Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones Explained: Efficiency is Coming And It’s Giving Us Cold Hands

By  · Published on May 30th, 2016

Season 6 moves some pieces around and asks plenty of new questions.

Six episodes in and Game of Thrones season 6 is finally ready to shuffle some pieces into position for the big finale. This is about the time they start doing it – episodes 5 and 6 every season – but season 6 has had the illusion of being a more frantic, moment-driven season. With the revelations it’s delivering, saying its moment-driven isn’t much of a stretch. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. Season 6 has been full of great episodes. Its first five hours have been excellent, including last week’s time-bending revelations about Bran and Hodor.

This week, director Jack Bender returned to pick up the pieces of “The Door” with “Blood of My Blood,” an episode that presented the Thrones audience with forward momentum and big questions to keep us interested. Like Bran Stark, we’re getting a frantic download of information. Reminders of the past – including a tour of the Riverlands – visions that will be important in our understanding of the future – like our first look at the Mad King Aerys – and the promise of conflicts to come. Bran has a conflict coming with The Night King, Arya has the Waif on her tail, and Jaime Lannister is headed out for some Lannister justice. These are among the conflicts being setup for later in season 6, not to mention the big Jon and Sansa vs. Ramsay battle that is promised. With the season turning the corner, Bender and writer Bryan Cogman stuffed this episode full of promises. Whether season 6 will pay those debts remains to be seen, but the prospects are intriguing.

In our weekly deep dive, we’re going to look at the most intriguing of these moving pieces. With the show closing in on its stretch run, it’s clear that Efficiency is Coming even faster than Winter. Which means characters from the books are being combined with others, storylines are being condensed, and season 6 has a willingness to step on the gas in defiance of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling style.

Before we dig in, here’s your spoiler warning: what follows includes details of this week’s episode, plus knowledge from the books, and some more-than-mild speculation.

Welcome Back to the Riverlands

As we learned in this episode, we’re not the only ones heading back to the Riverlands. Jaime Lannister, fulfilling the book storyline that was delayed in favor of an ill-fated jaunt to Dorne, will lead a Lannister army to Riverrun to treat with the Blackfish, last seen leaving The Red Wedding to relieve himself. What Jaime doesn’t know (but we do) is that his old friend Brienne of Tarth is headed to Riverrun, as well. Will she reach him in time to prevent a bunch of Lannister and Tully violence? Doubtful, but that’s a talking point for another column.

What’s important about Jaime’s new mission is how it came to be. In a scene that looked similar to when Ser Barristan Selmy relinquished his command of the Kingsguard under Joffrey, Jaime is defiant in losing the ear of his king (and son) to the High Sparrow. For King’s Landing, the radicalization of Tommen and Margaery is not some small matter. As Lady Olenna explains to her doofus son, the High Sparrow has won. But there feels like there might be more to this, doesn’t there? Notice the smirk Margaery gives as Jaime spars verbally with the Sparrow. Maybe Natalie Dormer had sun in her eyes that day. Maybe Margaery is playing the long game, as she’s always done. We can only hope that she’s still playing the game, otherwise King’s Landing just got very boring in a hurry. Thankfully, Cersei still has the Mountain.

Elsewhere in the moving of key pieces, Arya is still Arya Stark. Her quest to become No One has failed dramatically. Retrieving Needle seals her path: if she’s going to be killing any Cersei, it’s going to be the real one, not the charming actress pretending to be her. Much to her delight, The Waif gets to go murder Arya. While the visual of Arya blowing out the candle on her internship at the Unitarian Murder Church is striking, we have to pour one out for her friendship with Jaqen. We are also right to feel completely uneasy about Arya’s predicament. The Faceless Men are not the kind of organization that lets things go.

Assuming she makes it out of Braavos and back to Westeros, doesn’t the Riverlands make sense as a place for Arya to start using her new skills? We did get a little juxtaposition of her story with Walder Frey’s return this week. Let’s file that one away for later. As my Storm of Spoilers co-host Joanna Robinson noted in her excellent piece, the show is setting up a lot of opportunity for Stark revenge in season six.

