To be fair, this general turn for the better probably has as much to do with the return of narrative momentum, the characters finding dramatically involving goals, and the writers deciding to start revealing long-hinted-at plot points in a way that's enthralling to watch.
At the same time, though, it doesn't hurt to have Mr. Murder offscreen, where he can't endlessly remind us he's an awful person. (For more on this, Maureen Ryan has written the best Ramsay takedown I've read.)
"Blood of My Blood" is another exciting hour of television, even if it's a bit more piece move-y than, say, "The Door." The revelations are milder, the characters mostly talk about what they're going to do next, and the stories go from point A to point B instead of point X, Y, or Z. But there's still plenty going on that's worth checking out. I'm not gonna call it a comeback just yet, but it's in that ballpark.
That in mind, here are seven winners and five losers from another very good Game of Thrones.
Winner 1: Benjen Stark
Is "staying around in a half-dead form that's sort of White Walker and sort of not" a win? In the larger scheme of things, probably not, but in my book it was close enough to count.
Benjen shows up in the first scene, bumping off the wights who are pursuing Meera and Bran, while Bran is floating through all of space and time, watching the past unfold in what amount to Clockwork Orange–style monologues of footage from the series so far, mixed in with events we've always wanted to see but haven't gotten to yet. (Mad King Aerys makes his first appearance, for instance.)
Benjen's fight with the wights also shows how confident director Jack Bender is with these sorts of action sequences. Despite there being numerous combatants, he does a great job of laying out where Benjen is in relation to the wights, and in how he dispatches each of them one by one with his flaming mace. It's a pulse-pounding sequence.
But it's the later scene that finally confirms that this is, yes, Benjen Stark, missing since season one and now returning in a state that's neither dead nor alive. Bran's the one who recognizes his uncle (of course), and now that Benjen will be escorting him and Meera back south, they have a fighting chance at survival.
Even more intriguing is the idea that Benjen was saved by the Children and has been acting at the behest of the Three-Eyed Raven all this time. That should make the bond between him and the new Raven (Bran) even more potent.
Winner 2: Daenerys and her dragon
Sure, Dany won the allegiance of the Dothraki by killing all of their Khals in a fire that didn't burn her, but what has she done for them lately? Nothing, that's what! So it's good that Drogon shows up again to bear her up on his back.
The Dothraki seem impressed by the dragon, as they probably should be, and they also seem moved by Dany's speech about how riding by her side is going to be harder than anything they've ever done, how she'll ask more of them than any Khal, etc., etc. This is very in keeping with Dany's previous motivational strategy (which often amounts to locker room "nobody believed in us!" speeches), but dragons add heft to anything you might say.
This is the scene that ends the episode, and it seems rather an odd choice, given the other things that are going on. But I did appreciate Bender's choice to show us hints of Drogon before we saw the dragon head on. His shadow sailing over the Dothraki army was tremendously effective as a reminder of the massive scale of these beasts.
Winner 3: The High Sparrow
The even money was on this episode ending with the Lannisters and Tyrells deposing the High Sparrow in a bloody display of why religious freedom made its way into the First Amendment. Instead, he co-opts both Tommen and Margaery, and the episode ends with an alliance between the crown and the faith that seems like a terrible long-term strategy for both sides.
But as a short-term strategy, it's not bad. Tommen gets his queen back, eventually; Margaery gets the freedom of herself and her brother, eventually; and the High Sparrow gets the legitimacy he's been craving, immediately. Once the White Walkers start swarming down from the north, I'd rather bet on the Lord of Light than the Seven, but what do I know?
Anyway, I also wanted to highlight just how delightful Jonathan Pryce is in this role. He always seems like he's having the time of his life, to the degree that I keep expecting him to break into song (he has a Tony Award for a musical, after all). Indeed, if he just started performing a little soft-shoe number, I would probably just go with it.
Winner 4: Arya Stark
When I read my list of winners and losers to my wife, I got some pushback on Arya, but I think it's significant that when push comes to shove, she can't kill Lady Crane, the actress she's been commissioned to murder. Yes, that's going to send the Faceless Men after her, but an Arya who has all of their training plus the Stark moral code is more dangerous, I think, than an Arya who's a robot assassin.
That said, I see why she'd be right to be concerned. Arya's all alone in a big, unfriendly city (one that seems to have Lannister sympathies, if its theater scene is any indication), and beyond Braavos it's not like she knows anybody else on the continent of Essos. But she has her sword, and she has her skills. I think she'll be fine.
And, hey, who else do we know on the continent of Essos? I think all roads lead to Meereen by the season finale, and we'll see the Arya/Tyrion/Dany team-up of our dreams.
Winner 5: Makeover plots
Of all the shows that have pulled a She's All That, I was not expecting Game of Thrones to be added to the list.
