"And the man breaks."
"He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace 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. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them…but he should pity them as well."
- Septon Meribald, A Feast for Crows
Game of Thrones is a saga of broken men and women. Unlike much other fantasy, the characters experience more than just some existential peril. They are intimately destroyed in horrific ways; some physically, some politically, some internally, but for all it's important things that are taken from them, often by brutal force.
The series starts with the breaking of Bran Stark. Soon, it would take Ned's honor, Sansa's innocence, Jaime's hand. King Stannis broke on the Blackwater many moons ago, and every last aspect of Prince Theon Greyjoy was crushed into a worthless piece of flesh. It's not the White Walkers and the dragons that make Game of Thrones a true original; it's the demons within each character that create the horror we can't turn away from.
Even so, it's not the breaking of characters alone that compels our interest; it's the putting themselves back together again (or trying to, at least) that keeps us hooked. Across the vast expanse of Westeros and Essos, we find this week's characters trying to make whole what they have lost within themselves.
Tyrion Lannister has been a man slowly breaking for a while now. After murdering his lover and then his father, Tyrion has been on a trail of wine and confinement. The only thing holding him together is hatred for his sister, the woman who brought upon his ruin. He seeks vengeance, but without power or money Tyrion has only his intellect to rely on to survive. He puts it to use immediately, sussing out the identity of his captor by his arms and effects.
That captor, Jorah Mormont, is looking for his own redemption, hoping the head of a Lannister might win him back the favor of the Queen. Jorah doesn't want the lands and title that Cersei would bestow upon him; instead, he seeks to regain the love and trust of the woman who finally gave him purpose after he had been exiled from Westeros years ago. However, Tyrion is not wrong in suggesting that Daenerys may choose to kill Jorah and keep Tyrion (especially now that she is short on advisors). Even so, Mormont has little other choice; the redemption he wants can only be found through the Queen in the East.
Elsewhere, the other son of Tywin Lannister is on his own ship of redemption as Jaime sets his sights on Myrcella and Dorne. Disarmed of his sword hand while in Northern captivity, Jaime teetered on death and despair before Brienne convinced him that he can be much more than just a sword, and that his honor was not beyond repair. It is no mistake that our first shot of Jaime in this episode is him sailing past Brienne's home of Tarth, a visually symbolic reminder of the transformation he has undertaken.
Maybe the best evidence for this is his absolute reluctance to start a war with Dorne; first in his words to Bronn and later by ensuring the dead Dornish sentries are hidden and buried. This is a stark contrast to season one Jaime, who kicked off the War of the Five Kings by brazenly attacking Ned Stark in the streets of King's Landing.
Every "good" act of Jaime's life has backfired on him; when he saved the population of King's Landing from the Mad King he was dubbed Kingslayer and ostracized. The aforementioned assault on Ned Stark resulted in rebellion, captivity, and maiming. When he freed his innocent brother from execution, that brother murdered his father, making Jaime responsible for not only Tywin's death, but potentially the downfall of House Lannister as a whole. On top of this, he's been a total absentee father to his three children by Cersei; so much so, he refers to Myrcella as his "niece" even though Bronn and him both know the truth of it. These burdens have resolved him to one thing: that he himself must be the one to save his daughter and set right the chaos he unleashed by freeing Tyrion.
But even with a thrilling set piece pitting Jaime and Bronn against the Dornish, it's another Kingsguard that steals the show (and our joy) this week.
Barristan "the Bold" Selmy has been a famed knight since a young age; he gained renown at age 10 when he appeared as a mystery knight in the Tourney of Blackhaven, and was later knighted at 16 when he unhorsed the legendary Ser Duncan the Tall. All of this would eventually land Ser Barristan on the Kingsguard of the Mad King Aerys at the ripe age of 23. He fought bravely for his King in Robert's Rebellion, but he never lost sight of the madness of his liege. He would later understand that King Robert was a poor ruler in his own right; though not cruel or insane, Robert was an uninterested drunk, and his carelessness would lead to the deteriorating state of Westeros that our story takes place in.
"Just once in my life," Barristan tells Jorah in season 3, "I want to know what it's like to serve with pride, to fight for someone I believe in."
Barristan has always been a loyal, capable sword, but that sword has been in service of terrible kings. Daenerys Targaryen presents him an opportunity to serve someone who has a good heart, even if she may be no better at ruling than his previous lords. Still, a concern for the poor/slaves and an earnest interest in being a just ruler makes Dany a worthy queen to die for, which sadly comes to pass.
In the fantastic climactic scene, Barristan stumbles upon an ambush on the Unsullied by the titular "Sons of the Harpy."
While the Unsullied are the most able soldiers in the world, they are not a police force. Their shields and spears are formidable in open battle against a charge of heavy horse, but they are less than ideal in close-quarters combat in the narrow alleys of a strange city. As such, some are led into a trap by the Sons, resulting in the death of all but their general Grey Worm, who seems cornered before the arrival of Selmy.
