Game of Thrones sets itself apart from other popular fantasy with its attention to political detail and the consequences thereof. It’s not only the titular game of thrones that matters, but the devastating fallout that disproportionately affects the poor and common folk. For every Jaime Lannister or Brynden "Blackfish" Tully, there are thousands of unnamed men and boys who are trotted off to war, to die more often than not. Even those "lucky" enough to survive bear a terrible cost, returning home as broken men.
As Sansa, Jon, and Davos make their tour of the North, we see the weight of war weighs heavily on high lords and Free Folk alike. Men who had once been loyal to Robb Stark and Mance Rayder now scramble to survive, trying to find refuge before the apocalyptic winter descends on Westeros. It is why the fiery Lady Lyanna Mormont is reluctant to commit troops to Jon’s war, and it is why Lord Glover of Deepwood Motte flat out refuses.
This week’s episode, "The Broken Man," brings the martial culture of Westeros under scrutiny.
Wars and politics may drive the plot forward, but it’s the character arcs of our broken protagnoists that fill the story with heart. In Sandor Clegane, Theon Greyjoy, and Jaime Lannister, we get insights into three uniquely savaged individuals, and their attempts to heal themselves from the trauma of war. These are men looking to reclaim what they once were, or ideally, forge a new path of peace amidst the chaos wrecking the Seven Kingdoms.
The hour introduces Brother Ray, a poor septon played with gusto by Ian McShane (most notably of HBO’s Deadwood). A former soldier, Ray gives a sermon about his days at war, part of the unnamed masses tasked with burning and pillaging at his lord’s command. He speaks of a boy he killed in front of the boy’s mother and how the horror of that day is seared into his heart. Ray broke, and his road to recovery eventually led him to helping the poor instead of terrorizing them.
Ray’s story represents the same crossroads at which Sandor Clegane finds himself. The Hound may have kept his life after his battle with Brienne of Tarth, but whatever purpose he had was gone. Unchained from the game of thrones, Sandor Clegane finds himself helping Brother Ray building a sept, a place of worship and reprieve for those most afflicted by violence.
The Hound has little use for the gods, or at least the Seven. He tells Brother Ray as much; Beric Dondarrion had told the Hound three seasons ago that God was not done with him yet, though Beric and the Brotherhood were invoking the Lord of Light, not the Faith of the Seven. But it wasn’t just freedom that the Hound received that day when he beat Lord Beric in trial by combat; he got his first glimpse of true magic in the world, as the red priest Thoros was able to resurrect the fallen Beric, the man he'd killed.
Though a septon, Brother Ray takes this "blasphemy" in stride, and quickly separates himself from other priests such as the High Sparrow and the Red Woman. Ray doesn’t claim to know the truth, but he believes in a higher purpose -- and more importantly, redemption. "It’s never too late to come back," he instructs Clegane, letting Sandor know that even he can return to a life of peace despite only knowing war.
Sandor Clegane’s life has been broken since the day his brother Gregor shoved his face into the flames. In those moments, Sandor’s dreams of knighthood shattered, and hopes for a peaceful life were reduced to ash.
Forever scarred and filled with anger, Sandor Clegane essentially died that day, leaving only the vicious Hound in his place, a Lannister lapdog fueled by hatred. In fact, one of our earliest moments with the Hound is him running down the butcher’s boy on Joffrey’s command, a moment that echoes Brother Ray’s story of murdering a child.
Sandor Clegane would break again, this time at the Blackwater. In the face of wildfire, Sandor Clegane deserts his post, swearing off Joffrey and the Lannister clan with profane aplomb.
Since then, the Hound has been wandering the country, playing sword-for-hire so that he can end each night with ale and chicken. And those days came to the end when Brienne of Tarth broke him one last time in the Riverlands, the site where Brother Ray would eventually find his dying body. Sandor Clegane has resurrected himself since, but as a man and not a soldier. But once again it is the Brotherhood without Banners (another set of broken men) that throws his life in existential crisis again.
After slaughtering the villagers and hanging Brother Ray from the rafters of his unfinished Sept, the Brotherhood has left the Hound cornered. He was on the path to finding peace, but violence is a disease that continues to spread, and may prevent Sandor Clegane from ever mending the cracks in his soul.
