Warning: major Game of Thrones spoilers below
Everyone is just exhausted. Everyone is just broken.
There’s a reason we start with a cold open this week. Well, two reasons. Episode writer Bryan Cogman pointed one out this week: it was the only way to have the Hound appear before Rory McCann’s name did. But we can do better than that. By placing his first appearance ahead of the credits, and ending as he retrieves his axe, Game of Thrones briefly morphs into a network show. And it’s a network show we’ve seen before; a pilot for one of those programs about an old warrior who wants to leave the horrors of his past behind him. A man who wants to start afresh, and perhaps even earn some small measure of redemption, in a new place, among new people, under a new name. To, if not forget the ghosts of the past, at least find some measure of peace in the face of them.
It goes wrong. It always goes wrong. The sins of the past catch up with our protagonist in the form of armed men who are more than happy to murder their way through his new friends, either as collateral damage or as a motivational tactic. And in the wake of the resulting massacre, our man picks up his weapon once more, and walks back into hell.
It’s a trope, obviously, hence the link above. But it’s a trope inverted, because we’re actually privy to all the horrible things Sandor Clegane did before Arya left him for dead on a Vale hillside. Rather than the story beginning with the day the gunslinger has to once more strap on his six-shooters, we come across that point as the tale nears its end, if only because we’re apparently more than three-quarters of the way through the series as a whole. This kind of story – along with its kissing cousin, in which a former villain strives for redemption – arguably only works because you don’t actually fully grasp the horrible things the hero did in his violent past. It’s much easier to believe someone can be redeemed when you haven’t seen what they actually need to be redeemed from. It’s fun to watch Game of Thrones explore how well the trope works when we actually got experience of Sandor’s glib blood-thirst just after murdering Micah in the show’s second episode.
There’s more going on here than just playing with tropes, though. What’s happening here is also an underlining of the episode’s central theme, that of total exhaustion in the face of the last five seasons of horror and war.
I’ve seen a lot of people criticise this episode because despite it name-checking Martin’s deservedly-praised “broken man” monologue from A Feast For Crows, and despite it introducing the character that actually drops it in that book, the speech itself was somehow deemed surplus to requirements. I get it though, or at least I potentially get it. Perhaps they thought it’d be a bit too on-the-nose, considering how powerfully the idea is being driven elsewhere here. Or maybe it was just too long to include but too wonderful to edit. Certainly I don’t want to reproduce its 650-plus words here, but I’ll happily summarise for you. War sounds like it might be glorious until you actually make it to your first battle. After that you’re doing well to not to desert in terror on the spot. And even if you don’t, every fight after the first one gets harder, both because of the accumulated weight of trauma and because every time you lose more and more of the things that made you who you were. That can be friends killed along the way, possessions broken or stolen, or even the lord who you spent your life serving, who one day dies and leaves you under the command of a total stranger. But sooner or later, the weight becomes too great, and you break.
This is exactly what “The Broken Man” is getting at. Eventually even the bravest warrior just can’t do it anymore. Hell, it’s not even necessarily a question of bravery, as Meribald tells us in the episode. A man can become broken for all sorts of reasons. And through the wars and the murders and the mutilations and the battles and the betrayals of the last five years, plenty of those reasons have presented themselves. And even if you don’t break, the attrition of the endless cuts and scrapes and bruises (plus the occasional severed hand or gelding without anesthetic) take their toll. Everyone is just bone-tired, sick of fighting without getting anywhere. Take Theon, for instance. His wise words to Robb aside, his season one plot was all about how desperate he was to find his way into action (“What? Is there going to be a battle in the Godswood?”). Now though, he has become so broken a man (as his sister is kind enough to point out explicitly) that he has to be bullied into even having his drink before the war. Meanwhile, Olenna and Cersei are so exhausted they can’t even muster up the energy to spar properly any more. For people like that, the truth is what you break out only when you’re too tired to lie. Even Arya seems to be so sick of conflict and death she inexplicably lets her guard down.
