, I don’t know what Mama Clegane fed these boys for breakfast, but man… As we see the four men sitting and talking like drunken high schoolers, in the background you can see the Hound coming up on them quickly with the axe in his hand, already swinging, and it’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying to watch. He cuts down the first two in no time, before taking out the third and finally burying the axe in the single most painful place one can imagine (I’m a woman, and it still had me crossing my legs and squealing in imagined pain). And before he finishes him off, he allows the man a final word. And when the guy fails at that, Sandor gives him another chance at a final word. And when even that comes from the Al Swearengen Big Book of Final Words, Sandor gives up, kills him with one blow and says, “You’re shit at dying, you know that?”

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Oh, how I’ve missed the Hound.

Meanwhile, over in Meereen, Tyrion is patting himself on the back for welcoming the Lord of Light acolytes into Meereen and bringing peace to all. “You made a pact with fanatics,” says Varys. “And it worked,” Tyrion replies.

“Yeah, that’s what your sister said, too,” says all of the viewers at home. Varys tells Tyrion that he’s heading off on a secret mission, but that he’ll return soon. But in order to do so he needs to take leave of Tyrion, because his mission won’t be so secret if he’s seen being accompanied by the most famous dwarf in the city. Tyrion corrects him — “the most famous dwarf in the world” — and in doing so, made me realize that Dinklage himself might actually hold that honour.

And speaking of Lannisters who allowed religious fanatics into the city and perhaps later regretted it, we’re off to the Red Keep with Cersei and that other Clegane brother who’s come back from the dead. What did you think of the Mountain v. Sparrows death match, Chris?

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Christopher: As I mentioned last week, something that Game of Thrones is quite good at doing is tweaking the audience’s hierarchy of hatred. Cersei for a long time was one of the bad guys (and in some ways still very much is), and of course we hate the Mountain for crushing Oberyn’s head like a melon—to say nothing of the fact that we’re really creeped out by Frankenmountain. But for many, many episodes now, the Sparrows have been infuriatingly untouchable, and the High Sparrow too smug by half. So when Cersei forces a confrontation and chooses violence, there is a certain guilty satisfaction to it, especially considering that Margaery’s gambit denied us the viewing pleasure of watching the Tyrell soldiers storm the sept.

There is, however, a certain amount of pathos to the scene, as we’re all too aware that Tommen has ceded yet more ground to the High Sparrow, and that with every yard he yields, it takes him that much farther out of Cersei’s orbit and influence. For a scene that ended so bloodily, it began with great stillness: Cersei sitting alone at a table with her back to the door, her ever-present glass of wine at her elbow. The news that members of the Faith Militant have entered the Red Keep means, as Cersei divines, that Tommen continues to allow the High Sparrow to dictate to him. The Red Keep, after all, is the seat of the Crown in King’s Landing: Tommen allowing the Sparrows to enter is a surrender of sovereignty, and the High Sparrow’s newfound arrogance in summoning Cersei speaks to his worrisome influence over the king.

That new influence is not lost on Cersei, nor is the knowledge that if she leaves the Red Keep and enters the Sept of Baelor, she surrenders what little protection she has left. “I choose violence,” she says, but she hasn’t actually been left much of a choice—and backing Cersei into a corner isn’t precisely the wisest of courses, as one poor (now headless) Sparrow learns.

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“Uh-oh.”

I do hope her moment of smug satisfaction as she watches the Sparrow’s blood run into the drain was worth it. “Please tell his High Holiness he’s always welcome to visit,” she adds as a parting shot in classic Cersei fashion, but her defiance looks to have some negative consequences. Arriving at a royal announcement for which she was apparently left off the email list, she has to suffer the dual humiliation of being relegated to the gallery “with the other ladies of the court,” and seeing the loathed Grand Maester Pycelle whispering in her son’s ear. And then the boom comes down: after consulting with the High Sparrow, Tommen has decided to outlaw trial by combat … Cersei’s one ace in the hole, the means by which she was to avoid the humiliation of being found guilty, by unleashing the Frankenmountain on whatever hapless knight they send against her.

But no more … and the pathos of the earlier tableau is deepened as we watch Cersei watch her son depart the throne room, unable to make eye contact, unable to reach him any longer. All she has left now is the Frankenmountain … and Qyburn, who cryptically tells her that the “rumour” she had mentioned to him was something much more than just a rumour. Is this her new ace in the hole? One of the things I like about this season being off book is that I honestly have no idea. It will be interesting to see what Qyburn has up his voluminous sleeves.

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The Cersei scenes are juxtaposed with Brienne’s arrival at the Lannister camp, and her tete-a-tete with Jaime. The serried rows of red tents are not what she had expected or hoped for. “Looks like a siege, m’lady,” observes Podrik. “You have a keen military mind, Pod,” Brienne replies sardonically, as she scans the camp and espies Jaime. This much is a boon: one imagines that if they had arrived before the Lannisters invested the castle, the Freys would not have been very welcoming. She sends word down, and is cordially received, leaving Pod outside to be tormented by Bronn.

This was one of those moments from the trailer for this season that looked more threatening than it was: Pod suddenly grabbed from behind, which had some fans speculating that he might be joining the ranks of the GoT dead. But no … just Bronn, having a bit of fun, and reminding us that, once upon a time, they had both been in the service of Tyrion.

“I never thought you’d find her,” we hear Jaime say while Bronn coaches Pod in the art of dirty fighting. “I just assumed Sansa was dead.” In answer to Brienne’s incredulity about the question, he shrugs, “In my experience, girls like her don’t live that long.” Brienne’s observation—“I don’t think you know many girls like her”—is quite possibly my favourite line from this episode. It is freighted with everything we have seen Sansa endure, and Gwendoline Christie delivers it with a deadpan gravity that similarly articulates both Sansa’s hard-won resilience and Brienne’s respect, admiration, and devotion to her.

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Despite the fraught situation without Jaime’s tent, this reunion is a guardedly happy one—though Jaime reminds us that nothing is simple, given that Cersei still wants Sansa’s head on a pike in the belief that she was complicit in Joffrey’s death. But Jaime is not Cersei, and he is quite open to being reasonable. Hence he agrees to Brienne’s proposal that, if she can convince the Blackfish, he will allow the Tully army to march north unmolested to join Jon Snow’s forces.

Oh, what a beautiful dream … how perfect would it have been for everything to have fallen out precisely that way? Jon would get the men he needs, the Tullys would avoid bloodshed, Jaime would fulfill his mission. But as I said in my opening comments, the movement of the pieces on the board are far more subject to the vicissitudes of personal passions, attachments, and desires. The Blackfish will not be moved, not even by the words of his grand-niece who has, as he says, become very much like her mother. “Find a maester,” Brienne tells Pod. “We need to get a raven north to Sansa.” With what message? he asks. “Tell her I failed.”

Not all matters of state are quite so weighty, however … what did you think of Tyrion’s efforts to get Grey Worm and Missandei to drink and tell jokes, Nikki?

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Nikki: Poor Tyrion, stuck with the two unfunniest people in Westeros. I couldn’t help but think, I don’t drink, but I think I’ve been to this party. (And I might have been Missandei in that situation…) Like Missandei, I’m a teetotaler, mostly because wine makes me feel funny, and unlike 99% of the population, I don’t like the funny feeling. But according to Tyrion, “That’s how you know it’s working.”
We’ve always looked to Tyrion as the voice of reason and intelligence on the show, the man who, though small in stature, often stands above everyone. And yet it’s in moments like this one we’re reminded he’s the family joke not just because of his size, but because he long ago turned to prostitutes and alcohol as a way to dull the pain of being emotionally abandoned by his father and loathed by his sister, of being the one whose very birth caused the death of his own mother. He has a weakness, and he gives into it time and time again. While he possesses a mind that could win the Iron Throne, he instead dreams of one day having a wine called “The Imp’s Delight” that he would give only to his friends. And once Grey Worm rejects the wine — “it tastes like it’s turned” — and Missandei discovers that the red stuff isn’t so bad after all, Tyrion settles in and asks them both to tell him a joke. So Missandei tries her hand at it, and it’s surprisingly humorous. Grey Worm one-ups her by telling her it’s the worst joke he’s ever heard… and then has to explain the punchline that it’s the only joke he’s ever heard, having been a member of the Unsullied, where jokes are few.

It’s all fun and games until someone screams, and when that happens, Grey Worm runs from the room to find out what’s going on. These scene stands in stark contrast to when we’ll return to this group, where Tyrion — the leader, who urges them to give in to his favourite pastimes — shows that his political cunning isn’t so hot after all, and it’s the terrible joke-tellers who end up taking over and leading them all.

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But now back over to Riverrun, where Jaime and Edmure have a chat inside the tent where Eddie is being kept prisoner. I was glad they had a lengthy Tobias Menzies scene; Menzies has become quite a sought-after British actor, and Game of Thrones nabbed him relatively early, so I wondered if we were just going to get quick scenes with him. But the scene between Jaime and Edmure is excellent, and ties in to what you talked about in your opening, Chris. Edmure might be ineffectual as a Tully, as a fighter, even as a man, but despite only being his with his wife for a single night, he cares for her, and the baby that their single night of lovemaking produced. Jaime comes into the tent and acts sympathetic towards Edmure, telling him that he’ll make sure he’s made more comfortable. But Edmure’s having none of it. “Do you understand you’re an evil man?” he asks Jaime. Jaime is smug and aloof throughout this scene, but despite the humour of last week’s fake-out throat-cutting scene, Edmure has been tortured for the past three years while other events have been playing out. His wedding ended with the murder of his sister, nephew, and nephew’s wife and unborn child. He thought he was marrying a rare beauty, only to have her snatched from him as he was thrown into prison. And it was all due to the Lannisters and Boltons aligning with the Freys to get back at the Starks. He asks Jaime how he lives with himself, how he tells himself he’s a decent man.

