This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 7
I have to say that I’m shocked. Shocked. And not in the good way, like Louis Renault coming to the epiphany that Rick’s got gambling going on. Nor is it in the classic Game of Thrones fashion where (sniffles) I discover the meaning behind Hodor’s name.
Nay, I am shocked because this had been a very good episode of Game of Thrones that definitely and deftly executed its final movements on the chess board before qrugh hits the fan in the season’s last three episodes. We had the wonderful reveal that Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, is back; intrigue in the North and King’s Landing alike came to a delicious boil; and finally the Blackfish returned. But then it happened: they literally stabbed who is arguably the best character three times in the stomach, twisted the knife, and then tossed her off a bridge like she was a lesser of the Borgia brothers.
Unto itself, I am not upset that my personal favorite character, Arya Stark, became a bucket of ice underneath the Waif’s icepick (though I was surprised how easily she got the drop on Arya Stark). In my horror, I was even resigned to the fact that as she splashed down into the canal the evening before she left Braavos, thinking this might be the ignominious end of all things for a Girl Who Will Always Be Arya Stark. Unless you read the books, it is unlikely you thought in the ninth episode of season 3 that you were about to say your final goodbyes to Robb and Catelyn Stark too. Indeed, Arya’s choice to dress like Ned Stark right before she got as surprised as old Eddard in the throne room has a bitter sense of poetry to it.
However, it became quickly apparent that this is not the end of Arya Stark, even though the episode concluded with her holding her guts and intestines in, helplessly crawling out of the water with about as great a set of odds as Jon Snow had during the season 5 finale But the difference is we saw Jon Snow gasp his last breath… Arya is still very much alive when “The Broken Man” cuts back to its titular desperado, suggesting that we should give some fig about Ian McShane when one of the series’ best was thrown the death sentence. Since she isn’t going to die—for if she were we’d have already seen it—then her salvation must be at hand. You’ll just have to tune in next week at the same Bat-Time, the same Bat-Channel.
Quite frankly, that kind of baiting cliffhanger is beneath Game of Thrones. While other shows may resort to ending entire seasons on a scene of a baseball bat going into an unspecified head, Thrones has generally always been about completing its story to its bitter and most cathartic end. There was the case of Sansa and Theon’s fateful jump in the last finale, but even that seemed less like a cliffhanger (despite its verticality) and more of a case of the show not having the budget or time to include a shot of snow that it’s implied they’d land in before the drop.
By comparison, this week’s kind of concession to weak television convention is a massive black mark against an otherwise solid hour of television, and one that I want to stop talking about, lest I ignore what was so good about “The Broken Man.”
First, the episode did include the long-anticipated return of Rory McCann. Oh sure, things looked grim for him when Arya left her mentor, frenemy, and target to die from his grievous wounds in the Vale, but this is one TV trope that I am more than willing to support: if you don’t see them die, then they’ll come back as sure as snow (or White Walkers). And unlike Arya tonight, there was a narrative finality to his departure from Arya’s life with his fate satisfyingly ambiguous. On an aside note, that might also mean a zombie Hodor is still in the cards.
In any case, the Hound’s allegorical resurrection provided a nice wraparound for the episode while doing something we haven’t really seen much of since season 4: give context to all these power games and machinations. Usually, we spend so much time secluded in the halls of power, be they in King’s Landing, Meereen, or even Castle Black, that it’s easy to forget there are entire continents of smallfolks getting crushed under the wheel of civilization. And it’s a pleasant twist to learn that the Hound would be the one to find that beating pulse of humanity in the mud.
In very helpful exposition, Ian McShane makes his long-awaited premiere (and exit!) on Game of Thrones to explain how he saved the Hound’s life. As something akin to HBO royalty after Deadwood, McShane’s simple septon is about as far from Al Swearengen as imaginable. It is actually quite jarring to see an actor who beat men to death in the mud with his bare hands on this same premium cable channel play a Man of God. Well, gods. But even he isn’t sure about that last bit. I’d even dare say that he is the closest Westeros has come to a New Aged hippy.
Essentially intending to start the first Sept of Humanism, or at least Deism, McShane preaches that all the faiths are probably valid since we can never know the true workings of the gods, how many there are, or what their names might even be. And he is pious because, unlike a certain shoeless shoemaker turned kingmaker in King’s Landing, he actually lived a true life of sin before seeing true light. Once a sellsword every bit as violent as the Hound, McShane murdered a child for gold, and lived with the cries of his mother every day thereafter. It’s why instead of fighting for the people, he has figured out one of the true meanings of Game of Thrones.
