Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A pastoral elegy gives Thrones a thematically rich “reveal” (experts)

Game Of Thrones (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.

Advertisement

When I filled in here at The A.V. Club to review “Mockingbird,” the seventh episode of Game Of Thrones’ fourth season, I had absolutely no idea that Sandor Clegane might still be alive.

Perhaps this makes me an inattentive book reader (the commenters certainly thought so), but more accurately it makes me among the millions who read the books without necessarily attending to the fan theories surrounding it. Writing about the show has made me undoubtedly more aware of these theories, and readers quickly informed me that Sandor Clegane was alive and well as a gravedigger, a detail gleaned exclusively from character description in Brienne’s chapters of A Feast For Crows.

The theory is well-substantiated, and upon learning of it I was easily convinced—not only do the clues track logically, but there is a certain poetry to Sandor joining the ranks of characters in the books who have “died” and been reborn. The show’s decision to leave Sandor’s “death” an off-screen uncertainty further fueled the speculation, although his absence for the entirety of season five and most of season six created room for doubt. But as “The Broken Man” begins with a pre-credits scene in an unfamiliar locale, it removes all doubt: Sandor Clegane is alive and well (or, alive, at the very least, given the psychological turmoil on display throughout).

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
Advertisement

This reveal is the latest in a line of careful balancing acts where the show—here under the guide of writer Bryan Cogman—seems very much aware of the different audiences engaging with this story. This is a shocking reveal to anyone unfamiliar with the theory: There was no effort to layer any type of foreshadowing into the show beyond leaving his death ambiguous, and even that was undercut when Stannis’ similarly—if not equally—ambiguous end was made so unambiguous early this season. However, it’s the precise opposite of shocking to anyone who has read the theory, or seen the theorizing about Sandor’s potential showdown with his reanimated brother—dubbed CleganeBowl—in Cersei’s forthcoming trial by combat.

Not every big reveal in the sixth season has been the same—Jon’s resurrection had enough textual evidence that readers and non-readers alike could presume he was far from dead, while neither readers nor non-readers could have realistically predicted the context of Hodor’s demise. The only similar scenario is perhaps Coldhands, but that hardly feels like a significant shock, given that many viewers had likely forgotten about Benjen entirely before his return (which, as discussed after last week’s episode, may not even be something the books adhere to). Every time the show reveals something that neither audience knew for certain, there are still varied perspectives shaped by speculation that make these sequences doubly complicated from a writing perspective.

Advertisement
(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

What makes Sandor’s story in “The Broken Man” work is how it feels at home in the episode around it. Yes, Ian McShane’s presence as Ray—a reformed criminal turned septon who found and rescued a near-dead Sandor—helps to give the story some additional weight, but at its core it is a part of a larger interest in the inescapability of war and conflict in this world. Through distinctive music and unusually bright and vivid cinematography, Sandor’s sanctuary of sorts is almost disarmingly pastoral. This is, in part, to help contribute to the shock of the cold open, which is exceedingly rare for the show. It also serves to contrast the tragic ending, creating a sort of “pastoral elegy” in the poetic tradition. However, on a thematic level it reinforces that this is somewhere that has been untouched by what we’ve come to understand as the series’ status quo: As with last week’s visit to Horn Hill and the episode’s trip to Bear Island, Sandor’s exile serves to show us a corner of Westeros that has lived—but cannot continue to live—outside of this story.

Advertisement

For a show that already has too many characters, the decision to give time to characters like Ray the septon and Lyanna Mormont could be disadvantageous, but “The Broken Man” handles the task extremely well. Both characters have roughly the same importance to this story: they are people who have been on the sidelines, whose existence serves primarily to motivate other characters to take action, but each nonetheless offers something of substance to the larger tale.

Ray mostly exists so that he can offer Sandor guidance on virtuous paths and die in a manner that turns Sandor into something of a crusader, but he equally frames the High Sparrow’s basic tenets into something far more palatable. Whereas I find the High Sparrow’s prosecutorial nature odious, Ray’s transformation from “criminal” into septon reconnects the idea of religion with something other than questions of war and power. McShane brings gravity to a role that—while perhaps not deeply significant—attains a level of thematic richness, which will carry out in both Sandor’s path forward and in the show’s larger interest in the role of the faith. It also serves to give the storyline weight even to those whom knew Sandor was likely to return, a crucial point when considering the more hardcore book-reading audience.

