Game Of Thrones (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

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. 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.

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“No One” ends where you would expect. After having been nursed back to health by the actress whose life she saved, Arya wakes up to the Waif having murdered the actress, and she’s coming for her next. The logic is the same Faceless Men nonsense that Jaqen has been peddling all along: a life was promised, first to the girl who tried to kill the actress, and then to the Waif when Jaqen gave her permission to go after Arya. And so Arya runs, eventually luring the Waif into the trap she set with Needle.

It’s frankly a bit embarrassing that the show drags out whether or not Arya survived her dance in the dark with her nemesis. There is no universe where Arya loses that battle, and so the slow pan reveal of the Waif’s face in the House Of Black And White struck me as profoundly odd. As with the books, the basic thematics of Arya’s time with the Faceless Men makes sense to me: Arya is stripped of key parts of herself in an exploration of who she really is, having been living numerous other identities since she ran from King’s Landing. But the actual mechanics of it have been muddled in the show, such that when Jaqen claims that killing the Waif has somehow made her “no one” I have legitimately no bloody clue what he’s going on about. This was the moment the story was building toward—Arya reclaiming her name and deciding to return home—but the procedure of it ended up feeling lost in the opaque logic that governs the Faceless Men and Arya’s training. “No One” should not mean nothing, and yet it does in the context the show has presented it in, and that strikes me as a missed opportunity.

It’s a missed opportunity because the idea of “No One” strikes me as a productive paradox for the show to explore. On the one hand, it is admittedly always something of a dead end: No one is actually “no one,” and that’s never going to change. However, if approached with a bit more clarity than what went down in Braavos, the exploration of what it means to be “no one” has value in the same way that being “someone” is an ongoing struggle. While on the surface the greatest setback for Cersei here is the fact that Tommen bans trial by combat (more on that a bit later, obviously), the fact that Kevan forces her to join the gallery with the other “ladies of the court” is a greater indignity. As someone who was once queen of Westeros, and then Queen Regent, and even then Queen Mother, she has now been reduced to “no one,” at least as compared to her previous position. And as someone who has been fighting her whole life for the respect owed her father and brothers, being dismissed as “a lady of the court” is a particular humiliation, and one that features Cersei at her most sympathetic as she’s definitively positioned as the underdog.

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The idea of “No One” equally resonates with Sandor Clegane, who taps into his violent past in order to avenge Septon Ray and the villagers slaughtered by who we eventually learn were traitors to the Brotherhood. But while the violence is satisfying in its own right, the real point here is for Beric and Thoros to ask Sandor Clegane to think about a higher purpose. Right now, Sandor Clegane is no one: he is not The Hound, and he has fulfilled his short-term life goal of seeing that the men who slaughtered Ray are dealt with. Beric and Thoros argue, though, that he has a higher purpose: The Lord Of Light would not have allowed him to defeat Beric if it did not have a larger plan, and the Brotherhood is pointing their banners northward (the first group outside of Jon and the wildlings to move their attention to the White Walkers and wights as opposed to the wars of men). The Brotherhood Without Banners are themselves “no one,” insofar as allegiance, but their cause gives them identity, and they are asking Sandor to join them in their journey north.

It would seem unlikely that he wouldn’t accept. There is really nowhere else for Sandor to go: Although it’s still a little unclear where he is, exactly (After The Thrones put him at Harrenhal on their map last week, for what it’s worth), the show has not given him any motivation to go after his brother, and the idea of taking his violence and putting it to a larger service is the closest thing to motivation he has found. And given that the episode literally bans CleganeBowl from taking place, and passes by what seemed like a logical opportunity to introduce Lady Stoneheart, the idea of Sandor just roaming this world as “no one” would strike me as a waste of a character return. Sending him north to Sansa—in addition to bringing SanSan folks immense joy—would begin the migration that is necessary for the show to reach a conclusion.

