This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Season 6 Episode 6
It had to happen. After the uncharacteristic event of two back-to-back Game of Thrones blockbusters, the series inevitably would need to take a deep breath and reset the game table before we approach the year’s final three episodes. Thus presumably next week will also be about positioning the pieces before season 6 makes its final power plays.
Nonetheless, “Blood of My Blood” struck me as a bit of a mixed bag. Burdened with the most exposition-heavy and traditionally television-plotted chapter of season 6 so far, Bryan Cogman unfortunately got the short-end of the stick in the writer’s room for his 2016 debut, although he plows along the multiple narrative chores admirably well. He and the series also made the most of events in Braavos, as well as some terrific turnabouts in King’s Landing. Yet, there were some acute drawbacks to how much of the rest of the episode felt as if we were seeing the actual hand move the pieces to their designated squares. Hence it’s fortunate that we are so invested in those movements that it was still a satisfying whole (especially for the Unsullied viewers).
As an example, “Blood of My Blood” picked up right after last week’s heartbreaking sendoff for the man we should always call Willas now (we won’t… but we should!). The first major revelation in this sequence is that we now understand why Bran Stark went back into his visions with the Three-Eyed Raven right after Max von Sydow said death was at the door and he has come for game night.
As it turns out, Bran had the entire knowledge of the Three-Eyed Raven downloaded into his head, and it is now a bit of a scramble. It’s all seems somewhat Matrix-y, but whereas Keanu Reeves memorably learned Kung Fu, Bran Stark is mostly binge watching the past five seasons of Game of Thrones in the span of two minutes. When he reaches the Red Wedding episode with his mother and brother, he’s going to be in one heckuva’ bummer fade to black.
The standout among all these swirling replays is that Bran learned why Jaime Lannister has a chip on his shoulder. For those of you who might have forgotten the Mad King’s last words, King Aerys II was the old nut with a crown that kept interrupting Bran’s acid trips to say “Burn them all.” We even get a half-glimpse of Jaime stopping the Iron Throne recipient from making his ravings a reality by shiving him in the back. For Daenerys partisans, it should perhaps give you pause about the longevity of the Targaryen bloodline.
In any event, Bran learning the truth about Aerys and Jaime’s heroic act, could theoretically now cause a facsinating development. Bran’s mind keeps going back to the day Jaime cruelly and irredeemably—depending on who you ask—pushed Bran out a window. Yet, if he now knows that Jaime forsook his honor in the eyes of history and his kingdom in order to save the lives of hundreds of thousands in King’s Landing, the prospect of Bran one day sitting down to have a chat with the Kingslayer is more intriguing than ever.
It also would be more compelling than honestly a lot of what happened to Bran tonight. Besides these little mind-teasing breadcrumbs, Bran does look a wee bit ridiculous when Meera has to wake him up so that he knows it’s time to die. I imagine this is how many mothers feel about the most vacant of World of Warcraft addicts. Yet, die they will not since Benjen Stark—all the way from season 1!—returns to save Bran and Meera’s life.
First, let us just say that the fire mace was all sorts of badass as it smashed a half-dozen Wights into ice cubed corpses. The scene is of course a Xena-esque last minute rescue (not unlike the Brienne rescue of Sansa and Theon in the season 6 premiere), but the show can get away with it again just on the novelty of Benjen’s weapon. However, I do hope these last minute rescues do not become too common of a trope this season or for the rest of the series.
As for Benjen himself, it is rewarding to have the show confirm what most Sullied fans realized: Benjen Stark is Coldhands. To television viewers, that means absolutely nothing since we find out within a few minutes who is Bran and Meera’s rescuer, but this is a big deal for we Sullied since Coldhands was a cloaked White Walker-ish looking fellow who escorted Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor through the tundra Beyond the Wall and to the great Heart Tree with the Three-Eyed Raven. We never learned who Coldhands was, but many (myself included) have long suspected it was a half-undead Benjen Stark. He had the eyes and literal cold hands of a corpse, but also could walk and reason like a man. Half-monster and half-hero, he is the closest this world has to a Daywalker. Indeed, he is the Westerosi Blade!
But this was the first instance of television-specific moments that probably make book readers grimace more than the show-only viewers. I do not necessarily mind that they skipped Coldhands being introduced on the journey to the Three-Eyed Raven, but there is absolutely no narrative buildup or intrigue about his identity. Rather, the show is in such a hurry to return to the admittedly wonderful momentum of the last two weeks that it pretty matter-of-factly info-dumps Benjen Stark’s return. This is a Night’s Watch ranger, and last living brother to Ned Stark, whose absence convinced Jon Snow and Lord Commander Mormont to go roaming north of the Wall at the end of season 1; this is a man who has been forced into the horrible fate of being both alive and dead; and he is a walking corpse that is being reunited with a nephew he barely even knew.
