Game of Thrones: Trial Without Combat

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “No One,” the eighth 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.

Spencer Kornhaber: “I choose violence” has been the headline quote in Game of Thrones teasers for months now. Tonight, Cersei Lannister finally spoke those words within the show’s narrative—but it still turned out to be a tease. The episode repeatedly toyed with characters’ and audience members’ expectations for carnage, with the most memorable scenes made up of dialogue, surrenders, and Meereenese comedy slams.

Just take a tally of aborted or strangely muted fights that took place. Arya’s climactic duel with the Waif happened off-screen. The Hound only took compromised vengeance against the men who massacred his friends. Jaime’s siege of Riverrun ended peacefully, save for the slaying of the Blackfish—which, again, happened off-screen. A battle for Meereen commenced, but barely. And Tommen thwarted Cersei’s big plans to resolve her predicaments via combat, except for when it came to that poor missionary in the Red Keep courtyard.

Perhaps these relatively unwarlike developments made for a necessary pendulum backswing after the previous episode’s pacifist massacre. But tonight’s series of unspectacular confrontations sometimes just felt like stalling or shoddy plotting. The hour had its twists, but, frustratingly, they resulted from circumstances the viewers have never had a chance to fully understand.

The episode opened with Lady Crane giving Tonys-worthy treatment to the same feelings that Lena Headey has earned Emmy nominations for portraying. The motif of mothers’ fierce loyalty to their kids would recur through the night, including when Crane took in the wounded Arya as if she were her own child. Their fleeting moments of bonding were poignant, but much like Tyrion’s later talk of starting a vineyard, the wandering Stark’s professed goal of seeing the West side of Westeros made me nervous: Thrones isn’t a show where people get to imagine happy endings long before dying.

It turned out, though, that the terrifying assassins guild Arya had offended wasn’t actually all that terrifying. Recently, wild theories that have flown around the internet regarding the House of Black and White plotline in part because it seems hard to believe that the Waif is really as reckless as she seems on screen. Yet tonight’s episode kept her raging-incompetent routine going, with the nameless assassin gloating like a Bond villain upon thwacking Arya’s hostess (which, bafflingly, happened only after Arya awoke from a drugged sleep). The Waif then let herself be lured into her target’s lair, where she was promptly defaced.

It’s possible the aforementioned wild theories (investigate at your risk) could explain how Arya was allowed to get into the temple’s inner sanctum and threaten Jaqen H’ghar, a man who until now has seemed the most unthreatenable person in the realm. But it’s also possible showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are simply ripping this portion of Arya’s story from the kind of airport-paperback thriller George R.R. Martin likes to subvert. Viewers have no choice but to view the latest happenings in Braavos with some bewilderment—the information needed to make what’s happened fully comprehensible just isn’t there.

Meereen is also feeling a bit blurry lately. Tonight’s episode told us that the Lord of Light’s minions had unified the city, with little rationale given for “why”—was there not a religion there before? We also saw that the slavers had strongly declined the deal Tyrion offered them, sans any mention of forewarning—what were Varys’s little birds doing before he left? The most charitable interpretation of this latest development imagines Tyrion as an audience surrogate, blindly holding to certain modern-seeming ideals in a land ruled by very different values. At least now that the slavers have laid siege, Tyrion might not have to justify his seven-years-of-slavery compromise to Daenerys, who typically abhors compromise on the issue of slavery.

In King’s Landing, another main character’s confusion was also the audience’s confusion. Cersei by now is so isolated in the capital’s political scene that she was caught unawares by her son’s pronouncement that she stand for non-combat trial. Why have the machinations in King’s Landing, once the source of so much fabulous intrigue, been obscured from viewers? Probably for suspense’s sake. It’s clear that Margaery and the High Sparrow’s grand plan may involve the elimination of the Queen Regent; it’s not clear whether they realize how hard it is to kill the Franken-Mountain, regardless of whether he’s legally allowed to crack skulls. Another mystery is the rumor Cersei and Qyburn discussed. What’s it about: a High Sparrow abuse scandal? A secret Wildfire supply? Hillary Clinton’s VP pick?

