One of the most delightful things about Game of Thrones as a television show is its ability to transcend the format of the novel. While George R.R. Martin’s books restrict the storytelling perspective to a handful of characters, the show has enabled us to wander into rooms and conversations that would have otherwise been hidden from us, to develop the interior lives of characters who had previously been seen only through the eyes of others. It’s that property that gives this episode’s hell-yes moments, from the Hound’s vengeance to Arya’s escape, added impact. It’s also that property, though, that makes it even sadder to see Cerseionce the de facto ruler of the Seven Kingdomspushed to the sidelines of power. The erstwhile queen is increasingly a bit character in the story of Kings Landing, a pariah in the making who watches big decisions get announced from a distance, rather than being in the room where they happen.
Her loss of power has been the High Sparrows gain, as evidenced by the ability of his cudgel-wielding lackeys to show up at the Red Keep and order Cersei to come to the Sept. The Mountain steps forward silently to defend her, and Lancel warns her to call off her giant zombie attack dog, lest there be violence. I choose violence, says Cersei. She always has. A small smile plays across her face when the Mountain rips the head off the Sparrow who tried to take her by force. This is winning, in precisely the way she understands it: the heads of your enemies lying at your feet.
Open violence is a bad political move, of course, and one that only alienates Cersei further from her increasingly zealous son. Tommen, who has now completed his transformation into the High Sparrows puppet leader, announces not only that will Cerseis trial proceed, but that trials by combat are now forbidden. In other words, the Zombie Mountain wont be able to save her. Its not a death sentence, per se, but its something almost as bad: Tommen has abandoned Cersei completely now to the mercies of the High Sparrow, and we know what that looks like. Violence has always been the only weapon in Cerseis arsenal—not just her preferred tactic, but her philosophy of power as well. To remove it from her political repertoire is to disarm her completely, and the High Sparrow knows it.
Jaime, who knows nothing about the new dangers facing his sister, is still busy sieging in the Riverlands, where he and Edmure Tully have a captor-to-prisoner chat that evokes the one he had with Catelyn Starkthough he was the prisoner that time around. He muses a bit about how funny life is; his captive is far less amused. Do you imagine yourself a decent person? Edmure asks. How do you tell yourself that youre decent after everything that youve done?
Its a good question, one that nearly every character on the show could ask themselves. Their answers, though, would be ambiguous at best; most of the truly decent people are dead, and everyone else is drowning in compromise. Of course, only moments laterafter Jaime threatens to launch his infant son at the castle with a trebuchetwe find Edmure surrendering both his castle and the Blackfish to the Lannister army, arguably betraying his people and his family to their hated enemies. Does he still imagine himself a decent person too?
Jaime’s pitch to Edmure, beyond infanticide, was that he would kill every Tully alive to get back to Cersei, and file it all under the things I do for love. Its a callback to what he said so many years ago shortly before pushing Bran out a window, just in case his redemption arc has you doubting his ability to murder a baby. Indeed, killing childrenor killing to protect themis a major throughline of the series, simply because they are the most sensitive (read: valuable) targets in a world ruled by violence and manipulation.
Without social norms to reinforce it, honor has become something of a fatal disease, one that can only be cured by brutal practicality. Sometimes in the game of thrones, you threaten to kill babies or you die.
For men like Ned Stark, these sorts of limits on violence are the very definition of honor; they define themselves as much by the lines they will not cross as much as the lines that they do. Ned died specifically because he was unwilling to endanger Cerseis children by revealing their incestuous originsa fatal mercy that cost him his head.
Partly, this is just a subversion of fantasy tropes, a way of telling us that knights and lords were never quite as honorable as we imagined them to be in our fairy tales. But the Seven Kingdoms are also a civilization in decline, one where chivalryeither in fact or in performancehas been weeded out of both power centers and the general population with alarming speed. Without social norms to reinforce it, honor has become something of a fatal disease, one that can only be cured by brutal practicality. Sometimes in the game of thrones, you threaten to kill babies or you die.