(Yes, I admit it; Arya letting herself get stabbed doesn’t really fit into the wider theme. It also doesn’t make the slightest damn sense and makes her look incompetent and stupid, so, y’know. I’m doing the best with what I’ve got here.)
This was a major theme of A Feast For Crows, right down to its title. It’s also probably no small part of why that book got the lukewarm reaction it did. People preferred hearing about the battles to hearing about what those battles cost. That’s a nickel summary for why mankind is terrible right there, actually, but I mustn’t drift off the point. For all that the book’s long, wending chapters through burned fields and broken castles generates the atmosphere of exhaustion and misery I assume Martin was going for, it turned out to be too slow and cold for many people just when on the page. There was no way it was going to work as the focus for a year of the show, or even half a year. Holding it back for what must surely be the last moment of peace in this season before all hell breaks loose is a smart move, a savvy bit of of flavouring from the source material that isn’t allowed to dominate proceedings.
Beyond the Hound’s return, the two principle pillars of this episode are the siege of Riverrun and the muster of the north. Both take key moments from the first season and turn them on their head. Let’s start with Westeros’ West Midlands, if only out of loyalty to my adopted county. When Jaime Lannister last led a contingent of his family’s troops to Riverrun, he was young and brash and arrogant. It would never have even occurred to that Jaime that a parley might be worth trying; he’d have wanted to be first on the wall so he could kill the commander of the defenders himself. And for a while his approach worked; he smashed the Tully army and began the First Siege of Riverrun, presumably only waiting for enough siege engines to be built to facilitate his glorious storming of the walls. But then Robb poked at his arrogance and battle-lust and got him to ride to Whispering Wood. Even that wouldn’t have been the end of Jaime’s war, though, except that he didn’t bother with sufficient scouting parties that would have let him know the ambush was coming (that last part isn’t explicit in the show version, admittedly, but it’s a fairly natural conclusion to draw).
Compare all this with the Riverrun’s second investiture. Almost the first words out of Jaime’s mouth when he confronts the Freys here are an admonition about their lack of sentries. Of letting an armed force sneak up on them unawares. Sound familiar? Jaime has become all weary pragmatism. He doesn’t even seem to fully enjoy hitting Black Walder in the face, and as Samuel Johnson said – I think; I didn’t double-check – when a man is tired of pimp-slapping Freys, he is tired of life. This time around battle is a last resort. The man who once murdered Eddard Stark’s men just to piss him off now pleads with the Blackfish to not throw away the lives of those who follow him. And Brynden himself underlines the point. Riverrun is no longer controlled by the callow youth Edmure – who himself is now likely a broken man; you don’t spend almost three seasons in Lord Walder’s dungeon and come out particularly spry, I’m guessing. Instead, it’s held by Brynden Tully, a grey-haired warrior who can’t even summon up the energy to pretend he cares if his nephew gets the Full Freying. He talks a good game on the drawbridge, sure; all stubborn defiance spat through gritted teeth. But it’s the defiance of fatalism. He’s ready to die, as he says. He only has the energy to be the last Tully to hold Riverrun because he doesn’t expect to need to keep it up for much longer.
If we travel northwards, we see this exhaustion on a geographic scale. Last time the Starks called the North to war the biggest problem they had was Greatjon Umber being too eager for battle. But all that battle-lust and energy has bled away. Lord Percy Glover-Percy might despise the Wildlings, but he’s doing a pretty good job of echoing the Free Folk chieftain we meet here. All either of them want to talk about is how long they’ve fought and how impressive their causes and armies once were before they tasted total defeat. Lady Lyanna Mormont – who of course is absolutely and completely wonderful – offers similar sentiments. The North and the lands beyond the North have been bled white. They just want a chance to rest. They’re prepared to swallow their pride whole and raw if it means being left alone. The Glovers in particular have taken this attitude to such an extreme they’re willing to blame Robb Stark for getting himself killed rather than the Boltons for killing him.