Jaime tells Edmure that he was once imprisoned by Catelyn, who hit him with a rock. He says that she hated him, but he admired her because she’s a mother, and everything she did was for her children, whom she adored more than anything. And in Catelyn he saw the same devotion he’d always known of his sister, Cersei, who, as you pointed out earlier, Chris, and as we’ve discussed many times in these posts, is unfailingly devoted to her children. She would do anything for them. Lady Crane’s portrayal of Cersei at the outset of this episode was truthful in her devotion to Joffrey, and we know the pain with which she endured the death of Myrcella. Now we’re seeing Tommen going down a rocky path, and the internal struggle Cersei is going through — will she end up betraying the only child she has left? How will she get out of this one?

But it’s in that devotion to one’s children that Jaime comes at Edmure. He knows that Edmure cares about the child he’s never seen, and by mentioning his anger that he’s never gotten to see his son, Edmure accidentally shows his hand. Jaime has also lost his children, and he has one left, but there’s only one person he’s ever been 100% devoted to, and that’s Cersei. And as he says to Edmure, he will slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, if that’s what he has to do. He threatens Edmure’s child, saying he will strap the baby to a catapult and launch it into Riverrun just to get the Blackfish’s attention. He doesn’t care about filial ties—all he cares about is Cersei.

And that’s when he gives Edmure an offer he can’t refuse. What did you think of Edmure going to the gates as the Lord of Riverrun, Chris? Was that something that was in the books?

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Christopher: That was indeed something that happened in A Feast for Crows—right down to the threat to launch Edmure’s child from a catapult. I was wondering how they meant to play this, whether they would sync this narrative up with the novels, or make another departure.

And, well, they’ve mostly been faithful to the text here: Edmure was indeed responsible for negotiating the surrender of Riverrun, though it did not proceed as it does in this episode. Edmure orders the castle’s surrender, but arranges for the Blackfish to make his escape by swimming down the river—something that angers Jaime, as the Blackfish’s freedom is something that could be a problem down the road. Instead, he allows Brienne and Pod to escape (or rather, they make their escape before anyone notices their departure), and Jaime sees them as they row off down the river. Further, the Blackfish ostensibly dies fighting—though given that that happens offscreen, it leaves open the possibility that he also escaped. A possibility, but not a likely one, as it seems improbable that Jaime’s men would lie to him about that, and it would be suspicious if a body could not be produced.

The Riverrun scenes were ultimately more about Jaime and Brienne than they were about Edmure, the Blackfish, or the Tully fortunes. We’ve come a long way from the original Jaime & Brienne roadshow, with her suffering his jibes and mockery with every step, and him the subject of her withering contempt. There is now a deep and mutual respect: Bronn’s idle speculation to Pod on whether or not they were having sex serves as a comic, if crude, contrast to the actual regard they have for each other. Brienne might protest to the Blackfish that Jaime Lannister is not her friend, and it’s entirely likely that she still doesn’t actually like him, but she sees past the simplistic labels he’s been marked with and grasps the complexity of his character, just as Jaime sees past the negative connotations that attach to a woman wearing armour. He refuses to take his sword back, which is a huge gift considering the rarity and value of Valyrian steel; but it is the salute they share as she floats down the river that speaks volumes.

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From one siege to another, we move from the fall of Riverrun to where Meereen is under assault from the masters of Astapor and Yunkai. I don’t have much to say about this scene, aside from that it was my least favourite in the episode—both perfunctory and predictable, it at least means that we won’t have a protracted siege of Meereen played out over several episode. Daenerys is back, her dragons will make short work of the attacking ships, and she has an entirely new army to add to the men she already has. With Yara’s ships making their suspiciously fast way from the Iron Islands, I’m laying even money on Daenerys’ departure for Westeros as the final shot of the season.

More interesting is the Hound’s encounter with the Brotherhood Without Banners, which answers my lingering question from last episode: namely, had this formerly altruistic band of do-gooders gone bad? Had the endless, soul-destroying task of fighting the power driven them onto the Dark Side?

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To which this episode replies: well, some of them. But Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr are still with the living, and pass sentence on their men who rape and pillage. Their sentence is too lenient for the Hound’s liking, but he doesn’t say no to hanging two out of the three. Considering how messily he butchered the others, these ones got off easy.

Thoros and Beric make the case for joining the Brotherhood, and though Clegane is skeptical, it’s fairly obvious this is how things will go. They appeal to his sense of idealism, which is perhaps the wrong tack. “Lots of horrible shit in this world,” he retorts, “gets done for something larger than ourselves.” Having seen the Faith Militant at work, as well as Melisandre’s numerous excesses, it’s not a sentiment we can necessarily disagree with. But having passed through a life of indiscriminate violence, through atonement, and now vengeance again, there is one dimension to the Hound that Beric identifies unerringly, and one that Clegane cannot deny: “You’re a fighter,” he says. That he is in spades, and it looks pretty obvious that he’ll be continuing in that capacity alongside Beric and Thoros.

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This episode, and indeed the previous few episodes, develop the strong sense of the pieces being arranged on the playing board. The die is cast for the battle of the bastards, which may or may not feature the Vale armies playing Rohan to Jon Snow’s Gondor; Daenerys is back and, we assume, ready to make her return to Westeros; the Hound will likely rejoin the fight on the side of the angels; and one other key character is ready to reclaim her birthright and also go home.

What did you think of the climactic showdown between the Waif and Arya, Nikki? And what did you think of her embracing her name and home again?

 

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And the award for Game of Thrones episode that most resembles a Jason Bourne film goes to …

Nikki: I loved the final Arya story of the episode. We begin back at Lady Crane’s flat, where she has given Arya a sleeping draught and is reaching up to the top shelf to grab something else (it’s unclear what it is, since we know the milk of the poppy is already sitting on the side table). And no sooner had I written in my notes, “Boy who looks like waif appears” then the boy who looks like the waif kills Lady Crane in a rather grotesque fashion — and, naturally, it turns out to be the waif herself.

I was sad to see the death of Lady Crane, but it was a strong symbol for Arya and her story. Until now she’s been playing a role. We knew the moment she buried Needle and refused to give it up that there was no way she ever become a selfless, faceless person. She could walk around calling herself “a girl” and pretending to be one of the faceless assassins, but Arya cares too much for her family, her name, and who she is. If she had given up her very self, she’d be turning her back on Sansa, Bran, Rickon, Jon, and the memory of her parents. She’d betray the memory of her brother Robb, who became King of the North and was the first Stark to do so. The Starks are a strong family, and it’s arguable that Arya is the strongest of the bunch — for her to give up her very self would be giving up everything. And besides, after this season word has it they’re pulling a Breaking Bad and giving us two shorter 7-episode seasons, so it’s not like they have a ton of time to take Arya on a journey of utterly losing herself and then finding it again. It’s time to get Arya back.

Lady Crane was a woman who played another woman on stage, an actress who was caring and kind to those who showed her the same, but, from what she says earlier in this episode, wreaks ruthless vengeance on anyone who doesn’t. (Much like the woman she plays.) Arya was the one who told her she needed to introduce a tone of vengeance into Joffrey’s death speech, and in doing so, perhaps she instilled the very idea into Lady Crane. Lady Crane played a character, and then began to embody parts of that character.

So, too, has Arya been playing a character all this time, and yes, she’s taken on parts of who that character is. Before she met Jaqen, Arya had a death list, and she would soothe herself by repeating the names on that list to herself over and over again. But it was only when Jaqen arrived and she saw what it actually meant to be an assassin that she first questioned her future as a cold-hearted killer, and then embraced parts of it. Arya resists doing things she doesn’t believe in — she couldn’t bring herself to poison Lady Crane, for example — but when she believes it’s right, Jaqen has taught her how to get the job done.

The dead actress in the apartment signals the end of Arya’s acting, and she runs for her life, away from the waif who is hellbent on killing her. A theory had been going around the internet recently (I only read the headline and didn’t bother with the theory itself; if it’s true, I don’t want to be that spoiled) that the waif doesn’t actually exist, and that this would turn out to be some Fight Club–inspired thing where the waif is simply another side of Arya, part of her imagination at war with her. Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be true (I don’t think that scenario would be suited to the world of Game of Thrones) and Arya leads the waif on a long, painful journey right to Needle’s nest. And then, just like a blind Audrey Hepburn smashing all the lights in Wait Until Dark when an intruder comes into her apartment, Arya cuts out the candle. She knows how to fight whilst blind — and the waif doesn’t.

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I’ve had the sense for some time that Arya is a favourite of Jaqen’s, despite him being so hard on her. He never has a smile for the waif, who is filled with hatred and jealousy at every turn. He knows the waif believes she is selfless, but this constantly loathing she has prevents her from truly being one of the faceless men, because she feels that hatred too strongly. Jaqen doesn’t kill out of hate: he kills because the person whose name has been chosen… has been chosen. And he needs no more reason than that. He holds nothing personal against those whom he kills. With Arya, I think he saw someone he could shape and mould, but I was never convinced that he believed she could become one of the faceless, nor did he want her to be. When the waif asks to kill Arya, and he makes her promise to do it quickly, I wonder if he meant for her to die quickly, as if he already knew Arya would best her. Did he blind her so she could learn how to fight in the dark? Did he strip her of everyone so she would find the will and the power to overcome the waif in their final battle? Did he know she would triumph and then head back to Westeros to help take back Winterfell?

He knows when a new face has been added to the wall. He descends the stairs amidst the firepots (who keeps all of those going, by the way? Seems a wee bit excessive, but anyway…) And when the face turns out to be the waif’s, and Arya comes up behind him, he looks neither surprised nor disappointed. “You told her to kill me,” Arya says, as she holds Needle out to him.

“Yes, but here you are, and there she is,” he says, moving his body against the tip of her sword. “Finally, a girl is no one.”

“A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell,” she says, “and I’m going home.” And with that, a small smile plays at the corner of Jaqen’s lips, as if he knew this was how it was to play out the whole time. As if he’s actually proud of Arya for refusing to slough off her very self, and for returning to the place she should have been this whole time. It’s a fantastic moment, and one of the highlights of this season so far.

And with that, as you say, Chris, we seem to be putting the pieces in order. As the credits rolled I said to my husband that things are moving very quickly now. I wondered aloud if next season was going to be the fight for Winterfell, and the final season the battle for all of Westeros. And then the “Previously on” section showed after the credits and I realized oh. Maybe we don’t have to wait so long for one of those things to happen.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we’ll see you next week for the penultimate episode!