While Brother Ray and the Hound speak to soldiers breaking under the weight of violence, Theon Greyjoy has been torn apart in a more horrific, complete manner.
In a sense, Theon has never been a free man. Though he was raised at Winterfell and treated not unkindly by Lord Eddard Stark, Theon Greyjoy was still a ward, a hostage to be executed if Balon Greyjoy rebelled against the Seven Kingdoms. He flourished briefly as Robb’s right hand man, but a disastrous trip home to Pyke would eventually put Theon in the dungeons of Ramsay Snow (now Bolton).
On the Bolton cross, everything that defined Theon Greyjoy was cut away, leaving only a pathetic, shaking Reek in its place. Name, manhood, hope; all these things were so severely stripped away from Theon that he even refused rescue by his older sister Yara. It took the awakening of Sansa Stark, also a captive of Ramsay at the time, for Theon to rekindle the Ironborn within and try to become the prideful man he once was.
We find Theon and Yara on the Long Bridge of Volantis, where their fellow Ironborn are engaging in carnal pleasures. Even Yara takes a moment of reprieve from their flight away from uncle (and king) Euron. The entire scene is unnerving to Theon as a brothel most prominently brings to light the manhood taken from him. Even his sister can’t help herself from engaging in ribald japes at his expense.
Yara quickly realizes the error of her ways as her brother continues to cower in the presence of whores. His inability to even raise his eyes to what is happening around him speaks to how scarred and broken Theon’s sense of self is. And it is this despair that drives Yara to force her brother to come back to himself.
He escaped Winterfell, he saved Sansa Stark, and he found his way home. Not only that, but they have absconded with the Iron Fleet, leaving their newly crowned uncle in their wake. Yara explains to her brother that this is not enough. Euron will come looking for them, as the trueborn children of Balon Greyjoy offer the most direct challenge to Euron’s throne.
The best way to survive, she thinks, is to offer themselves and the Iron Fleet to "this dragon queen," exchanging ship and transport for a chance to be installed as rulers of the Iron Islands (and preferably make dragon food out of their uncle). Yara appeals to the Ironborn within Theon with an offer to finally make him whole again; he’s been on the road to recovery for some time now, but now he has the means of finishing that journey.
Back in Westeros, Jaime Lannister arrives at Riverrun with the full force of the Lannister army at his back. On King Tommen’s orders, Jaime is taking command of the siege from the Freys, hoping to treat with the Blackfish and put down the last man in Robb Stark’s war.
Jaime Lannister’s arc has been one of breakdown and rebuilding. When we meet Ser Jaime, he is a cocksure swordsman whose wit is every bit as sharp as his sword. However, a defeat at Whispering Woods would land him in Robb Stark’s captivity, leading to a series of events that would cost him his sword hand, that which most defines him (not unlike what happens to Theon). Jaime loses all sense of purpose and self, wanting to submit to fever and death until Brienne of Tarth convinces him otherwise (invoking Theon again, getting lectured by his sister in this episode).
Since, Jaime has attempted to take his place at the head of his family, but with disastrous results in both King’s Landing and Dorne. Now, after his exile by his son King Tommen, Jaime tries to rebuild himself in the arena he’s most familiar: as a soldier and warrior. He no longer has the martial abilities that earned him fame, but his presence still demands respect among his own men and even the Frey camp.
Though, even in Lord Tywin’s regal armor, the cracks in Jaime Lannister show after his parlay with Brynden Tully. Whereas elsewhere this episode depicts broken men, the Blackfish remains stern and resolved. The War of the Five Kings has ravaged his lands and family, but Brynden barely flinches at the Frey’s half-hearted threats of hanging his poor nephew Edmure.
When Brynden and Jaime meet on the drawbridge of Riverrun, the Blackfish takes stock of his opponent and is quickly disappointed. He disrobes Jaime’s honor on the spot, noting how he had failed to return the Stark daughters as he had pledged to do to Catelyn Stark. Coupled with Jaime’s more notorious oathbreaking, the Blackfish sees little virtue in negotiating with the Kingslayer. Even as Jaime promises to lay siege to the castle and put everyone to the sword, Brynden balks at any sort of peaceful solution.
