by Marc Reichardt
Stuff you don’t like to do
At many points in life, you’re stuck doing things that you’d rather not be. Most people don’t like their jobs. I don’t like mine. I’d rather be writing for a living (such as being a TV and movie critic…) But you do what you gotta in order to get by and most of the scenes in this episode (titled “The Broken Man“) are about that approach to life. Last week was when circumstances turn against you. This week was about the distasteful things you often have to do in order to get out of them. In many cases, it was a question of self-interest (the Hound not really caring about anyone, Theon wanting to crawl into a hole and die, Jon just wanting to get away from war) versus the supposed higher calling that should be motivating people to press on. Said higher calling is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Jaime was actually pursuing a path that involved both self-interest (getting back to his sister) and the greater interests of House Lannister (recapturing Riverrun for erstwhile ally, Walder Frey), but it didn’t make it any more enjoyable, even if it was a nice opportunity for writer Bryan Cogman to reintroduce Bronn for the first time this season.
[Tangent: Bronn is, without question, the most changed character from books to show. In the books, he was a secondary character of interest solely to Tirion and, once his bit was done in the latter half of A Storm of Swords, he disappeared. But Jerome Flynn turned him into such a fan favorite that not only did he wander off into storylines that didn’t occur in the books (Dorne; not Sunspear, just Dorne (no, I’ll never forget.)) but now he’s being introduced into those that did (the siege of Riverrun.) It remains to be seen whether GRRM will return him to relevance in the same way that he promised to have more for Osha to do because of Natalia Tena’s superlative performance, but it wouldn’t surprise me. /tangent]
Most of that distasteful activity centered around activities in the ongoing “squabbling between houses” as Ser Davos put it, so it’s not difficult to see how a lot of our cast isn’t really interested in pursuing glory on the behalf of people that don’t really like them (Jon, Theon, Sandor Clegane) or for goals that all of them find to be contrary to their own principles. This continues to highlight the contrast between the nobility and the commoners that the High Sparrow brings into focus with every episode: the war among the nobles hurt everyone but those people conducting the war until the Sparrow turned it on them. Even the “protectors of the people” known as the Brotherhood Without Banners (a specific denial of the nobility’s tendency to identify themselves as elevated above regular folk because of the colors and bloodlines that they carry) has sunk to brigandage in the midst of the ongoing chaos. This is what drives people to religion. Or alcohol. Or murder. In this episode, we got examples of all three (Margaery, Theon, The Waif (kinda.))
The one that stands out among that pack is, of course, Margaery, who’s engaging in her adopted role with a great deal more enthusiasm than the rest. You have to be a fanatic in order to fool fanatics. There was some question in the last episode as to whether Margaery had really been put under the sway of the Sparrow and the faith, but this episode dispelled all of that. Margaery is a canny operator and she knows that doing the Sparrow’s bidding in order to get her grandmother out of the city (removing the presence of the Tyrells for his purposes) also saves Olenna’s life. The note of the rose (There’s a short story title; too generic for a band name) reveals her true devotion to house and family. Her claiming that she no longer likes sex is probably just a way of (ahem) sticking it to the Sparrow by suggesting that the faith extends too far to serve what are his own political purposes, as he’s no slouch when it comes to playing the game despite all claims to the contrary (“We’re just here to serve the common people”, etc.) He knows that the death of Baelor the Blessed without an heir led indirectly to the Dance of the Dragons that burned the seven kingdoms from one end to the other. If crown and faith are united, there has to be a continuing crown. So, you do what everyone else did this episode and grudgingly encourage the woman you’ve been scolding as a harlot to get back into bed and, really, no one likes to do that…
On the other hand, this episode was also an opportunity for a lot of characters to revel in some blunt talk that said some things that most people (fans and characters alike) have been thinking for quite some time, so life isn’t always a trial. Olenna dressing down Cersei for her rash and stupid decisions involving the faith was about the most richly deserved moment in the history of the show, to date. Plus, one gets to read about all kinds of historical parallels involving current events, if you’re so inclined. Meanwhile, Brynden Tully’s obvious disdain for both those he considers beneath him (the Freys) and simply beneath contempt (Jaime) was a great reintroduction of the Blackfish. Furthermore, the scene between Asha and Theon was a genuinely great moment for the two actors. Alfie Allen has continued to do yeoman’s work as Theon, but Gemma Whelan really hit every note on key as she berated her brother to stand up for himself while showing real emotion and concern on her face for his well-being. It’s a fine line to tread without appearing either “weak” to the Ironborn or too harsh for Theon’s fragile condition. Speaking of appearing weak, I guess it’s kind of appropriate in Iron Islands culture for a female captain to enjoy screwing women like the rest of her crew, but it strikes me as D&D/Cogman being a bit obvious in terms of bending to expected sexual perceptions in which the woman plays the nominally weaker role (the one imposed upon instead of doing the imposing.) In the books, GRRM avoided that since Asha is quite the sexual being, but does so with men and leaves no question as to who is fucking whom. I think I would have been more comfortable with her showing that her role reversal (a woman in charge of Ironborn) is complete in all facets of her life.
Similarly, the “big shocker” moment of the episode, the attempt on Arya’s life by the Waif, was a bit off. While the moments with the Westerosi captain were entertaining and showed an Arya fully in command of her world and finally sure of her path, it seemed a bit too obvious to be approached by a random woman on the street. Having been training to be a Faceless Man for this long and knowing that they wouldn’t let her go that easily, it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t have been ready to vivisect anyone that stepped that close to her at just about any moment. Yes, she was cocky and paid the price for it, but she’s also now the equivalent of a trained assassin and that just seemed too easy. I suppose that the Waif was our one character that was actually engaging in something that she really enjoyed, as opposed to most of the rest of our cast. One wonders just how many Braavosi understand when someone has been marked by the Many-faced God and chose to not got involved as the mortally-wounded Arya staggered through the streets. Gotta push on through.
