Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

Game Of Thrones has a crude way of making optimism unsettling. It’d be one thing if Arya simply looked at the titans of Braavos on her last night in town. It’s another when she’s fresh off a triumphant moment, gazing with nostalgia as the happy music plays, and an old woman from It Follows calls her a sweet girl. That’s why it’s not so disturbing to watch Sansa secretly send a raven to someone who is probably Littlefinger asking for military support. It plays like it might turn out to be a very bad decision, but adversity just makes Team Stark underdogs. The most direct cause of the Red Wedding had no warning signs. Robb marrying Talisa was practically a honeymoon at Rivendell. What you really have to worry about are the unguarded happy endings, lest they turn out to actually be endings. Just ask Trystane and Myrcella.

(Photo: HBO)

With that in mind, “The Broken Man” opens on a merry construction site. People working together to build something? Ian McShane slapping backs and cracking jokes? Others cooking to sustain the camp? Uh-uh. Something’s not right. Sure enough, by the end of the episode, Septon Swearengen and his merry men are dead, their tower unfinished. The first sight of the episode is that of a blacksmith forming a nail, one small step toward completing the tower. The last is The Hound grabbing an ax and walking off to kill some people. Naturally, an episode about people trying to build armies bends from creation to destruction. The Hound was reborn to go on fighting.

It’s been a season of surprise returns, and they still get me. The Hound is re-introduced in a rare cold open, because Rory McCann is back in the opening credits, right ahead of Maisie Williams. Apparently he looked like he’d been dead for days when the septon found him. He coughed just in time not to be buried, which sounds a lot like Jon Snow to me, only this resurrection took no apparent magic. Just the more New Age magic of The Hound still having a purpose. (That said, with the Brotherhood in the region, I suppose it’s possible some red priest showed up before the septon.) In the grand scheme, it sounds awfully arbitrary. What, Ned did more good by dying? But on a personal level, there’s a lot of power here. The Hound has a second chance. It’s hard to imagine this non-denom frontier town actually mattering to the show in the long run, and it’s harder to imagine the Hound retiring there. But the character ostensibly has a choice.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

Septon Swearengen—and seriously, is this production so harried that it consistently can’t bother to name characters?—asks, “What kept you going?” The Hound answers, “hate.” He always sounds like an unrepentant bastard, but McCann and the writers give him much more dimension. He likes to seem like a formidable warrior, and he is one. But we’ve seen him scared in Sansa’s chambers and avuncular with Arya and now genuinely helpful doing mission work. Great sense of humor, too. The Hound definitely has one of the best dating profiles in Westeros.

Septon Swearengen has an origin story somewhat like the High Sparrow. But where the High Sparrow is a rich kid bored by luxury, the septon was a proverbial good soldier who found a conscience, which somewhat resonates with The Hound’s story. Now the High Sparrow’s a fundamentalist seizing power in the capital, and the septon runs a New Age feel-goodery. The High Sparrow practices in the old sept and the septon at the site of a new one. They have similar messages of redemption, but the Sparrow sees atonement through strict personal suffering, while the septon sees atonement through good works.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

That divide informs Theon’s crisis. He’s understandably moody. His sister makes light of his castration and chalks his successive hostage experiences as a few bad years. Maybe if someone would drop the bluff and be real with him, acknowledge his terrible life and his terrible actions, he could start to get back to normal. As it is, he has to be the strict one in his life. It’s almost comic when he interrupts Yara’s pep talk with more self-pity: “If I got justice my burned body would hang over the gates of Winterfell.” She’s just as quick to cut him off. “Fuck justice, then. We’ll get revenge.” She needs the old Theon back. And as the septon tells the Hound, “It’s never too late to come back.” There’s no redemption in killing yourself. But maybe he can start to make up for his crimes by helping others, in this case a would-be queen who’s in it more for herself than for all the people Euron plans to slaughter, but still. And actually that’s two would-be queens, as Yara plans to ally with Dany before Euron, which might just come to pass given the season so far. Apparently Yara’s into women, as well, so I’m definitely not wondering if Dany might be into a more revolutionary marriage than the one with fuckin’ Hizdahr. Definitely not.