Sam’s Mission Continues

There’s a lot to love about the scene at Horn Hill, in which we meet Samwell Tarly’s family. Samantha Spiro and Rebecca Benson made for a nurturing, charming pair as Sam’s mother and sister, respectively. But it’s James Faulkner, a well-traveled character actor, as Sam’s father Randyll. It’s not unlike this show to take a character of legend and play them out perfectly on screen. This is something they did in season three with Clive Russell as The Blackfish. Randyll is a real piece of work, a great military leader with no love for Sam’s gentle heart. The entire sequence – from Gilly cleaning up nicely to her fiery defense of Sam’s warrior status – was underscored by Faulkner’s hardened scowl.

Had it just been the dinner scene with Sam leaving the next morning, this would have been enough to give us a good read on what makes Sam tick. But we are reminded that Sam isn’t the man his father thinks he is. He’s a man on a mission, with a family to protect, and a higher purpose. So he makes off with the Heartsbane, the family’s Valyrian sword, that will be useful in the wars to come. It’s another example of how small the story feels when it dives anywhere south of the Riverlands. If not for Stark revenge, anything south of Winterfell would feel like small potatoes. All the maneuvering of King’s Landing, the seemingly ancient familial politics of Horn Hill, the plight of the Tyrell children – it all feels tiny compared to armies of ice zombies and a queen on the back of a dragon. The show finds a way in the closing moments of Sam’s scene to remind us that he still knows what’s important.

Drogon Found His Vitamins

Across the narrow sea, we get a little finish with Daenerys, who continues to march her Dothraki army back toward Meereen. It’s been a while since the show has provided a Drogon sighting, so it’s easy to lose track of time. How long has it been, exactly, since she was abducted? A month? Drogon has grown significantly, something not uncommon for the dragons of legend. Perhaps he found some vitamin-rich sheep out there in the Great Grass Sea.

In the books, the largest and oldest Targaryen dragon was Balerion, who is said to have lived about 200 years and was big enough to eat a large mammoth whole. Ridden by Aegon the Conquerer, Balerion has probably the size of a medium sized jet plane. Drogon is getting there, but he still has a ways to go. As you can see in the image to the left, the artists rendition of Aegon and Balerion show the rider standing upright. As we learned in season one, however, the latter-day dragons grew smaller and smaller as the Targaryen’s kept them in captivity. It’s possible that the show will keep with this trend and Drogon will end up much larger than his two siblings.

Here Bran, Drink this Rabbit’s Blood

We have to talk about Bran and Uncle Benjen. As I explored in a column last week, we knew that either Benjen or Coldhands would make an appearance. And even though George R.R. Martin has said that Coldhands in the books isn’t Benjen, that doesn’t preclude the show from combining the two characters. After all, in these last 25 (or so) episodes, efficiency is always going to trump adding characters and storylines that don’t matter.

The mysterious disappearance of Benjen Stark has plagued book readers for years. If he’s not Coldhands, the good guy wight who works with the Three-Eyed Raven, what happened to him? The show’s answer is the most satisfying for fans – mostly because it fits the theory they’ve been holding onto for years – Benjen has been out there beyond The Wall, continuing to fight the good fight. And now he’s back to assist Bran in the fight against The Night King.

But there’s so much more to Benjen’s story than a deus ex machina against the wights. He’s also one of a handful of people in the known world of Ice and Fire that may know about Jon Snow’s parentage. While he wasn’t at The Tower of Joy, he was Ned Stark’s brother and closest confidant. And he always had a very protective nature with Jon. If anyone is going to spell out R+L=J for Jon, it’s going to be Bran (following a vision), Howland Reed (who may never exist in the show), or Benjen.

He did promise that they’d have a chat, after all.

The show’s decision to combine Benjen and Coldhands is a solid one. It’s funny (sad funny) that writer Bryan Cogman always gets saddled with paying off big changes from the books. At least this time, it should be a relatively joyous, controversy-free change. Benjen is a familiar face, a loose thread, and a potentially major piece to the rest of the story. At the very least, Bran and Meera will get back to The Wall faster on horseback than trying to pull that sled through the snow sans Hodor.

There’s plenty more to explore – including all of the little tidbits in Bran’s vision. That’s going to have to wait for another column. That said, with Coldhands on the board officially, there’s another theory that I can’t shake after watching this week’s episode and the Episode 7 preview:

Remember Lady Stoneheart? She of vengeful purpose who kicks around the Riverlands with the Brotherhood Without Banners and murders Freys and Lannisters with a lack of impunity. This episode delivered a few Stoneheart hints, including but not limited to:

What I’m saying is: don’t lose hope, Stoneheart Truthers. The resurrection box is open and Game of Thrones is ready to play.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)