Game of Thrones’ sixth season has often seemed to oscillate between a plot that is barely moving and a plot that is hurtling downhill at an alarming pace.
In the season’s eighth episode, the series struck a balance. Things happened. A castle fell. An armada arrived. A queen traveled suspiciously quickly. Some significant legislation was passed. A cliffhanger was resolved, and a beloved character may finally get back in the game.
But things still felt reasonably leisurely. We had time for Bronn to screw around with Pod. For Ser Jaime Lannister and Lord Edmure Tully to exchange viewpoints on the world. For Tyrion to try to convince Missandei and Grey Worm that true freedom means boozing it up.
All it took to put together a very solid hour of television was totally sidelining the Jon/Sansa/Davos plot line up north that’s become the emotional center of the show, and near-totally sidelining Dany as well.
Winner 1: Arya Stark
Okay, yes, nobody really believed she was dead after we saw her stabbed in the stomach last week. It just violated far too much storytelling logic to have expended so much screen time on her training in the House of Black and White only to have her unceremoniously murdered on the streets of Braavos. But killing off apparent protagonists — Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon — is a signature of A Song of Ice and Fire.
But Arya's kindness to Lady Crane was repaid in the form of medical treatment, after which she got the drop on the Waif. Then — in a rather implausible and unsatisfactory way — she was forgiven by Jaqen and set free to return to Westeros.
This whole business with the acting troupe and Arya’s defection seems like bad storytelling to me. But she is unquestionably a winner: She’s not dead, she is a trained assassin, and she hasn’t surrendered her identity to a bizarre death cult. A pretty solid outcome for a girl who hasn’t caught a lot of breaks over the years.
Winner 2: Jaime Lannister
He secured Riverrun. And he did so with scarcely any bloodshed, in a manner that’s entirely consistent with his emergence as the show’s most fascinating character.
In our hearts, we are rooting for Lord Edmure to stand on principle against the Lannisters and the Freys. We’re rooting for the Blackfish to take the Tully host north. For Riverrun to go down fighting. Anything but pitiful surrender.
And yet outside the romantic conventions of fiction, the path of surrender laid out by Jaime is a much more humane outcome. Not only were the lives of countless soldiers in both armies saved but avoiding a prolonged siege surely reduces the amount of plunder the local smallfolk are subjected to.
Over in Meereen, Tyrion tells a joke about the Starks being so hung up on honor that a Stark lord would scold a fly for stealing ale. In that context, Stark honor is merely absurd. In the grander context of the Game of Thrones, Stark honor has been responsible for massive bloodshed and ruin.
Meanwhile, Jaime’s decision to literally stab Aerys II in the back and dishonor himself forever likely saved countless lives. So go Game of Thrones lessons about morality.
Winner 3: The rule of law in Westeros
Say what you will about the rule of King Tommen, first of his name, but he’s clearly correct about trial by combat. It’s a barbarous ritual (albeit an occasionally entertaining plot device) that serves no governance purpose other than to allow the rich and powerful to flout the law by sending in hired swords to subvert the judicial process.
Narrowly speaking, the edict is a blow to Queen Cersei, who will no longer be able to use "Ser Robert Strong" as her one-man wrecking crew.
But more broadly, if Tommen succeeds in actually reforming the Westerosi system of justice to preclude this kind of might-makes-right legal outcome, he’ll be doing a great service to the realm.
In his underrated 2011 book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama persuasively identifies strong religious movements that exercise authority outside of kinship networks as the key to establishing the rule of law. The High Sparrow, in this sense, is very much fulfilling the useful macrohistorical role of organized religion. With the rebellion over, the portion of Westeros under effective Lannister control — the West, the Crownlands, the Stormlands, the Riverlands, and the Reach — actually looks to be settling in for a period of constructive political development.
Too bad all of it is poised to be overrun by ice zombies and/or dragons.
Winner 4: The Hound
Sandor Clegane has been seeking peace and a new life, but it was clear last week that a genuinely peaceful life would never be for him. He simply lacks the equanimity to turn the other cheek. Besides, the Faith of the Seven is lame, and septons never pull off any cool magic tricks.
The Brotherhood Without Banners, which Clegane seems poised to join, is a much better home for him. This is a crew that loves fighting and killing — the two things he's really good at — but that also offers a spirit of camaraderie and the good vibes that come from knowing you are fighting and killing in pursuit of a good cause.
It’s not particularly clear that the Hound deserves a happy ending or that he’s going to get one, but for a little while at least he should be in for some good times.
Loser 1: The Blackfish
The reintroduction of a badass character who never got much screen time could have been the beginning of a promising plot arc for one of the last surviving commanders of the Stark/Tully armies in the War of the Five Kings.
Instead, he was abandoned by his men and forced to surrender Riverrun.
Even worse, he was unceremoniously written off the show as quickly and randomly as he was brought back on. He refused to join up with Brienne and Pod before dying offscreen. Turns out he was just a minor character after all.
Loser 2: Fans of Lady Stoneheart
As Todd VanDerWerff explained earlier this week, many book readers have been fervently hoping for a televised appearance of this particularly gruesome character, and episode seven seemed to be setting things up perfectly for it to happen.
In HBO’s version of the story, Beric Dondarrion is still alive (or "alive") and well, and the Brotherhood Without Banners is still upholding high standards of honor. The marauders we saw last week were rogue actors. They’re taking in the Hound.
Lady Stoneheart could still show up sometime in the future. As we saw with the Siege of Riverrun, the show isn't above adapting elements of the book out of order. But I have a feeling it's not going to happen.
Loser 3: Fans of the Dorne plot
Okay, there are no fans of the Dorne plot.
But if there were fans of the Dorne plot, they would be wondering how on earth the show managed to entirely forget about it. In case you, too, have forgotten, when last we saw Dorne, Ellaria Sand and her daughters pulled off a rather stunning coup d’état in which they killed Prince Doran Martell, his only son, Trystane, and Princess Marcella.
That unquestionably means open warfare with House Lannister. Except instead of sending their army south to avenge their daughter and fight the inevitable war, Cersei and Jaime sent their army north to Riverrun and just forgot all about Dorne. And nobody else seems interested in these momentous events either — it doesn’t come up for conversation in Meereen among the Tullys or anywhere else.
Perhaps the ravens all found this plot line too boring and incoherent to keep up with.