All men must die.
All men must serve.
These two Valyrian phrases are two sides of the same coin. It represents two choices for our characters, a submission to desire or the embrace of purpose. It is a crisis of identity, as by author George RR Martin’s own words, the only story worth telling is the human heart in conflict with itself.
In "No One," Game of Thrones shows three of its foremost protagonists examining the two halves of their their inner selves; be it their better selves or true selves, characters must determine which path they will take forward.
Arya Stark/No One
The episode’s title refers to the younger daughter of Ned Stark, who for two years now has been shown training (and often failing) at becoming a Faceless Man. Despite showing some skill at assassin craft, Arya has never been able to let go of her inner direwolf. She refused to bury Needle, she refused to kill Lady Crane, and she ultimately refused the orders of Jaqen H’ghar. Compared to the nameless Waif, whose true name or history will never be known to us, Arya may be the worst pupil to ever study in the House of Black & White.
Arya’s defection has her marked for death, the brink of which Lady Crane finds Arya in when the episode opens. Despite the seemingly mortal stab wounds, the adage "you Starks are hard to kill" prevails here, as Lady Crane is able to patch the wounded girl up, and put her to rest for the evening with the aid of milk of the poppy (Westerosi opium).
As she recovers, Arya mulls over the choices in front of her. Westeros had been her initial destination, but a lady marked for death by the Faceless Men would never know peace. In childlike fancy, Arya muses about the world west of Westeros and beyond the Sunset Sea. Sailing to the edge of the world may be where Arya can find escape from the hardships of her childhood, and be just far enough away from the Many-Faced God.
It’s a rare moment of childish whim for Arya; the young Lady of Winterfell has known only tragedy since she left Winterfell in the series’s second episode. She’s been on the run since the death of her father, ditching her name and posing as the boy Arry to hide her identity from the Gold Cloaks. Later she tries to pose as a common serving girl under Lord Tywin at Harrenhal, as Arya Stark would be a very valuable hostage as the Lannisters and Starks waged war. And she tried to keep her true self from Thoros of Myr and the Brotherhood, though the Hound would blow her cover there (more on them later).
At every step of the way, Arya’s true self would surface. Gendry saw past her faux gender swap. Lord Tywin knew Arya was a highborn, though his amusement with her wit stopped him from acting on it. And now in Braavos, we’ve seen Arya unable to ditch Needle, a link to her Stark heritage. She couldn’t stop herself from killing Meryn Trant, the man who beat her sister and killed Syrio Forel. She was unable to kill Lady Crane, a sign of the honor her father instilled in her. As much as she tries to be no one, she still comes up Arya Stark, regardless the circumstance.
This brief flight of imagination is cut short by the Waif, however. The House of Black & White took coin for the assassination of Lady Crane, and even if Arya refused, the Faceless Men will have its quarry. Arya discovers the Waif standing over Lady Crane’s mangled body, claiming the Many Faced God demands another name as well.
A chase ensues, albeit one that strains credulity. Though nearly gutted the episode prior (and likely still under the effects of milk of the poppy), Arya leaps through the alleys of Braavos and slides on her belly down staircases, which would put an excessive amount of strain on this child’s body. Her injuries do catch up with her eventually, and the Waif corners Arya in the cell she escaped to a few episodes prior, and the Braavosi portion of Arya’s character arc comes to a head.
With Needle in hand, Arya cuts the lone candle lighting the room and kills the Waif, paying off the training Arya received as a blind girl. Arya returns to the House of Black & White for the last time, adding the Waif’s face to the wall, fulfilling Jaqen’s request in a roundabout way. Having bested Jaqen’s strongest student, Arya Stark has shown more resolve than expected. He tells her she is ready to serve, but Arya rejects this, and in a strong moment for Maisie Williams, she declares herself Arya Stark of Winterfell. Arya chooses the Valar Morghulis side of the coin, deciding to return to home to Westeros and likely continue scratching names of her list, a list the vengeful Arya Stark had started compiling four seasons ago.
This resolution paid off various aspects of the story, but ultimately the entire plot in Braavos feels a bit flat. Arya’s tutelage under the Faceless Men seemed doomed from the outset, and while she may have acquired a new skillset, the character’s arc leaves something to be desired. Maisie Williams did strong work with what material she had, but this might be a spot where hewing towards the original text may have worked better.
In the name of efficiency, Arya’s more complicated relationship and training with the Waif was ditched in favor of a more generic, antagonistic relationship between the two. The story suffers for it, and in the end it feels as if the sole purpose was to sideline Arya Stark until a time when the wolves were returning to Winterfell.