While I understand the technique, I have to say that the alternate cuts between scenes are getting kind of annoying. It used to be that an extended scene would be cut into parts and the episode would move around between three or four storylines before returning to the second or third part of the long bit. In recent seasons, we’ve seen a lot more direct swapping and tonight’s episode did a lot of that, in which we switched back and forth between, say, Riverrun and the Hound multiple times, while events progressed in each. While that does allow for easy transitions between events of actual significance, it starts to feel like a cheat. They didn’t have to show (or pay for) the church community getting slaughtered by the Brotherhood because they switched to Braavos for the shocker moment and then back to Clegane to just show the aftermath. It’s not like we need to see more people getting cut to pieces (and, as noted, it costs a lot of money to shoot those battle scenes, pay for FX, pay for extras and stuntmen in action, etc.), but it does tend to set up stereotypical moments like the end of this episode, where we see Clegane grabbing his axe before storming off camera. We could have gotten the same effect if he’d seen the carnage happen or, honestly, if he’d walked in and we closed out with him looking at the hanged priest. But we needed a moment of IMPACT after the cut to Braavos and so we get the obvious churning jaw of impending vengeance. It could be writer, director, editor or any combination of the three but, as I said, it’s been happening more frequently in the last couple seasons and it’s starting to feel cheap.
In all honesty, nothing in this episode, as good as it was, was as thrilling as seeing Ian McShane return to HBO. The opening on the construction project reminded me of the barn-raising scene in Witness and here was Al Swearengen, noted Amishman, leading the effort. (The language in that second link is very NSFW.) This is why McShane would have taken this bit role. It gives him the opportunity to berate people for both blindly and poorly following religion while he gets to play the most profane priest in Westeros. What made that scene even more poignant was the return of my oft-noted, all-time favorite character in A Song of Ice and Fire, Sandor Clegane. While I was perfectly happy with his death scene in the books and found it even more poetic when we read about the rumors drifting around the Crownlands that indicated that he might be alive and had reoriented his life to working at a small monastery, I’m fine with him being back in action, as well. On the technical side, it was kind of weird to find this whole odd and rather slow tangent in the midst of a season that has moved at breakneck speed and with so many balls being juggled. This felt like something that should have shown up in episode 2, rather than episode 7.
The most interesting and amusing change was the introduction of Maege Mormont’s youngest daughter, Lyanna, as the new lady of the manor. In the books, Maege is still alive, having been sent by Robb to Seagard prior to the Red Wedding. She also has several other daughters older than Lyanna. But this was a great scene and kind of highlighted Robb’s part in the overall theme, as dealing with an impertinent 10-year-old for the addition of her 62 men was probably the last thing he wanted to be doing. Given that said impertinent child had a better grasp of the political situation than anyone but Davos only made it better. Bella Ramsey was excellent.
Just as a minor technical note, where exactly did Sansa come up with a Stark stamp for her letter to a benefactor that Jon doesn’t know about? Has she been carrying it with her all the way from Winterfell?
Lines of the week:
“I think some of them are a bit afraid of you.”
“I’m used to it.”
“There’s a reason you’re still here.”
“There’s a reason: I’m a big fucker and I’m tough to kill.”
There’s nothing like the Hound to cut things down to their very essence. (Pun alert.)
“Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part. Only patience.”
So, uh, yeah… Here’s the thing about that… The Sparrow later suggesting that “Sometimes the true path is hard to find” was a softball just waiting to be put over the fence.
“We’re not clever like you southerners. We say we’ll do something, we do it.”
Tormund with the guilt trip and jab.
“I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met. At this age, it’s honestly hard to recall. But the truly vile person does tend to stand out.”
“You’ve lost, Cersei. It’s the only joy I can find in all this misery.”
I am so going to miss Dianna Rigg when her role is finally wrapped up. I hope this wasn’t it.
“You have better instincts than anyone in the Lannister army.”
“That’s like saying I got the biggest cock in the Unsullied army.”
“Good thing we’re friends or we’d be fucking you in the ass right now.”
This is why you keep Jerome Flynn around.
“Your ‘honor’… Bargaining with oathbreakers is like building on quicksand.”
A little over the top. He’s right, though: Sieges are dull. In medieval times, you had about as much chance of dying of disease (or boredom) as the besiegers as anyone inside did of starvation.
“Nothing on the Iron Islands has an ass like that.”
That’s why everyone’s looking for saltwives, presumably…
“We’ll get you justice!”
“If I got justice, my burnt body would hang over the gates of Winterfell.”
Seriously, Alfie Allen is still great.
“We weren’t animals. Animals are true to their nature… and we’d betrayed ours.”
Al pontificating on the idea that humans aren’t inherently savage. That’s a loaded question.
and the winner:
“Violence is a disease. You don’t cure disease by spreading it to more people.”
“You don’t cure it by dying, either.”
Marc Reichardt is a life long fan of books and comic books who wrote for indie comics for a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. He now writes prose–both short stories and essays on film, TV, and politics. You can find more of his work at on his blog, Dichotomous Purity and in Ghostwoods Books Cthulhu Lives! and Cthulhu Lies Dreaming anthologies.