Well, I can’t say I’m surprised about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, but I’m actually a lot more disappointed about the whole thing than I thought I would be. Generally, this show has, even in its worst episodes, a few great moments peppered through it. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is, as far as I can recollect, the first episode of the show that I’ve come away from thinking that it’s just a big old mess. Basically nothing about this episode worked, and even the return of Lady Olenna wasn’t enough to save the episode for me.
As always, spoilers under this line.
The episode opens in maybe the most boring place possible, the House of Black and White in Braavos, where Arya is busy washing dead bodies. She’s been here for weeks now, apparently, and she still doesn’t know what they do with the bodies when she’s done with them. She talks with the Waif (who, on the show is not even remotely waifish–more sturdy, really) and then with Jaqen, who beats Arya with a switch when she lies, and she’s no closer to learning more about the House of Black and White than she was a couple of weeks ago.
I rather liked Arya’s chapters in the books, but the show has turned this stuff into a real snooze fest. Arya’s time in Braavos so far hasn’t been a time of healing for her; she hasn’t learned anything (really, she’s only exchanged one menial task for another so far); and whatever character growth she’s having seems to be coming at an absolutely glacial pace. This is the weakest opening to any episode this season, for sure.
Next up, we head farther east to visit with Jorah and Tyrion. It turns out that there are no villages near Valyria, so they’re just hoofing it to Meereen at this point. During a break in their travels, Tyrion explains why he’s in Essos to begin with and then ends up being the one to break the news to Jorah that his father, Lord Commander Mormont of the Night’s Watch, is dead. It was nice to see Jorah get a moment to be likeable. I think that this is another slow-moving part of the show right now, but I almost always think the show shines brightest in these quieter moments.
Back at the House of Black and White, Arya is scrubbing the floor when a man arrives with his sick daughter. He wants for his daughter to be put out of her misery, and Arya is the only person around. Arya comforts the girl by lying to her and gets her to drink some of the poison water in the temple. This time, after Arya finishes washing the girl’s body, Jaqen H’ghar invites her to see where the bodies go. Which is apparently a giant room full of pillars that are filled, floor to ceiling with the faces of the dead.
I actually hate this. I’m sure that someone thought this would be a cool reveal and that (obviously) bigger is better, but it doesn’t even make sense. I kind of hate the whole House of Black and White setup they have on the show as it is; it’s to monochromatic, too gloomy, too boring. And this enormous basement full of faces is probably the worst part of it that I’ve seen yet. The place looks like it’s about on the same scale as Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies, which is to say absurdly large. And there’s not a ladder in sight.
It’s honestly nonsensical, but not as nonsensical as Jaqen’s reasoning that Arya was “ready” for something–”to become someone else” apparently, as well as ready to see the face library. I don’t understand how Arya’s sullen pouting, moping, and raging around the House of Black and White prepare her for anything. There was a moment of gentleness when she was dealing with the dying girl, and again when she was washing the girl’s body, but if that was meant to represent some kind of momentous shift in Arya’s outlook, I think the show failed to effectively communicate it. Also, Arya seems really creepily fascinated by the faces. All together, Arya’s behavior in this episode makes her seem unbalanced, as if (contrary to the episode’s title) something in Arya has been a little broken by her experiences.
Shifting to Jorah and Tyrion again, we get a nice little conversation about Daenerys. Jorah describes seeing the birth of the dragons as a sort of religious experience, but Tyrion isn’t convinced that Daenerys really is the rightful ruler of Westeros. I like this, but then they get captured by slavers, and everything is terrible.
First, I’d like to point out that this show has a real problem with diversity. There are very few characters of color, but of course they make the evil slave traders a group of black dudes. Second, the dialogue in this scene is just fucking embarrassing. The dwarf-sized cock joke was the worst and “cock merchant”? Really? I cringed at the awfulness of it all. Of course, this is Game of Thrones, where plot convenience seems to trump all other concerns these days. At least this (hopefully) means that Tyrion and Jorah will be getting to Meereen soon instead of wandering around the countryside sniping at each other for a couple more episodes.
In King’s Landing, Petyr Baelish has returned to find the city much changed since his departure. When he meets with Cersei, he immediately questions the wisdom of having Loras Tyrell arrested, to which Cersei replies that it wasn’t she who arrested Loras. They go on to speak of the state of the North. Littlefinger assures Cersei that the armies of the Vale will be at her disposal, but then he informs her that Sansa Stark is alive and at Winterfell. Cersei is furious, and she gives Baelish leave to mobilize the Vale against Roose Bolton. It seems likely that this is exactly what Littlefinger wants. He’s already said that he intends to back Stannis in the upcoming conflict, and this will allow him to get his own forces to Winterfell without Cersei thinking anything is amiss. In an episode so filled with people making poor decisions and falling victim to terrible storytelling, this stands out as one scene that actually makes some kind of sense.
In Dorne, we finally get to see Myrcella, who is wandering the Water Gardens with her betrothed, Trystane Martell. They are anxious to be married, it seems, so they can start banging as soon as possible. Personally, though, I’m not buying it. I’ve hardly seen a couple with so little chemistry, and between Myrcella’s childishness and Trystane’s bizarre accent, it’s difficult to take them at all seriously.
