Game of Thrones: Fighting Someone Else’s War

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Broken Man,” the seventh 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.

Lenika Cruz: Over the course of five and a half seasons of battles, betrayals, and beheadings, Game of Thrones has racked up plenty of “broken” men and women. While the episode’s title was most directly referring to the traumatized and mutilated Theon, and to the Hound (whose return has been long the subject of speculation), it could also be alluding to the one-handed Jaime, the still-imprisoned Loras, the aging Blackfish, the miserable hostage Edmure, or the good-natured septon Ray (RIP). Each was, in his own way, a casualty of seemingly endless cycles of violence. And yet the wheels of war continued to spin this episode, as characters worked to build alliances for looming fights, or else failed to reason with rivals.

With the show heading into its final three episodes, “The Broken Man” did a lot of crucial set-up in economical fashion and via plenty of elegantly written scenes. We reunited with Sandor Clegane some time after he joined a kind of religious commune run by Ray (Ian McShane), a septon whose lax devotion to scripture seemed directly correlated with his desire to bring goodness into the world. It turns out he rescued a nearly dead Hound some time ago and nursed him back to enough health that he can chop wood and haul logs 24/7.

It would’ve been nice to learn more about Ray and his followers before they were unceremoniously slaughtered (offscreen!), but the septon’s conversations with the Hound offered just enough to jumpstart the younger Clegane’s reentry into the show. In summary: Hate kept the Hound alive (Hate for Arya? For the things he’d done? For the Lannisters?), and he’s both ashamed of his past actions and unable to embrace pacifism the way Ray, an ex-soldier, has. “Violence is a disease,” the septon said. “You don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people.” It’s a lesson unlikely to ever stick on this show: The hour ended with a newly enraged Hound striding off with his axe, presumably to hunt down the Brotherhood Without Banners.

Much of the rest of the episode saw characters either trying to justify the necessity  of violence to others or weighing its costs to themselves. If anything, this installment reminded me just how many currently neutral parties still exist on this show to be recruited for one cause or another. On Bear Island, Lady Lyanna (easily the episode’s coolest character) posed the question powerfully: “Why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life for someone else’s war?” The key, as Davos realized, was turning “someone else’s war” into “our war”—selling selfishness to get people to buy into teamwork.

Many of these parties were forced to consider what joining the fray would mean for their entire house, or family, or race. Jon, with an assist from Tormund, managed to convince the reluctant wildlings that fighting the Boltons was in their best interest if they didn’t want to be the last free folk. The Stark siblings had worse luck with House Glover, whose lord declared his men would not abandon their “ancestral home to fight alongside wildlings.” When approached by Cersei to join forces against the Sparrows, Lady Olenna rejected her in hopes of making it back to Highgarden safely, and trusting that her granddaughter would do what she could at the capital to ensure the Tyrell name lived on. Yara, too, had to win her brother over to fight to take back the Iron Islands. Meanwhile in Riverrun, Jaime tried (and failed) to convince the Blackfish that the “war is over,” with the Tully lord stubbornly committed to defending his home against the people who murdered his family.

In keeping with the show’s increasingly rich gender politics, “The Broken Man” seemed to have quite a bit to say about the pitfalls of masculinity, at least the destructive, regressive kind often valued in the world of the show. Many of the broken men on display here were (or had once been) fighters: Jaime, Loras, the Hound, Theon. And each had, in some way, been emasculated, whether by losing their fighting ability, being unable to to father children or continue their family name, or being defeated by a woman.

The episode also showed women succeeding by adopting more moderate approaches to power than many of their male counterparts. In an early scene, Margaery quoted a verse in the Book of the Mother about, essentially, women being able to calm the “brute nature” of men—it’s not hard to imagine she sees herself as the King Whisperer and her brother’s savior because of her calculated poise with the High Sparrow. In the North, the young Lady Mormont showed herself to be eminently reasonable and honorable, swayed more by Davos’s reference to her fierceness than by Sansa’s looks-based flattery. Then, of course, was the scene where Yara got to flaunt her sexuality in front of her castrated brother, before promising she would take care of him and get him revenge.