In a scene that recalls Boromir's death from Lord of the Rings, Barristan the Bold fends off almost a dozen men before he himself appears to fall in battle, but not before giving Grey Worm just enough wiggle room to survive the encounter. The action is fast-paced and tightly shot in a narrow corridor, and combined with the impressive score and the emotion of Barristan's hero moment, one of the most powerful Thrones scenes we've seen in a while.
But in typical Thrones fashion, the moment is bittersweet, not just because of the death itself but the circumstances surrounding it.
The greatest knight the Seven Kingdoms did not die in some great battle for his queen; he did not slay some great villain in single combat. Instead, the legendary swordsman falls unceremoniously to guerilla insurgents wherein even his victory would have not improved the political knot strangling Meereen. Ned Stark forsaked his honor before his execution and Robb Stark was murdered unarmed at his wedding. Now, another honorable man and fabled warrior dies in unheralded manner, keeping to Game of Thrones style of subverting fantasy tropes.
It was a shocking moment to those who have read the books and to those who have not, and serves to only leave a bad taste in the audience's mouth. But Barristan the Bold, at an advanced age, finally got to achieve that which eluded him all his life: a chance to fight and die for a ruler he truly believed in. "I am a knight," he tells Cersei Lannister when dismissed from Joffrey's Kingsguard, "I shall die a knight!" And so he did.
While Jaime seeks atonement for his sins in Dorne, the paramour and daughters of Prince Oberyn Martell aim to make themselves whole again by avenging their father's death. In a mostly economical scene, the three eldest bastard daughters of the Red Viper -- Obara, Nymeria, and Tyene -- pledge their weapons (spear, whip, and daggers, respectively) in service to Ellaria in her quest for revenge. They now know that Jaime is in Dorne, and now may have the chance to draw blood on two Lannisters instead of one.
The Snakes in Dorne aren't the only daughters seeking revenge in the Seven Kingdoms; there's a she-wolf in Winterfell who seeks to piece back the broken bits of House Stark's legacy. Sansa comes down to the crypts of Winterfell, lighting a candle for Lyanna, Ned's sister and King Robert's betrothed. We get some backstory on Rhaegar Targaryen (more on him later), followed by Littlefinger informing Sansa that he is headed for the capital for business with Cersei. This means Sansa will have to fend off the Boltons on her own, and should they decide to pursue their torturous, flaying ways, Littlefinger will not be there to help.
But Baelish does provide Sansa with a plan to become Wardeness of the North (which, purely as a fan, YES PLEASE).
First, she must make Ramsay hers, in a way we've seen Cersei, Margaery, and Daenerys do before. Second, he informs her that Stannis Baratheon means to march on Winterfell, and will need Sansa if he means to hold the North (especially since Jon turned down Stannis's offer). This scene is mostly expository, telling us of Rhaegar and Baelish's near-term plans, but this thread more than any other presents the audience with a chance for their own revenge against all those who have wronged the Starks.
And lastly, after sheathing her claws last week, the lioness in King's Landing strikes back at the Tyrells of Highgarden.
Having deposed of the High Septon, Cersei gives power to the High Sparrow to not only represent the gods, but to enforce their laws by resurrecting the Faith Militant, an ancient order of holy knights (more on them later). Cersei uses their puritanic belligerence to target Queen Margaery's brother Loras, a "known degenerate" by Westerosi standards. This puts Margaery at odds with not only Cersei and the Faith, but also undermines her relationship with King Tommen.
While Cersei is not a protagonist we root for in the traditional sense, we know how being a noble lady in the land of Westeros can break women, removing all agency and leaving them for nothing save brides and mothers. She was sold off to marriage, witnessed her eldest son murdered at his wedding, and watches as a younger, fairer queen takes control of her youngest. Her father, uncle, and brother have abandoned her in King's Landing, and so in this desperation she turns to the Faith to give her the clout and force she needs to fend off the Tyrells and reassemble the crumbling Lannister legacy.
Speaking of revenge, Cersei's play against the Tyrells may be setting up another character to exact some of her own. The Queen mother commands Mace Tyrell to go to Braavos to treat with the Iron Bank, and her insistence that Meryn Trant escort him seems to imply Mace might not be returning from Braavos. Without her father, Margaery would be down her only ally sitting on the Small Council. But unbeknownst to Cersei, there's a little girl in Braavos who names Meryn Trant every time she recites her kill list. Meryn Trant killed Syrio Forel (Arya's dancing master from season 1) and would later beat Sansa at Joffrey's command, so Arya will have the reason and opportunity to give him the gift of death, possibly.
Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark get numerous mentions throughout this episode. Sister to Daenerys, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was the Mad King's son and considered the most noble and gallant man in the entire realm. Ser Barristan here recalls how Rhaegar would wander the streets of King's Landing, singing for the poor and giving his coin to those who needed it. Highborn and smallfolk alike loved the dashing Dragon Prince, and secretly wished for his tyrannical father to die so he could become king.