The developments in Riverrun also were built on viewers’ ignorance. Before this episode, there was little reason to suspect that rank-and-file Tully troops would rank or file Edmure above the Blackfish to the point of giving up the castle. In retrospect, it does make some sense that the prospect of slowly starving over two years to lose some war that’s long been finished would give the average man incentive to let down the drawbridge. And Jaime’s confrontation with Edmure—about serving Cersei above all else—was crucial in that it underscored how personal desires, not abstract duty, motivate many of the realm’s most passionate people (though not in all cases: “Lots of horrible shit in this world gets done for something larger than ourselves,” the Hound said, with chilling relevance).

For the first time in quite a while, the audience is reminded of why Jaime’s such a compelling character. Really, he might be the perfect Thrones hero: morally compromised, willing to do anything, yet still striving to survive a brutal system without needlessly perpetuating more brutality. He threatened to murder an entire house—but in doing so, he ended up reducing the body count to one old man holding fast to a lost cause. (And even then, who knows? The Blackfish might be swimming down that waterway below Brienne.)

What did you two think of the night? Got any jokes for Grey Worm? Appreciate the Hound’s chickens callback? Interested in investing in Tyrion’s winery?

Lenika Cruz: I, for one, wouldn’t mind having an open bottle of Imp’s Delight on hand when the epic Battle of Winterfell arrives next week. As much as I admired individual scenes in “No One” (the Riverrun exchanges stand out), I came away with a similar kind of lowkey dissatisfaction with the pacing and setup of this episode. There were times I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d missed something, that I wasn’t reading between the lines closely enough, with the Arya subplot being the best example of this.

“A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.” Arya’s terrific final line from this episode was a long time coming, and the thrill of hearing it was almost enough to abate my confusion with her arc. I try not to dwell too much on the smaller logical flaws of the show, but I’ll admit feeling disoriented by her relatively easy return from the brink of apparent death. Her thread raised so many questions (did Arya really set the whole thing up to kill the Waif? how did she heal so quickly? why did the Waif fail so miserably at her mission a second time? why were two Faceless Men trainees running around in full sight of Braavos, in their own faces, trying to kill one other?), but the burden was placed disproportionately on the audience to supply the answers. I have my own shaky explanations that will have to do, especially if the show isn’t planning to fill in the gaps, or if this is the last we’ll see of Arya until next year.

Tonight saw the death of a number of theories, and the resurrection of a couple more, including the wildfire rumors. There will probably be no epic showdown between the Hound and Zombie-Mountain. It seems nothing Durden-esque was afoot in Braavos. And, in all likelihood, a certain undead character won’t return to carry out a campaign of vengeance in the Riverlands. Though I spend an embarrassing chunk of time every week donning the tinfoil to entertain the wild and beautiful hypotheses floating around the internet, I’m also more than happy to be surprised. Especially now that Game of Thrones has gone off-book, speculation and theory-building have become such a major part of the weekly show discussion, almost supplanting the conversation about what’s actually unfolding onscreen. And yet when it came to Arya, the wild theories only underscored for me how empty the text itself can sometimes seem compared to the imaginative subtext fans regularly dream up.

With the possibility of Cleganebowl now squashed (viewers have probably seen enough trials by combat to last a lifetime), the Hound’s future is even more uncertain. All signs point to Sandor joining the Brotherhood Without Banners through the end of the season and continuing his messy arc toward redemption. Though he stormed into the episode in a fit of righteous and bloody rage, the Hound is clearly still committed to leaving his old self behind, much like Arya was when she arrived at the House of Black and White. Though they follow the Lord of Light, not the Faith of the Seven, both Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr used the same kind of rhetoric Brother Ray did last week: “You can still help more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” “We are part of something larger than ourselves.”

