The pressure is on for Game of Thrones season 6 to stick the landing.
My initial reaction to this week’s episode of Game of Thrones – which played out loudly on Twitter – was very harsh. For the first time in a long time, I used the word “awful” to describe an episode of Thrones.
Upon further reflection (and a second viewing), maybe “awful” isn’t the right word for a more measured criticism. Such a reaction is borne out by a commitment to the story in the books and a view that major changes for the sake of expediency are not a good thing. I’ve never considered myself to be a pearl-clutching book purist, but “The Broken Man” elicited a pearl-clutching book purist reaction from me, nonetheless. Whereas you might expect someone like me to be excited that a long-standing book reader theory has come to fruition— about the return of the character in the episode’s cold open – its execution left a lot to be desired, mostly because it leaves us with a lot of questions.
What I missed in my initial reaction on Sunday evening was the fact that this is the point in any Game of Thrones season in which the show slows down a bit to reload the question machine for its final few episodes. So while my concerns over this episode’s pace (it was a very clunky episode) and my lack of interest in some of the dialogue delivered (why not just use some of the great stuff in the books from both the Riverrun conversation between Jaime and Brienne and the Septon’s speech?) might be valid, on the whole, “The Broken Man” serves its purpose. It’s part of the formula of this show to use episode 7 as setup. Looking back over my assessment of the first 50 episodes, the only episode 7 to make the top 20 of my rankings was season 3’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” Why? Because it not only did its setup work, it paid off a number of storylines, including Jaime and Brienne’s bathtub scene and Daenerys’ fierce scene with the wise master of Yunkai. Granted, Dany’s story would later be paid off in a similar way over and over again, but that’s another issue. The fact remains that episode 7’s are about setup and very little payoff. On that scale, “The Broken Man” fits right in the middle.
Below the spoiler warning, I’ll discuss some of what I liked and some of what worries me about the way some of the events within this episode were adapted. What follows includes spoilers through this week’s episode, book knowledge, and some reckless speculation.
The Women of Westeros are scheming
The juiciest of the setup in “The Broken Man,” ironically, is all at the hands of the women of Westeros. I’m not going as deep on this as my good friend Joanna did over at Vanity Fair, but here’s what I liked:
- There’s still some of the old Margaery inside the new pious Queen. And with one little floral note, she communicates that Olenna should leave King’s Landing, lest she be in grave danger. If there’s one thing we know about the Queen of Thorns, it’s that she’s not the “run and hide” type. Does this mean she’ll retreat and regroup with the armies of The Reach? Will she call upon Sam’s dad, her most decorated general? Will she try to make new alliances elsewhere, a la Dorne (or further east)? She made it clear to Cersei that the alliance between the Lannisters and Tyrells is over, but I suspect she’s not ready to retire from the body politic just yet.
- Cersei’s revenge against the High Sparrow is in grave danger with her allies, her lover-brother, and now her son abandoning her one way or the other. But remember: this woman is resourceful and she’s got a Mountain on a Leash. She also knows where the wildfire in King’s Landing is buried.
- Yara Greyjoy also has plans that include sailing for Meereen and treating with Daenerys Targaryen and her massive Dothraki army. We know that she doesn’t have enough ships to carry Dany’s army, but she does have a can-do attitude and a newly inspired brother Theon. Of all the scenes in this episode, that was perhaps the most enjoyable. It’s been a long time coming for Yara to become the bold, swarthy pirate leader that she’s had bubbling below the surface. For years, she’s been held back by her father, and now her uncle. It’s a coming-of-spirit sequence that works beautifully as she encourages Theon to let his Greyjoy flag fly once again. While she does sort of gloss over his pain (“You’ve had a bad couple of years, sorry bro…”), that’s really the Greyjoy brand: get over it, let’s go kill some people. And here I thought it would be crazy uncle Euron who would breathe life into the Ironborn story. I was wrong.
- Near the end of their tour of The North, Sansa realizes that she and Jon aren’t getting the support they need to take on the Boltons. So she sends a raven to her least trusted, most guilt-ridden admirer-uncle Littlefinger. It appears as if he was right: she is going to need an army loyal to her. Which leads us to our next question…
How big is the army of The Vale?
In an e-mail interview from 2002, George R.R. Martin was asked about the sizes of the armies of Westeros, specifically those of The Vale and Dorne (two of the most feared armies in the land who never got into the War of the Five Kings) in relation to the size of Robb Stark’s northern host. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: We have seen all of the seven kingdoms in action in one way or another except Dorne and the Vale. I am trying to get an understanding of the various strengths of the different realms. When Robb calls the Northern Banners he gathers a host of about 18 thousand men. How do Dorne and the Vale compare to this (I don’t expect numbers, just general feeling)
GRRM: I’d say these three kingdoms were roughly equal in the force they could assemble… but the north is much bigger, so it takes longer for an army to gather. And life is harsher there as well, so lords and smallfolk both need to think carefully before beating those plowshares into swords.
