Warning: major Game of Thrones spoilers below.
This is a strange one. A rather more slippery fish than the Blackfish turned out to be, until the end. In one sense, this is a natural follow-up to “The Broken Man”, containing and expanding upon many of last episode’s themes and ideas. But it’s also an obvious dead-end, pressed against one side of an unscalable wall of brick (or ice) with “The Battle of the Bastards” on the other.
Admittedly, how true that is depends on how much “The Battle of the Bastards” will prove to be what I think it will, which is Game of Thrones‘ third biennial episode-long slaughterthon. I could be wrong on that, obviously, like I was when I predicted Ramsay would be in this episode to remind us of the stakes involved in the aforementioned struggle for the North. But at the risk of seeming a sore loser, it’s precisely this decision to leave him out, along with Jon and Sansa, that demonstrates just how odd “No One” is. If you’re going to use almost an entire season to build up to a single action set-piece, what could possibly possess you to not lead into that set-piece with at least some reminder of the state of play? “The Prince of Winterfell” checks in both on an increasingly nervous Tyrion and an increasingly paranoid Cersei, plus Stannis’ fleet just as he names Davos his Hand. “The Mountain and the Viper” finds time to visit Molestown during its fall to the Wildlings, and then segues to Sam at Castle Black as a reminder of where the Wildlings are headed and what will happen should the Night’s Watch not hold the line.
Your follow through is only as satisfying as your setup lets it be. So why did we get nothing this time?
We can approach this as a riddle. The benefits to at least nodding towards the brewing brawl outside Winterfell are so obvious that we can simply take for granted that the show-runners must have had a strong reason to not actually do it. What might that reason look like? The best one I can see is that it would undermine all the work put into making this episode echo the last one. “The Broken Man” was all about how five and a half seasons of near constant fighting had pushed almost everyone to the brink of exhaustion. “No One” picks this theme up and further molds it into a consideration of the limitations of violence.
Which might sound like an odd thing to say about a Game of Thrones episode. In terms of its vices, this show’s obsession with killings is second only to its addiction to tits. And indeed I suspect that musing on whether bloodshed is a reliable solution is a rather futile exercise in the wake of the incoming crowd-pleasing tornado of viscera – much like the show constantly undermines its own progress with regard to gender politics, in fact. I mean, I’m sure someone at some point next week will look all sad and pensive as they stare out over the fields of frozen dead and wonder Was It All Worth It, but we’re smart people. We know enabling when we see it.
Let’s leave that aside for the moment, though, and consider whether the episode can succeed on its own terms. There certainly seems to be a running theme here of violence and killing being pointless, or at least problematic. A lifetime dedication to violence gets the Waif killed, for instance. Many of those here are attempting to avoid violence from breaking out in the first place. Jaime and Brienne both try to prevent any loss of life at Riverrun. I don’t think Jaime is actually bluffing about his horrific plan for Edmure’s baby – the dude has form with chucking kids through the air to guarantee continued access to Cersei’s “royal apartments”, and he made his point about follow through on threats pretty clear last time – but neither do I believe he’s anything but desperate for Edmure to capitulate. Bronn might slap Podrick here, but he does it in the service of ensuring Pod doesn’t get hit in the future. Even Grey Worm counsels against the Unsullied engaging in a battle he knows they cannot win, assuming he wasn’t deploying his wonderful wit again (I’ve forgiven the previous Missandei-Grey Worm-Tyrion scene entirely for its stilted awfulness, because of what it brought us here). Lady Crane talks about her man-holing days in the past tense, suggesting she has left violence behind, with all that remains of it the healing skills her youthful stabbings necessitated. Well, I guess she’s messed up Bianca’s face pretty recently, but note this isn’t something we actually see.
This is a recurring approach here. When fisticuffs actually do break out, the camera can’t move away fast enough. Brynden Tully and Lady Crane die off-screen. So too does the Waif, which is much more surprising. The rivalry between her and Arya predates this season, and formed a major part of the Braavos story-line this year, to the point where I became pretty tired of the whistling of quarterstaffs. And yet, despite this episode including the long-anticipated showdown between these most femmes of fatale – despite it being named after both combatants, for the Stranger’s sake – the title bout between The No One Formerly Known As Arya Stark and Terminator… Six, maybe?(I’ve lost count), the actual final round is bypassed almost entirely. Turns out, it’s important to realise that Arya has led her pursuer into into a trap that relied upon her quarry’s overconfidence, but it’s much less important to see the deathblow. That’s simply what happens. Do the deed in the dark and move on.