Not quite fitting into all of this is Arya, whose bloody walk through a Braavosi marketplace after being stabbed in the stomach by the Waif couldn’t have been met with crueler indifference (“Ugh, another young girl exsanguinating on our cobblestones?” the onlookers’ glares seemed to say). But since the episode focused so much on penitence—with Cersei, Margaery, the Hound, Ray—it’s possible there’s something redemptive at work. Arya did, after all, deny the dying Hound mercy when he begged her for it, so maybe she’s being forced to suffer to learn a lesson. Whatever the reason, we can at least rest assured that she’ll live on to the next episode—even if getting stabbed multiple times in the stomach is something most people don’t get to come back from.

Spencer, what did you make of the Waif’s ambush, the Hound’s long-awaited return, and the general politicking of this episode? And did Bronn’s delightful shutdown of Jaime’s Lannister-debt speech (“Don’t say it. Don’t fucking say it.”) make you as happy as it made me?

Kornhaber: The fact that the Lannisters can no longer deliver their catchphrase without being heckled is both hilarious and a sign of greater chaos in the realm. The hierarchy that has enforced order for millennia is on the brink. Great Houses like the Lannisters’ face the threat of extinction (the Starks, say some, are already done). Violence seems imminent in the north, in the Riverlands, and in the capitol. If Daenerys’s army ever makes it to Westeros, her task may less be conquest than reconstruction.

This historically recognizable state of affairs has developed in the background of a season defined by the supernatural: resurrection, time travel, shapeshifting, a fireproof woman and a secretly ancient one. So it was smart of the show to reground itself with an hour where the only unbelievable mystical occurrence came when the Waif called Arya a “sweet girl.” The rest of the episode returned to the map-expanding political fun that marked Thrones’s classic early seasons, complete with intimidating long tables, fabulous suits of armor, and castle designs that make you want to go buy a box of Legos. Each tense negotiation pitted self-interest vs. obligation—with self-interest as the clear winner in most cases.

In a feudal system like the one that has ruled Westeros, theoretically you’re loyal to the banner you’re loyal to because you’re loyal to the banner you’re loyal to. But what happens when the safety and stability implied in the agreement are gone? Though Bear Island has allied with the Starks for a thousand years, Lyanna Mormont understands the balance of power in Westeros as well as her peers in America understand the balance of power in One Direction. So to save face while breaking her house’s oath to the degraded Starks, she cites the fact that Jon’s and Sansa’s last names aren’t, technically, “Stark.” Davos changes her mind not by arguing about legalities of succession but rather by asserting that survival for her small nation shall not be ensured by staying neutral.

Survival, not honor or loyalty, also drives the Wildlings to march for Jon and Sansa—and House Glover to march against them. But old allegiances do still have some currency for the Blackfish, whose vow of a two-year siege may have the nice side effect of enabling more scenes of Jaime and Bronn bantering in boredom. What of Sansa’s presumed penpal, Littlefinger? If anyone in Westeros can be counted upon to make the craven decision, it’s him, which would seem to indicate he’d side with the bigger, Bolton army. Then again, the show has hinted that Baelish’s calculations are a bit different when it comes to the welfare of Catelyn Stark’s daughter. Then again, she recently told him to buzz off forever.

He’ll have to make a choice, either way. You just can’t opt out of conflict in this world. Ask Arya, whose desire to abscond without facing the Faceless was thwarted in a scene that was most shocking for its placement in the episode: Arya Stark is mortally wounded and it’s not the cliffhanger. Or ask Theon, snapped back into personhood when his sister made explicit the grim ultimatum that this world poses to all its citizens. Ask Cersei, the coiner of “you win or you die,” whose machinations have ended up with Olenna Tyrell—deliciously—wondering whether she’s the worst person she’s ever met.

