The seventh episode of most seasons of Game of Thrones gives the writers a chance to take a breather and make sure everything is in place for the final push toward the finale. Since the show is so driven by big moments, these episodes can feel a little uneventful, but they're often my favorites for the way they fill in little corners of the show's world.
"The Broken Man" doesn't quite reach that level. For one thing, the life-imperiling cliffhanger it foists upon Arya is patently ridiculous. (If Game of Thrones kills Arya in season six, I will eat my Daenerys Targaryen Funko figurine.) For another, a lot of the scenes surrounding the fight with the High Sparrow back in King's Landing are just repeats of stuff we've already seen.
But the material with the presumed-dead Sandor Clegane is among the most beautiful the show has ever produced. It reminds me of "Here's Not Here," the lovely, lyrical flashback episode The Walking Dead pulled out of its ass last year, in how it suggests a different way forward, one not as filled with death. (Naturally, Game of Thrones immediately negates this suggestion by the end of the episode, but that makes the Hound's desire to be a better man feel that much more potent.)
And, of course, the episode ends in death. We're haven't quite arrived in that more peaceful timeline yet, have we?
Here are four winners and eight losers from a loser-heavy episode of Game of Thrones.
Winner 1: Fans of continuity
Forget the Hound, whose "death" at the end of season four seemed just as likely to be a setup for a surprise return somewhere down the line (as it inevitably was). When's the last time you thought about Bronn?
Bronn was a pretty major character last season, but this is the first time he's popped up in a big way this season, and it's to help Jaime retake Riverrun from the Blackfish. (In case you'd forgotten, the show quickly reminds you that the Lannisters are allies with, ugh, the Freys.) Bronn shows up to issue playground taunts, laugh about Jaime's lack of two hands, and just generally be Bronn. Did you miss him?
One thing that's made Game of Thrones a stronger show in season six than it was in season five is how it's been far more strategic about deploying its cast. Outside of the handful of extremely central characters (the Lannisters, Starks, and Daenerys, more or less), the series doesn't feel the need to cycle everybody in its vast ensemble into every other episode. For instance, we haven't seen Littlefinger since Sansa read him dead to rights a few weeks ago (though I suspect his return is imminent).
This is smart, because it both gives scenes room to breathe and makes moments like when Bronn comes back feel that much more significant, even though they aren't, really. The Hound's survival is legitimately of interest; Bronn just didn't have much of a role in the story until now.
And that commitment to continuity has given the season more room to stretch its wings, to its benefit.
Winner 2: Hate. HATE. HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATE.
What kept the Hound going through his long near-death experience, Brother Ray asks his new friend. Sandor's answer is but one word: "Hate."
As I mentioned above, the scenes where the Hound joins Brother Ray and his little flock to erect a house of worship (seemingly in the middle of a Thomas Kinkade painting) are just lovely, particularly those where Brother Ray suggests that maybe there's another way, one that doesn't involve death and thievery and just generally being a violent asshole.
But c'mon. You know Game of Thrones by now. You know that's not going to be the case. If it turns out to be a battle between love of your fellow man and a quest for vengeance, the latter is always going to win out. That's just how the show works.
And, indeed, as "The Broken Man" ends, the Hound is limping off, ax in hand, prepared to dole out justice to those who wronged him.
Hate wins. On Game of Thrones, it always does.
Winner 3: 10-year-old girls
Young girls haven't always had the best time of it on Game of Thrones. Usually, they're being killed to teach their parents a lesson, or, uh, their parents are killing them to win the favor of the Lord of Light. Sure, Arya and Sansa have made it this far, but they're protagonists. It's rare for a kid to hold her own with everybody else.
Fortunately for all of us, Lyanna Mormont has arrived to trash talk everybody who would come to Bear Island and give her a hard time. When Jon prattles on about all his connections to the Mormonts, she cuts him off with the declaration that she's had "enough small talk," and when he asks for an army to support his efforts, she agrees, but makes roughly the smallest possible commitment of just 62 men.
Played by Bella Ramsey, Lyanna is a delight. If HBO doesn't want to produce the "theater stars of Braavos" spinoff I suggested last week, then maybe we could get one about being the 10-year-old lady of Bear Island? I'd watch.
Winner 4: Fans of a certain plot line from the books that the show hasn't adapted yet, wink wink, nudge nudge
BOY, A LOT OF CHARACTERS SURE ARE HEADED TOWARD RIVERRUN, AND A BUNCH OF PRESUMED DEAD CHARACTERS ARE COMING BACK TO LIFE, AREN'T THEY? AND IS THAT THE BROTHERHOOD WITHOUT BANNERS I SPY? MAKES YOU THINK!
Loser 1: Jon and Sansa
It's hard out there for a Stark. Lyanna Mormont is only too happy to point out that Jon is technically a Snow, while Sansa is technically a Bolton and/or Lannister. And that's coming from the Northern leader who actually commits troops to Jon's attempts to retake Winterfell.
Both characters have presumed that allegiance to Ned and Robb will carry the day, helping them gather an army that will boot Ramsay right out of Winterfell. That doesn't really prove to be the case, thanks to how nobody in the North really wants to fight alongside wildlings, or just doesn't want to fight, period. Their army is way too small to oust Ramsay, but they've also got to march soon, before snows block them in and lead to a repeat of Stannis's poor performance.