However, the actual scene is purely perfunctory with Benjen revealing like an afterthought that the Children of the Forest saved him from a White Walker by shoving dragonglass into his heart before he became a wight. He also nonchalantly discloses he’s been part of the plan since day one to turn Bran into the next Three-Eyed Raven. It all seems kind of moot, and maybe it is, because while most of the intrigue has moved to the North this season, beyond the Wall it is getting a little too “Fellowship of the Warg” for my liking.
There were similar narrative constraints this week revolving around Sam and Gilly. Here is a story that has an awkward situation: I can almost guarantee that there will be many chapters like this in The Winds of Winter between Sam and his father (assuming Randyll Tarly ever gets home), and it will likely be drawn out for countless pages with the intrigue bubbling to a boil until Gilly drops the bombshell that she is in fact a wildling. However, if the show is really going to be over by roughly this time in 2018, we don’t have time for that so the economy of episodes means that Sam’s entire family dynamics with his mother, sister, brother, and mean sonofabitch father have to be established and fully played out in the span of two scenes. On the one hand, I am grateful for that as a TV viewer since Sam and Gilly will never, ever, ever be the most compelling characters to watch. And on the other, it makes the fact that we are thus spending this much time at all at Horn Hill strangely more disappointing.
With that said, it was appreciated to see just what kind of piece of work we had to deal with as Sam’s father. This is a man who threatened to murder his own son, and it is both depressing and inevitable that he still can verbally browbeat his son to the point where Sam will not look him in the eye or defend Gilly, much less himself. He’s killed White Walkers and fought to defend Castle Black, yet he won’t even attempt a protest against the kind of guy Tywin Lannister would have loved having a pint with.
The main takeaway from all of this appears to be that Sam was able to snatch his father’s Valyrian sword, which will come in handy if and when he ever runs into another White Walker. But be that as it may, I am sure this also means that Sam will have a confrontation with papa Tarly again later this season over the theft of a sword. Who knows, maybe Gilly will do Sam the favor and slit the old man’s throat? I’m sure plenty of viewers would cheer at that grisly sight.
And, lest I sound too much like a sorely Thenn, there were several delicious bits of intrigue and twists in “Blood of My Blood.” The first occurred in Braavos where Arya Stark revealed that she is still a girl with a name. Hell, even her sword has a name: it’s Needle, and it’s perfect, especially when it spills the water of stable boys who talk too much.
This inevitability comes to a head when Arya unsurprisingly chooses to spare Lady Crane’s life. The decision is the result of her watching the meta play-within-a-show for apparently the third time. We also learn that it has elements for Arya to enjoy too, such as the sight of Joffrey Baratheon’s death reenacted in precious detail. Whereas every other viewer stands on in slack-jawed horror, Arya giggles with almost as much delight as we did when we watched the real thing. Almost.
There are also other nice little touches during this hilarious moment, including the reveal that Richard E. Grant does double duties in this play by acting as both Robert Baratheon and Tywin Lannister. It’s similarly made clear that the overall arc of the play is about demonizing Tyrion Lannister almost as much as his real-life counterpart got vilified in Shakespeare’s Richard III. But the Bard this is still not, and it was amusing that even Grant’s play master abhors that the audience laughs at Ned Stark’s death. In some ways, I wonder if Grant’s apparent reluctance to play to the plebs with fart noises and poop jokes is similar to how Benioff, Weiss, and Cogman also feel. We’d love to only be a high-minded political drama, but if the mob’s appetite for tits, wine, and gore isn’t satiated…
In any event, Arya does succeed at placing the poison in Lady Crane’s glass, but she cannot make her escape before the woman realizes what Game of Thrones viewers have long understood: Maisie Williams has wonderfully expressive eyes. No kidding; this matron of the stage ain’t just whistling “The Rains of Castamere.”
Crane tries to get Arya to agree that the play’s the thing, and to run away with the performers. Instead, Arya simply pushes the poison in the lady’s liquor away and reveals that the woman who plays Sansa, but desires to be Cersei, is in fact closer to an Olenna Tyrell more than any of them—after all Olenna has a penchant for poisons too.