Most of all, ask the Hound, whose preposterously timed wood-chopping expedition kept him from being massacred with the hippie commune he’d joined. His scenes in this episode reminded viewers of the ultimate stakes of this show: the idea that some day, common people might be able to picnic in the sunshine—and build, and cook, and converse, and preach—without fear of exploitation and bloodshed. That day is not now; it is not the immediate future; but maybe, maybe it will come once ice and fire cleanse the realm of leaders guided entirely by narrow, brutal self-interest.

Chris, how’d you enjoy the episode? And should we make like the rest of the Internet and throw around the term “Cleganebowl” now that the Hound is back?

Christopher Orr: Cleganebowl or no, this was one of the most satisfying GoT reveals in a long while. The return of the Blackfish was of course a pleasure. (“As long as I’m standing, the war is not over.”) The return of Bronn—who’d been absent from this season for no discernable reason other than that showrunners Benioff and Weiss’s were perhaps trying to control payroll, or were understandably jealous about actor Jerome Flynn’s extraordinary doo-wop prowess—was a greater pleasure still. (Seriously, guys: six Bron-less episodes? What were you thinking?)

But obviously—obviously—the most exciting reappearance by far was that of Sandor Clegane. The idea that he might not really be dead had been hinted at in the novels for a long while, and I confess I caught my breath for a moment in the opening scene when we got that first glimpse of a lone peasant carrying what looked like an awfully heavy log. So as much as I hate to date myself with a reference from before either of you were born, in honor of his return—and those of Bronn and the Blackfish—I’d like to repurpose an old TV theme song regarding another man with dubious facial hair and say: Welcome back. (Honestly, if you were to sum up the Hound in a single word, could you do better—species confusion be damned—than Sweathog?)

This being the post-novel phase of the show, the Sandor storyline had exactly the kind of sloppy narrative lapses that have become all too customary. A trio of men-at-arms showed up to give the warrior-turned-Septon Ray (an awfully good Ian McShane) a vague threat that they wanted to take his people’s food. But they held off, and came back the next day to slaughter every single unarmed person in the settlement. Why? They could obviously have taken the food with little or no bloodshed. And, as you note Spencer, it’s beyond silly that the Hound was somehow chopping wood just out of earshot while dozens of his companions were being brutally murdered. These are small points on one level; but on another, they’re indicative of unnecessarily lazy, feeble writing. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the killer-swordsmen in question were members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose M.O. bears little resemblance to this kind of senseless plunder in either the books or the show. (They were the folks led by one-eyed, multiply-resurrected Beric Dondarrion back in season three.) Why not make these nameless baddies more of the King’s Men, with whom the Hound had his utterly fantastic “chickens” scene, one of the best-scripted of the entire series?

That said, I hardly care. The Hound has grievances aplenty (including against the Brotherhood Without Banners) and a life that may have been saved by the gods or by hate—or perhaps, most plausibly, by the simple fact that he is, in his own words, “a big fucker and tough to kill.” Not to sound bloodthirsty, but I very much look forward to seeing where he chooses to bury his hatchet.

You guys did a masterful job with the episode’s larger themes, so I’ll confine myself to a few more particular observations.

1) Even as this season has pushed the plot forward aggressively in many areas, there are two lingering storylines that it seems strangely unwilling to address. One is Cersei’s trial by combat, which seemed imminent at the end of last season but keeps getting pushed further into the future. What gives? Worse still is the question of when Ser Davos is finally going to learn what happened to Princess Shireen. He’s had innumerable opportunities to ask Melisandre, but always seems to get distracted at the crucial moment. Now he’s actually in Stannis’s old war-camp, where Shireen’s pyre and burnt corpse are presumably still smoldering. If I recall correctly, one of the early trailers for the season showed him standing before that pyre. Like Cersei’s trial, this seemed like something that’d be resolved early in the season. But we’re already in the home stretch, and this really needs to be taken care of.

2) Speaking of Ser Davos, his evolution to Jon Snow’s right-hand man continues to mystify. We’ve discussed it before, but the two scarcely know one another. In his plea to House Mormont, Davos noted how strange it was that he was the one making the closing pitch. But it’s actually far stranger than he acknowledged, given that he’s not only (as he noted) a recently minted noble, but is also not of the North and rather new to Jon’s acquaintance. I’m not sure why Lyanna Mormont was so persuaded by him—apart from the fact that she is, you know, ten years old.