In the midst of the brinksmanship, there are two unexpectedly sweet reunions between old foes in this episodefirst between Jaime and Brienne, who find themselves on opposite sides of the siege on Riverrun. They briefly rehash the political tit-for-tat between the Lannisters and the Starks like a couple arguing over Bernie and Hillary before Jaime wisely realizes how fruitless it is. Brienne offers Jaime his sword back, on the basis that she has now fulfilled her oath to Catelyn Stark, but he refuses: Its yours. It will always be yours.
The sword, one of those rare, White Walker-killing Valryian blades, is a perfect symbol for that asphyxiating nature of compromise. Once wielded by Ned Stark, then reforged by the very people who murdered him, its now used to defend the interests of his daughter; when Brienne fights for Sansa, she does it with a sword whose hilt bears the sigil of the family who killed her ladys father, mother and brother. Is that more or less honorable than giving it up? More or less decent?
But the Season Three callbacks aren’t done! We also get a touching reunion between the Hound and our two favorite members of the Brotherhood of Banner: Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. They’ve come to dispense justice for last week’s village raid, which leads to a hilarious bout of haggling with the Hound haggles about who gets to murder whom and exactly how bloody those deaths will be. Ill just chop off one hand, the Hound wheedles, though all he gets in the end are hangings.
Although it seemed like the Hound had a one-way ticket back to Villainville, he gets another shot at redemptionand perhaps one better suited to him than the pacifism that his short-lived septon buddy offered him. Despite trying to kill him the last time they saw him, Beric and Thoros nonetheless offer him a place in their ranks, and a chance to put his combat skills to more positive use. Hes skeptical about the idea of joining up with another large organizationlots of horrible shit gets done for something larger than ourselves, he observes wiselybut he doesnt say no, exactly.
Are the graveyards of Westeros littered with the corpses of the unworthy, or simply the unlucky? For a man of the people, Berics knowledge of structural oppression is surprisingly shallow.
The other good laugh belongs to the Hound, in response to Berics belief that he survived their trial by combat because the Lord of Light smiled upon him. Its the same canard that underlies aristocracy itself: the people who win do so not because of their own privileged position, but because they are inherently more blessed. Do kings like Joffrey rule because they are anointed by deities, or because their families happen to be super powerful? Do babies get murdered by trebuchets because the Lord of Light doesnt love them, or because people are assholes? Are the graveyards of Westeros littered with the corpses of the unworthy, or simply the unlucky? For a man of the people, Berics knowledge of structural oppression is surprisingly shallow.
Back in Braavos, Arya finally completes her monomythical journey with the Faceless Men, and itswell, it’s kind of weird and unsatisfying. The entire belief system of the House of Black and White revolves around the doctrine of No Onethe abandonment of self, and all the individual cares and desires that come with it. Yet we see that undermined not only by the Waifs bizarre vendetta against Arya, but by what happens after the tiny blond Terminator finally catches up to her prey.
After completing the contract on Lady Crane, she chases Arya back to the hovel where shed been sleepingand hiding Needle. Arya picks up the blade and cuts a nearby candle in half, plunging the room into darkness; although we never see the final blow, Arya is the one who lands it. And she wins not because of what she learned while trying to be no one in the House of Black and White, but what she learned as Arya Stark, water dancing blindfolded with her Braavosi sword master, Syrio Forel.
In the end, she adds the Waifs face to the wall, which earns her not death but praise from her old friend Jaqen: he declares that finally, a girl is No One. Its an odd thing for him to say, not only because the Faceless Men have always been more inclined to nihilism than Cerseis might-makes-right mentality, but because Arya has never seemed less like No One than she does right now.
She announces that shes heading back to Westeros, and shes not the only major character making her triumphant return this episode. In Meereen, we see Tyrions compromise with the Masters end in betrayal; turns out that Grey Worm and Missandei knew what they were talking about, and Tyrions unwillingness to listen results in a huge fleet of ships arriving on their shores, ready to invade. But wait! Just as things look dire, Daenerys storms into the Great Pyramid, as a dragon soars through the air behind her (and presumably, a Dothraki horde follows).
It all feels a bit rushedlike the show is racing to move all its chess pieces into the right places for the season finale. After seasons of meandering, its nice to finally see so many stalled plots finally advancing, but itd be even nicer if we could linger long enough to make these plot points feel a little more human and a little less mechanical; if hastiness is the price of tardinessand we waited quite a while in hopes that the next book would arrive in timethen the show is finally paying up.