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Game of Thrones 6.07: The Broken Man

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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 …

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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Now that she’s everyone’s new favourite character, that doesn’t bode well for her life expectancy.

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?

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You know, for a show full of knights and castles, this might be the first time we’ve seen a proper moat and drawbridge.

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“Darling, you’ve aged horribly!”

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Game of Thrones 6.06: Blood of My Blood

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Welcome friends once again to the latest installment of the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, in which we recap, review, squee, shudder, and throw shade at the Randyll Tarlys and Walder Freys of the world. Well, of that world, anyway. For what felt when I watched it like a middling episode, a lot actually went down this week—including but not limited to the return of a Stark, the origin of Samwell’s insecurity issues, Arya’s possible career change, and an object lesson in how best to deliver rousing speeches (hint: on the back of a dragon).

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Christopher: It occurred to me at a certain point during this episode that we need to do a special retrospective blog post when The Winds of Winter comes out, in which we talk about the deviations from GRRM’s story the series has made, but also what aspects of the novel the series has now revealed in advance (I don’t want to say “spoiled,” because that’s not entirely accurate). This week’s episode has revealed a whole bunch of plot twists that may or may not be consonant with the novels, so it will be interesting to see which ones bear out. Do Margaery and Tommen embrace the Faith and side with the High Sparrow against their houses? Does Arya rebel against the Faceless Men and reassert her own sense of self? Will Daenerys turn her and her dragons’ noses toward Westeros after her capture by the Dothraki?

The one twist that rings true, if for no other reason than that it has long been fan speculation, is that Bran’s mysterious benefactor Coldhands (as he is called in the novels) is actually his long-lost Uncle Benjen. We first meet Coldhands in A Storm of Swords as a strange, almost wight-ish figure riding an elk, who aids Sam and Gilly in their escape south from Craster’s Keep. Sam and Gilly make their way south of the Wall through a secret passage under the Nightfort, encountering Bran and his entourage as they do. This of course also happens on the show (episode 3.10), with Sam showing Bran et al the way north and promising not to tell Jon; in the novels, however, Coldhands is there to meet Bran and guide him north.

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The absence of this character from the series was broadly assumed to be yet another instance where the show chose to pare down the novels’ ever-increasing ensemble, so his appearance at this late stage makes me wonder if any other elided characters will be making surprise appearances. It also makes me wonder, as I write this, whether or not GRRM intended for Coldhands to be Benjen—might this be an instance of the series listening to fan speculation and deciding that it was expedient to satisfy us on this one point and bring back a character to be this week’s deus ex machina? Did it just happen that the actor in question (Joseph Mawle) was available to step back into the role after a five-year hiatus?

Like I said: we need to do a special Winds of Winter post, which at this point will probably be around 2025.

I think I said something a few posts ago, apropos of the wildling rescue of the Snow loyalists, that the writers need to be more parsimonious with their use of the deus ex machina. Such is the case here: we know that Hodor bought Bran and Meera a few minutes with his heroic sacrifice, but not much more than that. Meera is not Hodor: she is struggling rather desperately to drag Bran’s sledge, but her strength is flagging, and Bran is meanwhile stuck in his visionary stupor. It’s pretty obvious that they’re about to need rescuing, and I have written in my notes “Coldhands?” And lo and behold, here he is, though sadly not riding an elk (perhaps because he was too embarrassed to do so after watching The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies), but armed with a sweet flaming morningstar.

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Thranduil kind of ruined elks for everyone else. Thanks a lot, dude.

(Can I argue a point of logic here? Meera pauses in mid-flight to desperately try to wake Bran up. Is this really the best use of her energies? Not to sound ableist, but it’s not as though there’s anything more he can do while awake).

Bran himself seems to be stuck in information overload, bombarded by a welter of images from the past—many of which we’ve seen in the course of the show, and some of which he experienced (such as his fall from the broken tower)—but many of which he was not present for, such as the execution of his father. And we see some new scenes: most notably, we get a glimpse of the Mad King Aerys sitting on the Iron Throne, shouting “Burn them all!”, along with images of wildfire being poured into vessels and being detonated. Hopefully this means that in future episodes we’ll be treated to scenes of the last days of the Mad King, whose paranoia and insanity brought down the Targaryen dynasty. Until now, we’ve only had stories: most memorably, the story Jaime told Brienne back in season three. Once again, the embedding on the video is disabled, but it’s worth revisiting. Jaime asks Brienne if she’s familiar with wildfire. “Of course,” she retorts, and he says,

The Mad King was obsessed with it. He loved to watch people burn. Have their skin blackened, burnt, melted off their bones. He burned lords he didn’t like, he burned Hands who disobeyed him, he burned anyone who was against him. Before long half the country was against him. Aerys saw traitors everywhere. So he had his pyromancer place caches of wildfire all over the city. Beneath the Sept of Baelor. The slums of Fleabottom. Under houses, stables, taverns. Underneath the Red Keep itself. Finally, the day of reckoning came. Robert Baratheon marched on the capital after his victory at the Trident. But my father arrived first, the whole Lannister army at his back, promising to defend the city against the rebels. I knew my father better than that. He’s never been one to pick the losing side. I told the Mad King as much. I urged him to surrender peacefully. But the king didn’t listen to me. He didn’t listen to Varys … But he did listen to Grand Maester Pycelle … ‘You can trust the Lannisters,’ he said. ‘The Lannisters have always been true friends of the crown.’ So, he opened the gates. My father sacked the city. Once again, I came to the king, begging him to surrender. He told me to bring him my father’s head. Then he turned to his pyromancer. ‘Burn them all!’ he said. ‘Burn them in their homes! Burn them in their beds!’

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He seems like a nice man.

Apologies for the lengthy quotation. I transcribed it with the thought of editing it down to its pith, but it occurs to me that this moment is germane to this episode—not just because it calls back to that moment Bran sees in his vision, but because this episode is fairly explicitly about family and blood. “Blood of my Blood” is the title, which references the Dothraki bloodriders’ oath to their khal, and which Daenerys invokes in the episode’s final scene. But blood and family, in all its fraught incarnations, is at the center of this episode: Sam returning to his family home, to his mother’s love and his father’s contempt; Tommen and Margaery taking sides against their families; Arya choosing her own sense of self as a Stark against the Faceless Men; Walder Frey revealing that he means to use his hostage Edmure Tully against the Blackfish; and of course in this moment, Bran being reunited with a long-lost uncle who is not, strictly speaking, the same uncle he last saw five seasons ago.

At any rate, after Coldhands/Benjen lays waste to a slew of wights and has his John Connor moment (seriously, did anyone else hear him say “Come with me” and mouth the words “if you want to live”? Or is that just me?), we segue from the white north to the green south, and catch up with Sam and Gilly. What did you think of Sam’s homecoming, Nikki?

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Nikki: As always, Sam and Gilly just have a knack of making me smile every time they’re on screen; they’re just so darn sweet together. He’s bouncing little Samwell on his lap as he talks incessantly about the kinds of trees that grow around his home, what they look like in summer, what the colours look like in the autumn, and Gilly gleans right away that he’s nervous as hell, hence the jabbering. The last he saw of his family, he was being banished to the Night’s Watch as a convenient way for his father, Randyll, to be rid of him. His father, a military man, gave him a choice: go to the Night’s Watch or be put to death. The reason? Because Sam was overweight and loved books, rather than being the muscular military man that his father wanted him to be. There was no way Randyll was going to allow Sam to be his heir, but he couldn’t skip him and give it to his other children, because Sam was the eldest. Banish him to the Night’s Watch, et voila: Sam divests himself of the Tarly name and any claims he has to the household.

And… now he’s back. And his father is furious. But as they approach the ENORMOUS castle (like, seriously, did anyone else gasp aloud and scream some obscenity about the freakin’ city that is their home?!) Sam makes a deal with Gilly: little Sam is his son, and Gilly is most certainly not a wildling. Little Sam will get a good education, and Gilly will have a place to stay while Sam travels to Oldtown to become a Maester. But let’s just go over this again: whatever Gilly does, don’t… mention… the war!! she can NOT say that she’s a wildling!

They arrive at the castle and Sam’s mother Melessa is over the moon to see him, and one minute with this character and you realize where Sam gets all of his goodness from. His little sister Talia is also standing there, immediately complaining about the fact that she’s going to be married off to some horrible man that she hates, before her mother lovingly shushes her. Melessa addresses Gilly as if she’s wearing a royal gown — not the animal skin she has thrown over her — and welcomes her and little Sam into the castle. Melessa is that rare character in Game of Thrones who seems to be nothing but goodness. How she ended up with Randyll is utterly baffling.

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Except not really, not in this world. Talia complaining about her impending arranged marriage is still echoing in our heads as we move to King’s Landing. Tommen is now friendly with the High Sparrow, and rather than condemning him for forcing Margaery to do the Walk of Atonement, Tommen is explaining that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. The High Sparrow allows Tommen to finally see Margaery, and I wrote in my notes, “Margaery is pretending to be pious.” We saw her in Loras’s cell, where she explained that they can’t let the Sparrows see them broken. Loras, on the other hand, said, “Just give them what they want, and make my pain end.” At the time I took the look on Margaery’s face to be one that suggested she was giving up on her brother, but now I see it as a light going on in the attic, where she suddenly thought wait, that’s the answer. Give them what they want. If I let them think I’ve atoned and have become one of them, they’ll let Loras go. And so, she’s doing exactly that. And she’s doing a damn good job of it.