This decision immediately got back to the Faceless Men, and the Man Formerly Known as Jaqen pretty much crushed any goodwill left from season 2’s awesomeness by consenting to Arya’s murder. His only quid pro quo is that it should be painless. I would like to think this is a long-con and at the last minute, Jaqen will remember the good times he had with Arya when he slaughtered all those dudes in season 2. Then, he’ll kill blondie instead. Alas, I doubt it is actually so.
Luckily, Arya’s exit is already crystal clear. Having previously mastered fighting in the dark, I think it is a signifier of things to come that she blew out the candle while in hiding. She now has a sword and can live without her eyes—she might just be able to win a duel in a windowless room. She also has a clear departure gate from Meereen since she has already impressed that troupe of actors, and could quite easily convince them to cast her as their new Sansa Stark. Something tells me she knows the role intimately.
Also, if Arya is now a member of a traveling repertory, it would make it easy for her to gain access to Daenerys and/or Tyrion in Meereen (if she thinks he also murdered Joffrey and Tywin, she might now think the Imp ain’t half-bad!). Or perhaps she could hitch a ride all the way back to King’s Landing where a few Lannister names left on her list still reside? All I know is that her leaving Braavos is inevitable… as is perhaps Jaqen following her movements in future seasons with a vengeance.
But in the meantime, let us move onto King’s Landing, because that is where the other really good stuff went down tonight. On the first count, I was almost as bewildered as Tommen that Margaery had seemingly confessed her sins and had given in to the High Sparrow’s brand of madness. Indeed, the mere fact that we wouldn’t even bear witness to the moment of her mental collapse (as we had Cersei’s) made it highly unlikely she ever broke, and now realizing she is actually reading the Sparrows’ religious texts and waxing poetic about the gods confirms Margaery is just about the craftiest gameplayer on the show. I couldn’t figure out her angle until the scales were lifted (as we’ll get to in a moment), but the Lannisters are lucky she is a woman. For if Margaery was a man and could thus be king, she’d have brought them to ruin long ago.
Aye, as it turns out, Margaery had conceded the Sparrows’ sanctimonious piety because she realized the best way out of this is to facilitate a kind of union between the faux-faithful and the dimwitted. Do remember that her husband, King of the Seven Kingdoms and Lord Protector of the Realm, had reluctantly agreed in the scene before her reintroduction to allow the High Sparrow to parade his wife naked through the streets. Margaery can have nothing but contempt at this point for the spineless, hapless, fleckless, and all around less-than-a-man-child that she’s stuck with in matrimony.
But she plays the game by letting him be adopted by his new father figure, a priest that claimed he wanted to lead a revolution against the crown and its excesses, yet immediately folded himself into the Iron Throne’s good graces when he realized he could control this puppet king with the Tyrell Queen by his side. Honestly, it is a neat hat trick for Margaery, an intimidating development for the Sparrow’s reach, and the final nail in the coffin that allows me to hate Tommen Baratheon. Sure, he’s a sweet kid and I love Ser Pounce as much as the next person, but he might have somehow managed to become a worse king than Joffrey, and Joffrey escalated a small war into a generational conflict by killing Ned Stark! Still, at least Joffrey never signed away his power to a pope that shamed his mother in the streets, would have shamed his wife, and has ultimately turned his power into the Seven Kingdoms’ newest punch line. Forget Game of Thrones; I can’t wait to see Arya’s future acting company interpret this into their next production.
This also was revealed during a tense confrontation between Jaime Lannister, aided by the Tyrell’s army, and the Sparrows. I, like so many, wanted to see Jaime behead this High Septon. But as epic as he looked riding his horse up the Steps of Baelor, his complete and utter resignation to international defeat and humiliation at the sight of his king (and secret son) siding with the enemy was epic in its own sad way.
I also cannot help but wonder if Margaery regrets the pact she has made with the Sparrows. It spared her a haircut and much worse on the street, but if she’d known her father had risked the Tyrells’ reputation on saving her in a bloodbath, would she have allowed it on the assumption armored men could defeat fanatics in robes? I suspect she has to have some immediate regret since the Tyrells and Lannisters both now look weak while Dorne and the North make moves against the crown.
Jaime was stripped of his kingsguard colors, and it’s the one thing he has defined himself for the last 25 years. It also seems likely that come next week, both Olenna and Mace Tyrell will be likewise kicked out of the Small Council since Tommen has willfully allowed the High Sparrow to stick his hand up his keister and turn his crowned head the flick of a wrist. For his part, however, Jaime is definitely done since not only is he stripped of his title and role on the kingsguard, but he is being banished from the city. In all his whining about his predicament, Cersei has to essentially force him, kicking and screaming, to go try and do some good with the uprising in Riverrun that has brought the Blackfish back to power (which confirms that Littlefinger did not lie to Sansa about her great-uncle’s resurgence).
