On a Sunday marred by real violence in Orlando, I was reminded of the first Game of Thrones episode I recapped, last year’s ninth. In that installment the fighting pits in Meereen reopened, leading Tyrion to quip, "There has always been enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time." I said then that the show, whose stock in trade is senseless violence (and really, is there any other kind?), was trolling itself and, by extension, its viewers. As "No One," the eighth episode in season six, unfolded with axe killings, hangings and a decapitation done entirely by hand, the show soldiered on in its quest to shock a world increasingly immune to shock. The episode also featured three other violent deaths that, like so many in real life, occurred off-screen only for us to hear of them later or witness them only in their aftermath. Art reflecting Life? Or Life reflecting Art? A philosophical debate worth entertaining. Sadly our own world is not immune to the kind of horrors depicted onscreen, and believing otherwise would be fantasy taken to the level of folly.
Fortunately the showrunners saw fit to avert countless fictional deaths, as well. Jaime was sent to the river lands to take Riverrun back from the Blackfish and his Tully loyalists. Brienne asks him to delay storming the gates until she can try to convince the Blackfish to join the fight for Winterfell in exchange for safe passage from the castle. Bryndyn Tully is not swayed by her entreaties, however, nor by Sansa’s letter that powerfully recalls Catelyn for him. He is determined not to surrender his home (one which he abandoned for decades, incidentally, before returning in Hoster Tully’s last days) without a fight.
Jaime’s nearly pathological need to return to Cersei ultimately averts battle. He tells Edmure Tully, still a prisoner of the Freys, that Catelyn’s fierce love for her children made him admire her more than Ned or any of the Stark children. She would face any peril, do any deed necessary to ensure their safety. In this, he says, Catelyn was very much like Cersei. Like himself, as well. His love for Cersei is all-consuming. It is the only thing that matters. Since she faces danger under the accusations of the Faith, and he must recapture Riverrun before he can again be at her side, he convinces Edmure that he will launch the infant son he has never met over the battlements if necessary to speed his return to King’s Landing. With this fear planted (and with the promise of sanctuary for him, his son and bride at Casterly Rock), Edmure enters the castle over the Blackfish’s objections and orders the men to lay down their arms.
Bryndyn Tully leads Brienne and Pod to a boat beneath the castle. Rather than escaping with them and joining Jon and Sansa’s battle, he returns to fight for his home one last time, saying that he hasn’t fought with a sword in so long that he’ll probably make a damn fool of himself. A Lannister man later reports he died fighting. No blaze of glory for the Blackfish. We can only hope a more able archer than Edmure will be tasked with lighting his floating funeral pyre.
Jaime is one of the most conflicted characters of the series. Edmure wondered aloud how the Kingslayer could sleep at night since he lacked any shred of decency. We know he does not lack decency, though. He honored his pledge to Catelyn, even though nothing compelled him to. He gave the Valyrian steel sword Oathkeeper to Brienne and turned down her offer to give it back. Rather than sending men after Brienne and Pod when he saw them floating down the river, he raised a hand of tribute. He jumped in a pit and saved Brienne from a grizzly bear. Though nobody seems to acknowledge it, even when he broke his sacred vows as a knight by stabbing Mad King Aerys, he did it to prevent the king from burning the city with wildfyre. He broke a vow, but saved thousands of lives. Throwing Bran from the tower and threatening to murder an innocent baby were things he was willing to do, as he says, for love. His fatal flaw seems to be that his devotion is woefully misplaced. Cersei is unworthy of his constancy. She would certainly make no such sacrifice for him.
Elsewhere in the River Lands
The Hound’s rampage of murderous retribution begins with the killing of four lackeys in the woods. When the last of them issues a "F--- you" to his demand to know where Lem Lemoncloack is, the Hound gives him a second chance to decide what his last words should be. This time the man calls him a cunt, to which he replies, "You’re shit at dying, you know that?" Missed you, Hound.
He later finds Lem and his cohorts already in nooses for their crime, attended by Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. Noting that in the past he would have killed all seven attendants to the hanging just to be able to kill the three perpetrators of the sept murders as he saw fit, the Hound agrees instead to kill only two of them himself. At Dondarrion's insistence he even kicks the stump out from beneath them, rather than dispatching them with his axe. Lest we think Clegane has softened too much, he steals the boots off Lem’s feet while he’s still twitching at the end of the rope.