I’m often hard on Margaery (she can be a rather annoying character), but she’s also a woman in this world, and as we’ve seen with Daenerys, and Brienne, and Yara, and Sansa, and Arya, and Cersei, and even Melessa… it’s not easy being a woman in this world. You have to fight hard to rise up, but the thing is: the women ARE rising up. Brienne and Sansa have joined forces; Arya is proving she will not be controlled by the Faceless Men; Daenerys has won over the Dothraki, Yara has stolen all of her uncle’s ships and might be heading for Daenerys right now to see if she could join her; Cersei has another trick up her sleeve; and Melessa maintains her goodness in spite of her husband being a complete and utter boob. Margaery is a manipulator, but clearly she learned at a very early age that it was her only choice in this world. Go along with everything and reap the rewards. She married Renly, who was gay, and allowed her gay brother into their bedroom so he could fulfill her husband’s needs while she got to wear the crown. Not ideal, but better than many women have fared in Westeros. Then she ended up betrothed to Joffrey, but Olenna took care of things there — Olenna probably did the same things Margaery did to rise up, and she wasn’t about to let a monster destroy her granddaughter. And now she’s with Tommen, and that’s not going so well, but she’s going to figure out a way out of this mess just like she has every other time.

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As she speaks with Tommen, there isn’t an ounce of anger or vengeance in her voice, despite the fact that he’s been utterly ineffectual at getting her out of her predicament, and instead she smiles sweetly at him and makes him believe 100% that she’s a convert. She tells him that Loras needs to atone, and comes off as completely legit. She’s learned quickly that Tommen is about as malleable as a ball of play-doh, and she knows this will be an easy one. What she intends to do with him only becomes clearer later in the episode.

And then we’re back with the Tarlys at a friendly dinner party, where Gilly tries to use cutlery and everyone is staring at her. It made me remember the first time I visited the UK in my late twenties, and I was at dinner with my friend’s family, and I suddenly became aware that someone was staring at me. I looked up, and there was my friend’s grandmother staring at me, horrified, and she said, “You… hold your fork like… an… AMERICAN.” I immediately looked around the table and noticed I was holding my cutlery slightly differently than everyone else, and immediately amended what I was doing, cheeks bright red and feeling like I’d just been disciplined like a child. So I know how Gilly felt in that moment. (The next day, by the way, the family ordered Chinese takeout and it turns out they’d never done so before. As they sat around poking at the chicken balls not knowing what to do with them, and one of them went to smash a fortune cookie with his fist because he wasn’t sure how else to get to the piece of paper inside, I was relieved that, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only barbarian at their table.)

And what did you think of this happy family gathering, Chris?

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Christopher: Aside from being utterly painful to watch, it was a beautifully executed scene—not least because we see all of Sam’s personal growth and development completely negated by simply being in his tyrannical, contemptuous father’s presence again. I’ve had a small handful of friends in my life who are ebullient, outgoing, the life of the party, and the biggest personality in the room, but who crumple into mouselike diffidence in the presence of a certain parent for whom nothing they do can ever be good enough. On such occasions when I saw it happen, it was always baffling and disheartening—but it always drove home the power that parents can wield, especially for people who crave approval or affirmation. Watching Sam—who was never, of course, the biggest personality in the room, but who earned the respect of his Brothers on the Wall, to say nothing of finding courage in the face of foes who would (literally) freeze the souls of most people—crumble in such a manner before Randyll Tarly was like a kick in the gut.

We haven’t gotten to this point in the novels (if we ever do), but we have met Randyll Tarly: Brienne meets him in A Feast for Crows as she searches for Sansa, at a town Tarly had “liberated” from the Northerners, where he now sits and dispenses harsh judgment on petty crimes. Randyll has, as we would expect, little more than contempt for her: “You never should have donned mail, nor buckled on a sword,” he sneers at her. “You never should have left your father’s hall. This is a war, not a harvest ball. By all the gods, I ought to ship you back to Tarth.”

Except that Brienne has a writ from Jaime Lannister to carry out “the King’s business.” She tells him she is searching for Sansa Stark, and means to go to the Vale to speak with Lysa Arryn.

Lord Randyll gave her an contemptuous look. ‘Lady Lysa is dead. Some singer pushed her off a mountain. Littlefinger hold the Eyrie now … though not for long. The lords of the Vale are not the sort to bend their knees to some upjumped jackanapes whose only skill is counting coppers.’ He handed her back her letter. ‘Go where you want and do as you will … but when you’re raped don’t look to me for justice. You will have earned it with your unjust folly.’

Aside from this one encounter (he does appear once or twice more, but this is the clearest picture we get of him), he has a reputation as one of the best soldiers in the Seven Kingdoms, and for being iron-willed and uncompromising. It is also generally known that he is responsible for all of House Tyrell’s military successes, though Mace Tyrell (shown in this episode in all his self-important oafish glory) has always been happy to take credit.

As always, the casting here is spot on. When the announcement was made that Ian McShane would be appearing in a brief but significant role this season, all of the good money was that he would be playing Lord Randyll. And seriously: can you just imagine how terrifying Al Swearengen would have been in this scene?

But that being said, the actor they did cast—James Faulkner—is simply perfect, capturing Randyll’s taciturn, unyielding contempt for anyone who doesn’t live up to his martial, masculine code, as well as the way in which he weds that code to the feudal system of class and status. He would accept a “Moletown whore” for the simple reason that it means his son acted at least once “like a man,” but a wildling is simply beyond the pale—and this from a man who has lived his life in the warm and fecund south, with no experience or knowledge of wildlings besides his conviction that they are barely human. “Is this your way of getting back at me, boy? Bringing that to my table,” he snarls, “and making me dine with it?” In Randyll’s eyes she is barely more than an animal, to the point where young Sam is “a half-breed bastard!”

(One can only imagine what he’d think if he knew that Sam’s ostensible bastard is in fact Craster’s son.)

One of the other things Faulkner captures is Randyll’s brute intelligence. He may loathe the idea of his son with his nose in books, “reading about the achievements of better men,” and the less-than-manly career of a maester (in the novels, Sam reveals that once, when he had voiced his desire to be a maester, his father had said “If it’s chains you want, then come with me,” and manacled him in the Tarly dungeon for three days, declaring that no son of his would don the maester’s chain, a symbol of servitude); but Randyll misses nothing, watching and listening carefully, and instantly picking up on Gilly’s slip. “Your way down to Castle Black?” he says, and we know the game is up.

Also, can I take a moment to laud Hannah Murray’s performance as Gilly in this scene? She is wonderful as she stands up to Randyll on Sam’s behalf, even though she does inadvertently give the game away; but I was impressed with how well she communicated her discomfort and awkwardness in the finery she’s given to wear. She does it without the clumsier expedient of an ill-fitting dress. The colours aren’t particularly flattering, but the dress fits her well. She is, as Sam gushes, beautiful—but what this fish-out-of-water moment manages to say is that she was actually more beautiful before, dressed in her shapeless woolens and with her hair unstyled. When you see images of Hannah Murray rocking the red carpet, it’s clear that the actress is no stranger to finery, but Gilly most certainly is.

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Sam’s ultimate decision to leave with Gilly is stirring and lovely, though I confess I balked at him taking the Tarly sword. “It’s my family sword,” he tells Gilly, and defiantly says his father can bloody well come and get it … but I’m reasonably sure he has no legal leg to stand on here. It is his family sword, and ownership passes to the next Lord of Horn Hill—which, because joining the Night’s Watch entails surrendering one’s birthrights and family name, means it will never be him. And there’s also the fact that his father is still alive. Presumably, Randyll won’t care that Sam has fled with Gilly and the baby—no wildling and bastard to take care of any more—but somehow I imagine the theft of the sword will upset him. Just a little.

And with that we cut from Sam sheathing an ancient and priceless Valyrian steel sword, to a stage prop sword being swung by the actor playing Joffrey, and we get to relive the events of the Purple Wedding. Which, if I recall correctly, Nikki, you greeted two years ago with a squee and a variation on “Ding-dong, the witch is dead!” What did you think of The Ongoing Story of Westeros (Redux), as told by Richard E. Grant and friends?

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Nikki: That was an excellent recap of that scene, Chris, and thank you for linking it back to the book. I could totally picture this actor delivering those lines to Brienne — I agree with you that it’s pitch-perfect casting. (Though, if Ian McShane had been cast as Randyll, it would have upped the “cocksucker” quotient in that scene.)

And now we move over to the play and get to relive the Purple Wedding and Tywin’s Death Whilst Dumping scenes. The Girl Who Has No Name watches the show and, at Joffrey’s death, is the only one laughing while the others watch solemnly. Even though everyone seems to know that Joffrey is the result of incest, that the Lannisters are generally terrible people, and that Joffrey was a wretched king, it’s interesting that they still show gravitas and some respect at his death scene and look at The Girl With No Name with such scorn for giggling through it. The events in Game of Thrones are meant to hearken back to some sort of medieval time, when news was passed orally by town criers, and yet this scene still felt very much like a comment on who we are today. The town criers are the people on Facebook who post stories, or the people who comment on them. They’re the first ones on Twitter with RIP announcements when celebrities die. It’s CNN having to fill a 24-hour news cycle and giving you bare bones and wrong information before they have time to fact-check it. When celebrities break up, we say, “Ooh, it’s because he cheated with the nanny,” or “Ooh, she’s a gold-digger and that’s why she’s making these allegations,” or “How DARE you say that, she said she was abused and therefore she was abused,” or “The only reason he cheated with the nanny is because I heard she refused to have sex with him anymore.” How much of this is true? Probably less than zero percent, but hey, if everyone is saying it and it’s been verified on Wikipedia and Twitter, then it MUST be true.

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Yup. Never get tired of this part of the story.

And the same goes for this audience. We have seen everything happening behind the scenes, but these people see a deformed imp and they assume he’s the killer of Joffrey, the molester of Sansa, and has no moral centre whatsoever. We watch Tyrion and we see an intellect, a man who is braver than he seems, a man who has a kind and gentle side, but those who simply see him in royal portraits see a monstrosity, and therefore he MUST be blamed for everyone.

But the Girl With No Name knows the truth. She knows Joffrey was scum, and she questions Tyrion’s guilt, and for god’s sakes I hope she and Sansa are reunited at some point soon because I would love for them to be able to catch up the way Sansa has with Jon.