It is also in this moment where I decided that the deviations that Game of Thrones have made to Jaime Lannister’s arc have mostly been for the worst. This is purely the perspective of a book reader, but Jaime Lannister also goes to the riverlands in A Feast for Crows well before this point (he never stepped foot in Dorne on the page). He also goes, partially, due to his desire for regaining his honor that has long since been dormant. This was the plot thread developed between Brienne and Jaime, which was a highlight in seasons 3 and 4, and hinted at when Jaime insisted to Joffrey that he still has time to fill his pages with great deeds.
In the novels, he chooses to go to Riverrun and several other places for multiple reasons, including because he feels he owes Catelyn Stark a debt for sparing his life and sending him back to King’s Landing way back in the second book/season. He resents the Freys for how they murdered Catelyn Stark and wishes to make some small gesture toward her by attempting to resolve the conflict between the Freys and Tullys as bloodlessly as possible. He even goes well beyond all of this by choosing to stay in the riverlands as things get more complicated while hearing that the Sparrows have taken Cersei hostage (again this happened much earlier in the books).
Simply as a fan of literary Jaime Lannister, it is disappointing to see how weak-willed the television one is since he is still obsessed only about himself and Cersei, and with nary a concern about the rest of the world. Meanwhile on the page, Jaime is at least attempting to develop something resembling a conscience.
He may need one yet on the show since it is made abundantly clear that Jaime will be dealing with the Freys. We are even forced to endure the sight of Lord Walder, the man that if there is any goodness left in this world will one day die at the end of Arya’s Needle. He holds court in the same space he previously wetted with Robb and Catelyn Stark’s blood, and he still smiles as he reminisces about that to two of his sons. Between them, they killed Catelyn and Talisa Stark both, as well as Talisa’s unborn child, and now they have lost Riverrun to the Blackfish. As a consequence, the Freys will hold siege for a year if they must against Riverrun, but they have something grimmer in mind to expedite the process.
Last we saw Edmure Tully, he was simply Brutus to the few of us lucky enough to watch the glory that was Rome. Now, millions of Outlander fans know him as Black Jack Randall. Either way, it is always good seeing the underrated Tobias Menzies onscreen, no matter the context. Here, he looks disgraced and ever humiliated as the Freys’ hostage, but he actually doesn’t seem too physically worse for wear. They have treated him relatively well up to this point. We should dread what that could mean now if he has just become a bargaining chip for the Freys to use against the Blackfish next week.
Also, for my fellow book readers, I suspect these two Freys being introduced as specific murderers of Starks tonight mean that sometime very soon we will be meeting a justice-seeker long thought of to be cut out of the TV series…
The actual final scene from which the episode gets its name is a bit of a Daenerys Targaryen oldie getting repeat airtime. The Breaker of Chains makes some claims about wanting to take what is hers with fire and blood in the Seven Kingdoms, a dragon roars, and a crowd cheers. But it’s still effective. Indeed, it is impossible not to smile at the sight of Drogon at any time, and there is a decent development to be seen since Dany can now ride Drogon regularly and mostly control his movements. I wonder if she is already contemplating who will be her fellow dragon riders on the two other children? She talked about having bloodriders, so she must be definitely putting some thought into dragon riders. I remain optimistic that Tyrion will eventually be steering one of these beasties into battle.
But that is for another episode (and probably another season). In the meantime, we have seen Daenerys ride a dragon once more and make a speech to rile up the crowd.
But as a viewer, I am more nodding my head in approval for Dany than wanting to clap, which is a pretty apt description for the episode as a whole. There is plenty to appreciate, and the ball is definitely rolling now with Arya on the run, Sam and Gilly also on the run, and even Jaime galloping toward a date with the Blackfish. But unexpectedly, the power axis has firmly changed this season. In previous years, an episode without King’s Landing intrigue or a major battle was always a bit of a disappointment, but in this season, to step away from the Bastard Bowl building between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton means maybe a little too much time with Bran or Sam. And additionally, those extra scenes with more peripheral characters are paced for maximum efficiency, causing whatever drama they do feature (such as a long lost relative’s return) to be revealed with all the grace of Hodor after a time travel brain-warping.
This was still a fine hour of television and it puts us a little closer to some amazing ones for later. It just makes us wish we could jump right to the next couple of Sundays and watch them.
You can join this Crow for his watch on Twitter @DCrowsNest.