Fortunately, Sansa has a notion of where to turn for help. Unfortunately, I'm guessing lots of people call him Littlefinger.
Loser 2: Arya
Look: I will be enormously surprised if Arya is dead and done for. It would be shockingly bad storytelling, and in the "next week on" montage, it sure looked like there was a shot of her leaping into open space. (It was filmed from behind, so I guess it could be someone else.)
But she still gave in to dangerous overconfidence as she plotted to leave Braavos, and after securing passage back to Westeros, she didn't immediately go and hide underneath a bridge or amid the beggars or something like that, which created a perfect opportunity for the Faceless Men to strike back and stab her in the abdomen several times (shades of her former sister-in-law).
What will probably come to pass is that Arya will realize the House of Black and White needs to go, or she'll simply cut and run for either Westeros or somewhere Dany-adjacent (either could happen). Either way, I found it pretty hard to swallow that she would simply stop watching her back after she booked that ship. And it nearly ended up getting her killed.
Loser 3: House Tyrell (but not for long, probably)
Olenna finds herself in a tight spot. Her granddaughter has seemingly gone full-tilt religious, while the High Sparrow has implicitly threatened her (via said granddaughter) if she doesn't shape up immediately. Throw in a Cersei who's tossing out empty insults, and everybody's favorite matriarch seems not long for this world.
But maybe that's what she wants you to think. The little note Margaery slipped to Olenna (featuring a sketch of a rose) indicates to the grandmother that not everything is what it seems to be. There's a plot going on here, and the Tyrells, long a safe bet to come out of this whole war ahead, seem likely to profit from whatever's happening.
What I like about the Tyrells is that it appears they're always playing the long game, and even when they're in a bad spot, they stick to the game plan. That gives them a steadiness many of the other houses just can't match.
Loser 4: House Lannister (probably for quite some time)
Jaime seems, briefly, on top of the world. He's back in his element when he joins the Freys to help them in their siege of Riverrun, and with Bronn at his side, he can show off his military prowess all over again. At least in theory.
When he goes to parlay with the Blackfish in hopes of coming up with some other army that might oust the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant, he's rebuffed. The Lannisters clearly believe that once the war is over, everybody will flock to their side, happy to be allies once again. But ruling is harder than that, and the family has had its position eroded out from under it for several seasons now. The Blackfish doesn't parlay because the Blackfish doesn't need to parlay.
Cersei finds much the same back in King's Landing, where she tries to make common cause with Olenna and mostly finds herself the butt of the old woman's jokes. With Tommen ensnared by the Faith Militant, Tyrion off in Meereen, and Jaime and Cersei both in a position of weakness, House Lannister is on the wane, at least until Tommen and Margaery have a baby (not that that's going to happen).
Loser 5: House Greyjoy (not that you'd expect it)
Theon and Yara stop off in a port on their way to Meereen with ships for Dany. And at first glance, it seems like they're in a strong position. And maybe they are! Dany probably needs some other characters to hang out with, and both Theon and Yara seem about as good as anybody.
But when you think about it, both are backed into a corner. Euron is presumably on their tail (if not hot on their tail), and it doesn't seem terribly likely Dany will make "retaking the Iron Islands" number one on her priority list, no matter how many ships the Greyjoys can provide. Add to that the fact that Theon is a mess from his crippling post-traumatic stress disorder, and the two feel like they're running right ahead of a buzz saw that's coming to destroy them.
Yara, of course, is a great leader, but she also spends much of her scene in this episode making out with a woman, and if there's one thing the last TV season sadly taught us, it's that lesbian and bisexual women are among the most likely TV characters to die. Combine that with Gemma Whelan's continued status as a recurring player instead of a series regular, and I'd guess she's not long for this world.
Loser 6: Fans of TV's Ian McShane
Ian McShane's performance as Al Swearengen on Deadwood is one of the great TV performances of all time, nuanced and subtle and sweet. He leveraged that into a long career of playing villains in various movies, as well as another nuanced, subtle, and sweet take on King Saul in NBC's late, lamented Kings.
So when McShane was announced as a player in season six of Game of Thrones, especially as the septon suspected of housing the Hound, lots of us were looking forward to scenes between McShane and Rory McCann, filled with lots of masculine brooding and discussions of life and death.
Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. McShane was magnetic as Brother Ray, but he was only onscreen for five to 10 minutes before he was killed by men who seemed to be part of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Bye, Ian McShane. See you on American Gods.
Loser 7: Fans of Wun Wun the giant
Wun Wun (whose name I have learned is technically Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun) will be joining Jon on his fun-time journey to Winterfell, but he makes his customary five-second appearance, then books on out of there.
When am I getting my Wun Wun–centric episode? It's all I want in life.
Loser 8: The Brotherhood Without Banners
There aren't a lot of people I'd want chasing after me with an ax, but at or near the top of that very long list would probably be the Hound. I'd watch my back if I were them.
Agree? Disagree? Join me in comments at noon Eastern to chat about this episode and the week in culture.
I'll hang out for 90 minutes, and we'll have a good time. While you're in the area, please answer my question for you: Which summer TV show are you most looking forward to? My answer is in comments!