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Backstage, The Girl With No Name puts the poison into “Queen Cersei’s” cup and then waits for things to happen… until “Queen Cersei,” actually Lady Crane (played by Essie Davis from The Babadook and Miss Fisher’s Mysteries), begins to talk to her, and she realizes she is human. When Richard E. Grant’s character, Izembaro, begins badmouthing her and treating her like crap, while Fake Sansa is a young thing who sees Lady Crane as standing in the way of her getting bigger roles, it’s clear that the backstage politics of a travelling acting troupe are no different than the main stage backstabbing going on throughout Westeros. Men keep the women under their boots, no matter how smart and capable those women are, while younger women do their best to push the older women out of the way, stomping on them on their way to the top… a top that includes being beaten back down by the men. The theatre troupe simply acts as a microcosm for the very people they’re parodying on stage.

And it’s when The Girl With No Name sees this, she snaps, knocks the cup out of Lady Crane’s hand (as the Waif watches), and once again becomes our Arya. She goes back to the waterfront and fishes Needle back out of its hiding place (YES!!!!) before returning to a hiding place, where she sits and waits for the Waif to come. And the Waif hasn’t hesitated in rushing back to Jaqen and telling him what she’s seen, getting permission to kill Arya. He betrays that he does have some (limited) tenderness for Arya when he asks that the Waif do it quickly without pain. I think we all know it’ll be the Waif who feels the pain in this match-up.

And now it’s back over to King’s Landing, where Margaery is NOT going to do that Walk of Atonement if the Mayor of Munchkinland has anything to say about it!! What did you make of the scene with the Tyrell army facing off against the Sparrows, Chris? (And also, I’m pretty sure that was actually Nikolaj Coster-Waldau riding the horse up the stairs for that stunt, and if so, IMPRESSIVE!!)

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Christopher: HA! Mace Tyrell DOES look like he represents the Lollypop Guild, doesn’t he?

My thoughts on this scene are pretty consonant with yours, re: Margaery and her shrewd maneuverings. Even though Olenna bitterly says “He’s beaten us, that’s what’s happening!” to her clueless son, I wonder if perhaps she isn’t giving Margaery credit. Do we really think she’s had a come-to-Jesus moment, or is she playing the hand she thought she had? Her expression as she watches the Tyrell army arrive is interesting: surprise, with a little intake of breath, and then a glance at where the Sparrow stands a few steps in front and beside her. It’s hard to tell the meaning of that look, but my guess is that Margaery had (1) given up on being rescued, and (2) given up on her brother, disappointed by this weakness; and faced with the humiliation of the Walk of Atonement, she plays the one card she has—Tommen. I think your read on their earlier scene together was spot-on, Nikki; she plays the young king like a cheap banjo.

Is that expression on her face as her father’s soldiers file into the square a moment of thinking, “Oh, crap—they did come for me after all!” Even if it is, she can’t be too displeased with the way she’s moved the pieces on the board. Even if Lady Olenna isn’t pleased with the prospect of a born-again granddaughter, she’ll have to recognize the fact that Margaery has effectively empowered the Tyrells while marginalizing the Lannisters—all without bloodshed. Next week’s episode will (hopefully) tell, but for now it seems that Tommen is disinclined to blame his wife’s family for the confrontation in front of the sept and instead punishes his uncle, ejecting him from the Kingsguard and sending him away from King’s Landing to retake Riverrun from the Blackfish.

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It is worth noting in this scene that the Lannisters aren’t entirely marginalized: Kevan Lannister apparently remains Hand of the King, and stands at Tommen’s right. He does not seem particularly sympathetic to Jaime, however, and we know the amount of contempt he has for Cersei. Even with him advising the king, however, Lannister power looks completely fractured.

One small detail: when Tommen emerged from the sept, surrounded by members of the Kingsguard, all of them are now wearing cuirasses bearing the seven-pointed star of the Faith; Jaime, by contrast, wears the former sigil, a crown. This as much as anything signals the substantive shift of power: Tommen has essentially merged the Faith and the crown, something further communicated by the smug look of triumph the Sparrow gives Jaime.

So, if we’re right and Margaery is making a power move, things will get interesting: let’s not forget that the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant were initially empowered by Cersei in her mistaken belief that she could manipulate them to her own ends. Now Margaery seems to want to ride that tiger. Will she learn from Cersei’s errors? Will the Sparrow outmaneuver her as well? He is, after all, no fool—does he believe her conversion to be genuine, or is he playing her?

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We shift from Jaime’s (literal) dressing-down in the throne room to Walder Frey, whom we haven’t seen in some time, dressing down his sons over the loss of Riverrun. Casual viewers of the show might be forgiven for asking “Wait, didn’t he get thrown off a bridge?”, as there’s not a lot of daylight between Balon Greyjoy and Walder Frey in how they’re depicted on the show. Frey is somewhat more petulant, but no less unreasonable in his demands. Yes, losing Riverrun was something of a gaffe, but it’s not as though Frey seems to have done anything beside sit at his high table, drink, enumerate his grudges, and terrify his child bride. This scene didn’t do much besides set up next week’s confrontation at Riverrun and the return of the Blackfish, and reintroduce the hapless Edmure into the mix (he’ll always be Brutus from Rome to me), who has evidently spent the last three seasons rotting in a Frey dungeon.

But given the fact that the Freys are not strong enough to retake Riverrun themselves, they appeal to the Lannisters, giving Tommen a convenient way to effectively exile Jaime. I should point out that with Jaime heading out to the Riverlands with an army, the series squares up again with the novels. Jaime’s entire storyline from the moment he frees Tyrion has been a deviation from the books: in the novels, he does not voyage to Dorne, nor does he have a romantic reconciliation with Cersei in King’s Landing. He basically spends the second half of A Feast for Crows at the head of a Lannister army tying up the war’s loose ends—including the siege of Riverrun, which has been held by the Blackfish under Stark banners. It will be interesting to see if the siege plays out as it does in the novels.

Before we get to the climactic scene of the episode and Daenerys’ St. Crispin’s Day speech, we’re treated to something that this season seems to be specializing in: a Stark that isn’t actually dead! What did you think of the return of Uncle Benjen, Nikki?

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Nikki: So many older characters are being reintroduced it’s enough to make a viewer’s head spin. Viewers will remember Edmure Tully, the nitwit brought in before Walder Frey, as Catelyn’s brother, who, at their father’s funeral was supposed to shoot the flaming arrow to light his father’s funeral pyre on fire. After three failed shots that simply kerplunked into the river, his uncle — the Blackfish — pushed him aside and lit it up with one clean shot. We last saw Edmure at the Red Wedding — which was actually his wedding — when Walder Frey married him off to one of his daughters. If you’ll recall, Walder wanted to marry one of his daughters to Robb Stark in order for him to join his house to that of House Stark. Robb was already married, so he offered up Edmure, his uncle, who immediately assumed Walder was going to marry him off to one of his, erm, less attractive daughters. But at the wedding he was pleasantly surprised to see that she was, in fact a beauty, and he happily married her… only to be taken away and thrown into a dungeon on his wedding night, where he has remained for three seasons. I’ve often thought that House Tully isn’t exactly bursting with promise: between Edmure and his sister Lysa (whom we last saw sailing through the moon door), Catelyn’s siblings are pretty ineffectual.

I swear that casting Tobias Menzies in a role is simply casting director shorthand for “this guy is a sleazebag.” See Rome, Outlander, The Night Manager… I swear the moment he shows up on screen in any series or movie, I think, “Ah… and here is the villain, then.”

But now off to Benjen. You did an excellent job of bringing us up to speed on him in your opening, Chris, so I don’t have much more to add to what you said. Benjen was always that quiet hero in the background of the show. In season one, when Ned beheads that man for abandoning his post (and accuses him of lying by saying he’d seen a White Walker), it’s Benjen who shows up at Winterfell and says actually, the man wasn’t lying, and Ned had killed a good man. He’s the one who suggests Jon Snow join the Night’s Watch, and accompanies him north to the Wall. Benjen heads north of the Wall on a ranger expedition, but only his horse comes back, and later his two men are found dead. But no Benjen. Since then we’ve only heard his name a couple of times, but with no hard evidence that he was dead, many fans have speculated he’s still up there somewhere (when GRRM kills someone, he SHOWS you that he’s killed someone).

We saw little Benjen in one of the visions that Bran had with the Three-eyed Raven, when he was swordfighting with little Ned, so that was an early hint that we were going to see him again, since they were putting his name back into our heads in those scenes.

And now he’s back. And he looks, um, a little worse for the wear. But his story is incredible: he’d been attacked by White Walkers, and one of them had impaled him on an ice sword, but before he could turn into a wight he was found by the Children of the Forest, who pushed a piece of dragonglass into his chest. Once again reminding us of the name of GRRM’s book series, and that the end of this story is going to come down to a war between Ice and Fire.

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And speaking of fire, Daenerys and Daario are riding from Meereen to go to Westeros (FINALLY) because, as she insists, she’s going to take back what is hers. Daario isn’t sure this is the best use of her time. “You weren’t made to sit on a chair,” he tells her. “You’re a conqueror, Daenerys Stormborn.” And he’s right. So many long to capture the Iron Throne, but once you have it, it’s one hell of an uncomfortable hunk of metal and wood, and after only a few days of listening to people gripe, you’re probably wishing you’d just stayed at home the day of the Conquering. There must have been something good on TV that day, right?

But she wants what is hers, and then she shows the blood riders exactly how she’s going to get it when she disappears into the canyon and comes back riding a truly ENORMOUS Drogon. Man, when Tyrion talked about how much more the dragons grow when they’re not in captivity, I had no idea he meant THAT big. He must be three times bigger than he was when we last saw him saving Daenerys from the gladiator ring.