I’m sure by now many of you are yelling “Shut up Ric what about the Clegane brothers huh?” at your screens. And yes, Captain Shouty-Pants, the Mountain and the Hound both get to engage in some casual ultra-violence here. They’re the limit case of the idea this is about a turn away from violence. Context is key, though. We’ll come back to Sandor later, but let’s start with the elder sibling. Yes, obviously, the death of that poor, foolhardy Sparrow certainly didn’t lack for grimness. Again though, most of it was out of shot. The camera lingered longer on the blood dripping into the drains than it did on the involuntary headectomy. Compared to the horrific brutality slapped across the screen when the Mountain dispatched Oberyn Martell, this was positively understated.
Besides, this murder-by-Mountain is just a small part of a larger plot-line centered on Cersei. When she announces “I choose violence”, she isn’t just talking about a throw-down with some Sparrow Redshirts (which I guess are robins? I BRING THE MAXIMUM COMEDY YOU GUYS). It’s a much more general approach for her these days. And it didn’t used to be. Remember how Cersei used to do business, back in season 1? She didn’t choose violence then. She actually berated Jaime for trying to kill Bran, despite her certainly having no other suggestions at the time. Her plan to do away with her husband was to just get him so drunk he got himself killed. She offered Ned Stark terms twice to try and avoid his death. That wasn’t out of charity, obviously, but the point remains; Cersei tended to not choose violence, even when she chose assassination.
Those days are done, though. Cersei’s blood-thirst has been building at the same rate as her drinking problem (red wine, natch). The ghost of her dead husband lives on in her, which is a hell of an irony. With the Mountain as her right-hand zombie, the threat of violence goes wherever she does, and as we learn here, that threat is very far from idle. It’s also what Cersei is relying upon. Insisting on a trial by combat to clear her name in the eyes of the Seven is, quite obviously, choosing violence. Not to mention sending Clegane out into the city on missions to murder smallfolk who are badmouthing her.
As I’ve said before, though, when your only tool is violence you render yourself helpless whenever you encounter a problem you can’t kill your way out of. We’re reminded of this when Unkindly Uncle Kevan humiliates Cersei in front of the entire court, Her options are to swallow it, or to have the King’s great uncle dismembered in public. Stalking away in disgrace is her only real option.
And that’s just the appetiser. The main course is swift in coming, following a round of grace: no more trials by combat. And just like that, Cersei’s only route out of all this collapses. Violence has its limitations. She has only herself to blame here, really. When you’ve only dug one escape tunnel, you probably shouldn’t signpost it quite so much.
(Tommen’s speech is absolutely right about trial by combat, by the way, even if it was written by a fanatic and delivered to sell out his own mother. The practice is obviously fantastically corrupt; just a way for the more powerful party to hire the better killer and thereby wash away their sins in someone else’s blood. It’s so nakedly weighted in favour of money that I’m astonished it ever had the buy-in it did. You’d have hoped the Brotherhood Without Banners at the very least would have seen through it all. But then I guess there’s still people who insist relaxing campaign finance laws to the point only millionaires have any real chance of rising to national political office has strengthened America’s commitment to free speech. We’ve never fully left behind the idea that if you have power, it must be because you deserve it.
All that said though, while casting trial by combat into the Blackwater is unquestionably the right move, I’m vastly less happy with the idea of replacing it with trial by fanatical white men. Like so many social reformers, Tommen’s diagnosis is spot on, but his prescriptive skills are diabolical.)
We can’t fully discuss Cersei’s application of violence without talking about Jaime, though. At least part of the reason Cersei never used to concern herself with killing is because she could always rely on her twin to do it for her. Sure, she berates him after he pushes Bran from a tower window, but all that she says at the time was “He saw us!”. Here is the problem, dear brother, now make sure you deal with it. Much of Cersei’s story involves how Jaime’s long imprisonment and subsequent mutilation forces her out of the partnership both of them had relied upon. Even when he returns, the former status quo can’t be restored. She’s simply changed too much.
As has he, of course. We saw that at Riverrun in “The Broken Man”. Which is where this episode falls apart, really. There’s no beat here not heard before. Jaime’s move away from violence was a focus of the previous episode. His confessions to Edmure have the ring of familiarity too, to the point where Jaime even references the last time he admitted his love for Cersei to a child of Hoster Tully. With the investiture of Riverrun wrapped up without anything even approaching a surprise – save the Blackfish’s death, which just makes me wonder why they bothered taking Clive Russell’s number from the Rolodex in the first place – Jaime’s time at the Trident feels like a shaggy-dog effort at marking time for him and Bronn, their second in a row after the Dorne debacle. And whilst this particular plot at least avoids much of last year’s wretched sexism (though how utterly without self awareness do you have to be to resurrect the idea of Pod’s Cockamatic 9000?), it ends up feeling even less satisfactory than Dorne did if only because we’ve been here before.
