There was an inevitable sense of things falling into place on "The Broken Man." Sure, the seventh episode of the season is usually when Game of Thrones starts putting its endgame in motion, but there was an extra sense of finality to it, making it a gut-punch of an episode. Hmm. Maybe gut-stab is a better word.
Yes, a lot of fateful decisions were made on last night's episode, the first of which may be the strangest -- the show's choice to give us a scene before the opening credits. Has it ever done that before? Other than the pilot? I don't think so, because if it happened I'm sure it would be just as jarring as it was last night, when we cold open on a church being built.
It's overseen by the always incredible Ian McShane, who's playing a more-down-to-Westeros preacher than we've seen so far in Game of Thrones. (He's not, however, playing Septon Meribald, about which more below). As various smallfolk cut wood and hammer things and make food, a group of men start carrying logs to the site. One man is carrying a log all by himself. The camera pans around… and it's the Hound. And then credits.
It works -- I mean, the Hound is a major character who's been gone since the end of season four -- but it works more because it's so unnatural to have a pre-credits scene, more than because it's the Hound, or because he seems to have given up his murderous ways to build a church. However, he doesn't look any happier than he was when he was running around the Eyrie with Arya, so don't assume he's found salvation yet.
The Hound is the focal point of "The Broken Man," so we'll return to him anon. Let's catch up with the major machinations that are slowly falling into place, namely, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark's bid to oust Ramsey Bolton from Winterfell, and Cersei and Olenna Tyrell's similar bid to oust the High Sparrow out of King's Landing. We begin up North, where Jon, Sansa, and their loyal advisor Davos Seaworth (the partnership is official) have travelled to Bear Island, to ask Lady Mormont for her support in the war to come. Lady Mormont is a 10-year-old who is a terrifying badass.
Seriously. Li'l Lady Mormont puts up with exactly zero of their bullshit compliments and demands a damn good reason why she should send Bear Island's men to fight another Stark war. Let's be clear: This is a very silly scene. I'm sure some of you will disagree, and certainly the actors all play it perfectly straight, but in this "real" fantasy world where 99% of children act like children, it is hilarious to see this tiny BAMF basically own Jon and Sansa. Luckily, Davos steps up to convince her that the dead are coming, and only a united North can stand against them, and the North can only unite under a Stark. The Li'l Lady agrees, and pledges… 62 men.
The tragedy is that's about as good as it gets for Team Stark. (Turns out a lot of people hold "marrying a foreign woman and getting himself and his entire army butchered" against Robb.) By the end of their tour, they only have a few hundred more troops to add to their 2,000 Wildlings. Sansa (probably accurately) points out that this isn't close to enough men to take back Winterfell, but Jon (also probably accurately) explains they have to attack before another giant snowstorm buries them all like it did Stannis' army. So Sansa grabs a piece of parchment and a raven and gets to writing.
Given the circumstances, I think we can safely assume that Sansa is writing Littlefinger, who just so happens to have the soldiers of the Eyrie standing nearby. How lucky is that? Look, let's not pretend that Sansa really trusts Littlefinger here. She knows he has an ulterior motive, and she knows she's playing into his hands, and there'll be some price to pay. She's not dumb. But she also realises there's no way Jon's army can take Winterfell without them. It's either certain defeat now, or deal with Littlefinger's scheme later. It's the only choice she can make. And this is likely exactly how Littlefinger planned it.
Meanwhile, in King's Landing, the High Sparrow's battle is pretty much won. With Margaery converted and King Tommen pledged to the church, the High Sparrow effectively rules the Seven Kingdoms by proxy. It's the level of power where he can basically order Margaery to return to Tommen's bed -- "a woman does not need desire, only patience" he says, with a paternal smile and zero empathy -- and insinuate to Margaery that he's going to kill her grandmother, Olenna Tyrell, if she doesn't quit causing trouble.
Regardless of the Sparrow's evil, there's a real sublime beauty in the scenes of devout Margaery and the holy High Sparrow talking together, because they're both putting on an act of piousness, more or less for the other. The only difference is that the High Sparrow likely knows Margaery doesn't truly believe, and he doesn't care because it doesn't matter -- as long as she acts devout and follows his orders, he gets his results either way. Again, I think there's a good chance that the High Sparrow is doing all of this because he's a fanatic, and for him the ends justify whatever horrible means he achieves them. Either way, his kind demeanour is without any doubt a lie. The question here is whether Margaery realises how much sin he'll commit to "save" the Seven Kingdoms.