The blood riders have never followed a woman in their history, so their immediate and wholehearted pledge of fealty to Daenerys seems a little disingenuous, but then again, she IS on the back of a dragon, so… I’m sure High Sparrow would be bowing and scraping by now, too. But as much as I loved the reappearance of Drogon, and the fact that we’re another step closer to House Targaryen taking back the throne, I wasn’t a huge fan of this ending of the episode. SO MANY episodes end with some spectacular, epic scene of Daenerys — usually accompanied by a dragon — giving some epic speech and being loved by all around her, that it’s really losing its flavour for me. Season one ended with her stepping out of the fire with dragons on her shoulder, and THAT was freakin’ cool. Season three ended with her being carried on the shoulders of the Yunkish people as they shouted “Mhysa!” over and over. We’ve had her epic speeches to the Unsullied, her epic speeches to the Yunkai people, her epic speeches to the people of Meereen. One episode ended with Drogon swooping in and taking her away from the gladiator ring. Another ended with her naked before a fiery temple that she’d just burned down. I love Daenerys, and I find this focus on her seems to be hinting to her right as the head of Westeros (which I think she’ll share with Jon Snow, fulfilling the Ice and Fire quotient of the book’s promise) but she always has to be standing in the midst of some epic moment, with that stalwart look on her face as fire rages around her and the dragons swoop in as some sort of deus ex machina, and for the first time, I found Drogon swooping in to be a little anticlimactic. And her speech even more so. And the fealty of the bloodriders even more so. Mostly because I’ve seen it all before: slightly different speech with the same tone; different race but same loyalty; same dragon who was larger than the last time I saw him. So as much as I loved seeing ginormous Drogon, I hope they can come up with a new shtick for Daenerys before she becomes Queen.

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And that’s it for another week! We will see you next time, in Riverrun.

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Game of Thrones 6.05: The Door

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Hello hello once again friends, and welcome to this installment of the Chris and Nikki co-blog of Game of Thrones. This week, believe it or not, brings us to the mid-point of this season. Halfway! And episode five is easily on the best so far–though as we all know, Game of Thrones is a fickle mistress, and is not about to deliver an excellent episode without also ripping us apart inside.

Hold the door. That’s all I have to say. Nikki?

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Nikki: The first thing that must be pointed out about this fantastic episode is who directed it. You should have seen the look on my face when “Directed by Jack Bender” flashed across the screen. For those of you who didn’t obsess over every moment of Lost (in which case, how, exactly, did you come to read my blog?!), Jack Bender was the lead director and one of the executive producers of the show. He’s responsible for most of the best episodes of that series, and the images that we remember most vividly from it. He directed the series finale, as well as every season finale that preceded it. He directed 30 other episodes, including “Walkabout” and “The Constant” — in other words, when you have a key episode that could change everything, you bring in Jack Bender.

And considering the revelations, lies, and that devastating ending, this was definitely a key episode.

We begin with Sansa and Brienne as they face Littlefinger, who has sent Sansa a raven to meet up with him in Mole’s Town. We last saw this place when the wildlings, led by Tormund and Styr, attacked the town and killed everyone in it. Gilly has been hiding out in the brothel with Sam, and she huddled in the back where Ygritte found her and told her to stay quiet. She survived (obviously) and escaped back to Castle Black.

Now Sansa, Brienne, and Baelish stand amidst the wreckage left behind, and she gets to confront him in a glorious scene of retribution we’ve been waiting for. With Brienne having her back, Sansa glares at Littlefinger and dares him to tell her if he knew what he was getting her into by leaving her there. Of course, Baelish wants to skip by the answer, so he stammers his way through a round of shrugging before Brienne holds her sword and says menacingly, “Lady Sansa asked you a question.” Sansa then helps him out: “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot,” she says, “And if you did know, then you’re my enemy.” We watch Baelish staring at Sansa, knowing he betrayed the daughter of the woman he’s loved his entire life, a girl who is the spitting image of her mother. Despite the fact Littlefinger’s heart is made of stone now, in this moment we catch a glimpse of him actually appearing to feel a tiny ounce of remorse for what he put her through.

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She tells him she can still feel what Ramsay did to her, not just in her heart but in her physical body. She tells him over and over again to imagine exactly what Ramsay did to her: mind, body, and soul. He didn’t touch her face, because he needed that, but he destroyed every other part of her body that could be covered up. Sansa stands like stone, as Brienne looks more enraged by the second yet maintains that cold glare.

“I’m… so… sorry,” Baelish says with phony empathy, and says he had wanted to protect her, and will do anything to protect her now. “You wouldn’t even be able to protect yourself if I told Lady Brienne to cut you down right now,” she spits back.

“You freed me from the monsters who murdered my family, and you gave me to other monsters who murdered my family.” And in that one sentence, she sums up exactly the hell she has lived through for years. The Starks were just a quiet family living in the North who had the misfortune of being chosen to be the Hand of the King, and in doing so became the target for every other family jostling for position. Baelish saved Sansa from the Lannisters, who had murdered her father, and he handed her off to the Boltons, who had murdered her mother, brother, and a sister-in-law she’d never met. He tells her that he will do anything to undo what’s been done to her, but you can tell from the look on Sansa’s face, there is no undoing what’s been done to her. But what it HAS done is made her stronger, willing to fight. She’s a strategist now, now some girl doing embroidery in the background while the men do the real fighting.

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And as he leaves, realizing she’s not going to come with him (not that he ever thought that — I always feel like Baelish is 10 steps ahead of everyone) he tells her that he’s been in contact with her uncle, Bryndan the Blackfish, and that he’s gathered an army that would be willing to fight with her. She says, “I have an army.” Oh right, he says sarcastically as he passes her in the doorway, “Your brother’s army…” and then he corrects himself, “Half brother.”

Someone needs to push this guy through the moon door.

Sansa was my hero in this episode. Of course, what she does with Littlefinger’s information is suspect, and I can’t help but picture Admiral Ackbar jumping out of a doorway and yelling, “It’s a TRAP!!” but let’s give her a round of applause for making Baelish pause for even three seconds to actually consider what he’s done to Catelyn’s daughter.

And from there we move over to Arya, where she’s forced to watch a rather difficult reel of “Previously, on Game of Thrones.” In verse. What did you think of our Arya this week, Chris, and that very brief but squee-inducing cameo?

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Christopher: To be honest, I completely missed Withnail on my first viewing—it was indeed very brief, and I must have been looking at my notes. When I rewatched the scene, I was thinking “what cameo?” … and then I saw him. Good old Richard E. Grant—he never disappoints.

I loved the Arya scenes this week. She hasn’t had very much to do this season yet, so it was great to see her story moving along. What was interesting was the way in which her identity as a Stark continues to stick to her, however much she might protest that she is “no one.” What precipitates this uncertainty is her poor showing against the Waif in their fight training; indeed, the Waif is so superior to Arya that one wonders if she was feeling ill on the day when Arya bested her in spite of her blindness. Plot inconsistencies aside, however, the Waif’s insistence that “You’ll never be one of us … Lady Stark” segues into Jaqen’s acknowledgement that this might, in fact, be the case. “She has a point,” Jaqen says, and proceeds to expound on the history of the Faceless Men: that they were a society founded by former slaves, who fled Valyria after—he seems to suggest—they killed all their masters and overseers. “Where did they go?” Arya asks, and Jaqen reveals that the free city of Braavos was in fact founded by the Faceless Men.

Arya’s struggle to lose herself has become an interesting reflection of the significance of naming and names, especially when her scene is juxtaposed with Sansa’s determination to win back the North, and Littlefinger’s snide observation that Jon Snow is only Sansa’s half brother. It’s a seemingly throwaway aside that cuts as only Littlefinger knows how: at once reminding Sansa of how she mistreated Jon in the past because she didn’t consider him a true Stark, while also pointing to the issue of his legitimacy: he might putatively be Ned Stark’s son, but as a bastard he lacks the legal rights of a trueborn, and unlike Ramsay was never legitimized by his father or by a reigning monarch. While Sansa and Jon will struggle to assert the rightfulness of the Stark name in the North, Arya struggles to set her legacy aside, but it clings to her like a burr.

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All of which is made even more glaring by the play she attends. Did Jaqen know what the play was about when he sent Arya off to reconnoiter her assignment? If so, it’s a cruel little twist of the knife and, I would assume, one more test for Arya. The recapitulation of the events of season one calls to mind Karl Marx’s assertion that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce: the tragedy that Arya experienced first hand is repeated for her as a crude pantomime replete with farts, slapstick, and gratuitous nudity (all right, so that bit was accurate). It would appear that the Lannister propaganda machine has worked well: Cersei and Joffrey are depicted as fair and generous, Ned Stark as an oafish usurper, and Tyrion as the ultimate villain of the piece who arranges for Ned’s execution in spite of Joffrey’s leniency, humiliates Sansa, and slaps the new king (which, I must admit, is still deeply satisfying to watch even though it’s a fake Tyrion and Joffrey).

Maisie Williams does some lovely face-acting throughout the play, communicating that, however much she has committed herself to the Faceless Men, she is in fact still Arya Stark—and seeing her father misrepresented on stage obviously pains and angers her. These events are still very much a part of her, and she is a product of her personal history. Shucking all that to become “no one” is not easy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this season is doing a lot of calling back to the first season, giving us echoes of where all of this started. “Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left?” Sansa asked Jon last week. “I want to scream at myself, ‘Don’t go, you idiot!’” Unbeknownst to Sansa, her brother Bran has been doing something close to that, momentarily distracting young Ned Stark as he starts to climb the Tower of Joy. It’s hard not to read Arya experience of this pantomime as thematically parallel to Bran’s astral travelling, especially considering the way in which the play shows history as fungible: it distorts the facts of Robert Baratheon’s death, Ned’s execution, and the Lannister seizure of power, but for all intents and purposes that has become the standard narrative as it is popularly understood. By the same token, we get confirmation this week of something only suggested previously: that Bran’s virtual travels are not merely passive viewership, but can and do affect and change the past and therefore the present. The broken-telephone telling and retelling of Ned’s execution that produces a comic play broadly correct in the narrative but profoundly wrong on the details presages the way in which an imperative given to Hodor in his youth transforms into his only word and, as it turns out, his one mission in life.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. The pantomime Arya watches is the most overt call-back of the season so far, and as anyone who has done Theatre Studies 101 knows, any time you see a play-with-a-play (or in this case, a play within a TV show), it’s a meta-theatrical gesture calling attention to the play’s very theatrical framing and artifice. And much like “The Murder of Gonzago” in Hamlet, this pantomime catches the conscience—not of a king, of course, and not just of Arya in her desire to dissolve herself into no one, but also that of the audience. I might be alone in this, but watching the play as Arya watches it, and seeing the distortions time and distance lend to the story, made me think of the increasing disparities between the novels and the series, and the ways in which the viewing experience is transformed for me now that we’re past the point where I, as an avid reader of the novels, had a narrative roadmap.

