Warning: major Game of Thrones spoilers below.
An episode about family, and more to the point, how little the term need involve the sharing of blood. Yes, there are actual families present here, but they’re fractured, riven by dissent. The closest we get to a healthy interaction between relatives is when Bran learns his uncle is a reanimated corpse.
More successful here are the families that choose themselves. That’s what “blood of my blood” means, when you get down to it; the conscious decision to take people who you’re not related to and raise them to the status of brothers. It’s interesting that in an episode named after a Dothraki phrase the horse-lords themselves almost fail to feature. Their only scene is a short one at episode’s end, one that frankly feels more afterthought than conclusion. And as others have pointed out, this is perhaps overly similar to the conclusion of “Book of the Stranger” – Dany in charge of all Dothraki ever – only without any actual actions on her part to make that feel earned.
Whilst that criticism draws blood though, I don’t think the wound is necessarily that serious. Not given what we’ve seen so far this season. As I’ve been arguing, having Dany ripped from power in Meereen and dragged through the Great Grass Sea by the Dothraki put her in a position to understand her elder brother a little better, and perhaps even be inclined to take a cue or two from him. Her gleeful burning of every Khal was a case in point. As always, I spare no tears for fictional rapists dying in painful ways, but in terms of what it actually takes for someone to burn a roomful of people to death whilst smiling in self-satisfaction? It’s concerning that Dany is so capable of that. Executioners are like tax collectors; you don’t want them to enjoy their jobs too much. Then there’s the familial connection. Dany is at minimum a second-generation proponent of setting the opposition on fire, and for the first time here we get to meet the previous iteration. King Aerys II Targaryen, keen conspiracy theorist and passionate wildfire collector, frowner upon Starks and nail-clippers alike. And who is it Bran’s visions are shot to remind us of? Viserys. Check out a comparison over at Winter is Coming to see what I mean.
Linking Dany to Aerys and Aerys to Viserys has the effect of tightening the Targaryen’s around what would seem to be their family’s central plank, namely despotic tyranny. Given these sudden similarities between our heroine and her less savoury relatives, the fact Dany gained control of the Dothraki through murder seems worthy of concern. Again, by our standards the Khals were terrible human beings who brought their downfall upon themselves, but from the perspective of the Dothraki, Dany just murdered every single one of their legitimate rulers in order to seize power. When they bow to her, it must be at least in part through fear. The kind of reaction Viserys, or Aerys before him, would demand.
What Dany does atop Drogon here is to redress the balance. By announcing she will consider the entirety of the Dothraki her bloodriders – her family – she ensures they will follow her not just through fear, but through love. This makes the similarities to the end of episode 4 – including using this scene to close an episode even though it doesn’t really have the necessary heft – entirely the point; Dany is reminding us that she can still be Dany.
To what extent that will and can remain true is up for discussion, naturally. And even if she does remain Dany, it’s fair to ask how much that difference will actually make to those caught up in a Dothraki assault on Westeros. Others have noted how strongly Dany’s speech here echoes Drogo’s after the wine-seller fiasco. I didn’t pick up on that first time through, but once you see the link, it becomes unmistakable, and concerning. You can cut out the rape of women and the enslavement of children from a speech much more easily than you can from a war. Not everyone the horse-lords run down need have been her enemy.
Speaking of her enemies (potentially at least; depending on whether the lord of Horn Hill fought Robert’s forces at the Battle of Ashford out of loyalty to the Tyrells, or to the Targaryens), let’s take a moment to consider just how truly horrible a human being Randyll Tarly is. What makes it even worse is that he’s horrible in such a human way. There’s none of the overblown sadistic giggling you get from Ramsay Bolton, the stuff that actually helps distance you from their actions. This feels like a scene that can happen. That has happened, over and over, at dinner tables throughout history. Randyll Tarly gets to feel real in a way that Ramsay or Joffrey simply couldn’t. That makes his emotional torture of Sam far harder to watch than Theon being gelded or a singer having his tongue torn out (though having been an overweight teenager with a younger, fitter, more socially acceptable brother I may simply be bringing too much of myself to the table). Even that is part of the point though. I can identify with Sam (to some small extent, I mean; my father’s concern for my health wasn’t always ideally expressed, but the guy didn’t mock me when I took a second bread roll) precisely because what’s happening to him is recognisable. Mercifully few of us can say that about finding our only chance at escaping our tower prison has just been skinned alive and hung up in the courtyard.