The trend of late has been toward the show’s misfits “joining” (a word Clegane spit with disdain) or rejoining larger causes. Tyrion, Theon, Sansa, Ramsay, Brienne, and their ilk have all managed to build or ally themselves with some powerful movement, so it’s not surprising to see the Hound recognize his need for both purpose and the stability of a community. For all the internal disconnect with the storylines (which you outlined thoroughly, Spencer), the overall direction of the show is starting to make more sense. As we’ve been reminded for a while now, everyone must pick a side; there’s no room for “no ones” anymore.

In Meereen, we were reunited with the woman who can make a joiner out of anyone, perhaps thanks less to her principles than her might (a.k.a. dragons and unburnability). In Riverrun, we saw the Blackfish, Brienne, and Jaime all have their allegiances to their respective causes tested and ultimately reaffirmed. Tommen, the once hapless king, might be a puppet of the Sparrows and Margaery, but he too has found new power by choosing to join the fray rather sulking in his chambers. In all likelihood, Arya, bereft of her old community, will find meaning if not safety back home in Winterfell—if her siblings manage to retake it by the time she crosses the Narrow Sea. And assuming the Dragon Queen herself finds Yara’s transportation offer amenable, all the major storylines in Essos will have finally shifted west—with roughly two seasons left in the series to bring the focus to the war between the living and the dead.

Chris, how is the chessboard lining up for you this season, with just two episodes left?

Christopher Orr: Like Spencer, I was struck by Sandor Clegane’s reply to Beric Dondarrion: “Lots of horrible shit in this world gets done for something ‘larger than ourselves.’ ” That could serve as a worthy tagline for Game of Thrones overall. Whether it was Dany crucifying slavers by the dozens or Stannis sacrificing his daughter to the pyre, we’ve seen plenty of characters—admirable as well as not-so-admirable—who’ve done horrible things in service of a higher purpose.

But the storyline that most seemed to be playing off the Hound’s line was Jaime’s, which largely inverted it. The show has gotten so sprawling and scattered that it can be hard to recall, but Jaime Lannister has arguably had the most fascinating moral arc of anyone on the show. When we met him in the very first episode of the show, he was having sex with his sister and, when caught, threw a small boy (Bran) out a window to his presumed death. (Yes, I know what he said. Wait for it.)

Over multiple seasons, he was captured, broken, and un-handed (which, for a warrior like Jaime, was a very literal un-manning); and in large part through his relationship with Brienne, he became one of the most sympathetic, relatable characters on the entire show.

Tonight, Benioff and Weiss (who co-wrote this episode) seemed eager to play with all of this history. Jaime’s early scene with Brienne, trying to find a way past the essential fact that they are still on opposite sides of a war, was wonderfully scripted—especially when, after Brienne explicitly cited the possibility of direct battle, Jaime responded, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

But Jaime’s next scene with Edmure Tully, equally well-written, elegantly complicated the moral picture. After Jaime offered to treat him better as a prisoner than the reprehensible Freys, Edmure replied, “You imagine yourself a decent person. Is that it?” It was an apt observation of a man who truly has always wanted to do the right thing—even, to his extraordinary credit, when the right thing meant disobeying all laws and vows to kill a mad king planning to torch an entire city of civilians. But Jaime’s weakness has always been his love for his twin sister, Cersei, which in addition to its inevitably extreme ick factor ties him forever to a sociopath. (Albeit one who, as he notes to Edmure, loves her children.)

And so Jaime came, in his way, full circle, threatening not only Edmure but the infant child Edmure had conceived in his one night of marriage before he was cast into the Frey’s dungeons. And he did it, not for something larger than himself, but for the simplest and most intimate of reasons.  Lest we miss it, Jaime reprised the line (yep, here it comes) that he spoke after tossing Bran from the tower in episode one: “The things we do for love.”

