Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) have come to Bear Island, home of the Mormonts, to ask them to honor their pact with House Stark and to aid them in reclaiming Winterfell. The scene could be set as a sad comedy, what with Jon, the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, reduced to humbly petitioning a 10-year-old, Lady Lyanna (Bella Ramsey), for troops—and there’s a grim humor in the fact that she has but 62 soldiers to pledge. But that’s not at all how writer Bryan Cogman and director Mark Mylod establish the scene, for they understand that war is a serious thing, regardless of the ages of those involved. Lyanna is impatient, but not impetuous, and though she’s reluctant to endanger the men and women she’s found herself responsible for, she understands Davos all too well when he warns her of the undying who will split a divided North. “This isn’t someone else’s war,” he tells her, not as a superior, but as an equal comrade. “This is our war.”
This sense of togetherness doesn’t work on all of the people the Starks ask for aid. It’s Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) who convinces the Wildlings to help: “He died for us. If we’re not willing to do the same, we’re cowards.” And Robett Glover (Tim McInnerny) of House Glover refuses to acknowledge Sansa: “House Stark is dead,” he proclaims, remembering how the scattered Starks failed to protect him when the Ironborn raided. But each of these appeals is informed by more than the need for violence or immediate gratification; they’re fueled in some cases by oaths that go back a thousand years. Viewers aren’t shown whom Sansa addresses her raven-sent letter to, but it’s safe to presume that necessity is leading her to swallow her pride in writing to Littlefinger for the Eyrie’s troops. When Game of Thrones leans on its history, it takes on a resonance rarely found in fantasy; viewers, too, are invested in this world. Because it’s their war too.
This is a lesson that Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is swiftly reminded of upon riding to the aid of his allied Freys and their laughably dim-witted siege of Riverrun. Jaime’s there because he’s been exiled from King’s Landing at the behest of the manipulative High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce); he doesn’t want to fight, but he’s also honor-bound to serve King Tommen (who secretly happens to be his son). His right-hand man, Bronn (Jerome Flynn), a sellsword, has more of a reason to go to war: He’s protecting his investment—the lordship, castle, and wife he was promised. Is it any wonder, then, that when he parlays with his rival, Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully (Clive Russell) disappointedly dismisses Jaime as coldly as he ignored his hostage nephew, Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies)? The Blackfish is fighting for his home and honor, and is willing to sacrifice all his men to do so; nothing drives Jaime into spending the next two years of his life starving the man out of Riverrun.
Another warrior playing the long game is Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer), who secretly reveals as much to her grandmother, Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), by slipping her a note right under the watchful eye of the stern and silent Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham). In order to escape the dungeons of the High Sparrow, she’s fully adopted the persona of a penitent reformer, all while probing for a weakness that will allow her to seize back control. This has, in truth, been her game since she arrived in King’s Landing; there’s little difference in the way she professes love for the Sparrow’s sacred books and the way she once pretended to swoon over Joffrey’s crossbow.
When Game of Thrones leans on its history, it takes on a resonance rarely found in fantasy.
The High Sparrow is cautious, and he coyly gauges Margaery’s faith when he warns: “You learn quickly, and yet there are some who know every verse of the sacred text, but don’t have a drop of the mother’s mercy in their blood.” And yet, as seemingly willing as he is to die for his faith, to live in squalor so as to not raise himself beyond the poor, his fellow humans, he might not be quite as committed as Margaery. As the Queen, she must bear Tommen an heir. This is a problem, however, given the newfound faith thrust upon her, and there’s a delicious irony in the way the High Sparrow must now instruct her to lovelessly have sex: “Congress does not require desire, only patience.”
Margaery’s mind games make for a startling contrast with the short-term schemes of the former queen, Cersei (Lena Headey), who now finds herself without any allies in King’s Landing—save, perhaps, for the brainwashed zombie Gregor Clegane who follows her about like a silent, mountainous puppy. Cersei has always fought for herself, and she still does, swallowing as much pride as she can in order to ask her rival, Olenna, for help. But she’s never managed to adapt her game to the changes in circumstances, and Olenna can’t help but rub Cersei’s face in the fact that all of this fanaticism is her own fault: “You’ve lost. That’s the only joy I can find in all of this misery.” Cersei stands there and takes it, but as the camera lingers tightly on her face, one can practically see the violence quivering its way out of her clenched jaw. Whether she’s lost or not is irrelevant; in that moment, she has something to live for, even if it’s a vengeance that will kill her.
A similar sequence takes place at an undisclosed brothel, where Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) sits, watching as his sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), goes to town on a prostitute’s bosom. “I’m going to fuck the tits off this one,” she says, but not before pausing to help her brother out with some tough love. He’s alive, she stresses, and they’ll get revenge on the bastard who hurt him, just as they’ll sail to Meereen ahead of their mad uncle, Euron, and take back the Iron Isles from him. She pushes him to drink, to reclaim his willingness to live; she tells him how much she needs him.
But if he’s really that broken, she wants him to kill himself. The look shared between the two Greyjoys (Allen makes it look as if Theon has just crawled out of a bottomless well) keeps this philosophy firmly grounded in the emotional: Those who live must do so, and for that, one must have something to live for. Forget to do that for even a minute, and you might wind up like Arya (Maisie Williams), who, setting her thoughts of vengeance aside in order to enjoy a peaceful, mind-clearing glimpse of the horizon beyond Braavos, ends up getting stabbed several times by the Waif (Faye Marsay).
Knowing what drives you is the point of “The Broken Man,” which also doubles as the moral vignette bookending the episode. The title refers to Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), who was found in a shattered state by Septon Ray (Ian McShane), and nursed back to health. Ray is a reformed mercenary who’s sworn never to take up arms again, even in self-defense, and who preaches a simple gospel to his followers: “It’s never too late to come back.” At several points throughout the episode, he suggests that there must have been some purpose greater than hate that kept the Hound alive, and warns him that “Violence is a disease. You don’t cure it by spreading it to more people.” Of course, the Hound’s rejoinder is the one that proves true: “You don’t cure it by dying either.”
The question, then, is whether the Hound was broken during this time of rest, when he was most at peace violently chopping trees with axes, or if he was broken before Ray found and accepted him, burns and all. The episode ends with the Hound standing in a field littered with the bodies of his dead friends and once more hefting that axe in search of something—or more likely, someone—to fell. The message Game of Thrones seems to be conveying throughout “The Broken Man,” then, is that violence is just the tool that some people use in order to stay alive. And as this exceptionally sharp episode proves, that tool doesn’t have to be lazy.
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