I think it’s because this is supposed to be real that the rest of Sam’s family are so tremendously well-drawn, an impressive feat considering they get so little screen-time. A loving and protective mother and a spirited and excitable sister serve to make Sam’s past more fleshed out than would simply showing Randyll surrounded by cowed relatives. Even Dickon seems like essentially an OK guy – I’m not particularly inclined to judge him too harshly for scoffing at Gilly’s tale, considering it’s the direct equivalent of me coming home at Christmas to announce I still haven’t joined a gym but no-one can criticise my weight because I beheaded an actual werewolf. The only real problem I had with Dickon was his failure to come to his brother’s aid whilst Sam was literally shaking with terror and humiliation. But then I’m not Dickon, am I? I’ve no idea how this clearly abusive arsehole has damaged his younger son, but the fact he couldn’t ruin Dickon’s life in the precise same way he did Sam’s hardly implies the younger brother has had it easy. Perhaps keeping silent and looking everywhere but at his father, is Dickon’s own survival technique. Tarly’s a general as well as a grotesque backed-up sewer pipe of a man; he understands the benefits of divide and conquer.
Let’s get back to Sam himself, though. I don’t buy for a second his excuse that he remained silent whilst his lover was called a whore and worse than a whore because he was afraid talking back would cost them their billet. I’m not sure that was ever a good argument, and anyway it’s pretty comprehensively shot down once Tarly Senior finds out his house guest is Wildling (wonder how he feels about Dothraki?). The blocking of the scene underlines how rubbish Sam’s justifications are. Just look how he’s shot whilst he’s trying to explain himself to Gilly; he looks like he’s standing in a dock built from the crib of his own adopted son. Trying to give testimony in his own defence that he now isn’t convincing enough to get him off the hook.
Here’s the thing, though. Yes, Sam’s reasons are transparently awful – any doubt of that disappears when he returns to take Gilly and Little Sam away, utterly undermining the idea he let Gilly be degraded and insulted because it was so vital she not be made to leave – but Gilly knows that. She knows that and she doesn’t care, because she’s Craster’s daughter. She knows what it’s like to be helpless before a grotesque monster of a father. To feel utterly sure that anything you say will only make what is happening worse. And this is the measure of how wonderful a person Gilly is, she makes it clear that she’s entirely on Sam’s side against the monsters of the world without actually reminding him where that impulse comes from. She knows whatever Sam has been through pales in comparison to her own upbringing, but she also knows that if she points out that obvious truth it will just upset him more. Gilly is watching someone close to her going through some rough approximation of her own tragedy, and she resolves to help. Because she loves Sam. Because she has decided he will be the father of her baby, and she realises reminding him how Little Sam was actually conceived is probably not the best idea whilst Sam metaphorically bleeds from the wounds of his childhood abuse, now freshly ripped open.
Because Sam is the family Gilly has chosen for herself.
Not every self-selected family works out here, of course. Over in Braavos, Arya is clearly in the process of divorcing herself from the people who took her in after she left Westeros. Like the Brotherhood before them, the servants of the Many-Faced God turned out to not be as in step with her own approach to the world as she’d hoped. Neither shared her ideas on what justice actually means. The Brotherhood compromised too much with its grubby grabbing for gold, and the Faceless Men? They won’t compromise enough. They kill who they are told to kill, without any consideration of context.
