I imagine most fans are happy to see the Hound back in action, as he is a great character. But I am not. This season has already seen Jon and Melisandre destroy the finality of death, fraying the basic stakes that all of the shows conflicts rely upon. It’s also seen Benjen pop up partially-zombified and the Blackfish raise an army out of nowhere, in feats of narrative, if not physical, resurrection. And now the Hound is back. No matter how good Rory McCann’s performance is, death is supposed to mean something on this show. For years, Game Of Thrones stood out from the television (and fantasy) pack by making the threat of death real, and removing its finality puts us in that predictable place where mere mortal shows dwell. Where if any ambiguity is left about the gory details of a character’s demise, it can be taken as a given that they will be back. Beyond the predictability and general limpness such storytelling produces, I also don’t want to have to start spending 2/3 of these reviews parsing out whether each death is for real or how it could possibly be undone. Or have all the comments revolve solely around theories about how Syrio Forel survived as a Faceless Man, or Stannis is still living out in the woods somewhere, or how Cersei’s trial by combat will feature a rematch because they’re obviously just going to sew Grey Wind’s head onto Oberyn’s body.
In any case, “The Broken Man” proves me remarkably wrong about more than the Hound’s fate. I also said a couple weeks ago that it looked like the table setting phase of the season was over, with various armies on the move. Instead, Margaery and the High Sparrow abruptly pulled the tablecloth out from under the big King’s Landing confrontation, leaving the Tyrell army to slink off while a new table was quickly set at Riverrun. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff with Jaime and the Blackfish and the Freys is fantastic, and I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time pointlessly delaying getting to it. But the show’s timeline has become fractured to a problematic degree.
I do realize that despite their intercutting, things happening in different corners of this world are not always taking place simultaneously, and that sometimes plotlines just have to be set aside for awhile before they can be circled back to (hence Blackfish taking a 3 year wizz). So I don’t care that Jon or Arya’s storylines may dwell on a 2 day period for multiple episodes, while Dany’s is simultaneously jumping forward weeks at a time. Those storylines are not directly interacting with each other, so they can let episode pacing or thematic mirroring dictate the placement of scenes rather than strict chronology. But there is a problem when inconsistencies widen between plotlines that are in closer proximity to each other. And now it seems like Ramsay and his army have been sitting uncharacteristically idle while Jon and Sansa have had time to criss-cross the North, leisurely checking up on this minor house and that. And Littlefinger has just been sitting on his hands for so long that you start to wonder why no one is freaking out about his knights of the Vale occupying a Northern castle. And the Sand Snakes took over Dorne in the season premiere with the express intention of declaring war on the Lannisters, but 6 episodes later they are still a distant enough threat that Jaime can march their army to the Riverlands (in the course of a single episode) without even mentioning them? I can still tell you who each faction is and what their basic goal would be, but the logistics of who is within striking distance of what are getting very murky. And that debases the stakes of the big strategic moves, just as nerfing the threat of death does to the individual stakes.
But enough about what’s bad, because there was a lot of good stuff going on here as well, on a scene by scene basis. As mentioned, everything at Riverrun is great. This is a primo Game Of Thrones conflict, in that we have rooting interests on both sides. Obviously we want the Blackfish to hold his familial home rather than surrender it to the odious Freys, but we’re also probably ready to see Jaime get a win of some sort, and to see Bronn get his lordship. We are at least happy to see the Kingslayer slap those dipshit Freys around. But both sides can’t win, and I don’t seet the Tullys pulling this one out. I just don’t see the good guys taking back everything they lost in the Red Wedding this season; GOT may be pulling more punches than it used to, but I don’t think it’s essential ethos has changed to that degree. And I don’t see how the Starks can survive a loss to Ramsay Bolton, whereas it’s much easier to picture a home stretch without Edmure or the Blackfish, so…
But the old man is resolved to fight it out to the very end, and good on him for it. The question of whether to fight is more difficult for others. Theon requires a stern peptalk from Yara, urging him to reclaim his lost manhood (figuratively, obviously). The Hound is told by Septon Swearengen that he is meant for something more than violence, even as events conspire to tell him otherwise. And most directly, the Starks have to go door to door, begging Houses already ravaged by their wars to sign on for another go round. Tormund and Wun Wun convince the Wildlings that they are damned if they don’t, and Davos uses his way with little girls (not as creepy as it sounds) to get the ferocious lil’ lady Mormont on board, in the episode’s most delightful scenes. I can’t believe Ian fucking McShane, who I believe to have given one of the single best dramatic performances in the history of any medium on Deadwood, had his debut overshadowed by an unknown ten year old girl, but these are strange days we live in. Even Bronn’s long-awaited return couldn’t hold a candle to her adorable pugnacity.
