“Any man dies with a clean sword, I’ll rape his fucking corpse!” Thus spoke Sandor Clegane, a.k.a. The Hound, at the beginning of the Battle Of The Blackwater, near the end of Game Of Thrones’ second season. Not exactly the words of a traditional moral compass. And yet here we are, five seasons later, and the character who once served as personal bodyguard to Joffrey Baratheon has now taken on the unlikely role of emotional centerpiece. Game Of Thrones may have a mission statement of subverting the traditional expectations of fantasy storytelling, but few of its narrative experiments have been as surprising as revealing the younger Clegane sibling as the exemplar of a personal redemption arc that also doubles as arguably the only counterweight to the general transformation of every noble-minded protagonist to the brutal realities of life in the seven kingdoms. A year away from the end of its story, Sandor Clegane has emerged as the sentimental and humanistic heart of Game Of Thrones.
There was little reason to suspect Clegane would still be alive at this point, let alone have come to the fore as the embodiment of the series’ rarely seen softer side. The Hound has been there since the very first episode, our initial encounter with him as a near-silent warrior adorned with the helmet that mirrored his nickname. (It looked intimidating, but it must’ve been a huge pain in the ass, practically speaking.) Accompanying Robert Baratheon’s family visit to Winterfell, the warrior looked like an incidental character at best, someone to add menace to the ambiguous threats facing the Stark family.
That first impression seemed borne out in subsequent episodes, as the younger Clegane acted as muscle for the often capricious brutality of Joffrey. When the petulant tyrant made up the story of being attacked while on the road to King’s Landing, Sandor was dispatched to kill Mycah, the butcher’s son, a task he carried out with ruthless efficiency. (“He ran. Not very fast,” Sandor muttered, returning with the young boy’s corpse.) By all indications, he was a mindless thug, doing where he was told and killing whomever he was ordered. He killed Ned’s guards and helped capture the Stark patriarch following the death of Robert. He slaughtered Stark bannermen and took Sansa prisoner. In video game terms, the Hound was a miniboss, a villain that would have to be dealt with if we had any hope of seeing his Machiavellian Lannister masters laid low.
And yet, even in those early days, there were hints of something more. It wasn’t just in the sideways glances during moments when Joffrey was publicly humiliating Sansa, or giving the poor Stark girl a cloak to cover herself following the beating her would-be husband ordered during the second season. The indication that Sandor has motivations that went deeper than just being a big guy who liked killing people—despite his proud claims to be just that—was present as early as episode five, when he intervened in the jousting tournament, preventing his older brother Gregor from killing Loras Tyrell. The fact there was no love lost between Sandor and his sadistic older brother managed to conceal a deeper disgust with his place in the world, which only periodically came out in odd moments, such as his refusal to take vows of knighthood even after being appointed to the Kingsguard.
But it took his dereliction of duty during the aforementioned battle, when Sandor abandoned the defense of King’s Landing and offered Sansa a chance to escape north with him, for the subtler depths of his character to start being teased out. “Fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the city, fuck the king,” he says before leaving the field of battle, echoing the sentiments of many a viewer, who suddenly found themselves siding with a man they had been taught to view as an enemy. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the show pulled this kind of switcheroo, but it might have been the most unexpected. His sad appearance in Sansa’s bedroom, coupled with his gesture of goodwill to escort her to safety, reversed two seasons’ worth of stereotypes about Sandor Clegane. Paired with his frank and unsparing assessment of life in Westeros (“The world is built by killers… so you better get used to looking at them,“ he tells Sansa), we suddenly had a reason to take a closer look at The Hound.
Still, it was the Arya And Hound Adventure Hour that really established Sandor Clegane as a man on a journey of redemption. Seasons three and four were nothing but a series of character beats of self-improvement for Sandor, as he went from seeing Arya as a useful hostage to becoming genuinely protective of her. This emotional arc hit its peak when Arya removed him from her death list, unbeknownst to the coarse fighter. He may have been left for dead at the end of season four, Arya abandoning him to a cold fate, but in the eyes of the show, he had regained a measure of his humanity.
And that seemed to be the end of it—until “The Broken Man.” Unexpectedly, Sandor Clegane reappeared in the back half of season six, living in a small peaceful community and trying to put his former life behind him. And even though he’s ultimately unsuccessful, with Sandor’s kindly savior Septon Ray and his followers being brutally murdered by renegade members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, the point has been made: In a world that continually reasserts the cruel vagaries of fate and conditions people to think in the cold-blooded logics of survival and dominance, Sandor Clegane is trying to learn the opposite lesson. He’s learning how to be good.
It flies in the face of the development of every other character on the show. Sentimentality or kindness, it’s repeatedly shown, will get you nothing but trouble. Daenerys’ entire story has been a lesson in how to rule effectively, as she hardens her heart against weakness and becomes more imperious with each city she conquers. Jon, Arya, Sansa, and the other remaining protagonists from the North have all had ugly experiences which taught them the necessity of hard choices, of leaving others to die if it means a larger victory down the line. Winter is coming, as we were continually reminded, and now that it’s arrived, there looks to be even harder decisions ahead. Lots of good people are going to die, and the surviving Starks know this, and have accepted it. They’ve progressed from an earlier innocence and naïveté into a hard-won but not always pleasant maturity.
Sandor Clegane has moved in the opposite direction, and with last night’s seventh-season premiere, it’s clear the show has a humanistic streak: It can be found in the man formerly known as The Hound. Having joined Beric Dondarrion and his Lord-Of-Light-following do-gooders, Clegane is on his way to fight for something larger than himself, a decision that would already signal his transformation from selfish monster to good-hearted warrior. But Game Of Thrones went even farther. “Dragonstone” saw Beric, Sandor, and the rest of their crew stopping for the night at an abandoned homestead. But Clegane knew this place: It belonged to a farmer and his daughter, a family that had opened their home to Sandor and Arya long ago, during their journey to the Vale. The man had given the pair food, refuge from a coming storm, and even offered Clegane money to assist him with some farm work. Sandor had repaid their kindness by stealing the family’s silver and leaving them to a gradual death. At the time, he had coldly explained to Arya the man and his child would be dead by winter, thanks to lack of resources and protection. “There’s plenty worse than me,” he said when Arya yelled at him. “I just understand the way things are. How many Starks they got to behead before you figure it out?”
Now, the ghosts of his past have returned to haunt him. It’s why he feels the need to bury them, despite the bodies being nigh-unrecognizable from months upon months of decay. Sandor Clegane is trying to make amends for his former life. He now feels the value of human life, and not just his own, or those he knows and cares for. The concept of “innocence” has meaning to him now. He’s turning back time on not just his own actions, but the lessons being imposed on everyone else in this story. As others gain in wisdom and try to steel themselves against the world, the Hound is softening, relinquishing his grasp on that “fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the city, fuck the king” mentality that led him to see life as a zero-sum game of perish or pillage. And in Westeros, that’s a rare quality. On Game Of Thrones, it’s downright heroic.