Elsewhere, Jaime and Bronn are nearing their destination. I was disappointed by how unimpressive the Water Gardens look from afar, but what I was most upset about here was that we didn’t get to hear the end of “The Dornishman’s Wife.” Also, of course Jaime doesn’t have a real plan. Also also, this isn’t funny. It’s just infuriatingly stupid. Already in the palace, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are ready to make their move as well, so these characters are on a collision course for one of the major conflicts of the episode.
This is the worst sort of plot convenience coincidence, and I hate it so much. I know that coincidence is an important part of any kind of storytelling, but this is just absurd. It’s especially intolerable in a show that is ostensibly an adaptation of a book series that has been heavily praised for its realism and its subversion of common tropes. While coincidences are often necessary to make stories happen at all, this one just feels cheap.
Worse, it ends up being anti-climactic as the plans of both groups of conspirators are foiled and everyone is captured after a “fight” scene so heavily choreographed to have no one actually get injured that it feels more like a particularly silly kind of interpretive dance. This is also all spliced with split-second shots of Myrcella cowering and screaming helplessly, which doesn’t do anything to make the scene feel any more interesting. Also, a whip is a terrible weapon if you are fighting against people with swords, no matter how many times you can get it to make that whip cracking sound. AND, for all the Obara seems to be supposed to be “the tough one” of the Sand Snakes, she sure spends a lot of time whirling her spear around not actually hitting anyone. This whole showdown over Myrcella thing is a case of style over substance, and the style isn’t even good.
Back in King’s Landing, Lady Olenna is arrived. In another bit of straight up silliness, her carriage stops before they get to the city just so Olenna can complain that she “can smell the shit from five miles away.” At least this silliness is actually (and intentionally) funny, though. Olenna reassures Margaery that there really is nothing that can be done to Loras, and then she goes to see Cersei, who is entirely unhelpful. Cersei is determined to call what she seems to think is Olenna’s bluff, and Olenna is sent away unsatisfied.
At Loras’s inquest, he denies all the charges, which Margaery backs up. Then, surprise, Olyvar is brought in to testify, with some made up story that he was Loras’s squire and that was how he came to have “relations” with Loras. And, because this is Game of Thrones and the writers have no respect for the source material or the viewers, Loras doesn’t do the smart thing and deny all knowledge of Olyvar. Instead, Loras tries to attack Olyvar and ends up getting himself and his sister in trouble with the Faith. The scene ends with Loras and Margaery both arrested, Tommen looking around uselessly, Olenna looking shocked and disappointed, and Cersei looking smug. This whole “Loras on trial for being gay” thing might actually be the thing I hate most about this season of the show so far, but I am glad Olenna is back. Hopefully, she will be able to make some sense out of things over the next couple of weeks.
Finally, we shift to Winterfell, where Sansa is preparing for her wedding to Ramsay. Myranda pops in to help Sansa bathe, but really she’s there to spitefully tell Sansa about Ramsay’s penchant for hunting women like animals. The more I see of Myranda this season, the more furious I am that the writers felt the need to create an original character just to play out some bullshit female jealousy plot. There’s literally no reason for Myranda to be jealous of Sansa. She knows Ramsay, and she knows what is likely to happen to Sansa at Ramsay’s hands. It just doesn’t make sense that Myranda would care one way or the other about Sansa at this point, and it’s honestly really gross that she seems to take so much pleasure in Ramsay’s treatment of other women. I also hate that this bath scene is set up as a sort of “empowering” scene for Sansa. How empowering is it, really, for Sansa to profess her lack of fear in Winterfell when we, the viewers, know as well as Myranda does what is about to happen to Sansa in just a few minutes? If anything, this just makes Sansa seem naive in the face of such imminent danger.
Even the washing out of Sansa’s dark dyed hair seems to symbolize a regression in her character, an undoing of all the supposed growth we’ve seen in her over the last season or so of the show, and by the time she is dressed for the wedding, Sansa looks nearly as young and girlish as we’ve ever seen her. When Theon arrives to escort her to the godswood, Sansa makes one last show of spirit by refusing to even touch this man that she believes murdered her little brothers, but by the time of the actual wedding, she seems perpetually teary-eyed.
The final scene of the episode is, as I expected it would be, Sansa’s rape on her wedding night. After verbally humiliating Sansa, Ramsay orders her to take her clothes off while he tells Theon to stay in the room to watch. Fortunately, I suppose, we don’t have to watch–we just have to listen to Sansa crying out in pain as Ramsay brutalizes her while the camera slowly zooms in on Theon’s agonized face. Because, goodness knows, it’s important to remember who the real victim is here.
In some ways, this scene wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I rather expected that the show would choose this scene to really be faithful to the books, and I’m glad to have been wrong about that. However, they still managed to turn this wedding to Ramsay into a complete degradation of Sansa, with the rape coming right on the heels of an exhibition of her supposed “empowerment” so as to make if feel even more as if Sansa is being put in her place. Even worse, they framed this violation of Sansa in a way that makes it less about her experience and more about Theon’s pain at being forced to watch–even though this would have been a great opportunity for Theon to get his spine back and do something, anything, to try and protect Sansa. Instead, Theon just watches and weeps.
In light of everything that happens in this episode, I suppose the episode’s title might be meant as aspirational, but mostly it just feels sarcastic and mocking by the end of it.