Even Brienne’s arrival can’t save things. Her scene with Jaime is predictably excellent – Christie and Coster-Waldau have lost not an ounce of chemistry – but it reminds us that, like Jaime, Brienne is also spinning her wheels here, having had very little to do since saving Sansa in the season opener. For her too, this is the second season in a row where she has been kept occupied rather than made use of. “This week, Brienne stares at a window”. “This week, Brienne gives someone a letter, but no-one cares”. This is particularly galling since the failure of Brienne’s mission is brought about by some astonishingly awful plotting and dialogue. Brynden Tully’s explanation as to why he’s throwing his life away rather than helping his great-niece is quite shockingly weak. You can both serve her together, dude. I suppose deciding you’d rather die in your own castle than make a long journey north into a new war ties into the idea we’ve talked about of an entire continent exhausted after years of fighting. Again though, we talked about this last week. It would have been nice to move on.
Obviously, there is still time for at least a little effort at triage. Not next episode, given the likelihood of us not straying from Winterfell – indeed I’m more than a little worried Brienne’s presence here is simply to ensure that she can’t be with Sansa when the cavalry charges start thundering. But perhaps in the finale, Brienne might get a significant moment to match killing Stannis Baratheon, and Jaime will have the chance to experience something as life-changing as, um, watching his only daughter die. Yeah, let’s hope not. Though if this season’s flashback to the Mad King and Cersei’s order to Qyburn about sniffing out rumours bear the flammable fruit they might, it’s possible Jaime will come home to another crazed despot who needs to be stabbed in the back before they can “burn them all”. Something to think about.
Alternatively, one or both of Brienne and Jaime could run into trouble with the newly-returned Brotherhood. Which finally brings us to Sandor Clegane’s quest for justice. At first this does seem like the episode’s one major break from the idea that violence is better avoided. Certainly the camera seems all too willing to revel in Clegane’s blood-thirst as he hacks his way through his four victims, which is uncharacteristic for what happens elsewhere in “No One”. Maybe the idea was that the sheer ugliness of the Hound’s attack would further demonstrate how pointless the whole activity was. He gets no information from those he kills, after all, and when he finally tracks down his quarry it’s to find they’re about to be executed anyway. After inverting the Retired Gunslinger trope last episode by giving us full access to the standard “mysterious past” such characters usually have left as vague as possible, it’s knocked sideways again here by having his quest for vengeance rendered hollow. No, more than hollow; hollow suggests a success that ultimately produces nothing positive. This is simple negation. Had the Hound never reached for his axe, the only difference would have been the boot-print on two out of three pieces of wood. Clegane’s acts of violence here made the least difference of all.
Except that isn’t true, is it? It made no difference to how three murderers met their end, but it certainly made a great deal of difference to those four men sitting in a wood. Which is a problem for me, and the final blow against the idea that this coherently functions as an episode against violence. Those poor schlubs, far more than the characters played by Maisie Williams and Faye Marsay, are the true “no ones” here. It bothers me a great deal that Dondarrion recruits the Hound for a war against the White Walkers without anyone bringing up that the force they’ll be taking north used to have four more men, and does anyone know where they’ve gone? We don’t even know whether the quartet helped out the yellow-cloaked killer or helped catch him. They’re just props, good for tearing up to make noise and then casually discarded, because how cool would it be if the Hound took on a horde of zombies (“You can only kill them with fire, Clegane!” “F*** off, you black-cloaked ****!”)? It’s just one more reminder that even when this show is trying to argue violence isn’t a solution, it can’t do that without solving problems – in this case of plot structure – without using violence itself. Just as with its occasional nods to its gender problems, Game of Thrones is too caught up in the thrill of exploiting violence to muster a serious critique of it. And so we hit the brick wall between this episode and next full-force. The mission to avoid violence was a failure. Why not just accept that? Why not just enjoy it?
Yes! It’s time to put the scruples aside! It’s time for the Biggest Big Battle Of Battling Big yet! A grand scrap so big they’ve put the word “battle” in the title! That’s so exciting! They didn’t even do that with the episode featuring literally nothing but the Battle of the Blackwater. You know, back when the show was still pretending there’s more to a war than lots of men yelling until someone kills them. The Battle of Hardhome didn’t get fully name-checked either, as though a settlement has any value when it’s not being attacked by killer hordes. Seven Hells, the Battle of Castle Black just got some namby-pamby title dimly alluding to the people forming the defence. YAWN!
Pah! There’s no time for such subtlety now. This is WAR! War has BATTLES! Big battles like the biggest battle of battles, The Battle of the Bastards! Now that’s a big battling battle of bigness that needs to be named as such in an episode.
Besides, take out the reference to violence and all you’d have would be “The Bastards”. Which might give the Thrones‘ game away a little too much.
Reviewer: Ric Crossman