Following up "The Door" is no easy feat; last week’s installment of Game of Thrones is already widely considered one of the strongest episodes of the series. And with the first half of the season over, the show has to dedicate this hour to moving pieces around to set up the sixth season’s final act.
Surprisingly, then, "Blood of my Blood" may be the strongest episode of the season, buoyed on the writing of Thrones veteran Bryan Cogman. This hour features no gigantic moments (Drogon excepted), but it performs heavy lifting for various characters by returning to one of Game of Thrones integral pillars: family identity.
The feudal, dynastic nature of Westerosi society puts family at the forefront, to the point where sigils and words are created in service of family pride and loyalty. Family has been the driving force of the narrative, influencing the decisionmaking of Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen alike. And finding where each of our characters fits into their family drives their arcs forward.
Samwell Tarly’s journey to the Wall only occurred because his father, Randyll, wanted to remove Sam from the family succession. Lord Randyll would rather have killed his craven son than see Horn Hill and his Valyrian sword Heartsbane pass to him; as a mercy, Lord Randyll sent Sam to the Wall, hoping to be rid of him for good and allowing Tarly lands and title to pass to Sam’s brother Dickon.
But Sam is no longer the weakling who came to the Wall six seasons ago; as Gilly documents thoroughly at dinner, he’s slayed wildlings and a White Walker. He survived the attack at the Fist and the mutiny at Craster’s. He saved Gilly and her son from certain doom beyond the Wall. And he held that wall against an invading army much larger than any other in the Seven Kingdoms. Sam’s growth into a man of the Night’s Watch has been one of the most endearing and hopeful character arcs thus far.
Yet, he’s more coward than slayer when Sam and Gilly roll into Horn Hill. Sam has an easy rapport with his mother Melessa and sister Talla, and the source of Sam’s good nature and heart becomes abundantly clear. Even the serving men and women look upon Sam kindly. Sam though worries about his father, who is absent from the greeting party. Lord Randyll and Dickon are unsurprisingly off on a hunt (the Tarly sigil is a red huntsman and much of the supper conversation centers around hunting).
Sam and Gilly finally catch up with the Lord of Horn Hill at dinner, in a scene evoking memories of Downton Abbey (Lord Randyll being played by Downton alum James Faulkner). Randyll Tarly observes silently as his family makes uneasy small talk. Talla laments not being allowed to hunt with the men when Gilly lets slip her own hunting abilities. Randyll says nothing, but his interest is flickered. Randyll eventually speaks up to shame his son for his weight and question his manhood. Gilly chimes in and once again betrays her alibi, leaving Sam staring at his food, quietly wincing.
Randyll pieces the truth together, disgusted that his son has abetted and laid with a wildling woman.
Randyll holds all the prejudices that the audience initially had: that the wildlings are savage, godless folk who spit in the face of custom and law (which we’d come to learn is false; the Free Folk are no different than any other people). No matter. The vitriol is too much for Melessa Tarly, who quickly excuses herself and the ladies while scolding her husband for his boorish behavior.
Sam barely speaks, letting his father berate him for weakness and treason. Even brother Dickon looks on uneasily as Randyll declares this the last night Samwell ever spends at Horn Hill. Sam makes his way up to Gilly’s chamber to give his goodbyes, his eyes filled with tears. She and the child can remain, Sam explains, and would have his mother and sister to help care for little Sam. But Sam’s defeatis temporary.
No sooner had Sam said "goodbye forever" to Gilly that he barges back in, instructing Gilly to gather her things and prepare to leave (to which Gilly comically responds that she doesn’t have any things). This season’s earlier scene where Sam tells Gilly he will not leave her again rings true here, as Sam and Gilly flee into the night.
Not before taking Heartsbane, though.
Sam may be many things, but unintelligent he is not. Knowing that Valyrian steel kills White Walkers, Sam steals away with the family greatsword. 'Won’t your father come for the sword,' Gilly puts to him. "He can bloody well try," Sam the Slayer replies.
Samwell has lived his entire life in fear of his father, and that fear is what drove him to the Night’s Watch. After ranging beyond the Wall and protecting the Seven Kingdoms, Sam has emerged into one of the most courageous men of Westeros, having overcome challenges that few warriors ever faced. Gilly and little Sam act as a permanent reminder of that journey Sam has taken, and drives Sam to embark on his next adventure.
Samwell Tarly had to venture back to his family to truly realize the person he’s become; Arya Stark has no such luxury. The members of her family that haven’t been murdered are scattered to the wind, presumably lost to Arya forever. Given the brutality she experienced in Westeros, it’s no surprise that this young girl has chosen the path to become No One.