The Brotherhood offers the Hound a meal, which he accepts (noting in a nod to the "talker" scene that he would prefer chicken). They also encourage him to join them. He is a killer by nature, but at least killing for the Brotherhood would be done in the name of good. In a pitch reminiscent of Brother Ray’s sermon in the previous episode, Dondarrion argues, "You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you." Somehow I think Brother Ray was suggesting something very different than what the Brotherhood is offering.
Meereen is peaceful and bustling as Tyrion and Varys walk through the streets, and Tyrion can’t resist the urge to gloat. Varys is off to seek allies in Westeros, though it might be asked where on that continent his message might be well received (Dorne? Highgarden?) and whether the real purpose of his departure might be to get far away from the new Red Lady, Kinvara, as quickly as possible. He could also know what is about to happen in Meereen, but far be it from me to foment a cockamamie Thrones conspiracy theory. Ahem.
With nothing better to do, Tyrion tries again to engage Grey Worm and Missandei in idle banter and drinking. After shaming both into sipping wine by toasting Daenerys, he demands a joke. Not surprisingly, neither the interpreter nor the captain of the Unsullied is much good at telling jokes. The awkwardness is only beginning to abate when war horns sound. In the bay dozens of ships are approaching. Missandei says, "The masters have come for their property."
The ships hurl flaming balls an amazing distance, and much of the city is set ablaze. Tyrion admits that his plan has failed, and Grey Worm announces that the army will remain at the pyramid and wait for the attack to come, rather than taking the fight to the streets. Off-screen many inconsequential smallfolk are dying. A ruckus on the roof raises their fear. An unsullied opens the door, the first line of soldiers fall to a knee, and in walks Daenerys. What could have been a glorious return is spoiled by the chaos, and she understandably looks irritated. Tyrion will have some explaining to do, lest he be sent the way of poor Jorah. Or worse. In the distance Drogon flies away, black against the evening sky. Will we finally see all three dragons in full-on aerial assault? Or will they continue their ongoing role as HBO’s tantalizing tease lizards?
Nowhere is violence more overtly chosen over comparatively harmless alternatives than in the halls of the Red Keep. The High Septon has sent an armed team of Faith Militant with a "request" for Cersei to pay him a visit. The request becomes a command, which Cersei refuses. When Gregor-stein stands in the way of the bully zealots taking her by force, Lancel warns that if she does not order him to move, there will be violence. Cersei says, "I choose violence." One of the robed fanatics swings a spiked cudgel at Ser Gregor’s chest. It has no effect. The reanimated giant pulls off the man’s head while Cersei stands smiling by. As the man’s blood leaks into a floor drain she walks away, saying, "Please tell his High Holiness he’s always welcome to visit." Having the most fearsome weapon in the capital at her disposal has made her cocky.
Cersei’s feeling of invincibility is short-lived. In the throne room she expresses irritation that she was not informed of an important royal proclamation, only to have her uncle Kevan tell her she cannot stand by Tommen, and must listen among the other ladies of court. Tommen decrees that trial by combat is a barbaric custom that allows the privileged to escape justice, and that it will no longer be permitted in the Seven Kingdoms. He sets a date for the trials of his mother and Ser Loras and leaves the room under escort, refusing to make eye contact with his mother. Tommen’s newfound devotion to the Faith now poses the greatest threat to Cersei. Gregor is pledged and programmed to stamp out threats against Cersei. That could be a problem.
Before leaving the throne room Cersei learns that Qyburn’s "Little Birds" have confirmed some unstated "old rumor." The conventional wisdom holds that the rumor refers to caches of wildfire still stored around the city from the days of the Mad King. How dire would the situation have to become for Cersei to decide to destroy the entire city? And why, again, does Jaime love this desperate fool of a woman so unconditionally?
Lady Crane’s new interpretation of Joffrey’s death scene, incorporating Arya’s suggestions, brings down the house. When she retires to her dressing room, she finds Arya nursing her wounds beneath a costume rack. Luckily for Arya, Lady Crane is skilled at treating wounds, a talent she acquired by patching up wayward lovers that she made a habit of stabbing. She must be a miracle-worker indeed, since Arya suffered a slash, two stabs, and a twist of the knife in the gut. Yet she survives partly due to the actress's ministrations, and partly due to the same hate that sustained Sandor Clegane. Over bad soup and other remedies Lady Crane invites Arya to join the acting company. But Arya declines. She has other obligations, which she euphemistically calls seeing "what’s west of Westeros."
