Game of Thrones: All in the Family

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Blood of My Blood,” the sixth episode of the sixth season.


Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Christopher Orr: The title of tonight’s episode was “Blood of My Blood,” and rarely has a title been more apt. The phrase is Dothraki—Quoy quoyi—and it’s a term of address between a khal and his (or, as of tonight, her) bloodriders. So it most literally related to Daenerys’s announcement that she wanted not the customary three bloodriders, but an entire khalasar’s worth, to help her pry Westeros from those men in iron suits hiding in their stone houses.

But blood ties—and, in particular, family reunions—drove almost every element of the episode. Moments before giving her speech, for instance, Daenerys was rejoined by her erstwhile stray puppy Drogon, who, judging from his growth, spent the first half of the season eating half of Essos.

Rewinding to the start of the episode, we opened with Meera and Bran on the run in the icy woods north of the Wall. Almost as soon as one could say, “Umm, what happened to that zombie army that was hot on their tails?” said army in fact showed up. (Before it did, though, Bran had some interesting historical flashbacks, including a nice vision of the wildfire-obsessed Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, who reportedly continued to yell “burn them all” even after he was impaled by his own kingsguard, one Jaime Lannister.) In any case, as the ghouls converged on Meera and Bran, who should appear but a man on a horse with a flaming morningstar who whomped himself some undead before rescuing them.

The whomper in question was—of course—Benjen Stark, younger brother of Ned and former First Ranger of the Night’s Watch, who disappeared above the Wall all the way back in season one and whose return Thronesiacs have been anticipating ever since. Bran was certainly glad to see his uncle, but Benjen’s news that Bran has to master his new Three-Eyed-Crow powers in time for a mano a mano with the Night King is pretty much the definition of familial pressure. At least he gave the boy a big ol’ cup of rabbit’s blood to fortify him.

From there, we traveled to Horn Hill, the seat of House Tarly down south in the Reach, for a decidedly less-happy family reunion. We’ve heard plenty about Samwell’s dad Randyll—brilliant military commander, toxic garbage fire as a dad—but this was our first meeting with him. Suffice to say that he lived up to his reputation, at least on the latter score. It was a nice reversal when Sam, on the verge of leaving Gilly and Little Sam with this paternal nightmare, instead came back for them—and for the family’s ancestral Valyrian-steel sword, Heartsbane. As noted, there are only a handful of these swords in all of Westeros, and while Sam may be an unlikely wielder of one, it suggests that he might be using its White-Walker-wiping-out powers at some point in the future.

Then, on to King’s Landing, where Mace Tyrell led an army to save his daughter Margaery from the shame of a Walk of Atonement. I don’t know what you all think, but I’m a tad brokenhearted about the state of the King’s Landing plot these days. For years, it was money in the bank that any scene in the capital would be a good one. But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have really lost the thread the last two seasons. Part of the problem is that so many of the most interesting characters in King’s Landing are now dead (Tywin) or scattered (Tyrion, Littlefinger, Varys). But the ascent of the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant has been sloppy and abrupt from the beginning and continues to be so. For starters, why didn’t the Tyrells bring their army when Margaery and her brother Loras were first imprisoned? Why didn’t the Lannisters do the same for Cersei?

Tonight we had the nonsensical spectacle of the High Sparrow preparing Margaery for her Walk of Atonement (a small thing: but why didn’t she have to cut her hair?) and declaring his pleasure to die as a martyr to principle—only to immediately reverse himself and say, no, just kidding, nobody has to die, we’ve actually formed a secret alliance with Margaery and Tommen. There are some interesting elements here—notably that Margaery’s conversion is clearly a calculated one, presumably premised on the idea that a Crown-Faith partnership will make her (and her infinitely pliable husband Tommen) more powerful. But as with everything regarding the Faith Militant, it all seemed rushed: two scenes of Timid Tommen listening to the Sparrow’s song, and suddenly the entire balance of power in King’s Landing has shifted. Also: We’re six episodes in and Cersei still hasn’t had her trial by combat? The Westerosian wheels of justice are turning awfully slowly, and I doubt that, in the end, they will grind particularly fine.