For two seasons in Braavos, the heart of Arya Stark has been in conflict with itself. The House of Black & White pulls her towards anonymity; a nameless, faceless assassin in service of the Many-Faced God. Yet, the wolf inside remembers the North, remembers Winterfell, remembers her pack. Arya has never been fully able to shed her wolfskin; she never rid herself of Needle, and she killed Ser Meryn Trant out of revenge for Syrio and Sansa.
Her unwillingness to give up her identity might be the very reason Jaqen has given Arya her current mission. He means not only to test her ability to dole out the gift, he also wishes to see how Arya reacts to the story of King Joffrey’s reign and the downfall of House Stark. To truly earn her place with the Faceless Men, Arya must prove that she can indiscriminately give out mercy and remain unprovoked when the ghosts of her past return.
Much like Sam earlier, Arya initially goes along with the mission, poisoning Lady Crane’s rum during the final act of the performance. She bumps into Lady Crane on her way out, however, and Arya’s humanity comes out. Her chat with Lady Crane endears her even more to the actress, and is in awe of her performance as Cersei Lannister during the Purple Wedding reenactment.
Arya can’t resist from giving Lady Crane an acting tip: Cersei Lannister would not only be sad over Joffrey, but she would be in a rage. She would not rest until the killer was brought to justice.
Arya’s "expressive" eyes here tell us more than just her words, as even Lady Crane notes. Arya’s advice is informed not only by her knowledge of Cersei; it’s also how Arya feels about those who have wronged her. It’s why she trains with sword and bow and staff, and it’s why she keeps a list of targets.
Arya Stark hungers for revenge still, and this dialogue with Lady Crane reinvigorates that hunger. (This also calls back to Tywin Lannister in Harrenhal, who compared Arya to his own daughter once.) And again, not unlike Samwell, Arya barges back in, here to knock the poisoned rum from Lady Crane’s hand and warn her of the jealous actress who hired her.
With this final act of defiance, Arya’s tenure as a Faceless Men is over. She leaves, but not before being noticed by the Waif, who reports back to Jaqen H’ghar. Jaqen, who is carefully cutting up a corpse to add to the Hall of Faces, sadly agrees to allow the Waif to hunt down and kill Arya.
Arya knows the bridge has burned, and is likely off to find passage back to Westeros. But before she can, she has a lost item to retrieve: Needle, still buried at the docks from early last season.
Needle was Winterfell, Needle was her father and her mother and her sister busy with her sewing needles. Needle was her brothers training in the Winterfell courtyard; Needle was Jon Snow’s smile.
If the coin Jaqen gave her years ago was the siren to call her to Braavos, then Needle is the beacon to lead her back home. It’s what anchors her to her family and her past, and it’s what reinvigorates her with purpose.
In King’s Landing, Jaime Lannister is having his own crisis of identity. As the eldest son of Tywin Lannister, Jaime’s fate was to be Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West. However, his love for sister Cersei led him to forsake his inheritance and join the Kingsguard, guaranteeing close proximity to the queen at all times. This decision also ensured proximity to the Mad King Aerys, who chose to keep Ser Jaime close to him, a protector-hostage hybrid as the Mad King grew more wary of Tywin Lannister and his loyalties.
Jaime was there the day King’s Landing fell to Tywin’s forces, and it was Jaime who put an end to the Mad King’s reign (glimpses of which are shown in Bran’s visions). Jaime saved the population of King’s Landing that day, stopping Aerys and his pyromancer before they could ignite the caches of wildfire buried underneath the capital. The heroic act only brought infamy to the young Jaime Lannister, however, dubbed Kingslayer and oathbreaker. This taint would mark Jaime permanently, his white knight moment forever viewed as an act of treachery.
Jaime had kept this truth hidden inside for two decades, twisting him into a selfish, bitter warrior who only found happiness in his sister’s arms. It was later in Robb Stark’s captivity that Jaime would finally divulge the truth to Brienne of Tarth, revealing the secret he carried so heavily for years. With the weight finally lifted, Jaime could shed the Kingslayer moniker and reclaim his identity as Ser Jaime Lannister, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.
As is common in Game of Thrones, this hope is shortlived. Already short a sword hand, Jaime wound up suffering loss after loss in rapid succession. His eldest son Joffrey died at his own wedding, with Jaime looking on. His father was killed by the brother he set free, and his daughter was killed in his own botched rescue attempt. Jaime, who wished to reclaim his place in the Lannister dynasty, could not help but bring about its ruin.
It is with this in mind that Jaime acts now; denied the heroism of ending the reign of the Mad King, Jaime looks to make a grand showing at the Great Sept of Baelor.