Let’s assume that the show pulls back on these numbers a bit, scaling for efficiency (and CGI budget). The Knights of the Vale could be a massive tipping point for the Stark cause. If Ramsay Bolton has 5–6,000 men and Jon and Sansa already have about 2,500 (by my count), they would need the several thousand man army of The Vale to turn the tide. Littlefinger is likely to come to Sansa’s aid, but at what price?
The other interesting piece here is Dorne, a kingdom we haven’t heard from since episode one. The show has kept them off-screen, likely sitting around with their Lannister hatred festering. At some point, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are going to come back into the fold. Whether they end up allying with the Tyrells, the Targaryen restoration movement, or both, they will bring with them one of the largest and fiercest armies in all of Westeros. Like the Knights of the Vale, the army of Dorne has been resting through all of this chaos. It leaves them primed for a very dominant run, should they enter the fight.
They Woke Up The Hound and a Million Fan Theories
“It’s never too late to stop robbing people, to stop killing people, to start helping people,” explained Ian McShane’s Brother Ray with a glance toward Sandor Clegane, the once fierce knight who is still alive, much to the chagrin of the audience. The return of The Hound, for book readers at least, always felt like a foregone conclusion. There’s a sequence in the books when a grizzled, former warrior turned Septon leads Brienne and Pod to The Quiet Isle, where a hulking, hooded figure known as The Gravedigger catches their eye. The Gravedigger has long been theorized to be a gentle, retired and recovered Sandor Clegane. The big question has always been: why bring back The Hound? As McShane’s septon explains, the gods aren’t done with him yet.
The show’s version of The Quiet Isle is less a monastery and more a commune of peaceful souls in the Riverlands, the area of Westeros most ravaged by the War of the Five Kings. Clegane is there helping them build what appears to be a sept, where these faithful servants of the Seven will worship and around which they will build a community. As we learn in this three-act mini-story, Sandor feels a deep sense of guilt about how his life has played out up to this point. He seems ready to live out the remainder of his days in relative anonymity. But the show needs to get him back in the game – because show gods Benioff and Weiss aren’t done with him – so the Brotherhood comes along and murders all of his new friends, propelling him back into action.
This is where the adaptation of GRRM’s text gets a little murky, even in the show’s context. What do we know about the Brotherhood Without Banners? They are thieves who pillaged and murdered, but mostly stuck to picking on Lannister soldiers. They are also zealous followers of The Lord of Light, led in tandem by the red priest Thoros of Myr and the oft-resurrected Beric Dondarrion. In season 3, we met the Brotherhood with Arya and watched them put The Hound on trial. At the time, there was no indication that they were the kind of group who would go around murdering innocent smallfolk and hanging holy men for no apparent reason. Sure, they gave up Gendry to Melisandre, but that was an offering to the Lord of Light. What reason do they have to murder a village of the innocent? Something has changed in their mission.
The only reasonable explanation I can come up with for this kind of change would be a change in leadership. Who do we know that might be leading the Brotherhood in a more brutal direction? Who likes to see bodies swinging? Who would kill anyone who they consider to be even tangentially in support of the crown (i.e. followers of the Faith?)
That’s right, friends. Don’t give up on Lady Stoneheart just yet.
The manner of violence depicted at the end of this episode, meant to inspire The Hound back into action, passes the Lady Stoneheart smell test. To the extent that it would be both confusing and disappointing if the Brotherhood were under any other leadership. Under the leadership of Thoros and Beric, these guys were assholes, but they weren’t terrorists. This is an act of terrorism.
Read More about Game of Thrones Season 6:
The Game of Thrones Death Panic Index
Lady Stoneheart’s appearance isn’t the only book reader-friendly thing we can glean from The Hound’s return. There is also the bold prediction that he will eventually meet and fight his brother, The Mountain, in what theorists call The Cleganebowl. This is something I included in my bold predictions prior to season 6 and something I’m holding onto. Will he end up being the Champion of The Faith in Cersei’s trial by combat? Maybe. He’s certainly now on a path to right some wrongs. Assuming he makes it past the Brotherhood – which is a big assumption, I know – where does he go next? Who has wronged The Hound more than The Mountain, the man responsible for his heavily scarred face?
Don’t give up on Lady Stoneheart and don’t give up on The Cleganebowl.
That’s the value of “The Broken Man.” Even though it’s not a particularly energetic episode; and even though it bastardized some really great dialogue from the books; it still gives us numerous reasons to be excited about what is to come. With three episodes left, season 6 has already solidified itself as one of the best seasons Thrones has delivered yet. But it has to finish strong. And with all the fan favorites (characters and theories) in play, the pressure has never been greater.