Sandor Clegane/The Hound
Back in Westeros, Arya’s old traveling companion Sandor "The Hound" Clegane finds himself choosing between the two sides of his heart as well. In the wake of the slaughter of his village, The Hound reemerges, tracking and killing some of the men guilty of the massacre. With violence and vulgarity familiar to the character, The Hound butchers four supposed members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, and even taunts them for "being shit at dying." Two of the men he kills were ones he noted from earlier, but the lemon-cloaked rider was nowhere in sight.
When he does finally find this man, it’s at the end of a noose, awaiting execution. The Hound had stumbled upon the Brotherhood he knew from a few seasons ago: the mirthful Thoros of Myr and the enigmatic Beric Dondarrion. They too seeked to punish these men for their crimes, though preferring the more "humane" execution of hanging than gutting, claiming it is all death in the end.
"We all die," the Hound retorts with his own version of Valar Morghulis, and argues for more brutal methods. He relents, however, giving into Beric’s demands and hanging the men responsible for the murder of Brother Ray.
Sandor Clegane makes camp with Thoros and Beric, and they shine a light on the possible path forward for the giant warrior. The Lord of Light has shown Thoros and Beric the Great War to come, supposedly, and Sandor Clegane has much to offer in that fight. The Hound can finally be put to rest, and Sandor Clegane can still do something good with what life he has left, echoing what Ray told Sandor last week. Instead of hatred and vengeance, purpose can fuel Sandor Clegane, as he serves the greater fight against wintery doom. Valar Dohaeris.
Ser Jaime Lannister/The Kingslayer
Jaime Lannister’s notoriety as the Kingslayer makes him Westeros’s most famous two-faced individual. Having murdered the King he swore to protect, the arrogant son of Tywin Lannister is resented by the masses for his lack of honor and abrasive behavior. Coupled with the rumors of an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, the Kingslayer represents the worst excesses of highborn culture, capable of treachery and brutality while being shielded from consequence.
But as the layers of Jaime Lannister were peeled away by Brienne of Tarth, the audience learned that the man underneath was more complex, with a complex code of honor unbeknownst to the rest of the world. Ser Jaime had performed one of the greatest acts of heroism in Westeros, saving King’s Landing from fiery annihilation. His own pride kept him from divulging this to the world, and instead has carried the title of man without honor for most of his life.
Both sides of Jaime Lannister were on display in this week’s episode. Brienne of Tarth represents Jaime’s better half, the white knight obfuscated by Lannister pride. The reunion between the two characters is a warming one, and allows each to temporarily lower their personal shield to have a discussion as two friends.
Brienne wishes to help by ending the siege without Jaime having to take up arms against House Tully. If she can convince the Blackfish to fight for Sansa Stark, she could give the Tully men a new home and purpose in the North while ensuring minimal loss of life. The Tullys would have a chance to avenge the death of Catelyn Stark and support her eldest daughter. Jaime gives Brienne leave to petition the Blackfish, but she has only until nightfall.
As their meeting draws to a close, Brienne of Tarth offers Oathkeeper back to Ser Jaime, claiming her oath to him and Lady Catelyn fulfilled. Jaime refuses her, telling her it will always be her sword, the one gift he can give her. While his heart may beat for Cersei, Brienne is Jaime Lannister’s only real friend, a relationship forged when both characters needed each other most. Neither character has opened to many people in their lives, making their friendship that much brighter against the bleak backdrop of this story.
Brienne’s parlay with Brynden Tully does not bear fruit. Though the old knight does warm to Brienne, he ultimately refuses to abandon his castle.
With little other choice, Jaime hatches his own scheme. He treats with Edmure Tully, pleading to the younger lord’s desire to be with his young wife and son. Jaime initially plays the honorable lord, decrying the treatment Edmure has suffered in Frey captivity and reminiscing about his time spent with Catelyn Stark. Though adversaries, Catelyn had trusted in Jaime’s desire to be with his sister enough that she set him free in exchange for her daughters’ return. Jaime asks the something similar of Edmure now. The Tullys rebelled against the crown and were defeated; while lands and titles may be lost, the Tully men can still all walk away with their lives, and the years of war can finally come to an end.
Lord Edmure has little patience for the words of the Kingslayer. Though he desires to be with his new family, he spits on Lannister mercy. Jaime, not wanting to be separated from his sister any longer, dons his Kingslayer persona and tells Edmure of the doom awaiting his house and family, stopping just short of singing "The Rains of Castamere" in his face. Jaime Lannister even threatens to return Edmure’s newborn son to Riverrun by catapult. Jaime banks on Edmure fearing the Lannister legacy of violence his father created; if Edmure doesn’t hand over the castle, the very existence of House Tully would be extinguished.