Advertisement
(Photo: HBO)

Similarly, Lyanna Mormont exists on a basic level to demonstrate the scars of war on the North—she has, as a pre-teen, been tasked with guiding House Mormont thanks to her mother’s death fighting for Robb, and there’s no better way to remind us why the Northern houses aren’t champing at the bit to fight another war on behalf of the Stark family. But the choice to use the character in this way has further value, as she has something in common with each of the three individuals who parley with her on Bear Island. She is a woman in power, which one would expect would give Sansa an advantage, and she is a Mormont, which Jon certainly thinks gives him an edge as her uncle’s chosen steward on The Wall. The very fact of Lyanna Mormont would have been enough to achieve these connections, but Davos sees something that isn’t just about facts. It’s about having lived through some version of what happened to Lyanna, finding himself in positions he never expected to be in. When it’s Davos that is able to appeal to her and win the Stark cause the support of Bear Island, it’s a reminder that such parleys are challenging affairs, and also fairly insignificant ones when the force in question numbers only 62 men.

Advertisement

In both cases, we have two characters that are never explicitly positioned as anything more than a catalyst (although I concur with critic Alan Sepinwall’s call for a spin-off for Lyanna when the series comes to a close), but yet feel rich and meaningful nonetheless. Lyanna may primarily exist to embody the ragtag nature of the Stark forces and inspire Sansa to write for assistance (presumably to Littlefinger), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t carry similar weight for the audience beyond that function. And while Ray is last seen hanging from the rafters, the episode takes the time to give his life meaning for Sandor and the show as a whole, with the “stunt casting” of McShane only reinforcing the value of the character as opposed to creating it out of whole cloth. It’s deftly done in both cases, making a procedural beat—Jon and Sansa visit the houses—into something more, and resisting coasting on a shocking reveal.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
Advertisement

You will notice I have not referred to Sandor as “The Hound” here, which has been purposeful. That name was not his own, of course, and we never hear it used in his interactions with his new community, and one senses he might in fact be trying to move past it throughout. It’s also notable in an episode where the “Kingslayer” and the “Blackfish” parley at Riverrun, with both skipping formal titles in favor of monikers bestowed upon them by history. That parley is one of many in the episode: Jon and Sansa’s successful negotiation with the wildlings and House Mormont is contrasted with their failure at House Glover, while Margaery works to protect her grandmother under the watchful eyes of the Faith before the “Queen Of Thorns” (there’s another informal title) has one last parting war of words with Cersei. You could even throw in Arya’s quick negotiation with a Westerosi captain, knowing just how to secure passage on her own terms—while it’s true that outright war may be “over,” depending on who you ask, the war of words continues to be an ongoing concern even with major players like Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Varys on the bench this week.

(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
Advertisement

The King’s Landing storyline takes clearer shape here, after last week’s uncertainty. Margaery’s conversation with her grandmother makes clearer the level of supervision she’s had while being “converted” to the Faith, and thus offers reasoning for why her plan would have been a surprise to her family. While last week showed us Margaery’s actions through the perspective of Tommen—who Margaery needed ignorant for her plan to succeed—and then Jaime and the other architects of the plan to rescue her, here we see Margaery’s own point-of-view, carefully navigating the High Sparrow’s interest in her sex life (a test of her commitment to the whole charade) and sneaking Olenna a sketched rose to signify her true allegiance. It’s the right moment to confirm suspicions she is playing a longer game, but the scenes also reinforce that it is a dangerous one, and thus firmly creates a rooting interest in a story that has at times lacked one. Even if the Tyrells as a whole seem like strange “heroes,” Olenna’s takedown of Cersei is the type of heroism I can respect, and it’s clear Margaery is taking after her grandmother in these efforts to undo what Cersei knows she created.

That being said, “The Broken Man” leaves plenty of uncertainty, despite clarifying Margaery’s intentions. There’s the obvious in Arya’s bleeding in the streets following a predictable attack by the Waif, sure, but there’s also whatever the heck the show is trying to accomplish with Cersei and Jaime. Olenna’s attack on Cersei is satisfying, but it also creates the question of what precisely Cersei takes from it: she keeps falling back on her love for family, but can love realistically justify all she’s done? And didn’t love blind her to Joffrey’s cruelty, and wasn’t this love really just a way for her to justify her own ambition in more culturally acceptable terms? I’m fascinated by how little the show is guiding us on how to feel about Cersei, and mostly onboard, except for the fact that Jaime—the twin who has been more significantly redeemed over the course of the story, despite starting out trying to murder Bran—remains so devoted to her. My confusion stems in part from the books’ choice to separate the characters emotionally during these same events, I admit, but I also feel the show is going to have significant work on its hands to clarify and articulate the morality of the Lannisters as they move forward.