3) That said, it was nice to bring the Mormonts into the story from a new angle. For those who may have lost track, little Lady Lyanna (named after Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister) is the niece of Jeor Mormont (former commander of the Night’s Watch) and cousin of Jorah Mormont (greyscale-infected adorer of Daenerys). Her mother, Maege, was a background character in the first season, a strong warrior committed to the Starks who evidently died in the War of the Five Kings.

4) Jon and Sansa and Davos’s making house calls for an army felt to me like nothing quite so much as a vintage Avon commercial. The failed sell to Robbett Glover—played by Tim McInnerny, who has been on half a dozen great British shows over the years, but will to me always be Lord Percy/Captain Darling of Blackadder—was unfortunate. But the successful Mormont pitch was actually worse. 62 men? That’s not a plot twist, it’s a punch line. If House Mormont were truly that tiny and ineffectual (and it’s not), Jon and Sansa would know as much and not be wasting their time.

5) So to whom was Sansa writing for help? It was a touch ironic that she was angrily complaining that they “don’t have enough men” after having turned down Littlefinger’s offer for help two weeks ago. Like you, Spencer, I assume he will be the recipient of an on-second-thought raven. But I suppose Sansa could also be trying to recruit the Blackfish, who obviously has his hands full. Is there any other possibility?

6) While we’re on the subject of cryptic messages, what did the rose drawing that Margaery slipped to Lady Olenna mean (if anything), apart from “I’m still loyal to Highgarden”? Would it not have made more sense to skip the sketching and write a few more-specific sentences? As I noted last week, the plotting in King’s Landing—once a consistent high point of the show—has gotten decidedly loose the last couple of seasons.

7) The Queen of Thorns’ scene with Cersei offered a delightful deployment of Dame Diana Rigg’s acerbic wit. But I can’t help but think her most notable line might have been when she told the Queen Mother, “You’re surrounded by enemies, thousands of them. Are you going to kill them all by yourself?” I won’t be the first one to note that, when angry, Cersei often threatens to “burn” her enemies. And, unless I’m mistaken, there are large stores of wild fire still in King’s Landing post-Blackwater. Add in Bran’s flashback of Mad King Aerys Targaryen shrieking “burn them all” last week, and let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be on the hook to pay out fire insurance in the capital any time in the near future…

8) Like you two, I’m happy to see further signs that Yara may be dragging Theon back into some form of personal agency—even if she has to do so by means of the Cruelest Drinking Game of All Time: “Miss your severed genitals? Drink!”

9) Slipping back up North, can it be a coincidence that Jon Snow’s rueful comment to Sansa—“We fight with the army we have”—was a near-verbatim citation of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous Iraq-War quote, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish you had”? What could this echo mean? Will the Jon-Sansa-Davos-Wildlings-62-Mormont-Men alliance easily win the Battle of Winterfell, only to lose the occupation due to careless planning?

10) I agree that the whole stabbed-in-the-gut, fell-off-a-bridge, wandering-the-streets-mortally-wounded Arya scene seemed a bit off. It’s basically inconceivable that she could actually die (at least at this point in the story), but it’s also hard to imagine who exactly might give her the medical attention she clearly needs to survive. Jaqen H’ghar is pretty much the only obvious candidate, and he was rather explicit about there being no third chances.

So, there are a number of narrative threads left hanging until (at least) next week. But the show’s overall narrative momentum has continued, with Arya joining Daenerys as another Essos protagonist now explicitly planning her return to Westeros. And best of all, this was our third straight outing without an appearance by Ramsay Bolton(!), whose participation in any given episode tends to reduce its quality by about 20 percent, regardless of whom he’s taunting/stabbing/torturing/feeding to dogs in his by now tediously familiar manner. Let’s hope that when the Battle of Winterfell inevitably(?) takes place, its outcome is conclusive.