But for now, all Margaery can do is secretly pass a note to her grandmother to get out of King's Landing while keeping up her pious act in front of another impossibly stern septa. Olenna, realising she can do nothing more for Margaery and Loras in the city (or if she's dead) starts to pack, when Cersei approaches her, like Sansa, to make a desperate deal with someone she hates. It's genuinely tragic to see Cersei essentially forced to beg her former opponent for help to save Tommen. And while it's satisfying to watch Olenna utterly deny her -- reminding her that the Faith Militant is entirely her fault, and saying that Cersei's unhappiness is basically "the only joy I can find in all this misery" -- it's sad to see Cersei admit this, and still beg for help, knowing the danger her son is in. Again, thanks to the prophecy she received as a child, she knows (or thinks she knows) that all her children will die before her, and she's trying desperately to cheat fate anyway.
While Cersei tries to avoid what fate has in store, Jaime rather surprisingly tries to avoid a war. He and the Lannister army arrive at Riverrun to find the Frey forces are... well, to call them a mess would be to insult messes. (As Jaime puts it, they let an army of 8,000 men sneak up on them.) The Freys only plan is to drag the captured Edmure Tully, Lord of Riverrun, groom of the Red Wedding, and noted nitwit to a makeshift gallows and demand the Blackfish surrender the castle or watch his nephew die. The Blackfish tells them to go right ahead. It turns out the two Freys in charge were bluffing (they are also clearly nitwits) but it seems abundantly clear that Blackfish truly does not care whether his nephew lives or dies. It's certainly clear to Edmure, who is not pleased.
When Jaime arrives, he immediately takes charge, gives Bronn (he's back!) control of the camp, and asks for a parley with the Blackfish. It does not go well: Jaime asks the Blackfish to surrender, telling him he'll spare all his men; the Blackfish comes out mainly to say he's got two years of food, he's going nowhere, and since Jaime failed to fulfil his oath to bring Sansa and Arya back to Catelyn (made way back in season two) he can more or less go to hell. And so the siege begins.
In Braavos, Arya tries to book passage back to Westeros. She has a very strange amount of money (did she pickpocket it? Was it from begging? Does the House of Black and White have a petty cash jar?) and buys a cabin on a boat bound for Westeros, even paying extra so the captain sets sail the next day. If this seems like an oddly ostentatious thing for a girl who knows she's being hunted by face-changing assassins to do, well, I agree. But Arya wanders through Braavos in what is a truly bizarre mix of optimism and obliviousness. She even stops on a bridge to admire the sun setting on the giant Titan when the Waif, disguised as an old crone, walks casually up to her and stabs her in the gut. Repeatedly.
All Arya can do is toss herself over the bridge into the water; she swims away, and pulls herself out later, walking through the narrows straight in shock, hands gripping her bleeding stomach, paranoid that everyone she sees is a Faceless Man come to kill her which is exactly what she should have been doing in the first place. Now, however murderous George R.R. Martin and/or the showrunners may be, I have zero expectations that Arya will die. I also feel this proves my theory that if you join a school for face-changing assassins, you should learn how to change your face before quitting the school for face-changing assassins. It certainly would have helped Arya last night, although it still wouldn't have explained why she was acting like she was in a damn Disney movie instead of Game of Thrones.
Certainly the Hound would have been disappointed in her foolishness, even though he seems to have given up the sword for an axe (well, I should probably specify a woodcutting axe) to help build Brother Ray's church. This week's "Inside the Episode" has David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talking about how the Hound's near-death experience left him a changed man, but on the show he's still very angry. He has no illusions about how the world is, and when three members of the Brotherhood Without Banners ride up to the congregation and start making not-particularly-veiled threats, the Hound sees the danger for what it is. Brother Ray does as well, but he also believes violence "is a disease" -- and you don't stop a disease by spreading it to other people.
This being Game of Thrones, I think you know how this was always going to end up: with the Hound returning to the congregation after a bit of wood-chopping to find every single member slaughtered, and Brother Ray hung from the beams of the church that will never be finished. So Sandor Clegane picks up his axe, and we all know he's done chopping wood with it.