In golden armor on a beautiful white steed, Ser Jaime leads a Tyrell force to reclaim King’s Landing for the crown, and to free the beloved Queen Margaery from the High Sparrow’s claws. He wishes to free the hold of Faith on the city while returning Margaery to his son Tommen, and allowing them the opportunity to further the Lannister line and secure its royal legacy.
And like before, Jaime’s plans at redemption are dashed, this time on the stone steps of Baelor. Margaery has seemingly schemed for her own freedom, claiming herself a convert of the Faith. Here, the High Sparrow marches King Tommen out of the sept, surrounded by Kingsguard newly adorned in golden armor sporting the Seven-Pointed Star of the Faith (as opposed to the crown on Ser Jaime’s armor). The Crown and the Faith have apparently united, making Jaime and the Tyrells look like fools to the city in the process.
For his impertinence, King Tommen strips Jaime of Lord Commander duties. Taking up arms against the Faith is unbecoming of the Iron Throne, and Jaime is no longer fit to protect the king. Jaime is expelled from the city, sent to deal with Brynden "Blackfish" Tully, who is holding Riverrun in defiance of the Lannisters and Freys. While the words come from King Tommen’s mouth, it is clear the High Sparrow has taken root inside.
It is Cersei who brings Jaime back from the edge. Free of his Kingsguard duties, Jaime can take Lord Tywin’s place at the head of the Lannister army, and show the country what meddle the Lannisters have. With Tommen’s fate secure for the nonce, Jaime has the opportunity to secure the kingdoms in his name and earn the respect of his men, respect Lord Tywin took by sheer force of will.
In fact, it is Lord Tywin’s words to Jaime in his first appearance 6 years ago that come to mind. Tywin constantly shamed Jaime’s decision to be a glorified bodyguard, and his concern for the people who called him Kingslayer behind his back. Tywin wanted Jaime to shed all that and become the golden lion he was meant to be, and help establish a Lannister dynasty which could rule for generations.
Like Arya and Sam, Jaime must choose to embrace not only his identity but his place within his family. Whereas Sam and Arya symbolically do so by taking Heartsbane and Needle respectively, Jaime instead wields the Lannister army, hoping to etch his name into Lannister history like his father did so many times before.
Family is the most important determinant of social hierarchy in Westeros. As Littlefinger constantly reminds the audience, a famous name is all it takes to rise to power in the Seven Kingdoms. Samwell, Arya, and Jaime were all born with the right family name, but tragedy has divorced them from it. By choice or force, all had to abandon their powerful last names in service of greater purpose, be it the Night’s Watch, Faceless Men or Kingsguard. Now, free of those chains, these characters look to reclaim the Tarly, Stark, and Lannister inside.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Seeking place in family is what took Benjen Stark to the Wall 20 years ago. His older brother Ned ruled the North as Lord of Winterfell, and had secured his line when his wife Catelyn gave birth to their son, Robb. With no titles to inherit, Benjen continued the Stark tradition of taking the black, eventually rising up to First Ranger of the Night’s Watch. This is the title Benjen had when he disappeared very early on in season one.
Benjen returns this week, though the titles "dead man" and "cold hands" are more fitting than "First Ranger." Armed with scythe and flaming mace, Benjen reappears to save his nephew Bran and Meera Reed from the horde of wights in pursuit. Benjen later reveals what happened on his last ranging; he tracked the White Walkers but fell in pursuit. The Children had used dragonglass to save his life, keeping him alive even though his body is more dead than alive.
While Benjen saves the pair, Bran is locked in visions past, present, and future. Shots of Bran’s fall and the death of his family are interlaced with scenes from the Tower of Joy and the Mad King’s death. The last set of visions exclusively shows the White Walkers and the North, with the only voiceover being a singular "Burn them all" from Aerys Targaryen. This foreshadows the assumed climax of this story, the song of ice and fire between the White Walkers and the Dragons.
- Lastly, Walder Frey returns to the series for the first time since the Red Wedding incident. He too is seeking to secure his family’s place in the world as the politics of the Riverlands come back into focus. The Freys have been ruling as Lord Paramounts of the Riverlands since Edmure Tully’s wedding, but the Riverlands are still loyal to House Tully of Riverrun. Worse, the Brotherhood without Banners appears to also still be around, undermining the Freys at every turn.
The Late Lord Walder is a laughingstock to the commoners, and as the Red Wedding indicated, the prickly old man does not take well to sleights. He still has Edmure, reigning Lord of Riverrun, captive in his dungeons. The male heir to house Tully may be worth enough to coax the Blackfish to strike his banners and hand back the castle to the Freys, Lord Walder thinks. With Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth both on their way as well, Riverrun looks to be a setting of great interest in this season’s final act.