This sense was only heightened by the fact that this episode offers a handful of revelations, and a man wonders whether these will be consonant with the novels, or whether the showrunners are taking liberties. The first of these revelations happens after Arya’s scenes. What did you think of the fact that the White Walkers were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon to fight humans, Nikki?

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Nikki: That was certainly a shock. The Children of the Forest are far more fleshed out in the books, and have only been touched on in the show, occasionally mentioned by others as a race that had died out and has been forgotten. Now that Bran is with them, we see some of them survived.

I saw some confusion on social media the day after this episode aired, and some of it was directed at the Children of the Forest. Who are these tree women, and where did they come from? The Children of the Forest, according to the legend depicted on the show, were the first inhabitants of Westeros, and lived in harmony with the weirwood trees… until man came along. The legend that has been told to us so far is that they engaged in battle with the White Walkers, and were killed off, with this small handful of Children driven north to where Bran is. The White Walkers not only slaughtered the Children of the Forest, but the giants. The key figure you see with Bran is Leaf, and she seems to act as a de facto leader of the Children of the Forest. So when she reveals that the White Walkers — the enemies of the Children — were created by the Children themselves, it’s a shock. Think back to when Sam Tarly killed one of the White Walkers with that piece of dragonglass. He says in that episode that the Children of the Forest used to carry dragonglass daggers. Now his anecdote comes full circle and we discover that they are created by dragonglass, and it is dragonglass that destroys them.

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I remember once visiting Barbados, and a local man was telling me a story of how settlers first arrived in Barbados and brought rats with them. Soon the island was overrun with rats so they brought in snakes to eat the rats. When the snakes got the rat population under control, the island suddenly had a snake problem. So they brought in green monkeys to rid of them of the snakes, but the green monkeys multiplied so quickly they were soon everywhere. They have yet to figure out how to get rid of the monkeys.

I thought of that anecdote when I was watching this scene last night. The Children of the Forest were living in relative harmony until man came along and destroyed that peace (typical). So they created a monster to eradicate the humans, but that monster ended up killing the Children of the Forest instead, then the giants, and then turned on man. It was a shock to learn, but in retrospect, it made total sense.

We shall return to Leaf, Bran, and Hodor. (sniffle… Hodor…) But now we turn to the Iron Islands, and Yara making a play for the throne. These men will not follow her, they say. They’ve never had a queen and they don’t plan to start now. She rolls her eyes and says no one pays attention to them anymore, and she will bring attention to them on a world stage. But they argue that they shouldn’t have to follow her as long as Balon Greyjoy’s male heir has returned.

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Cue camera on Theon, who was gorging himself on the canape table and didn’t realize everyone was about to look at him — “ye mean me?!”… OK, not really, it’s more like Theon standing there hoping they weren’t going to look at him, because he knows what they must be thinking about him, and how it must look that Balon’s son has returned, and yet it’s his daughter who is vying for the throne. The newly shorn Theon steps up, clears his throat, and addresses them. “I am Theon Greyjoy, last living son of Balon Greyjoy… and she is the rightful ruler.” He tells them she is a leader, a warrior, and iron born. “This is our queen,” he says, on the verge of tears. Theon wanted to rule the Iron Islands, and Ramsay has taken away his dignity (among other things) and he can barely show his face here, but at least pushing his sister to the forefront might make up for his misdeeds.

And… then the dickhead shows up. Euron Greyjoy steps forward and says HE is the rightful ruler of the Iron Islands, and through his travels he has learned everything about this world and will help them rule it. Yara is shocked; the moment she sees him she knows he was her father’s murderer, and announces it in front of everyone — to which Euron basically says, “Yeah, what of it.” He points out how useless Balon was (no argument here) and that he was leading them nowhere. Theon speaks up and says Euron was gallivanting around the world while Yara and Balon were here ruling the Iron Islands and led them thus far. But Euron knows exactly what’s happened to Theon, and tells everyone, including the loss of Theon’s member. It’s a devastating moment — Theon is only just barely holding it together throughout this scene just with the thought that they might know something of what happened to him when he was Reek, but now there’s no doubt that they all know. The laughter and hissing from the crowd is like another finger being removed, and Theon winces at it. Euron turns to the crowd and says he will build a fleet of a thousand ships, and tells them of Daenerys. He says he will sail across the channel and give her the fleet, along with something else (he grabs his crotch) and in that moment I thought, “Ah. You are not long for this world, my friend.” If this show has taught us anything about women, and especially Daenerys, a cock who shows up waving his cock is swept away before you can sing the theme song (which, granted, is about half an hour long, but you catch my drift…)

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And so, they make him king, baptizing him by killing him (this is clearly not a very advanced people) and chanting, “What is dead may never die” while Yara and Theon sneak off with Pyke’s best ships. Euron puts on his crown — which appears to be a piece of driftwood? — and announces that his first act as king is to murder his niece and nephew, before he realizes they’re already gone. And so he orders them all to build him those thousand ships, because he has some vengeance he needs to wreak.

I loved that Yara and Theon are now sticking together; we’ve seen them at each other’s throats so much, but if one tiny good thing came out of Ramsay’s abuse of Theon, it’s that Theon has been humbled by everything, and is finally following the right person. Though I do feel like Professor Marvel at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz film, looking off into the distance as the storm brews and saying, “Poor kid… I hope she’s all right.”

Before we move to the next scene, I just wanted to mention that the casting director for this episode was brilliant, especially with matching characters with their relatives. Euron looked like a dead ringer for an older Alfie Allen (Theon) — I couldn’t believe how much they looked alike. And when you see the flash of Ned Stark’s father, it looked so much like Sean Bean it was uncanny.

From the Iron Islands we sail to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys has a quiet and lovely scene of reconciliation that made me very happy. What did you think of the scene with her and Ser Jorah, Chris?

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Christopher: It was a very sweet and powerful scene right up to the moment when Daenerys commanded Jorah to find a cure for his disease. And that last moment was made even more annoying by just how touching the preceding moments were: Daenerys’ affectionate frustration with Jorah’s stubbornness (“I banished you. Twice. You came back. Twice.”), giving way to concern and grief when he shows her his greyscale. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and we hear the tears in her voice. “Don’t be,” he replies. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was serve you.” At this moment in Jorah’s face we see regret eclipsed by a momentary happiness that shows the truth of his words: faced with certain death, he can take comfort in the fact that he has in fact served Daenerys, and served her well—and here, facing his end, he can admit that he loves her. He is ready to head off and face his fate. “Goodbye, Khaleesi.”

But she calls him back, refusing to release him from his vow to serve and obey her. Except, not really—he must still go, but with her command to find a cure and return to serve her.

Seriously? She is a queen with a whole host of new subjects, as well as her people in Meereen, and—I’ve got to assume—hundreds of message ravens they can send to all corners of the continent. What about, “We will send for the finest doctors in all the land to tend to you!” And yes, greyscale is contagious, but what about giving him a comfortable apartment in a remote part of the pyramid while healers are brought in to help him? She’s sending him off—alone!—in an inhospitable wilderness with what I’m assuming is not very much money, in an attempt to find a brilliant physician who can cure a deadly disease. And even if he finds it, the doctor will help him out of an overdeveloped sense of charity?

Nope. That didn’t work for me, and it was made worse by the fact that it was the one weak point in an otherwise wonderful espisode.

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“Well … fuck.”

We shift from Daenerys riding from Vaes Dothrak, presumably toward Meereen, to Meereen itself, where Varys asks Grey Worm to recount the instances of violence in the city since their pact with the Masters. A fragile peace has taken hold, he observes with some satisfaction. “For now,” says Grey Worm darkly. “For now is the best we get in our profession,” Varys points out, but Tyrion is not satisfied: “It’s not enough for Meereen to have peace,” he argues, “They need to know Daenerys is responsible for it.”

What it boils down to for Tyrion is a question of story—the Sons of the Harpy have a good story, he says, a simple and straightforward one: resist the foreign invader. Daenerys’ is even better, more heroic and grandiose. But in and of itself, it is not enough. “The people know who brought them freedom,” says Missandei, obviously a little offended at Tyrion’s perceived slight to her queen. Tyrion, however, is more pragmatic: freedom needs to be coupled with security, and the newfound peace has to be indelibly associated with Daenerys. As we have seen, and as we have commented over the past few episodes, Daenerys is far better on the campaign trail than actually holding office—as a ruler she tends toward a top-down managerial style and is given to authoritarian tendencies at times. She makes for spectacular symbolism; Tyrion would like to see her associated with a few more humble but profound accomplishments, something best accomplished by someone perceived as honest and incorruptible.

There’s a lovely echo from last season when Tyrion is able to repeat Varys’ line—“Who said anything about him?”—and we shortly learn that he means to employ the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor as his propaganda outfit.

His decision to ally them with the Red Priestess Kinvara is shrewd, but risky. Kinvara is only too eager to take up Daenerys’ banner, as Tyrion knew she would be, having overheard (as she cannily observes) the street sermons being delivered in Volantis. Her speech about Daenerys, her accomplishments, and her dragons makes it clear that the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor see in Daenerys everything they could desire in a Chosen One: freer of slaves, born in fire, dragons at her (sort of) command to immolate unbelievers.

Her evangelicism, however, makes Tyrion somewhat nervous.

KINVARA: The dragons will purify nonbelievers by the thousands. They will burn their sins and flesh away.
TYRION: Ideally, we’d like to avoid purifying too many nonbelievers. The Mother of Dragons has followers of many different faiths.

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Kinvara promises to send for her most eloquent priests, but Varys is skeptical. He reminds her of Stannis, of his failure at King’s Landing, and his most recent defeat in which he was killed. “It’s most hard for a fanatic to admit a mistake,” he says. “Isn’t that the whole point of being a fanatic? You’re always right. Everything is the Lord’s will.” I loved this little speech of Varys’—not least because it very pithily sums up my own dislike of fanatics, religious or otherwise—but Kinvara’s response reminds us that there is more at work here than mere power politics. There is also magic, ancient magic at that, and her offer to tell Varys who spoke from the fire that fateful day a sorcerer mutilated him says that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Varys’ philosophy.