Yara says, “I’m tired of watching you cower.” As good as Alfie Allen is with the twitches and fidgets, I am, too. Game Of Thrones has a respectable but frustrating commitment to striking while the iron is hot and then sidelining its breakouts. Allen was a star after season two, but he’s spent all his time since playing a brain-washed torture victim. Peter Dinklage gets a season of gracefully running King’s Landing before he’s demoted and then imprisoned. Brienne and Jaime spend just a season together before circumstance divides them. I haven’t even mentioned the seemingly major characters who only get to spend a season alive. I admire the rigor. The writers make the most of Tyrion while he’s in charge, because nothing lasts long in this world. But the casting is the best part of this show. The number one reason to watch isn’t the complicated soap opera story or the lavish production design or the magical spectacles. It’s to see Lena Headey’s drunken tirades and Natalie Dormer smiling through everything and Alfie Allen feeling forced between a rock and a hard place. It’s time to let him off the leash.

Speaking of Margaery, she finally has a chance to let on that she’s not so brain-washed. Which makes a lot more sense than the other option, but I’m still skeptical of some of the characterizations involved in the foiled rescue attempt. Nobody on the outside was in communication with Margaery and none of them even knew about Tommen? In the presence of the sparrows, Margaery reiterates that Loras’ only hope is to atone. But, looking away from the monitoring septa, Margaery’s eyes bulge to impress on her grandmother that this is the real Margaery talking now, and she tells Olenna to get the heck out of dodge while slipping her a note. Well, a symbol: A sketch of a Tyrell rose. I’m not sure what to make of it, beyond the immediate excitement of these two making real contact again. Before this scene, Margaery’s playing the good penitent, reading scripture at the old sept of her own free will. Is she just trying to get information? The High Sparrow not so subtly threatens Lady Olenna, hence Margaery’s insistence that her grandmother leave town.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

But are they really okay with cutting Loras loose? If so, that means Margaery held her brother at his lowest and decided to abandon him. If he repents, he’ll have to be stripped of his titles, which leaves Highgarden without an heir. Surely Margaery and Olenna plan to prevent that. But how? They had an army at the walls of the sept once before and did nothing. Olenna won’t even admit to Cersei that they ought to work together. Olenna’s in full retreat mode. “Our two ancient houses face collapse because of you and your stupidity… You’ve lost, Cersei. That’s the only joy I can find in this misery.” So if Margaery and Olenna are such skilled players, how is this a win? I’m very curious to look back at this story once the season is over.

“The Broken Man” isn’t structured the usual way, with 10 minutes at King’s Landing, then 10 at the Wall, and so on. Most of the plots are threaded throughout the episode, the ideas from one scene bearing on another. As Olenna refuses to fight Cersei’s war, Lord Glover refuse to fight Jon’s. Olenna, Glover, Cersei, Jon, the wildlings—all of them are grappling with the questions of whether they can fight for their cause and where they belong. Even the property dispute at Riverrun is about that. Jaime’s conversation with the Blackfish would have been quippier in earlier seasons, and it would have ended with a line about power. How can Riverrun be Frey property if the Tullys are living there as they always have? This version’s less distinct, but it gets the job done. The Blackfish tells Jaime, “As long as I’m standing, the war is not over. This is my home. I was born in this castle, and I’m ready to die in it.” Olenna’s not ready to die in King’s Landing, but Cersei doesn’t belong anywhere but King’s Landing. Hard to imagine we ever saw her in the North.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