So here's the thing. Having your entire community wiped out is like fantasy trope 101 -- it was used for basically every 1980s barbarian fantasy movie -- so it's jarring to see it used so blithely here. On the other hand, I like that the Hound didn't suddenly turn into a religious zealot after his near-death experience, because I think that's a tired trope, too. I like that he wants to not pick up a sword again, but he doesn't think he can avoid it. This is what Brother Ray tries to convince him is possible. It's the world that proves Ray wrong and Sandor right.
Since the show has decided to portray the Hound as a man on the brink of transition, not a man of repentance, it was a spectacular decision to hire Ian McShane to play the role of Brother Ray, short-lived as it was. Sure, it's a great idea to hire Ian McShane pretty much 100% of the time, but I can't imagine very many actors who could pull off being a devout holy man, and a common, down-to-earth person, and have the gravitas to portray someone the Hound would actually listen to. McShane is perfect, and all you need to do is hear his sermon about the time as a soldier he murdered a child in front of its mother. It's crazy, but McShane makes this work.
But all that aside, it really feels like things are clicking into place for the finale. The war for the North is about to begin. The war for King's Landing looks like it's imminent, too. The battle for Riverrun could prove decisive for either of these battles, as it's preventing the Lannister army from returning to King's Landing and the Tully forces from joining Jon and Sansa. And let's not forget poor Arya, walking the streets of Braavos with several holes in her stomach, or the Hound, who has an axe and a thirst for vengeance.
Brother Ray said violence begets violence. I believe a whole lot of begetting is about to begin.
• We do get a brief check-in with Yara and Theon, who have taken their boats and pirates to a Westerosi equivalent of Hooters. I mean, I'm sure it's yet another whorehouse, but like EVERY SINGLE WOMAN is just hanging out topless, and it seems to be primarily a place where people eat and drink. To be fair, the nudity does serve a purpose in that it all emphasises how vastly uncomfortable and ashamed Theon is. It doesn't help that even his sister keeps mocking him for having his penis cut off by a madman.
• Yara also gives her brother a bit of a pep talk, which basically involves 1) forcing him to chug ale and 2) telling him if he going to keep moping about all those months of torture and being castrated, he should go ahead and kill himself. Theon manages to look her in the eye by the end, but it's worth noting that this is pretty much Yara -- and probably most of the Iron Islanders -- at her most compassionate. They are a terrible people.
• Jon has a brief talk with the Wildlings to convince them to join his fight against the Boltons. They're a little reluctant until Tormund Giantsbane reminds them they'd all be dead without Jon, so it's time to pony up. When Wun-Wun stands up and simply utters "Snow," it's pretty amazing.
• Olenna has basically the Top 5 lines of the night, all slamming poor Cersei. Number 1 with a bullet: "I wonder if you're the worst person I ever met." (To be fair, she never met the Boltons.)
• Bronn has the #6 line of the night, before Jaime can finish telling him, "A Lannister always pays his debts": "Don't say it. Don't fucking say it."
• Hey, where the hell is Melisandre? Is she just hanging back at Castle Black, freaking out the members of the Night's Watch? Was she not interested in hanging out with the guy she literally brought back to life? It's weird, especially given all the importance the first episode of the season placed on her.
• I would like to repeat a question I had much earlier in the season, but with more urgency: What the hell, Dorne?! What is happening there? Why did they bother giving us that one scene if we were never going back? Why did we have to watch any of it?
Warning! Assorted Musings That Contain Spoilers From the Books:
• So I'm completely bummed that McShane didn't end up playing Septon Meribald, who is the monk who finds the Hound in the books. He's given what is very likely the most important speech in the entire series. It's too long to quote here, which I suppose means it's too long to include in the TV series, but damn, what a shame. I thought McShane would be perfect to deliver this, but now I don't even think the show will include it. If this is true, it would literally be my least favourite deviation from the books.
• Someone posited in the comments that Littlefinger wrote the Pink Letter that spurred Jon to take arms against the Boltons on the show, and it seems like such a Littlefinger move I feel like it could likely be true in the books as well.
• I am now almost completely convinced that Lady Stoneheart is arriving this season. The Brotherhood Without Banners is butchering people. Clearly the noble Beric Dondarrion isn't leading them anymore, and someone far more callous is in charge. And we know Thoros of Myr is due this season, and I literally can't think of any reason he'd need to show up except to help explain how she came to be. I'm putting my money down.