It’s long been a given on Game of Thrones that “All men must die.” The question, then, is less a matter of whether they will, but how they will. Those who accept death, like those in the service of the Many-Faced God, are ironically those who manage to find agency in the time they have left. On the other hand, those who break the rules and customs of the land are those most likely to suffer most before their last breath.
To begin with, there’s the fall of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). As foreshadowed a few episodes back in the advice given by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), those who kill the people most devoted to them rarely inspire future devotion. Stannis has broken several natural laws in his determined, mindless quest to recapture the Iron Throne, most recently when he commanded his beloved daughter be set ablaze as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. Though his actions may have broken the bitter winter that threatened to destroy his army before he could even besiege Winterfell, they’ve also divided his army, with half of his forces committing mutiny and running off in the night. (His wife also chooses to flee, albeit at the end of a noose.) But it’s not Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) who gets him in the end. Instead, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) tracks him and lands the killing blow—not because he dared to challenge the Boltons, but because he murdered his own brother, Renly, with blood magic. Perhaps realizing the depths of his own horrible actions, Stannis confesses, accepting the consequences of his actions: “Go on and do your duty.”
A parallel scene of vengeance sees Arya (Maisie Williams) at last getting to confront one of the men she swore to kill, Ser Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie). But whereas Brienne confronted Stannis with honor, Arya steals a face from the Many-Faced God to sneak into close quarters with Trant, and then butchers the man, stuffing a rag into the man’s mouth to shut him up (after first taking out his eyes) so she can prolong the moment, even going so far as to boastingly tell him her name, though she’s supposed to have given up such things in service to Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and the other Faceless Men. She’s taken the wrong life and has clung to her own, and for this, she incurs a punishment akin to the one she just carried out: blindness.
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), on the other hand, has at last taken the right steps, using the chaos of the massacre outside Winterfell’s gates to pick the lock of her door and light the signal fire. (In a grim twist, Brienne misses the signal by mere moments when she chooses to pursue her vengeance against Stannis rather than hold firm to the oath she swore to Sansa’s mother.) When no help comes, Sansa seeks another means of egress, only to come face to face with Reek (Alfie Allen) and Myranda (Charlotte Hope). However, instead of meekly returning to her quarters, where she knows what horrors await her, she makes one final stand, speaking directly to whatever remains of Theon within Reek’s twisted mind: “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” As it turns out, that, coupled with Myranda’s hints at what exactly she and Ramsay will do to her (considering they only really need her uterus), is enough to snap Theon out of it, and he pushes Myranda to her death. The choice between certain life (torture) and uncertain death is a remarkably easy one, and both Theon and Sansa leap off the walls of Winterfell.
Throughout this table-clearing episode, many characters find themselves thrust into new and sometimes perilous situations. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) seek better accommodations in Oldtown, where Sam can train to become Maester for the Night’s Watch. Daenerys finds herself alone in the northern wilds and is captured by the Dothraki tribe that once refused to accept her as Khaleesi, and rather than protest the act, she does the one thing that’s still in her power: She drops the engagement ring given to her by her dead husband, Khal Drogo. Meanwhile, in Meereen, Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) refuse to sit around waiting for news, and set out to find Daenerys; those who are not of immediate use as hunters—Tyrion, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), the wounded Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), and Varys (Conleth Hill)—are tasked with quelling the civil war.
Of course, not everybody is given a choice on how to face death. Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) has just enough time to interrupt a rather awkward confession from Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—she knows that he’s her father—before suddenly succumbing to poison, a final gift from Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). For these tragic victims, the choice is less about how to face death as it is about how those responsible for them will handle it, and it’s unclear whether Jamie will seek revenge on the closest Martell available—in this case, his daughter’s beloved, Trystane. Meanwhile, back at the Wall, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) can tell by the sudden and silent appearance of Melisandre (Carice van Houten) that his king, Stannis, has fallen, an act that leaves the former pirate rudderless. Even worse, perhaps, is the abrupt murder of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) that ends the episode: Despite bravely fighting to the last blow against the real White Walker threat in Hardhome, he’s tricked into the courtyard in the middle of the night and stabbed to death by Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) and Olly (Brenock O’Connor) in front of a tombstone that reads “Traitor.” At least, then, he died doing the things he knew were right: getting Sam and the Wildlings to temporary safety.
Over the course of Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) imprisonment at the hands of the religious Sparrows, she’s gone from spitting vengeance at her immediate captor, Unella (Hannah Waddingham), to deliriously lapping up muddy water from the cracks in her stone cell, and here, she at last makes her confession to the High Septon (Jonathan Pryce). It’s clear that it’s a deliberate choice on her part, though, as she admits only to sleeping with her cousin, Lancel, and denies the rumors of incest between herself and Jamie. She has a plan in place—and vengeance flickering through her eyes—and so she submits to their version of atonement, refusing to flinch as they shear her hair to within an inch of her scalp, or even as they strip her naked and parade her through a throng of the peasants who detest her, Unella chanting “shame” in lockstep behind her. Several times, the camera shifts to provide Cersei’s point of view—namely, the Red Keep, which represents safety to her. But as she progresses through the narrow streets, the literal impact of her choice hits her; the angry words, along with the refuse and spit, congeal on her naked, unprotected body.
Though Cersei doesn’t face physical death, she stares full-on at spiritual death, and she outwits it. When she at last arrives at the Red Keep, she’s immediately swaddled by Qyburn (Anton Lesser), the one who had suggested she “confess,” and lifted off her bloody feet by Qyburn’s present to her: a man masked in golden armor. By indomitable physique alone, this man can only be Gregor Clegane, and given his near-death state after being poisoned by Oberyn Martell, the Mountain stands as yet another example of someone cheating the natural order of things. All men must die, and yet in the North, the White Walkers refuse to do so and across the ocean in Valyria, those with greyscale persist. One can only imagine, then, what will happen to the careful, natural plotting of men like Littlefinger when those in King’s Landing also refuse the proffered mercy of the Many-Faced God.
For more Game of Thrones recaps, click here.