That said, though, it genuinely is Robb’s fault that they lost their castle to the Ironborn. Even if Balon Greyjoy wasn’t waiting for his last surviving son to return before he declared war on the North – and I really doubt he was – the castle would have been much harder to take had the bulk of the Glover’s forces not been in the Riverlands. The King in the North cost the Glovers Deepwood Motte, and the Boltons helped them win it back. So it’s worth considering the possibility that rejecting the new Warden of the North is not the simple choice for everyone that Jon and Sansa so desperately want to think it is.
Indeed, for all that it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest were Ramsay to spend the rest of his life in a cell forged from broken glass set underneath the Winterfell privies, and whilst Sansa and Rickon Stark absolutely deserve justice and rescuing respectively, I don’t buy Jon’s wider argument at all. Yes, the North is divided, between Stark loyalists and Bolton supporters and general opportunists and, most of all, those too knackered to care. But what Jon is proposing is unification through civil war. When has that ever worked? When has people fighting amongst themselves ever brought them closer together? If anyone were to ever release a recipe book for fermenting societal instability, Jon’s plan would be in the section titled “Fifteen-minute meals”. Even if our heroes take back Winterfell, what then? Do they have to march on the Dreadfort? What if Ramsay escapes and demands the North muster for him? Will the Glovers ignore that call too, or will their fear of Ramsay’s wrath force them to take to the field against Jon? How many other houses would join up from fear of being flayed? Or even just out of hatred of the Wildlings? Seven Hells, until last episode I’m not sure Randyll Tarly had ever met someone who’d met a Wildling, and yet still he utterly loathed them. How much more bone-deep must the loathing of them run among the people who’ve actually seen their friends raped and murdered by Wildling raiding parties? Jon’s entire spiel here is that the North needs to unite against an army from beyond the Wall. What if that’s exactly what happens?
“Violence is a disease”, Septon Meribald explains, “You don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people”. Jon has the best of intentions, there’s no doubt, but then so did the Brotherhood Without Banners when they began. And look at them now (note we see three of them here, echoing Jon’s diplomatic mission). They’re roaming the countryside demanding gold like smug highwaymen, and seemingly killing innocent people for unknowingly harbouring former Lannister bannermen – and someone their own leader judged innocent, for that matter. What happened between seasons three and six? What are they still fighting for? Contra the Blackfish, the war really is over. The Brotherhood may not be happy with the hows and whys, but the battles and the burnings are past us now. Outside of Riverrun, the only violence left is what they choose to spread themselves, as they try to reignite a war already over by hurting the very people they once insisted they were trying to save. I doubt many could miss the significance of a symbol of post-war reconstruction being used to hang a man for the crime of forgiving the past.
So how different is Jon, in the end? He insists he wants a unified North, but the North is unified, just not under the Starks. Yes, Ramsay is a truly appalling human being, and his methods of control can’t possibly provide the long-term stability the Starks managed for so many centuries. But that couldn’t matter less right now. By Jon’s own argument, all that’s important is that the North stands together against the White Walkers when they finally find a way to get past or even bring down the Wall (episode 10, anyone?). So why not actually let the current Warden of the North know what’s going on, and ask him to order everyone northwards? I mean, you and I know that probably wouldn’t work, and even if it did Jon would be unlikely to survive to see the Bolton banner flying over Castle Black. But the fact it hasn’t even been raised gives the game away. This isn’t about saving his country from the White Walkers, whatever Jon says, it’s about saving it from Ramsay. And naturally it’s hard to blame him, given just how despicable a person we’re talking about here. Ramsay raped Jon’s sister and imprisoned his brother, and did both whilst living in Jon’s family home. Of course this is about vengeance.
But there’s a but. Jon is assembling his avenging army at the same time as telling every northerner that will listen that the White Walkers are such a serious threat the crimes of the Wildlings need to be forgiven. They too have tortured and murdered and looted and raped, but those are the crimes of the past we can no longer afford to think about. Vengeance is paramount, unless it’s somebody else’s. That vengeance must be set aside, which would presumably include that of people like the Karstarks who might want to avenge the Boltons after Jon is done with them.