Many are quick to point out that this HBO fantasy series glorifies violence, because it does. But it also deconstructs it and the many rationalizations and justifications that might cause it to exist in their world or any other. For here is a series titled after the machinations of powerful lords in a feudal society vying for fancy chairs and fancier hats while the people underneath get crushed. They can be in search of justice like the Starks, but is that really any different than when Yara later in this same episode throws shade at Theon’s bouts of guilt about wanting to hang? As she says, “Fuck justice then, we’ll take revenge.” Vengeance, justice, violence for the gods, or violence for the kings. It all ends the same.
McShane is a truly holy man in this because he has wetted his hands with blood and now will never do it again. He chooses instead to only build a church without steel or gold by his side—which in Westeros is like trying to ice skate uphill in Dorne during the summer. Sandor Clegane warns him to fight for self-protection, yet while Sandor mopes himself on a life wasted in bloodshed, McShane’s septon has his abruptly ended, along with those of his would-be congregation.
The greatest irony of all is that they were murdered by the Brotherhood Without Banners. Once men who proudly proclaimed they fought for the smallfolk whose lives were shattered by the War of the Five Kings during seasons 2 and 3, they now have no overt war to protect the Riverlands or Vale from, so they fight for the sake of fighting, and turn into a sort of medieval mafia. This is not to say that I think all of the Brotherhood, including Beric Dondarrion, would approve of these actions. But just as Robb Stark’s men could be as cruel and uncaring for the lives of farmers who they raided and stole from, so too does the Brotherhood’s self-justified violence only beget more of the same.
…. Still, if you will not stand up and raise a sword against those who claim power, are you nothing more than a victim in waiting? That seemed to be the entire arc of McShane’s one-and-done appearance, and its effect on Clegane is not wholly present. Besides explaining why the Hound is alive, and giving him an awesome excuse to go on a murder spree next week against the Brotherhood, it is unclear whether his soul is on a new trajectory than it was while in Arya’s company.
Either way, it was refreshing to see a true man of peace existing in this world of vipers since the High Septon promises all the fancies of universal healthcare to his minions, but is very much open to them using violence to inflict their religion upon others. Seven Hells, he’s making threats to the family of a queen he has under his thumb while simultaneously becoming more entrenched in her world of power and vice.
At this point, I suspect that Margaery is having severe second thoughts about her decision to align with the High Sparrow in order to save her life from a walk of shame. While it worked in the short-term, she had no idea that dear old bumbling dad and the Kingslayer had gathered the Highgarden army to confront the High Sparrow on the Steps of Baelor. It would’ve been a risk to her well-being to rely on a clash of swords to save her dignity, but now she is permanently in bed with these zealots. Or is she?
At a glance, Margaery has totally changed up her game, trading in the sleeveless and plunging necklines for a more conservative, dowdy attire, with hair combed straight back like a dutiful daughter for a High Septon that clearly has a disdain for strong women. Still, she is every bit as manipulative as ever. She has learned the prayers and recites their meaning, but it will never be enough for a pious monster as power hungry as the High Sparrow, and that comes through when he threatens to kill Margaery’s grandmother Lady Olenna unless the old matriarch hits the road back to Highgarden.
Natalie Dormer plays these scenes beautifully, both subtly noting with subservient grace her hidden revulsion at the High Sparrow suggesting she sleep with her boy-husband even if neither party is feeling frisky, and then burying abject terror for one of the two most important people in her life being in danger (the other rots in a cell below Baelor). Of course, when Margaery goes to tea with her grandmother, it is all courtesies and giggles about how she loves her former jailor and shamer-in-waiting hovering over their shoulders, but it is evident that there is more going on beneath the screen than meets the eye. Margaery slips her grandmother a parchment with nothing more than the image of a white rose, thorns and all.
To a passerby, it is likely little more than an old woman looking at a makeshift sketch of her House’s sigil, but it is also a message. Margaery gives Olenna the note when begging for her to flee town, and it cannot be lost to a woman who should, above all else, be remembered as the Queen of Thorns. If I were to wager what it means, I suspect it is a message that it is time for the thorns to stick again into some of King’s Landing’s most deserving pricks.