It’s Sansa who fails to bring the larger House Glover into the fold, which has her rethinking her hasty rebuke of Littlefinger. Which is for the good, I think, because while her furor at him is wholly justified, he finally has something tangible to offer her when she needs it, rather than a vague promise to help her at some future point if she just plays along with this horrid marriage arrangement or that. It would have been helpful to be able to mention the support of the Vale to Lord Glover, who wanted reassurance that he wouldn’t be joining a lost cause. Or they could have at least brought up that Glovers were also, presumably, killed by the Boltons at the Red Wedding. They saved their weakest effort for last, these Starks, but I suppose they’re tired from riding across half a continent in an afternoon.
Finally, in King’s Landing, Lady Olenna has to be convinced not to fight. The fact that Cersei wants her to makes it easier for her to go along with her Marge’s urging to retreat to Highgarden, but it’s faith in her granddaughter as the true future of House Tyrell that really moves the Queen Of Thorns. And the young queen is certainly cooking up something. The High Sparrow counsels her that the marriage bed “does not require desire on a woman’s part, only patience,” which struck me as the type of sentiment that Jaqen would tell Arya, just about killing, rather than fucking. But the old bird does not know how patient ol’ Marge can be. She’s stepped over two dead kings to get her crown, and if you think she’s going to share it with a dusty old fart who can’t even muster a kind word for the female orgasm, then I have a castle in the Riverlands to sell you. I have no idea what she is plotting, but not knowing excites me and I instinctively feel it’s more likely to work than any short-sighted plans the Lannisters threw together. My girl does not plot in vain.
Is it next week yet?
Subplot Report Card:
Braavos: B+ (Arya got remarkably careless for someone who knew she was up against shapeshifting, relentless assassins. And for that matter so did the Waif, who ignored Jaqen’s instruction not to let her suffer to literally twist the knife in Arya’s belly rather than going for the throat or heart. But it’s a curveball that did make me jump up in my seat, so I give it credit)
The North: A
Iron Islands: B
King’s Landin’: A-
Houndin’: C (this is a weird episode, where the season’s broader structural issues became pronounced enough that it probably makes for my least favorite of the year, but the individual storylines, especially the main ones, were great)
Season Morgulis: Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah, Roose Bolton, Walda Bolton, Balon Greyjoy, (-Jon Snow), Shaggydog, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, Alister Thorne, Olly, Osha, Khal Moro, Euron Greyjoy (-Euron Greyjoy), Summer, Leaf The Child Of The Forest, The Wargist Formerly Known As The Three Eyed Raven, HODOR, Septon Swearengen (this is two remarkably bloodless weeks in a row, with the only speaking part to perish being a one episode wonder)
Death Watch: And once again, I fail, and once again I probably could’ve deduced that my pick wouldn’t even appear if I watched the previews. Oh well, I’m sticking to Grey Worm out of stubbornness, but I’m certainly also worried about Brienne, Pod and the Blackfish. Things are going to go bad at Riverrun, it’s just a question of whether it’s next episode or the following one.