It was a bit jarring—although consistent with the season so far—to see the show so actively thumb its nose at both CleganeBowl and Lady Stoneheart in a single episode. The iconography of the hanging men was not the only piece of the latter puzzle present here: We also learned that Cersei would be facing trial at the beginning of the “festival of the Mother,” and Jaime spent much of his talk with Edmure comparing Catelyn and Cersei as mothers for good measure. It would have even fit thematically: Unlike Jon, Lady Stoneheart was trapped between the woman she was and the zombie she became, and so “no one” as a concept seems useful when considering what motivates her. But while it technically remains possible they’ll pull back the veil on Lady Stoneheart, I wouldn’t hold it against them for feeling that thematic weight is better spent on the living, and that Catelyn’s ongoing value to the story is better served as a memory people hold onto.

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(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

It’s a memory that Jaime, Brienne, and the Blackfish all evoke at numerous stages in the siege of Riverrun, which is almost as perplexing as the Faceless Men. Jaime’s trip to the Riverlands in the book serves two functions, as I recall: It both keeps Jaime out of King’s Landing to further isolate Cersei (her isolation being crucial to the psychology of those chapters) and creates distance between the characters to further Jaime’s disconnect from his sister and lover. Jaime becomes more and more disillusioned of Cersei, and in doing so sets out on an independent path that seems crucial to the redemptive character arc present in the books, and which the show embarked upon by fleshing out his time with Brienne into one of the key stories of early seasons.

But even speaking as someone who is rarely overly concerned by changes from the books, the utility of the siege of Riverrun here is a bit perplexing. As much as it was fun to see Pod and Bronn—or Brodd, as we could call them—pal around, and as important as it felt for Brienne and Jaime to share a moment after she has successfully completed her mission, there is a hollowness to this story when Jaime uses it as a way to proclaim his absolute devotion to Cersei. For a moment, it seemed like the story was going to set up a moral quandary for Jaime, with Cersei in one ear and Brienne’s talk of honor in the other, but his speech to Edmure all but erases that possibility, and we rush through the siege so that he can return to King’s Landing. And so on paper it would appear that the show resurrected an entire storyline exclusively so that Jaime and Brienne had a reason to be heading to the same location, and yet neither character seemed particularly changed by the experience, and the short-term value of the story is frustratingly unclear.

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(Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

It’s possible that this is all part of a longer game: Perhaps this moment was important for Brienne and Jaime for when they might meet again in the future, when perhaps they will be fighting on the same side for a change. And perhaps there is some particular importance attached to the Freys and the Tullys that is not immediately apparent. But as it stands, from a book reader’s perspective, the conviction Jaime displays in his love for Cersei seems naïve in ways that indict the character. I don’t think Jaime is wrong that Cersei and Catelyn are quite similar—his interrogation of Edmure was an effective piece of work from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, my frustrations with his logic aside. But it seemed bizarre to organize a whole storyline around Jaime where we leave him exactly where we expected: inextricably in love with his sister, and yet with a soft spot for Brienne, who he lets row off into the night. While the middle section of the season picked up momentum, the Riverlands sequence has gone back to the stalling for time that marked the end of last season, as the show seems to be wary of moving too far past Martin’s cutoff point.

“No One” is a weird episode in this way, as its climaxes are inherently anti-climactic. Arya defeating the Waif was predictable, Riverrun was undone by a quiet betrayal (with the Blackfish’s death off-screen), the Masters’ attack on Meereen felt both inevitable and oddly motivated (given we have only seen the Masters the once, and they don’t even appear on the ships to tie the attack to any specific characters), and anyone who didn’t expect Daenerys to come flying back to her city’s rescue has never watched a television show before. The lack of momentum driving these stories is surprising to me given that the season has largely been doing a fine job with internal momentum—something just wasn’t clicking here, and unlike with the CleganeBowl cancellation, I don’t know if that type of letdown was intended.

