Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season six, episode seven, "The Broken Man."
It's reunion season on Game of Thrones! Last week, Benjen Stark returned after having been missing since season one. And in Sunday's episode, an even more prominent character reappeared after a long absence and even an apparent death.
That's, of course, Sandor Clegane — the infamous Hound, whom we last saw back in season four, when he was Arya Stark's traveling companion.
Back then, Sandor was badly injured in a brutal fight with Brienne of Tarth, and Arya apparently left him to die alone of his wounds.
But Cleganes aren't easy to kill. And Sandor's reappearance in this episode — in a very rare cold open! — both confirms a long-held theory by fans of the books and reveals that the once-violent Hound, surprisingly enough, found some measure of religion. However, given the events at this episode's conclusion, it's apparently not going to last long.
A refresher course on Sandor Clegane
In the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, Sandor Clegane was a constant presence and developed close — though complicated — bonds with both Stark sisters.
The younger son of a minor Westerlands family, Sandor was first introduced to us as a menacing warrior who served the Lannisters generally, and Cersei Lannister's son Prince Joffrey specifically. His face was hideously burned during childhood by his abusive older brother Gregor ("the Mountain"), leading to a lifelong fear of fire.
When Joffrey assumed the throne after his father King Robert's murder (or "hunting accident"), Sandor was sworn into the Kingsguard as one of Joffrey's most important protectors — even though he ostentatiously refused to ever become a "knight," hating the pretensions and hypocrisies of chivalry. And he was ruthless in his task, murdering Mycah, a young "butcher's boy" Arya had befriended who had run afoul of Joffrey's childish hatred.
Yet Sandor won viewer sympathies when he unexpectedly developed a close bond with Lannister prisoner Sansa Stark. He counseled her about how best to survive in her dangerous circumstances and risked his life to rescue her from a mob in King's Landing, before himself losing his faith in the king and fleeing the city during season two's climactic Battle of the Blackwater.
In the following season, Sandor turned up again in Arya Stark's storyline, when they both were prisoners of the insurgent "Brotherhood Without Banners" group. Sandor was put on trial for his crimes and forced to fight for his life, but emerged triumphant and won his freedom. Shortly afterward, he managed to abduct Arya and take her into his own custody — but he didn't have any ill intentions for the girl, simply aiming to return her to her family for the ransom money.
Unfortunately for both of them, he showed up right as the Red Wedding massacre was taking place. With no more family members around and breathing to return Arya to, the pair roamed the Riverlands for the rest of season four. And though Sandor had started out on Arya's "kill list," she gradually developed a grudging respect for him and removed his name.
In the season four finale, though, Brienne of Tarth, who had been searching for the Stark sisters in an effort to fulfill a promise to their late mother, encountered Sandor and Arya. Rather than talk things out, they had a bloody brawl during which, among other things, Brienne bit off one of Sandor's ears before pushing him off a cliff. Arya turned up to say goodbye, and Sandor pleaded with her to kill him, but she refused, and simply left him to bleed out from his injuries.
Sandor's reappearance confirms a fan theory based on the books
In George R.R. Martin's books, things go down more or less similarly (though the Hound never fights Brienne and is instead badly injured by some of his brother's men). And readers have never explicitly seen him since book three, A Storm of Swords, which was published back in 2000.
Yet eagle-eyed readers of Martin's fourth book, A Feast for Crows, thought they saw an important clue that Sandor was still alive and kicking. As Brienne of Tarth toured the Riverlands searching for Sansa Stark, she encountered a group of priests — septons of the Faith of the Seven. (This is the High Sparrow's faith, but it's a much more tolerant and constructive strain.)
One of the septons tells Brienne that he had encountered the dying Sandor, and proclaimed "the Hound is dead." Yet among their group, Brienne saw a curious figure far away — an enormous man with a lame leg, digging a grave.
On the upper slopes they saw three boys driving sheep, and higher still they passed a lichyard where a brother bigger than Brienne was struggling to dig a grave. From the way he moved, it was plain to see that he was lame.
Many readers concluded that "the Hound" was indeed dead, but that Sandor Clegane had been nursed back to health by the priests, decided to join their order, and found some measure of peace.
This episode seemingly confirms this book theory to be true — and brings in Deadwood star Ian McShane to play the key priest, who preaches nonviolence.
But given the bloody fate of the priest and the rest of his former companions at the end of this episode (they're killed by the remnants of that Brotherhood Without Banners group, which now appears to be outright plundering the countryside), it seems that whatever peace Sandor found will be at an end — and that now the Hound is back, and he wants revenge.