We revisited the Twins for the first time in a long while, where Walder Frey berated two of his innumerable progeny for allowing the Blackfish to retake Riverrun, the house of his former liege lords the Tullys. When the unhappy pair reported that they don’t have enough troops for a frontal assault (the Mallisters and Blackwoods are both rebelling), he too played the family card, pulling the Blackfish's nephew, Edmure Tully, from the dungeons as a bargaining chip. (Poor Tobias Menzies, who plays the ineffectual Edmure. He just can’t catch a break role-wise: Brutus in Rome, nasty “Black Jack” Randall in Outlander, corrupt Geoffrey Dromgoole in The Night Manager … )

Just about the only plotline in tonight’s episode that didn’t directly reference family was Arya’s. After again watching the play about Westerosian history whose lead actress she’s supposed to be assassinating—last time we saw the Ned Beheading scene; this time we got the Purple Wedding—she decided that she didn’t want to murder her target after all. That’s the problem with being an acolyte of the Faceless Men: They don’t want you to kill the people you want to kill (viz. Ser Meryn Trant) and they do want you to kill the people you don’t (Lady Crane). Arya seems to realize she’s blown it for good this time—Jaqen H’ghar did warn her that “A girl has been given a second chance. There will not be a third”—and she unearths Needle as an insurance policy. Still, I suspect that if I were her I’d hit the road immediately rather than go back to my bunk at the House of the Black and White. They are the world’s greatest assassins, after all. I’m not sure you want to make it that easy on them.

An aside: I was among the many people who didn’t catch Richard E. Grant’s brief turn as the lead theater actor in last week’s episode. (Yes, I’m ashamed.) But tonight he was impossible to miss: Richard E. Grant as fake-Tywin! Sometimes the gods are good. That said, I think his perfect role on the show would have been as a young Walder Frey. But I suppose you can’t have everything.

In all, I thought this was the third episode in a row that felt as though it was really driving the plot forward in a satisfying way. (Dany is actually talking about returning to Westeros!) Of course the price of this momentum may be some of the awkward and/or abrupt plotting we’ve seen more of lately: the Kingsmoot last week, the sudden Crown-Faith alliance this week, etc. What do you two think? Is the plot moving too fast? Too slow? Just right? Or some combination of the three?

Spencer Kornhaber: It’s venison feast or North-of-the-Wall famine when it comes to the amount of plot action in any given Thrones episode this year, and I’m not going to complain about the chance to gorge. Tonight's installment offered a few fun twists, staged the reappearance of a number of long-neglected figures, and gave some main characters opportunities to reaffirm the things that make them compelling in the first place. Too much good stuff? Well, we happen to be at a point where multiple characters are choosing to take big risks, and that’s exciting. The real glory/agony of the show has always been in watching such risks pay off—or, splat, not.

Perhaps some viewer pulled an Arya—a.k.a. raised their “wonderful eyebrows”—at the notion that Benjen just happened to be the only known Night’s Watch member blessed with an extra life by the Children. But watching Thrones these days means making peace with the thought of the Starks as touched by destiny. Sure, the most obvious would-be heroes of the family have met horrible deaths, as we were reminded when Walder Frey revealed that it’s not just the internet that refers to his ambush as the Red Wedding. But the universe has clearly taken a direct role in leading Bran down the path to becoming the realm’s top fortune-teller. Why wouldn’t the universe also provide, at exactly the right moment, a long-lost uncle to help with zombies, campfires, and exposition?

Through Thrones frequently subverts fiction tropes, the show has lately flirted hard with the idea underlying many Chosen One narratives—the idea that heritage matters in ways that go beyond culture and wealth. Daenerys’s claim to the Iron Throne is rooted in the same physical DNA that allows her to summon a dragon when she needs to hold a pep rally. Fans want to find out if R+L=J and A+J=T (if you don’t yet know what those equations mean, maybe try to maintain that innocence) because of a belief that this is a world whose saviors will be determined by paternity. The fates of Hodor, Osha, and other figures from humble backgrounds (run away, Gilly!) creates the uncomfortable impression that Highborn folk really are more special than commonfolk on Thrones. But the show also provides insights about why this idea of hierarchy by heritage appeals to people at all. In a chaotic world, something as unchangeable as a bloodline can feel like a reassuring guidepost—even when it’s illusory.

Take, for example, Cersei, who invoked the historical mercilessness of the Lannisters when—non sequitur?—encouraging Jaime to perform the errand that Tommen gave him. I’d wager that viewers, too, are hoping Tywin’s children reclaim their reputation for ruthlessness. The Faith Militant plot line has indeed been clumsy, but the scene where Jaime and the Tyrell army confronted the High Sparrow was excellently expectation-defying: For once, the audience was made to root for bloodshed—and then feel whiplash when peace broke out. Is it possible that the realm, at this point in time, might be well served by Tommen's alliance of church and state? If Cersei or Jaime were willing to fake piety like Margaery seems to be doing, they could perhaps secure some status for themselves. But instead, Cersei’s rage burns so hot that Arya seemed to feel it a continent away tonight.