But even Jaime’s revolting misuse of a helpless prisoner, pressured into forgoing any possible sense of honor, was—as you note, Spencer—in its way, noble. Vastly fewer Tully men are dead now than would have been had they followed the wishes of the Ned-Stark-like, honor-above-all Blackfish. The fact that the latter was not even granted an onscreen death underlines the degree to which he was a plot device rather than, like Jaime, an actual character. This is a show in which—as we’ve notably seen with Jon Snow, too—being an “oathbreaker” is almost a moral necessity. (Also, was there a hint of “The Rains of Castamere” in the music playing as the Lannisters took Riverrun? It’s been a while since we’ve heard that one.)

A few other, relatively scattered thoughts as we move into the penultimate episode of the season:

1) I mentioned this last week, but the mere fact of not having Ramsay in an episode increases my enjoyment of the show between 20 and 80 percent. He’s been Benioff and Weiss’s narrative Achilles’ heel since season three. If someone can kill him in the final two episodes of the season—it looks as though there may be opportunities next week—drinks are on me.

2) As you noted Spencer, the show really has expanded to the point of incoherence. The central plot this season seemed to be Sansa and Jon (and Ser Davos)’s plan to retake the North. Yet we saw not a single one of them tonight. The next most important development was Dany’s re-conquest of the Dothraki and her plan to return to Westeros, which received about five seconds of screen time. A major subplot, in which Yara and Theon Greyjoy have stolen the Iron Fleet, was also left aside. And don’t even get me started on the Dorne Rebellion of episode one, which Benioff and Weiss seem to have concluded—correctly—was so lame that it would best never be mentioned again.

3) How should we deal with such narrative lapses? The show seems increasingly explicit on this count: Drink! Last week, it was Yara introducing Theon to the blissful oblivion of the drinking game; this week, it was Tyrion peer-pressuring Grey Worm and Missandei. I can hardly wait until Bronn and the Hound get in on the action.

4) Speaking of: Why in the world has this season made so little use of Bronn? Obsessive interpreters of the season trailer wondered who it might be—murderous Boltons? demonic White Walkers—who grabbed Pod from behind in a momentary flash. But it was Bronn, of course! And he was barely onscreen a minute before delivering yet another in his endless series of perfect lines (this one re: Jaime): “The way all women look at him is frankly irritating.”

5) Is the Hound going to join the Brotherhood Without Banners? This development would be quite a reversal, given their unhappy past history, but sign me up regardless. The reappearance of Beric and Thoros of Myr was a surprise, but an entirely pleasant one. And this episode corrected an apparent flaw of the last one, noting that murdering helpless villagers is definitely not part of the BWB’s charter.

6) As noted, Arya’s plot tonight was a bit of a nonsensical disaster. Multiple deep stab wounds to the abdomen (with knife twisting!) could be healed with simple bandages, by a decidedly amateur nurse? The Waif showed up to monologue only after Arya was mostly healed, and then the two engaged in a chase sequence so ridiculous it belonged in another, vastly cheesier, show? And a wounded Arya somehow returned to the inner sanctum of the House of Black and White? But, all that said, I thought the moment when she sliced the candle out, giving her blind former self an insurmountable advantage over the Waif, was kind of wonderful. The whole premise was strongly indebted to the great Audrey Hepburn-Alan Arkin thriller Wait Until Dark, which I absolutely recommend. (Arya is lucky that Westeros doesn’t have modern refrigerators.)

7) King’s Landing continued to be a mess, which was terrifically disheartening given that it was the consistent source of narrative awesomeness for so long. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think the show has still not explicitly re-introduced Kevan Lannister, who is a rather important figure as the Hand of the King and de facto day-to-day ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. And the only way Tommen’s dramatic reversal from Mama’s boy to Sparrow’s boy makes a lick of sense is through Margaery. We needed to see her using her wiles to make him switch sides, but that, evidently, wound up on the cutting-room floor.

8) The episode left us with two explicit mysteries: Varys’s “mission” and Qyburn’s “rumor.” Readers might guess the former (though it doesn’t really fit the description: it’s hard to see how it would supply any boats); but the latter is a complete enigma. As last week, I am (like you, Lenika) anticipating a severe outbreak of wildfire in King’s Landing. But who knows? Presumably we’ll learn more in the final two episodes.