The way Arya comes to this conclusion is pleasingly ambiguous. As she stands there, watching Lady Crane pretend to be a grief-stricken Cersei distraught at her eldest child’s death, a shadow passes over Arya’s face. But why? Is she feeling sympathy for Lady Crane’s imminent death? Or is she finally understanding that Cersei isn’t simply a name on a list, but a person with her own thoughts and feelings and triumphs and tragedies? Or is it both? Is the fact Crane is so skilled as to make Arya feel something for Cersei – the woman who ordered the deaths of Lady and Septa Mordane and who certainly did nothing to stop the execution of her father – what prompts Arya into the thought process that ultimately means she can’t allow the hit to go forward? To frame things slightly differently: did Arya conclude her conscience forbade her from staying in the House of Black and White, necessitating a (presumed) return to Westeros? Or did Crane’s interpretation of Cersei’s sadness have the paradoxical effect of reminding Arya of the need to avenge the death of your family members and that Cersei needs to be called to account? Is she running from the Faceless Men, or is she running towards her vengeance? And would any of that happened if Lady Crane was as worthless a hack as the play’s writer so clearly is?
(I’ve seen people argue that Izembaro’s tantrum about people thinking they can give useful notes to a professional writer is a dig at the show’s fandom and its tendency to criticise the writing. I find this rather hard to believe. I’d like to think that if Cogman wanted a mouthpiece to point at his superior writing chops compared to his audience, he’d have been smart enough to make sure the note from Izembaro’s audience wasn’t as good as it clearly is. Especially when it involves two women trying to tell him that he’s failed to satisfactorily write a third. Hell, if that’s a dig, then it’s surely a dig at Benioff and Weiss. Man, this play is the meta-commentary that just keeps giving.)
If you could ask Arya herself to lay out her thought process here, I’m not sure she could. But either way, Arya is leaving her adopted family in order to do what little she can for her true one. Doing so cuts against the wider theme of the episode, of course, but then this is Arya. Being herself means not doing what she is told.
On then to the actual, related-by blood families we see here, none of whom are doing particularly well. Frey can be dealt with pretty quickly: he’s pissed off that his incompetent descendants have let him down. Riverrun has retaken by the Blackfish, and the Mallisters and Blackwoods have joined him in open rebellion. For non-book readers, those are two powerful houses. So this is not good news for Walder, especially since both the lords he plotted the Red Wedding alongside are now dead. No help will come from the Bastard of Bolton. The Lannisters are on their way, true, but they’ve lost their best general. Worse, with the man who replaced him in King’s Landing trying to stop a religious revolution, they’re being led now by someone who hasn’t directed troops in a battle in almost five years of the show, a battle which he lost. Not that the Lannister forces would be all that impressive even under Tywin any more, presumably, they’re apparently in so bad a state Cersei decided she’d rather petition the Tyrells for armed aid in the capital than rely on her own house’s forces. When Cersei Lannister doesn’t want to use Lannisters, well…
Let’s dig deeper in King’s Landing, then. This was the part of the episode that mostly left me cold. The thematic resonance is there, sure, with King Tommen selling his blood relatives down the river (sort of literally in Jaime’s case) in favour of some combination of his wife’s approval and that of his gods. But as a plot beat rarely lands because it’s completely unclear what this alliance of High Sparrow and Iron Throne will actually lead to in practice. As a general rule it’s a not a good sign when you need to have a stupid character present so that someone else can explain the plot to them (Mace Tyrell: worst Who companion ever). Yes, this could turn out badly, but the only outward sign of change is literally a cosmetic one. The Faith and the Crown are supposed to be entwined; how worried can we possibly be expected to feel over the armour of those who protect the Gods’ instrument on Planetos now sporting the Westerosi military equivalent of ichthys pins? Yes, we find out afterwards that Tommen’s first act post-alliance is to send Jaime off to put down a Riverlands rebellion (which we shouldn’t forget was something he was delighted to get to do five years ago), but that’s pretty small potatoes, and happens after the ostensible big reveal in any case.
What saves these scenes, or at least salvages what it can from them, is Natalie Dormer’s performance. Dormer manages the truly impressive trick of making me unsure whether Margaery is just doing what the Tyrells always do and forming an alliance with someone they secretly dislike, or whether she truly has converted to the idea that every crust of bread she gave out was a simple act of quid pro quo: loaves for cookies. This being Margaery and this being Game of Thrones, the chances of this being genuine contrition are fairly low (especially since an end to the battling between Highgarden and the High Sparrow was exactly what her traumatised brother begged her for last time we saw them), but Dormer absolutely sells her born-again status as well as narrative convention will allow her to. She has dodged her own Walk of Atonement, and presumably bought some respite for her brother too. Which rather suggests Cersei’s trial will now be at the top of the Faith Militant’s to-do list, doesn’t it? Merely a lovely coincidence for Queen Margaery, I’m sure.