The Winterfell attack is about putting down the Boltons and restoring order, but it sounds to Northern lords—many of whom lost loved ones in Robb’s rebellion—like Jon wants his house back. As they see it, Jon isn’t a Stark, Sansa isn’t a Stark, Davos isn’t a Stark. It reminds me of Xaro interrogating Dany’s entitlement in Qarth. The good guys may not have quite as compelling a claim as they thought. Eons of loyalty and tradition need to be sustained. Oaths eventually but up against imperatives like “we have no soldiers left to spare” and “the Boltons saved us from the Ironborn.” The way Jon puts it, even Rickon being held hostage by Ramsay doesn’t sound like a big deal. The Starks held Theon hostage, after all. This is just the way things are done. Leave it to an episode anchored by commoners to finally convey a sense of the new world order. The new lords Bolton, Umber, and Karstark and the new lady Mormont are children. They don’t yet appreciate the long histories of their houses, and they’ve been saddled with the immediate tasks of rebuilding. Jon leans on honor to rally the troops, and Sansa leans on authority, but Davos gets the practicalities that would appeal to the new generation. He also has some experience making friends with girls. He’s the one who impresses on Lady Lyanna Mormont just what a big deal this is. The true war, as he’s fond of saying, is between the living and the dead.

That’s how you amass an army. Cersei’s fighting for herself. If Olenna’s fighting, it’s for herself and her family. Yara’s fighting for herself and what she thinks of as the good of her kingdom. Davos and Jon are fighting for survival.

Stray observations

  • “The Broken Man” is written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Mark Mylod.
  • The Hound tells the septon it just took one person to cut him down. “He must have been some kind of monster.” “He was a woman.”
  • There’s another reason for the High Sparrow’s visit with Margaery. She hasn’t been sleeping with Tommen, which means he doesn’t have an heir, and there are no Baratheons left. I’d say the Sparrow seems concerned for his own position, but surely he expects to die before Tommen, right?
  • The wildling debate is the only dud of the episode, a conversation that should have happened before they left the Wall in the first place. The main point is to lay out the themes of fighting for a leader versus building a home, but we get it.
  • “The Rains Of Castamere” plays slowly as Jaime and Bronn ride to Riverrun. Meanwhile Bronn cracks a joke about the Unsullied, which means Dany’s army has a reputation in Westeros.
  • The Blackfish calls the Freys’ bluff and stands tall to Jaime. “I wanted to get the measure of you,” he tells Jaime. “I’m disappointed.” That’s what Olenna said to Tywin once upon a time.
  • “It’s never too late to come back.” Mark my words: Renly is risen.
  • The septon is yet another person who advises a character to opt out. “Violence is a disease.” He says you can’t end it by perpetuating it. The Hound says you can’t end it by dying, either. I think the Septon has the far stronger claim here, and I’d have liked to see them duke it out, philosophically. Instead the septon died and The Hound is off to perpetuate violence. Call it a draw.
  • It’s now been six episodes since Ellaria conquered Dorne for no reason, and you’re watching Nightline.
  • I’m not saying Yara and/or Ellaria, whoever gets there first, owes it to Loras to rescue him if his family won’t. But, like, it would be nice.
  • To take Dany-Yara seriously for a second, the problem is no heirs. I don’t know how to settle that from a property perspective. Maybe they can adopt. But I’ve been wondering this whole time how restoring the old Targaryen monarchy makes for a satisfying ending. I wonder if King’s Landing might not develop kingsmoot-like elections. In a way that seems way too progressive for this world, but I can’t imagine, after all this, ending the series with a Targaryen on the throne and a Lannister Hand and a Stark in Winterfell. There’s got to be some revolution in government, right?
  • The Arya sequence is a blast except for how it makes her an idiot. She should know better than us that Jaqen said her face would be on the wall if Lady Crane’s wasn’t, and she should know better than us that the Faceless Men could be anyone. That’s the point of that long, creepy walk through the city street, suspicious of all the commoners but in desperate need of help from someone. That said, the stabbing, the fight, the roll off the bridge and into the river was a total thrill. No way is she dying, but a thrill nonetheless.
  • R.I.P. The septon. Game Of Thrones is great with commoners, except for the fact that it kills them off just after introducing them.
  • Welcome back: The Brotherhood Without Banners, who severely disillusioned me this week, and, The Hound, who didn’t.

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