Yet when Gilly and Sam show up at his childhood home (presumably still at Horn Hill, where it is in the books), his sister immediately spirits Gilly away to give her a bath and put her in a dress and generally show that if she just took off her glasses and did something different with her hair, Gilly would be super hot.
The show even borrows from makeover plots of old to the degree that it features the shot where Sam turns to see the big reveal, then smiles for a long time before we see how Gilly looks in her new duds. It's a cliché, sure, but I love me a good makeover plot. Sometimes you don't mess with the classics.
Winner 6: Character actors of the greater British Commonwealth
I love the scenes set in the Braavosi theater company. Yes, the play they're in is awful, but it's a lot of fun to watch the show wink at itself via characters who are offering a meta take on everything we've seen so far. This week, Lady Crane even complained about how bad the writing was.
And the stuff backstage is even better, thanks to the presence of actors like Essie Davis (who plays Crane and was the lead of the terrifying Australian horror film The Babadook) and Richard E. Grant (who plays a character I like to call "Braavosi Christopher Walken" and is a well-known actor in his own right, thanks to films like Withnail and I).
If the series is going to do a spinoff, this is the spinoff I want to see: great character actors in a series about a vaguely medieval theatrical troupe, which also pokes fun at its parent show. Back up the dump trucks full of money to Davis and Grant's houses, HBO!
Winner 7: Book readers who think Benjen is Coldhands
This theory seemed so obvious that most everybody who reads the books and loves the mysterious Coldhands (as I do) had simply assumed it to be the case all this time. But a discovery in a George R.R. Martin manuscript suggested we were all barking up the wrong tree.
Not so on the show! In the post-episode discussion, showrunner D.B. Weiss referred to this version of Benjen as "Coldhands Benjen," by far the best piece of evidence for the idea that the prevailing Coldhands theory is correct.
On the other hand, the books introduce Coldhands much earlier and build up the mystery around him much more. Martin will probably go in a different direction, while David Benioff and Weiss chose this one for expediency's sake. But for now, Benjen theorists get to be right.
Loser 1: Samwell Tarly
Poor Sam. Even when he arrives home with "wife" and "child" in tow and even when he announces that he's going to become Maester to the Night's Watch, his dad has no interest in him, still assuming his son to be a weak warrior and thus not worthy of his time.
What's harder to take is watching Sam simply sit there and listen to the verbal abuse his father heaps upon him. Gilly stands up for him, telling Lord Tarly that, hey, Sam's killed Thenns and White Walkers. He's a better warrior than his father knows. But in the same breath, she exposes that she's actually a wildling. And Lord Tarly hates wildlings.
Do you blame Sam for running in that case? The smartest call he makes is taking Gilly and the baby with him. He says it's all about love, but there's also a practicality there: No way is Gilly safe without Sam around.
Loser 2: Jaime and Cersei
After an elaborate plan involving an unlikely alliance with the Tyrells, Jaime and Cersei learn that the High Sparrow hasn't just outmaneuvered them. He's been playing some other game the whole time. The look on Jaime's face after his own son, Tommen, comes out to announce the new partnership between crown and faith is that of a man who realizes he's been outwitted many times over.
And strictly speaking, Jaime and Cersei don't really have that much keeping them alive right now, beyond their names, their connection to the king, and the Mountain. How long will those three elements be enough to keep them from losing their lives? My guess is not long.
That's why it makes sense for Jaime to head off in search of someone, anyone to help him get control of King's Landing back. Yet I'm guessing he's in a lot of trouble, at least until the White Walker threat becomes more generally known and petty political squabbles fall by the wayside.
Loser 3: Walder Frey
Walder's having a rough time of it. His stupid sons lost Riverrun, and now the Tullys are on the march. Yes, he has a few cards left to play, but for the most part he's learning that ruling is more than one surprise sneak attack — especially once the guy bankrolling your play dies.
That said, it's just nice to see David Bradley back on the show, sitting on his throne and camping it up, eyebrows furrowed in disgust. Nothing is ever coming up Walder, and seeing Bradley here reminded me of how little The Strain (the FX show he's a regular on) knows how to use his particular set of gifts.
His fate is also closely tied to that of…
Loser 4: Edmure Tully
Sure, he's still alive, but "still alive" isn't much of a consolation when you're in a Frey dungeon and could have your throat slit at any time. And since actor Tobias Menzies is needed over on Outlander, I'm guessing he's not long for this world. But good to see you, Edmure!
Loser 5: The other dragons
Cooped up beneath Meereen like common cattle, chained so they can't fly like their brother Drogon, having not seen their mother in months — Rhaegal and Viserion have to just hang out and wait to be important to the plot again. This is almost certainly not what they signed up for when they joined the show, but that's an actor's life. Just ask Lady Crane.
No live chat this week, due to the holiday, but comments are open
I'll try to drop in a few times to say hi. Be polite to each other.