Arya also felt the flickering flame of her own heritage, or at least her identity, filtered through a slapstick stage performance and Lady Crane’s grimy mirror. Fans of the feisty, questing version of Arya—which is to say, all Thrones fans—have long waited for her to do something like she did tonight when she aborted her assassination mission. Yet given that vows on this show are usually only broken with deadly consequence, it’s hard to say she’s made a wise decision: You don’t bet against the House of Black and White. Then again, Jaqen’s threat to her in the previous episode was worded with typical vagueness: “One way or another, a face will be added to the hall.” Could that face be the Waif’s, extracted by Needle?

The other reclaimed family-affiliated weapon of the night, Heartsbane, must represent for Sam the pure essence of his family identity—not the spiteful interpretation of that identity represented by his father. But absconding with this particular heirloom seems reckless: Randyll, who’s already threatened his son’s life, is not going to react well when he wakes up to an empty fireplace mantle. Sam gave a macho line to Gilly’s concerns about that fact, but the truth would seem to be that he has chosen to endanger the family he’s created by messing with the family he was born into. Lenika, do you feel as nervous about our wannabe Maester’s escape as I do?

Lenika Cruz: I, for one, am hoping Lord Randyll’s love for his wife’s happiness will end up exceeding his hatred for his son, since I imagine stealing the family’s 500-year-old prize weapon must be an offense that ranks even higher than becoming a maester and having a child with a wildling girl out of wedlock. The Horn Hill scenes were appropriately tense: I admired Gilly’s grace under pressure—a.k.a. tolerating dinner with a surly old man with an aggressive regard for traditional masculinity—and her shrug-emoji reaction as she was unmasked and humiliated. Her parting words to Sam before he almost left for the Citadel—“You’re not what he thinks you are, Sam. He doesn’t know what you are”—were echoed in a few other storylines that dealt with characters coming to terms with their true selves.

For his part, Sam very quickly realized he wasn’t the kind of man who could abandon his girlfriend and adopted son, however noble his intentions. Gilly realized even more quickly that shuffling around in a fitted southern dress wasn’t for her. For Arya, the question of identity was addressed directly by Lady Crane, who asked her, “Do you like pretending to be other people?” I cheered when Arya finally shed her layers of identity—as “Mercy,” as a servant of the Many-Faced God—and retrieved Needle from its hiding spot, reclaiming her name after what felt like years of failed self-reprogramming. It’s been the great irony of Arya’s storyline that she must prove her ability to be no one via her aptitude for being anyone. Ultimately, her true achievement has been the recognition that she could only be, and has only ever been, herself. (Side note: The Waif seems to nurse a very personal grudge against Arya that must conflict with the Faceless Men’s dictum of nobodiness—she looked way too pleased at the prospect of offing Arya.)

In King’s Landing, too, Margaery made a big deal about discovering her “true” self. “It’s not an easy thing to admit to yourself what you really are,” she told Tommen, after noting that the High Sparrow isn’t “quite what we thought he was before.” I don’t buy for a second her overnight conversion into a believer, but it’d still be surprising if anyone came away from this scene absolutely certain of her motivations. I’m suspicious about the idea that she’d form such a hasty alliance with a dangerous religious faction right after a similar attempt backfired on Cersei. Though, I suppose that mastering the same situation that spun out of her mother-in-law’s control makes for pretty good revenge!

If it’s all just an elaborate play for power, then Margaery’s as good an actress as Lady Crane: Her “I’ve had lots of time to think about how good I was about seeming good” line felt so brutally self-aware. To answer your question about Margaery keeping her hair long, Chris, I assumed it was because she was never actually going to make her Walk of Atonement, though I’m still fuzzy on the other details of the Tyrell-Lannister plan. Like you, I still occasionally yearn for the crazy King’s Landing machinations of yore, but I’m somewhat intrigued by this new direction the capital is heading in—it’s still better than everyone languishing on dungeon floors and quoting scripture. Two nice touches this episode: Jaime looking awkward in his Baratheon armor after the Kingsguard marched out with their armor, which featured a seven-pointed star overlaid with a crown, and the ever-useless Mace Tyrell looking the epitome of silly with his ridiculous, pompous plumage.

There are a few varieties of high-level pretenders in other storylines: the false Warden of the North, Ramsay Bolton; the self-proclaimed heir to the Salt Throne, Yara Greyjoy, now en route to Essos with her uncle’s fleet (not quite 1,000 ships, I think); Walder Frey, the purported Lord of Riverrun. At long last, Daenerys Targaeryen has returned to sketching a loose plan to venture west and conquer them all, at the precise moment that the White Walkers and the army of the dead are scurrying south. I’m nervous about what Bran’s flashbacks about her father and the vats of dragonfire could mean for the show’s mythology, but also excited by the way Game of Thrones has accelerated its pace the last few episodes, revealing major plot points and lining up all the dominoes for the inevitable tumble. If chaos is indeed a ladder, it’s been nice to see the show continuing with its steep ascent.