If you do not recall, it was the Queen of Thorns who slipped the poison into Joffrey’s cup, and schemed away the murder to her future son-in-law and current king alongside Littlefinger. After the thinly-veiled warning to get out of town, Olenna obeyed since she has lived too long to not be prudent. However, I suspect it might make a powerful alibi if she can arrange another cup of the choking stuff, or worse, for King’s Landing’s new power-behind-the-throne. Maybe even kill Tommen too? With the Baratheon line truly gone, and the faux-one Cersei created also snuffed, it would be anarchy in the kingdoms as the High Sparrow lost his grip on a gullible monarch.
Hence before she left, Olenna got in some parting shots to Cersei, which may have been the positive highlights of the night.
“Loras rots in a cell because of you; the High Sparrow rules the city because of you; our two ancient houses face collapse because of you and your stupidity.” Amen, preach it, sister!
“I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met? At a certain age, it’s hard to recall, but the truly vile do stand out through the years.” Well, Joffrey was pretty bad too, Olenna…
“What will you do then? You have no support. Your brother’s gone, the High Sparrow saw to that. The rest of your family have abandoned you; the people despise you. You’re surrounded by enemies, thousands of them. Are you going to kill them all by yourself? You’ve lost Cersei, it’s the only joy I could find in all of this misery.” Day-yum.
This is why we love Diana Rigg and the Queen of Thorns, even in seeming defeat, her acidic burns cut to the bone. And yet, there might be method in her awesomeness. Besides giving Cersei the verbal thrashing she’s been asking for since the start of season 5, I have a hunch this is very much again part of Margaery and Olenna’s wordless Plan B. Whatever machinations Olenna has from a distance, it probably will help quite a bit if she riles Cersei up by pushing her so deep into the corner that when the Sparrows come for her trial, she will come out swinging. The more heedless and stupidly the Lannisters act, the less likely anyone will be watching the Women Tyrell.
And to be sure, Cersei is now feeling more alone than ever and will be ready for blood next week.
Also, looking to be cruising for a fight is Jaime Lannister and Brynden Tully (the Blackfish). It was a wonderful scene as the Freys reminded us once more why we hate them while simultaneously proving how inadequate they are without Walder scheming for them. Forming the most half-assed siege ever attempted on television, they’re a pitiful sight as they attempt to bargain for Brynden to give up his claim on Riverrun, lest they murder his nephew Edmure. Sadly, it’s another episode that gives a great actor like Tobias Menzies little to work with, but Clive Russell is superb as he bitterly accepts Edmure’s fate, as they’ll all likely be hanging by Frey ropes at this rate.
Jaime also shows almost as much disdain for the Freys as we viewers have since he clearly disapproves of their tactics in regard to Edmure, and gives one of Walder’s sons an overdue beating. Yet, I was a bit surprised at how unprepared Jaime was for dealing with Brynden. The Blackfish schools him in matters of honor and reveals that he will hold Riverrun for two years rather than surrender to the Freys. He also mocks Jaime for breaking yet another oath to return Sansa and Arya Stark to the now long-dead Catelyn.
Be that as it may, I expected Jaime would remember some of his owed debt to both Cat and Brienne, which he appeared to take very seriously in the third and fourth seasons. Now, he seems on autopilot and waiting to get back into Cersei’s bed. It feels like a wasted opportunity for Jaime to realize his better potential that occurs when he is far from Cersei’s presence. But hey, at least we got Bronn being Bronn and finally telling one of these golden hair rich kids that nobody cares about Lannisters and their debts.
The other high point of the night is that after two weeks, we finally return to the power plays in the North. Aye, it’s easy to say these days that Team Jon and Sansa may very well be the MVPs of season 6. It would also seem that we are no longer supposed to think about distances traveled that much, as the two reunited Stark siblings and Ser Davos Seaworth ride around what amounts to about a third of a continent in the span of 30 minutes. And luckily, the extended montage is so entertaining in its layered intricacies that the rapidity with which this storyline is now moving is moot.
The first stop on the groveling tour is Bear Island. And after six seasons, finally seeing this sweet little corner of George R.R. Martin’s world put onscreen is ever so satisfying. For those who might forget who the Mormonts are, this scene does a great job of reminding us. This young girl’s uncle was the man who became Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, the cold as ice hard-ass who was Jon’s predecessor and lovably gruff mentor at Castle Black. What is not mentioned is that Jeor’s son, and thus this young girl’s cousin, is Ser Jorah Mormont, the also fairly lovable sad sack who just can’t catch a break in his undying and unrequited love for Daenerys Targaryen—which is kind of fitting for the Mormont who lives in self-exile, lest Ned Stark have taken his head for trading in slavery.