That was until the Tourney of Harrenhal, Littlefinger informs us. After besting Barristan Selmy in a tilt, he rode past his bride (Elia Martell, sister to Prince Oberyn) and gave his favor to Lyanna Stark, naming her the Queen of Love and Beauty for the day. Rhaegar and Lyanna would disappear shortly after (though the circumstances are unclear; Sansa claims she was kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar, though that doesn't jive with how Barristan describes Rhaegar to Dany).
Having been betrothed to Robert Baratheon, Lyanna's abduction set off a series of events that would result in Robert's Rebellion and the demise of House Targaryen. In the Battle of the Trident, Robert met Rhaeger on the field of battle, killing the young Dragon prince with a blow to the chest from Robert's warhammer. Afterwards, Ned Stark and some of his most loyal men marched on the location of his sister Lyanna, but arrived only in time to find her on her deathbed of blue roses (the exact circumstances of which have not been explicated).
Robert's Rebellion tore the kingdoms apart, and in the end the woman he fought for ended up dying before he could save her. This ultimate failure not only informs his indifference to ruling ("Someone took her from me," he tells Cersei in a powerful scene from the inaugural season, "and Seven Kingdoms couldn't fill the hole she left behind."), but also why he held such deep hatred for House Targaryen, manifesting in an assassination attempt against Daenerys.
When our saga began, the realm was at piece, and most of the high lords and ladies sat in their castles, far removed from danger. But that was not to last, as we slowly saw the kingdom crack apart, first just Lannister and Stark, then Baratheon and Greyjoy, Tyrell and Bolton, and all the rest. The characters mimic that fate; they start in full control of their faculties and station, only to see that eroded away if not outright taken from them.
A common theme running through this season is "breaking the wheel"; the spokes that buttress this feudal society and allows so much tragedy to occur in Westeros. But it is the wheel breaking inside each character that forms the heart of this episode, and the story as a whole. Some wheels may be damaged, but they are reparable; we see Jorah, Jaime and Tyrion seeking redemption to piece together what honor or purpose they have lost. Others, like Cersei and the Sand Snakes, are plowing ahead to remedy past slights, but a wheel driven by vengeance is much more likely to run off the rails.
And as the lesson of Rhaeger reminds us, the wheel is always turning, coming around full circle again and again. The game of thrones was played centuries before our current story, and will continue on centuries after. It's a story of constant rise and fall, life and death, breaking and remaking. For some, this episode marked a renewed sense of purpose, a life of meaning reborn; for Barristan Selmy, it marked the last revolution of a man who finally gained the redemption he had long since sought: a chance to die for someone he believes in.
A couple extra ravens:
- Selyse wonders why Stannis sees so much in a bastard boy of Ned Stark, who he fathered off some tavern wench, according to her. "Maybe," scoffs Stannis, "but that wasn't Ned Stark's way." HMMMMMM.
- Speaking of Stannis, we get an incredibly heartfelt, touching scene between him and his daughter, the Princess Shireen. In this moment, we have the warmest father-daughter scene since Ned let Arya keep Needle, but that's not the scene to which I'd compare it. At the end of season 3, Tywin explains to Tyrion that his first impulse was to leave his deformed, dwarfish child to the tides, ridding himself of the monster born to him. Only for the sake of his family name did Tywin raise Tyrion as his own, though poorly at that.
Princess Shireen's greyscale presented a similar scenario to Stannis Baratheon, and his closest advisors counseled him to rid himself of this misbegotten child. Stannis refused, but not because of family name or sense of duty. He truly loved his daughter, his only child (remembering the male fetuses that Selyse keeps at Dragonstone as a reminder of her own failure), and fought with all the strength and resources he had to nurse her into adulthood. "You are Princess Shireen of House Baratheon," he tells her, "and my daughter," earning him a warm embrace from his daughter, and providing the audience with our first glimpse of why some refer to him as "Stannis the Mannis."
- In that dialogue, Stannis Baratheon mentions the Stone Men of Valyria, marking the third straight episode that greyscale and the Stone Men have been explicitly referenced. Something something Chekov's Stone Men.
- Jaime stopping a death stroke with his golden hand was a really clever touch. As a whole, the action choreography in this episode was top notch, from Dorne to Meereen. And of course, Bronn remains the best.
- Re: the Faith Militant: when Aegon the Conqueror landed on Westeros three hundred years prior, the Faith eventually submitted to him and his dragons, having seen the carnage they had wrecked upon the rest of Westeros. But Aegon's successors were not so admirable as he, and the Targaryen practice of incest did not sit well with the most devout. The Faith Militant rised up against Targaryen rule, forming two orders of soldiers: the Warrior's Sons, who were high-born knights, and the Poor Fellows, comprised of the common folk. Together they harried the armies of the Dragonkings, until after several years King Jaehaerys Targaryen finally settled a peace with them, earning the king title of The Conciliator.