Edmure Tully acquiesces, returning to Riverrun and ordering his men to lay down their arms and yield the castle to the Freys and Lannisters. The Blackfish is the only casualty of the siege in the end, though his death allows Brienne and Podrick to slip out of Riverrun. Jaime does get one last glimpse of Brienne as she sails away, saying goodbye for perhaps the last time.
Whereas Arya and Sandor were struggling to choose which identity to act on, Jaime Lannister was able to leverage both sides of himself. Despite the threats the Kingslayer made, Ser Jaime Lannister was able to end the siege of Riverrun without (much) bloodshed, honoring his respect for Catelyn Stark. Brienne had saved her daughter Sansa, while the Tully men kept their lives and Edmure would be allowed to continue the family line.
Game of Thrones presents its characters at their most morally complex. While both good and evil people exist in this world, it is the good and evil within each character that makes GRRM’s epic so compelling. Arya Stark, Sandor Clegane, and Jaime Lannister are of characters who each represent two distinct identities.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Game of Thrones is a bleak, brutal story, so brief moments of levity are needed to undercut the grim epic. This episode made a couple attempts to provide these types of moments, but with mixed results. Successfully, Bronn and Podrick reuniting was a great moment for both characters. Both had a good rapport when serving under Tyrion Lannister, and Podrick has come a long way since he left King’s Landing back in Season 4. He’s learned to fight and live in the wild, but still shows the eagerness he had back when Bronn knew him years ago. Much like Jaime and Brienne, the warmth of this reunion is completely earned.
In contrast, Tyrion’s scene with Missandei and Grey Worm seemed pointless at best. By my count, this is the third scene that’s primarily been about Tyrion’s carefree drinking and trying to loosen up the more rigid ex-slaves. Little character work is being accomplished here, and the show has seemingly spent more time on Tyrion’s lust for liquor than the politics of Slaver’s Bay.
The arrival of the Harpy fleet is beautifully shot, but ultimately doesn’t land with much impact because that story has been under serviced in our glimpses into Meereen this season. Much like Braavos, Tyrion’s story has basically stagnated awaiting for Daenerys’s return, and the entire Meereenese plot is one big stagnation awaiting for Dany and company to head back to Westeros. The most encouraging thing to take away from the scenes out east is that our story in Meereen looks to be nearing its end, one way or another.
Below will be speculation about how a couple of storylines will play out based on clues that the show has given the audience. These are not spoilers, but for those who like to be completely in the dark, you may want to stop here.
- The most notable moment out east was Varys’s departure from Slaver’s Bay. It was a decent moment for both Varys and Tyrion here, though the timing does add fuel to the fire that Varys is behind the Sons of the Harpy. That aside, I’m more interested in discussing what Varys’s plans in Westeros may be. In my recap of the season premiere, I noted the Dornish story played out in a way that makes it a possible landing spot for when Daenerys comes west. Dorne is ruled by Ellaria Sand, who noted that weak men would never rule Dorne again. Coupled with the strong ties between House Targaryen and Dorne, Varys may be clearing the way for Daenerys’s arrival in Westeros’s southernmost Kingdom (which has the added narrative weight of being furthest away from the oncoming White Walkers).
- Also ripe for speculation is the "rumor" Cersei had asked Qyburn to investigate, which Qyburn seems to confirm is something of significance. In Bran’s visions of the Mad King, we saw pyromancers placing caches of wildfire throughout King’s Landing, which we know is a vision of the past based on Jaime’s bathtub confession to Brienne at Harrenhal. While Jaime slew the Mad King and his pyromancer cronies, the jars of wildfire remain underneath the city. Now that Trial by Combat has been outlawed in Westeros, Cersei may look into igniting the wildfire underneath the Great Sept of Baelor, killing the High Sparrow and lifting the Faith’s control over the capital.
Cersei Lannister has always been reckless, though, and if she goes forward with a plan like this, she may end up burning down all of King’s Landing. Cersei’s twin Jaime is the only other person who knows about the wildfire, and he also knows it was rigged to bring down the entire city. If so, the Kingslayer moment may repeat itself, as Jaime Lannister may be the only one close enough to kill his sister if he is to prevent her from engulfing the capital in wildfire and killing every last person -- which includes their son the King, Queen Margaery, the small council, and the Lannister twins themselves.
In that same Bran vision, we do see that wildfire going off, and in the House of the Undying in season two, Dany did walk through a destroyed throne room, covered in ash and snow. It would be a classic Martin subversion for the Iron Throne to be destroyed when Daenerys finally arrives to claim it.