While Arya sleeps under the influence of Milk of the Poppy, the Waif enters the flat and murders Lady Crane. We don’t see it happen, but the aftermath is gruesome. The Waif says the actress’s suffering is Arya’s fault. Arya jumps out a window, and a chase ensues. Fruit is spilled, wounds reopen, and a trail of blood leads the Waif to Arya’s secret chamber. She wields Needle like a Jedi, but the Waif tells her she should know it will make no difference. Arya slices the candle, casting the room into darkness. After weeks spent training blind, she is pressing the only advantage she has.
In the final scene Jaqen H’ghar follows a trail of blood to his creepy wall of faces. On a shelf is the crudely disembodied face of the Waif. Arya appears behind him, Needle still in hand. (Oddly, she doesn’t seem to be bleeding anymore.) Jaqen welcomes her to the Faceless Men, saying, "Finally, a girl is No One." Arya pokes his chest with the pointy end of the sword and contradicts, "A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell. And I’m going home." H’ghar appears … pleased, somehow. Arya has been guided by personal agendas since leaving Winterfell. She has had to play varied roles—vagabond boy headed for the Night’s Watch, anonymous common cup-bearer to Tywin Lannister, seller of oysters and clams—but she was never going to be able to actually cast aside her identity. Rage about what happened to her family defines her. Maybe this is what H’ghar intended all along.
Fan Theories Thwarted
"No One" was a giant thumb in the eye of fans trying to predict storylines. Last week it seemed certain that Arya’s first bloody encounter with the Waif could not have been what it appeared to be. Like Tyrion, I must admit I was wrong, though I would ask you not to mobilize your armada to firebomb my pyramid for it. Questions still persist. Why was she suddenly confident and carefree on the streets of Braavos last week? Where did she get two big bags of money? How was the Waif able to fool her so easily? In the end we must conclude that Arya was stupid, but got away with it. Unsatisfying, if you ask me. The show shouldn’t explain everything, but it should give us enough detail to fill gaps in the logic ourselves.
With Tommen’s decree outlawing trial by combat, the possibility of Cleganebowl also went by the wayside. The brothers may still battle, and the Hound may finally resolve the source of all his hatred. But it won’t be in combat on behalf of Cersei and the Faith.
The expectation of seeing Lady Stoneheart was dealt a serious blow, as well. [SPOILER ALERT: Skip the rest of this paragraph if you have not yet read the books and want to maintain surprises.] A contingent of book fans has been dissatisfied since season four when LSH did not appear. Frequent mention of the Brotherhood Without Banners and reminiscences about Lady Catelyn this season, along with Bran’s visions of the Red Wedding, suggested she might finally have a part in the show. It appears now that HBO has been teasing the nerd contingent. In the books Catelyn was brought back only after a few days floating dead in the river, and only through the sacrifice of Beric Dondarrian’s life. Since Beric appeared in this episode, no such sacrifice occurred. The show could depart from that detail of the story and still present us with Stoneheart. But Brienne left without Jaime, and it’s difficult to see what purpose another undead character would serve. Also, with Jon and Benjen already resurrected, and with bad soup and pain killers being adequate to heal Arya's obviously mortal wounds sufficiently for her to endure a foot chase, two serious falls/jumps and duel in the dark only a day or so later, having another Stark arise from near certain death might strain credulity too far, even for this series. Beyond all that, Catelyn was not worthy of resurrection. There, I said it.
Episode nine has been dubbed "Battle of the Bastards." Not much in the way of hidden agenda there. Jon and Ramsay will finally confront each other. See the epic preview trailer here. Resolution of one of the biggest storylines is promised, and the complete demise of Ramsay Bolton cannot come soon enough, nor possibly be as satisfying as we want it to be. How in the world can he marshal a force of any size to fight for his cause?
Scenes not Seen
- Bran, Meera, and Benjen’s frosty trudge
- Preparations for Bastardbowl
- Any hint of Dorne’s existence (the sinkhole that consumed it at the end of episode two is a gaping chasm by now—not that anyone is complaining)
- Littlefinger’s mail call
- The Ironborn race to Meereen
- The Night’s King and his zombie army (for the driving force of evil in the series, he sure blinks in and out of existence a lot)