Yes, there are obvious differences between forgiving the Wildlings and forgiving Ramsay. I don’t recall seeing it on-screen, but it’s entirely possible the Wildlings were let through the tunnels under the Wall only after swearing their reaving days were done. And we mustn’t forget that the vast majority of Wildlings won’t be thieves or rapists or murderers, so Jon is in large part calling for an end to petty bigotry. But if some random villager from the north arrived to tell him some random Free-Folker in his army murdered his parents a couple of years ago and wants justice, is it really plausible that Jon would risk his army dissolving by taking action? Surely not. We’ve seen that already. Did he bother to ask Olly if he recognised anyone from the raid on his village so that they could see justice? The kid stabbing him to death a season later would rather suggest not. As our heroes never got sick of explaining to him, the crimes against Olly’s family needed to be put aside for the greater good. Ramsay, though? That bastard needs to hang.
It’s a very human position to hold, I realise. And as I say, I’m not blind to the fact that Ramsay is a current threat to people in a way the Wildling raiders hopefully aren’t any more – though as Meribald reminds us, when you march an army bad things happen, and for Jon that means bad things happening to his own countrymen. But neither do I want to ignore my suspicion that much of the reason we’re on-board with both a Wildling amnesty and Jon chopping Ramsay’s head off* is that unlike the victims of the raiding parties, we’re actually deeply invested in the people Ramsay has hurt. We can’t imagine him as someone it’s possible to forgive because we’ve seen the crimes he would need forgiveness for.
Which might almost bring us back full circle to the Sandor Clegane’s reappearance (especially given the violent dog link), if there was any chance Ramsay were to ever become interested in redemption or forgiveness, or even taking a sabbatical from his sadism. Obviously that looks unlikely right now. Nobody has broken him, and he is the very opposite of tired of fighting. Hence why he isn’t in the episode, I guess; he’d ruin the theme, though the Seven know he’s done enough damage elsewhere without the show-runners apparently noticing. In any case, I suspect he’ll show up in episode 8, when we move on from soberly considering the costs of war and get back into enjoying the build-up to the top-notch action shots and swirling, bloody violence of episode 9.
Because the terrible truth is this: Ultimately, we’re not tired of the fighting either.
Reviewer: Ric Crossman
*Which seems a plausible outcome at this point. I mentioned a couple of episodes ago that the show was setting up a major battle between Jon’s forces and Ramsey’s men, with the battle liable to go very badly for Jon right up until the Vale Army arrives to hit the Boltons from behind. Nothing I’ve seen so far has changed my mind on this, and with Sansa’s letter very likely being addressed to Littlefinger, it seems a safer bet than ever. What happens next is a harder call, and will have a large effect on how I feel about this current episode going forward. Right now I am desperately unimpressed that in an episode in which three main characters go to the commanders of three armed forces and try convincing them to join the cause, it’s only Sansa whose persuasive powers fail, despite her being the only trueborn Stark in the bunch. Sansa is still being sidelined and ignored , and now she’s even being shouted down by her own brother. I have a nervous feeling the letter is going to backfire (once Ramsay is dead, what is there to stop the Vale army finishing off Jon’s pitiful little band and declaring Winterfell and the North theirs?), leaving us with a second season in a row in which Sansa throws her lot in with Littlefinger and it all goes horribly wrong. Hopefully there’s a better ending coming. I’d love it if Baelish saves the Stark loyalists, oozes up to Sansa to enjoy her gratitude, and gets himself executed by the newly-installed Lady Stark of Winterfell for crimes against her family. But this is Game of Thrones and its treatment of Sansa we’re talking about. I don’t see much point in holding my breath.
(Unlike Arya, of course. I’m horrified to even think what Braavosi canal water would do to you if you let it into your lungs. Hells, getting it in her stab wounds is concerning enough.)