And as only hinted at on the show, the reason a 10-year-old girl now has charge of Bear Island is because her mother died under King Robb’s leadership.… and it just wasn’t her mother. Both the mama Bear and older, adult sister of the Mormont clan (one of the few houses that respects the equality of women in its lineage) died alongside Robb and Cat at the Red Wedding. So after losing two such heirs to the Bear Island seat while in service of the Starks, it is believable that the family would now be wary of a Stark who is really a Snow, and another who has married twice into the families of her enemies, including the one she is now planning to unseat and execute.
It is up to Davos to explain the situation about the White Walkers, which really should be Jon’s pitch to every northern House after this (yet strangely is not), and just because we have loved so many Mormont characters in the past, the comical support of 62 Mormont knights is still thrilling now. But it would appear on the television series, at least, the North does not remember.
I know that some in our comment section grimace when I bring up the books, but to contextualize choices showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make, it has to be noted when they make clear and distinct deviations. And this is a striking one. In the novels, the North does indeed remember, and there is a deep subplot of great northern houses like the Manderlys secretly planning to overthrow the Boltons from within Winterfell while Stannis (and presumably one day, Jon) march from the outside. However, even the supportive Mormonts show reluctance to remember their fealty to House Stark in the TV series, and all others show complete apathy to joining forces with Jon Snow’s band of wildlings.
It’s an unexpected development… but an intriguing one. The North suffered a lot for following Robb Stark into war. He never lost a battle, but all of his most loyal men still died at the Twins. Why should the sons of both noble houses and their smallfolk risk their lives for a squabble between Stark and Bolton? The only quid pro quo that I also think Jon and Sansa failed to bring up is that the Boltons had a hand in killing so many Northerners’ family members at the Red Wedding. It was Roose Bolton who participated in the treachery alongside Walder Frey that left them all without fathers or brothers, or sons, or even mothers and sisters. Also, Ramsay is nuttier than a fruitcake. Do they really want that creature to be their warden and overlord for the rest of their lives, especially with winter around the corner?
But the seeming reluctance puts Sansa and Jon in a tragic place. It’s becoming transparent that Sansa lying to Jon was less about sowing discord between the Starks than it is of Sansa in a very Baelish-ish way keeping quiet from Jon that she has Littlefinger in her back pocket. Almost undoubtedly, the letter Sansa wrote in solitude will be ravened to Littlefinger, reluctantly begging for his support to fight Ramsay Bolton.
And unfortunately, they will need it since the North has Forgotten on Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s jarring to see that Jon Snow is being the foolhardy tactician in this situation. Despite seeing many battles, he is willfully repeating Stannis Baratheon’s exact same damn mistake—they’re even camping in the same spot!—where he’d lay siege on Winterfell with an unprepared and insufficient army.
Thus it’s becoming obvious that Sansa will promise Littlefinger something to obtain his support to fight for their claim on Winterfell, and it must be something substantial if she did not wish to tell or consult Jon about it. And I dread to know what it is. Because if in the ninth episode Jon and Sansa defeat Ramsay with the last minute assist from the Vale, then in the tenth chapter, Littlefinger will come rolling in to name his price.
Then again, it might all be moot since Yara and Theon seem hellbent on offering their 1,000 ships to Daenerys. If that succeeds, then my predictions were wrong, and Dany will make landfall in the North instead of the South. If that occurred, after humorously roasting Euron Greyjoy alive while his men continue building their dumb ships, Daenerys would then turn her sights on Winterfell… where the Starks who will likely still be cleaning up the corpses off their ramparts. This could get ugly real fast. Benioff and Weiss might be serious about there only being 13 episodes left after this season!
Overall, there was a lot to digest in the North, King’s Landing, and in the Hound’s bittersweet outdoor, church revival.Still, that Arya cliffhanger might be the worst kind of dangling thread plotting yet on Game of Thrones, and is almost certainly the worst moment in all of season 6 so far. If it occurred last week, it probably would have damned the whole episode. For “The Broken Man,” it’s not quite as damaging… but I dread the thought of the series doing that again, especially as a new season finale nears.
Suffice it to say this was a four-star episode that saw its appeal dramatically lowered in its final moments. And we better not see any first-person CGI blood pouring over the lens in the tenth episode.