It is worth noting the folly in Brynden Tully’s resolve. A loyal supporter of Stark and Tully alike, the Blackfish remains steadfast in not surrendering his castle to the Lannisters or the Freys. But given the violence seen elsewhere, and the impending doom in the North, is his honor and pride worth more than the lives of his people? Probably not, and yet Brynden is willing to stake the lives of Tully men on some misguided notion of honor and chivalry. His words about dying in his own home make sense, but ultimately will lead to more slaughter, one way or another.
This calls back to themes of honor that permeated Ned and Robb’s and even Jon’s storylines throughout the years.
Often the heroic, honorable path is not the wisest path, and often leads to as much if not more destruction than alternatives. Game of Thrones not only subverts trope by creating gray, complex characters, but it also shows how good intentions and actions can have tragic outcomes.
It is perhaps fitting that this stance is held by "whole" men, men who have not yet broken under the weight of war or the atrocities borne from it. But it is these very actions that create the broken men that litter Westeros. Violence tears down all, lords and ladies and smallfolk alike. Some have the chance to rebuild, others the chance to forge another path. But violence is a disease, and when it takes hold, it causes our characters, and Westeros writ large, to slide back into chaos, never healing the schisms therein.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- On a structural note, this was the fourth episode of the series to feature a cold open prior to the main title. The previous three (in the first, third, and fourth season premieres) were used to set the tone of the ensuing seasons. This, however, may have been for more practical business reasons. Rory McCann (the Hound) has been part of the main cast billing since the pilot, which includes his name appearing in the main title credits. Understandably, the show would not want to spoil a momentous return via credits, so the cold open reveal was a wise move to reintroduce the character and offer a structural change up this late in the season.
- While much of this week was spent with broken men, there were several women who showed no signs of cracks as they put their plots into mention. Chief among them is Queen Margaery, who covertly let her grandmother know she is no pious foo. She continues to game the High Sparrow and Septa Unella, feigning piety by speaking in verse and invoking passages from the Seven-Pointed Star.
While her complete scheme is never revealed, it is clear that Margaery feels she has King’s Landing under control as she puppeteers the King and Sparrows. She presses her grandmother Olenna to flee King’s Landing, mostly out of fear of her safety (earlier, the High Sparrow hinted to Margaery that the Queen of Thorns may be the Faith’s next target). Lady Olenna can press House Tyrell’s advantages at Highgarden and elsewhere, leaving the literal powder keg of King’s Landing to explode in the face of the Faith and Cersei.
- Speaking of the Queen of Thorns, Lady Olenna entirely lived up to her moniker as she viciously laid into Cersei Lannister as the "worst person she has ever met." In fact, Cersei being neutered and shamed is the only joy that Olenna has found since Cersei rearmed the Faith. While little of plot importance happens in this scene, it is a wonderful turn for both actresses. Cersei appears as declawed as ever, as she has no retort to Lady Olenna’s tirade. She meekly takes the verbal thrashing, though knowing Cersei, dejection tends to turn to rage rather quickly.
- In Braavos, Arya inches closer to her return home to Westeros, booking travel in impressively demanding fashion, then looking out beyond the great Titan of Braavos westward towards the Seven Kingdoms. The shot of her staring at the Titan is beautiful, but the moment is cut short by the Waif’s stabby hands. Arya escapes, but suffers what appears to be a mortal wound in the process. She was very close to becoming whole again, reclaiming the name of Stark and heading back to Westeros. Now, the path home is much less clear.
- Game of Thrones has always excelled at child casting, and Lady Lyanna Mormont is no different. In a single season, the young she-bear quickly asserts her authority and her principles, completely commanding the screen in her brief appearance.
- Lastly, Sansa Stark’s letter would appear to be headed toward Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale, stationed at Moat Cailin. Littlefinger seemed sincere in his last meeting with Sansa, but even if he hails her call, he will undoubtedly have his own cards to play. His goal has been to install himself as Warden of the North as Sansa’s husband, so he may try to parlay his army into a marriage. In this game of thrones, the presence of this broken man in particular can be felt in every episode, a shadow over every moment we see. It was fitting that much of the story in this episode would end in an implied appeal to him.