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(Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO)

However, the clearing of the deck could be an important service to the larger narrative. Tyrion spends the episode struggling with being among people he doesn’t know: He eventually gets Grey Worm to crack some jokes and Missandei to enjoy some wine, but his own jokes are Westeros jokes, and his diplomacy is best served back at home. His failure with the Masters may have been an anti-climax, but the implicit realization is that he should have never been there making it to begin with. The Meereen experiment failed, but we always knew that it was just a means to an end, a stopping point on a larger journey. Similarly, we knew that if CleganeBowl had happened, it was not going to be the end of Cersei’s story, and the same goes for Arya and the Faceless Men, and even Jaime in the Riverlands. The show may have run into an unfortunate convergence of so many anti-climactic storylines in a single episode, but their very existence is a necessary byproduct of a narrative that is preparing to shed its skin and move forward with a new lease on life.

This does not necessarily excuse the muddled nature of these stories, but it helps explain why I don’t necessarily see the show as being “off the rails” or some such. With Varys off on a secret mission, and Qyburn confirming some type of rumors he was investigating on behalf of Cersei, the episode seeds the type of unexpected storytelling that the season has delivered, even for book readers. It’s just unfortunate that “No One” had to be quite so committed to some predictable, confusing, and seemingly inert developments for us to make that transition.

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Stray observations

  • The Mountain’s little show of force reminds me of boxers who screw up fights at the weigh-in—if Cersei had just agreed to visit with the High Sparrow, they might not have understood the Mountain’s strength, and Cersei would have gone scot-free. But no, The Mountain had to rip off a dude’s head. No discipline, these zombie protectors. (I have to believe that word of The Mountain’s murder of the flasher could have reached the High Sparrow as well, but he still needed to keep it on the DL in front of the Faith Militant.)
  • A particularly bloody episode, between The Mountain and Sandor, and Mark Mylod’s direction calls attention to it—not only do we get the blood dripping down the grate after the former’s attack, but we also get a blood orange seeping out after Arya’s fall down the stairs.
  • I particularly liked the way Mylod kept shooting subjects in the background: in both The Hound’s approach on his first victims and in the Waif’s Terminator-esque chasing of Arya, he often kept the focus in the foreground and let the viewer identify the threat long before the character was aware they were there.
  • Note that The Hound’s first victim was YouTube impersonator Steve Love, who appeared on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live with Kit Harington—also note that I would have never known this if HBO hadn’t sent me a picture of him. What an honor it must be to be asked to do a cameo and then told you’re going to have some dude stick his finger up your ass.
  • “Lesson number one: assume everyone wants to hit you”—I don’t know if this actually applies to people who aren’t assholes, Bronn, but I admit it’s probably sound advice regardless.

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The Night Is Dark And Full of Spoilers (Of A Sort)…

  • Given that Arya’s sample chapter from The Winds Of Winter has her with a theater troupe, it seems probable that she could still rejoin them to travel to Pentos, from which she could then travel to King’s Landing a bit easier. The idea of her testing whether the planet is round, meanwhile, seems a bit far-fetched, but I have to presume she brought it up for some reason or another. Perhaps that’s where Jorah is headed?
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: While I imagine there are still people who believe that the pig is just a little wet, and it’s still good, it seems less and less likely that this is plausible. Yes, Brienne will be heading past Harrenhal on her way north to meet up with Sansa, and the talk of motherhood means that there is always the potential for Catelyn to reemerge. But the fact that the Brotherhood would be reintroduced with absolutely no mention of or even allusion to Lady Stoneheart raises a lot of procedural questions for me, and the refocusing of the Brotherhood on the White Walkers doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else. The door is not fully shut until the writers say it’s fully shut, but after seven episodes of the Truthers starting to look more sane, the show has put y’all back on the fringe.
  • R.I.P., CleganeBowl. I’ll never forget you, or the people who believed in you, who I imagine will not hold onto hope that Martin has different plans.

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