A point that is brought home rather powerfully when Bran decides to go astral surfing without his guide. What did you make of his encounter with the Night King and his army of ice zombies, Nikki?

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Nikki: I mentioned earlier that the casting in this episode was particularly excellent, and that includes Kinvara (or, as I think of her, Idina Menzel… or, as John Travolta thinks of her, Adelle Dazeem), who carried herself very much like Melisandre, right down to that very specific accent she uses when she speaks. I noticed Kinvara was also wearing the same necklace that Melisandre wears, so presumably she is also much older than she appears to be.

But now over to Bran, who wargs alone, and somehow turns into Carl on The Walking Dead (and should have just stayed in the fucking cave). This time, without his guide, winter has come. At first, as has been the case in his other warg adventures, he appears to be unseen, moving among the wights as they stand like statues and pay him no attention… until, in one terrifying moment, the Night King spots him, and then suddenly, all of the wights turn around and can see him. The scene abruptly transforms into the “Thriller” video, with the camera swirling around him as he turns back to the Night King, who’s now standing right beside him and grabs his arm. Bran screams, and wakes up.

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It’s too late. He has the silvery mark on his wrist, and they have seen him. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that the Night King knows they’re here, and the mark on Bran’s arm is their entry pass to the cave, which, until now, has magically kept them out. He, Meera, and Hodor must leave. Meera begins frantically packing, while Hodor sits, immobilized, just muttering, “Hodor,” over and over again, quietly. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that it’s time he become him, and when Bran looks at him and says, “Am I ready?” the raven looks at him, and quite matter-of-factly says, “No.” And with that, Bran wargs one more time.

I’m going to let Chris take that final scene when we get there, but I wanted to bring things back around to my opening bit, and say this episode felt more like a Lost episode than any other before it, not least because Bender is directing. In season 5, when the Losties travelled back in time to the mid-70s, it took a while for Hurley to come to grips with the basic concept of time travel that diverged from what he thought he knew in Back to the Future — when time travelling, anything that happens back then always happened. Keep that in mind when watching that final scene: on Lost, the Losties learned that they had always gone back in time, and that their actions always happened. They weren’t changing the past — they has always gone back to the past and had been a part of it. Lost was always about love, loss, connections with people, and a general WTFness pervaded every episode, and this episode of Game of Thrones carried with it that same sense of an emotional rollercoaster.

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Is this really the best time to play Risk, guys?

But before I sent Chris into the fray to dissect that moment (I don’t think I’d be capable of doing it without dissolving into tears), let’s stop over at Castle Black for a second, where Jon has a map on the table and says they must take Winterfell and they need more men. The Umbers and the Karstarks have aligned themselves with Ramsay, he says, and he also mentions the Mormonts and the Tullys. The Tullys are Catelyn’s family (who would certainly help Sansa, but it’s unclear if they would help Jon) but I was more intrigued by the mention of the Mormonts. Could this be the tie between Jon and Daenerys that I’ve been waiting for?

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Because none of these posts is ever going to be complete again with a picture of Tormund making googly-eyes at Brienne.

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…or without one of Brienne making her WTF face.

Sansa tells the table that her uncle, the Blackfish, has an army, and then lies about where she got the information. Brienne immediately shifts in her seat and looks uncomfortable (it won’t be the last time in this episode that Brienne makes that face), because she knows exactly who gave them the information, and she doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw Tormund. Brienne confronts Sansa outside, and Sansa sends Brienne to Riverrun so she can check things out.

But Sansa

 

 

Sigh. Brienne isn’t worried about her own safety, but is more concerned about leaving Sansa behind. “With Jon?” asks Sansa. “Not him. I think he’s trustworthy. A bit… brooding, perhaps.” It’s Davos and Melisandre she’s concerned about. We can’t forget that for as much as we love Davos, she saw him help Stannis cut down Renly, whom she loved as a knight and perhaps as a woman. She cut down Stannis herself, but he was alone, already abandoned by Melisandre.

“And that wildling fellow with the beard…!!!” she adds, with a look of disgust on her face.

But Sansa knows Jon, and she reassures Brienne that he will keep her safe. “Then why did you lie to him when he asked how you learned about Riverrun?” she asks. Sansa has no answer. Out in the courtyard, the sister gives her brother a coat that was modelled after the one Ned used to wear, while Tormund gives Brienne the eye in an instantly gifable moment that is equal parts hilarity and awesomeness.

And as they all leave — Brienne to Riverrun, and the others to find Houses that will pledge fealty to the Starks — Edd realizes he’s suddenly the de facto Lord Commander, and immediately embraces the task.

And with that, we go back to Bran and the others at the cave, and the part you’ve all been waiting for. And with a gentle “Hodor,” I pass the reins over to you, my friend.

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Christopher: You night have had your Lost moment with this episode, but afterward I couldn’t help imagining the whining, grinding noise of the TARDIS appearing, either back at Winterfell, or as Meera runs with Bran off into the winter storm … because at this point in my life, anything involving time travel invariably makes me think of the Doctor. “Can we go back … and save Hodor?” “Fixed point in time and space. Nothing I can do. I am. So. Sorry.”

I’ll get to Hodor’s final act of heroism in a moment, but first I want to just run through a few details from this final scene.

First: knowing that the Night King is on his way, why are Bran and the Raven lost in visions of Winterfell past? (Possible answer below).

Second, I can’t say I’m entirely down with the Children of the Forest’s weaponry. They made for some impressive explosions, but I couldn’t stop thinking of them as Holy Hand Grenades. Also: while they were only moderately effective against the ice zombies (and totally useless against the Walkers), they would have been devastating against the bronze age humans they were ostensibly fighting when they created the White Walkers to begin with. Or was this weapons technology they devised in the interim years?

Third: R.I.P. Summer. Barring some unseen deus ex machina, this episode saw the death of yet another Stark direwolf. This means that, of the original six, there are only two left—and of those two, only one, Ghost, is still with his human (Arya having chased Nymeria off to spare her Lady’s fate).

Now onto the main event.

I rewatched this scene about five times (and cried each time) just to make sure I got the sequence of things right:

  1. After seeing the Night King and his hordes, Meera tries to wake Bran from his reverie, saying “We need Hodor!”, as Hodor has fallen into a panicked, very nearly fetal paralysis of hodors.
  2. Bran hears her voice in this midst of his vision of Winterfell, and the Three-Eyed Raven says “Listen to your friend.”
  3. Bran looks over at young Hodor; in the cave, present-day Hodor’s eyes go briefly milky.
  4. Hodor stands and grabs Bran’s sledge, and they start to make their escape.
  5. The Night King walks up to the Raven and swings his scythe; at Winterfell, Bran sees the Raven’s demise as him shattering into a thousand dark shards and swirling into nothing (at a certain point, it becomes hard not to start making analogies to The Matrix).
  6. Hodor, Meera, and Leaf—with Bran in tow—are now basically in the midst of a zombie chase, replete with sound effects that sound like they were lifted from The Walking Dead.
  7. Hodor, Meera, and Bran escape through the back door (Leaf having sacrificed herself), and Hodor hauls it shut. As she runs off with Bran, Meera cries repeatedly, “Hold the door!”
  8. At Winterfell, Bran hears Meera’s entreaties. Looking over at young Hodor, he sees his eyes roll back and he falls into a seizure, all the while crying desperately “Hold the door!” Which becomes … well, you know the rest.

The main question, as I ask above, is why were Bran and the Raven warging right then, when they knew full well the Night King was on his way? And why were they in so deep that Bran couldn’t bring himself out, even after he’d been parted from the tree roots? Why didn’t the Raven send him back before he died?

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I wasn’t being entirely glib when I brought up the Doctor Who chestnut of a “fixed point in time and space,” as it strikes me that a possible answer to this question is that it was necessary for Bran to be virtually at Winterfell as all this went down. What becomes painfully, heart-wrenchingly obvious in the final moments of this episode is that Hodor’s entire self has been focused on this one act of heroism: that the hijacking of his mind, his agency, his very capacity for speech—and as we saw in Bran’s earlier visions, though he is big and humble, he had a nimble mind and a wry sense of humour—occurred so that one day he could save Bran Stark.

It is a heartbreaking moment, not least because Hodor has always been the embodiment of the gentle giant, guided by little other than simple love and loyalty. The two instances of him being possessed in this episode—in the present and in the past—made me think of season four, episode five, “First of His Name,” which featured Jon Snow’s attack on the mutinous watchmen, who had killed the Lord Commander and taken over Craster’s Keep. If you’ll recall, the mutineers had also taken Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor captive—and while Jon’s men carried out their attack, Bran warged into Hodor when Locke (Roose Bolton’s agent) tried to carry him off. (There’s a link here to the video—unfortunately, embedding was disabled). Possessed by Bran, Hodor breaks his bonds and gives chase, running down Locke and killing him with his bare hands. He then comes to, seeing the dead body at his feet and the blood on his hands; as you put it in our post, Nikki, “Bran turns Hodor into a killer, which resonates so deeply as Hodor stares at the blood on his hands in confusion and heartbreak.” It resonates so deeply because we know too well what a gentle soul Hodor is, and in that moment the liberty taken by Bran in possessing him is deeply discomforting.

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As it is in this episode—but even more, by a magnitude more, because it isn’t just a few moments of possession in this instance but the better part of a lifetime. One of the things I love about Game of Thrones and its source material, as I love about other contemporary fantasists like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Lev Grossman, is that the standard fantasy trope of fate and destiny tends to get upended. And in those cases where we see a certain determinism at work, as in Hodor’s death, it upsets the apple cart. We see Hodor’s end not so much as a grand fate, as his subjugation to forces we might otherwise consider benign—in this case, Bran’s fledgling flights of vision, which accidentally appropriate young Willas’ life and turn him into Hodor.

None of which detracts from Hodor’s final act of heroism, or the sorrow with which we bid him adieu.

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So that’s it for this week, friends. Be well, stay warm, and hold that door.

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