We finish north of the Wall, with the episode’s second family reunion. It rather underlines how miserably things went at Horn Hill that this is the more pleasant of the two, even with Bran learning his uncle is an unusually chatty zombie pressed into service in a war all but lost. I’ll just mention in passing that I managed to overestimate the show in how it would respond to Hodor’s death – I thought they’d fail to problematise it, but instead they failed to even mention it – and move on to what Benjen’s return suggests. On the surface, of course, it’s the solution to a mystery more than five years old at this point (it’s generally agreed for a host of very good reasons that Bran’s saviour isn’t Benjen in the books), but that’s really the least interesting thing about it. Jason Mawles makes for a very good Benjen, managing to both look enough like Sean Bean to pass as his brother and an entirely capable actor in his own right – I’m glad he wasn’t too busy to come back. But he hasn’t been seen since the third episode of the series, and has barely been mentioned since. I’d be willing to bet a non-trivial proportion of the audience went “who’s that?” not just when Benjen removed his face scarf, but when Bran said his name.
Happily, then, the actual reveal is just one small piece of what is going on here. You’ve got the show referencing its own earlier themes by having Bran meet someone he once knew who has become a stranger. But of course all the other characters got to do that in episode four, reinforcing the idea that everything Bran is doing in the far north might already be too late. Everyone who could have helped him bar Meera is already dead, even if in Benjen’s case that hasn’t rendered him entirely useless. There’s also the callback to the last episode regarding the Children’s one weird trick with obsidian, which was the central point on which the themes of “The Door” turned. There’s also also mirroring here between Benjen and Dany, of all people, another example of Martin’s story using the twin poles of fire and ice to echo each other. As Dany rises up on the back of a dragon, Benjen reveals his salvation was in dragonglass. Plus, like the Queen of Meereen, he now has the ability to summon forth magical fire to burn his enemies, which is always a handy trick.
But he’s also a creature of nightmare, kept going beyond what should have killed him by the most powerful and most double-edged of magic. If this is a reflection of Dany, we should be concerned by what we’re seeing. Or should we? He is still a Stark, after all; the second one to be brought back from the dead this season, albeit in rather less pristine condition than Jon can claim. The implication is clear: at long last, the Stark resurgence is beginning. Sansa and Jon are forming armies, Arya has reclaimed Needle, and even Bran is more powerful than he has ever been, for all that last week’s subterranean cluster-cuss can’t easily be slotted into the win column. Hell, even Rickon is back in the picture, though admittedly the closest he’s come to a victory this season is that we’ve not actually seen him get tortured yet. The winds of winter might not be entirely a bad thing when you want to plate up a dish best served cold. With the Lannisters in total disarray, now is the perfect time for the Direwolf to flap once more in the strengthening breeze.
But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Back at the end of season four. Tywin was dead, Sansa had escaped King’ s Landing and was learning how to play the game of thrones and Littlefinger both, Jon was de facto Commander of a newly-reinforced Night’s Watch, and Bran had made it to his magical mentor. Even Arya had a triumph of sorts as she finally escaped the trail of blood and bodies that had constituted her life since the Tower of the Hand fell, by sailing away from the whole damn continent. And yet it all fell apart in season five. Arya was stalled; Jon assassinated. Bran didn’t even show up. And I’m sure by now everyone reading this knows my feelings on what the show thought it necessary to put Sansa through.
My point is this: unlike Dany, we’ve been burned before. And this time around the situation is even more precarious. The North – the true North, the North that remembers – may be about to rise again, banners filled with the freezing winds that blow southward towards their unsuspecting foes. But other things are being borne on those winds. Dead things. Cold things. Things for which the Starks are nothing but simply the first people standing in the way.
Not that it really matters whether you share blood or not when the White Walkers come, I suppose. It will freeze just as well either way.
Reviewer: Ric Crossman