Advertisement
(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

Put in simpler terms: “The Broken Man” doesn’t offer a quick fix, on any account, which is to be expected seven episodes into the season. With only three episodes remaining, “broken” things are an increasingly valuable commodity, as we sit and speculate ways that they can be fixed in the season’s final act. And it is here where “The Broken Man” makes its most direct pitch to book readers, in that very little of its “pastoral elegy” choreographs where Sandor’s story is headed from here. While the episode confirmed readers’ suspicions that Sandor was alive, and you could certainly read some of Ray’s dialogue in relation to his still-unresolved feud with his brother, the episode is coy about whether the much-speculated CleganeBowl will come to pass. Whereas other areas of the episode—like Theon and Yara’s stopover on their way to Meereen—take pains to announce intentions, Sandor’s story remains open-ended, bringing readers and non-readers on relatively equal footing regarding the path ahead. It contributes to an episode that wrings strong thematic work out of what might have otherwise appeared as stepping stones, an effective way to bridge the middle of the season with its conclusion.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, Bronn—it’s a bit surprising that they would have him show up with Jaime without a more formal reintroduction, but he made himself known quickly enough, I suppose.
  • Related: Someone write Jaime a love ballad entitled “My Right Hand Man,” which can contain the lyric “That was the right hand I lost / You are the right hand I found.” I’m imagining a sort of country ballad.
  • The Freys are really the perfect punching bag in this show: Walder Frey is deplorable and evil, and his family is incompetent. With Ramsay remaining off-screen, it’s nice to have another family to despise universally, without reservation.
  • “You’ve lost, Cersei—it’s the only joy I can find in all this misery”—I am hopeful this is not the last we’ve seen of the Queen Of Thorns, but it’s quite the exit if it is.
  • I bet Bernie Sanders would have dropped out of the race by now if the Democratic Party counted Wun Wun as a superdelegate.
  • Some show-typical brothel nudity in what I presume to be Volantis—the show’s established stopping point on journeys to Meereen—but it was used in productive ways: both to casually explore Yara’s sexuality, and to maximize Theon’s discomfort with the “traditional” life of seafaring that he once enjoyed but now can’t in the wake of what’s happened to him.
  • I imagine that the Faceless Men keep dossiers on all their trainees in case they go rogue—I have to think Arya’s said “incapable of keeping her guard up for old ladies,” because she really should have been more careful.
  • While those who saw Me Before You this weekend didn’t get any Daenerys to test out the intertextual bleed between the series and the actors’ increasingly active film careers, I did see X-Men: Apocalypse this afternoon, so I had some moments of bleed-through with Sansa’s scenes tonight.
  • Every time the show returns to locations we’ve seen previously with a heftier budget for CGI, it really reinforces how sparing they were earlier—I never felt like I had a clear sense of Riverrun’s architecture before, but it felt much more significant here.
  • So a few weeks ago I was all “we never saw what Tommen’s secret was, maybe Cersei was lying,” and then it turns out that not seeing Tommen explain it was just to save time, not to create space for speculation. So I’m tentative to even say this, but did anyone else find it weird that we didn’t see confirmation Sansa was sending a letter to Littlefinger? I don’t even know who else she could be writing to, but I still had a moment of doubt.
Advertisement

The Night Is Dark and Full of “Spoilers” (And Speculation)

  • CleganeBowl Watch: So what do we think? On the one hand, here we have Sandor clearly linked to a religious group with similar beliefs, and the show undoubtedly alludes to Gregor at times. But on the other hand, how does he get from chasing down the men who killed his fellow church-builders to serving as a champion in so few episodes? I’m open to any and all theories.
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: Where do we even start here? You have some obvious signs, like the Blackfish bringing up Jaime’s promise to Catelyn, as well as a surprisingly vicious group of roving warriors without allegiance “protecting” the people. I’ve seen some associate them with the Brotherhood given their allegiance to the Lord Of Light and the lack of banners, although there’s always the possibility that they just happen to be independent rovers, or traveling under the guise of the Brotherhood to justify their actions. Nonetheless, it creates an angle into the fact that Lady Stoneheart does not act heroically, and gives the show another angle into the question of morality, revenge, and a bunch of other themes and ideas that are resonating this season. If Lady Stoneheart doesn’t materialize, the show is certainly borrowing from the arc’s ideas in mapping out the storytelling here.
Advertisement

Share This Story