I can’t decide if this is the best episode so far this season or the worst. On the one hand, “The Broken Man” is relatively well-constructed and most of its storylines are halfway coherent, which is a nice change. On the other hand, it’s incredibly boring (very little actually happens, and there’s no action to speak of) and contains some pretty horrendously offensive messaging in multiple storylines. This week, in the interest of clarity (and, with any luck, brevity) because there were so many short scenes as the show shifted between characters and locations, I’m going to just cover each storyline separately. I think this is going to be the new normal for these recaps, too, as the shift, in the first few episodes this season, towards longer sequences instead of lots of moving around in short choppy segments doesn’t seem to have stuck, in spite of the fact that it helped significantly with the show being able to convey passage of time and in general made for a more pleasant and less disjointed viewing experience.
In any case, spoilers, obviously, under the cut.
The Return of the Hound
The episode opens with a positively pastoral scene, with several dozen people building a tiny sept in the middle of a beautifully green field under the direction of guest star Ian McShane’s character, who IMDb calls “Brother Ray,” but who I can’t recall actually being called by name in the episode. In any case, he seems to be something of an amalgam of a couple of characters from A Feast for Crows, which book readers will figure out immediately and which almost spoils the reveal that Sandor Clegane is still alive, living and working with these people somewhere in I guess kind of the Riverlands. It’s hard to tell where they are to be honest, but far enough south to see no signs that winter is coming—although at this point, I think it’s safe to say that winter has been around for a couple of years in-show—and completely out of sight of any town, which rather begs the question of why they are building a sept here at all, but that’s really beside the point. Because the truth is that none of these characters actually matter, and you shouldn’t get too attached to them because they’re literally all massacred senselessly by the end of the hour to free up Sandor so he can go hunt down his brother.
I’m not even kidding. Early in the episode, Sandor is asked by Brother Ray what keeps him alive, to which the Hound responds “hate.” Which could be for lots of people I guess, and Sandor does seem to pretty much hate everyone, but only the Hound’s hatred for his brother really seems to be the kind of deep and abiding hatred that one stays alive for. That said, that’s a pretty generous interpretation of the scene. Sure, Sandor’s hatred for Gregor Clegane was seeded all the way back in season one, but for this scene to be interesting or exciting it almost requires some book and fandom knowledge, and that’s in addition to a commitment to giving the show an awful lot of benefit of the doubt.
The thing is, there’s no character arc here, no growth to speak of, really. Seemingly resurrected Sandor Clegane in season seven is just as surly and misanthropic as he was in season one. You might think that he’s a little more introspective, but not really. Perhaps we could say that he’s a bit deeper of a thinker, as he engages in something of a theological argument with Brother Ray, but Ray’s theological illiteracy doesn’t offer much challenge, and Sandor isn’t saying anything he hasn’t said in the past. Overall, this whole sequence, upon which many minutes are spent throughout the episode, functions primarily as a reintroduction of Sandor Clegane rather than a reinvention or evolution of the character. Dragging it out over the whole episode is excessive when the time could be better used in any number of other plotlines, and tossing in a massacre at the end to get rid of all the one-off characters is downright gratuitous.
Probably this is meant to give Sandor some kind extra motivation to do whatever he does next, but it seems unlikely that the show will properly bring back the Brotherhood Without Banners, who are responsible for the killings. My guess is that Sandor will be heading to King’s Landing and a confrontation with his brother, but the deaths of Brother Ray and his small flock have nothing to do with that at all. If Sandor hasn’t truly been changed by these people and he’s not going to go avenge their murders, it’s an egregiously unpleasant and frankly nihilistic bit of “storytelling” that honestly accomplishes very little. It’s an awful lot of backfilling exposition with no particular direction or forward movement until the very end, and it’s a terrible waste of the delightful Ian McShane.
Margaery and King’s Landing
At the Great Sept, Margaery is studiously reading the Book of the Seven when the High Sparrow pops in to harass her about why she hasn’t been doing her wifely duties to her child husband. She tries to get out of it with some pious garbage about how she doesn’t have the desire anymore, but the High Sparrow disgustingly informs her that “congress doesn’t require desire on the woman’s part, only patience.” It’s gross to watch, and it’s just more of this show’s strawmanning of religion in general. I don’t even have a high opinion of religion, myself, but this show’s depiction of its various religions all just blend together into a sickening smoothie of un-nuanced characterizations. Religious people in Game of Thrones—at least in organized religion; the Wildlings and Northerners are actually very romanticized—are all either hopelessly naïve and stupid or unfathomably cynical and evil or both/all.
On that note, we get confirmation this week that Margaery’s apparent piety is indeed an act. I was fairly certain it was, but it’s good to know for sure. However, this is communicated in a profoundly silly way. After the High Sparrow finishes guilting Margaery about how she needs to make a baby with Tommen ASAP, he straight up threatens her grandmother. This sends Margaery straight to Olenna, and Margaery manages to convince her grandmother to return to Highgarden after trying to explain how Loras can get out of church jail if he just confesses to his crimes and gives up his name, lands and titles. While Margaery is pleading with Olenna to go home, she manages to pass the older woman a note. I thought it would be a letter, maybe some explanation or assurance that Margaery has an exit strategy here, but nope. Nothing so useful or sensible. It’s just a picture of a rose, but it’s enough to convince Olenna to leave at last.
Before Olenna gets out of town (I really hope she does, by the way) she gets to have one more meeting with Cersei, who approaches the Queen of Thorns (I feel like D&D don’t understand that this was a somewhat mocking and cutesy nickname in the books) to say that they need to work together against the High Sparrow. Cersei makes a decent case, but Olenna declines, pointing out that the whole reason they’re in this situation at all is because of Cersei’s bad decision-making. Unfortunately, as cathartic as this dressing down is, it actually does make a lot more sense right now for the two families to work together against their common foe, and, realistically, there’s more than enough blame to go around here. We can always trust Game of Thrones to keep women constantly at each other’s throats, though. Because feminism, or something.
Jon, Sansa, Davos, and the North
Apparently, Jon Snow didn’t actually secure the support of the wildlings before he started counting them as part of his army, which seems like a major oversight, but that’s what he’s dealing with to kick off his and Sansa’s whirlwind tour of the North this week. Some of the wildlings seem to have some legitimate concerns, but that’s all brushed aside when the giant decides to follow Jon, because apparently the giant is the leader of the wildlings now or something. The rest of the episode is spent with Jon, Sansa, and Davos traveling around to a couple of the smaller Northern houses trying to drum up more support for their cause, with mixed success.
The standout scene of this storyline this week is also one of the episode’s most frustrating. Sansa and Jon go to Bear Island—apparently via teleporter—where they have to negotiate with Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the ten-year-old who is running the place. I love young Lady Mormont herself, and Bella Ramsey turns in an absolutely scene-stealing performance. However, I hate the way this scene was used to pit two girls (Sansa and Lyanna) against each other, and I hate that Sansa is being so lowkey sidelined in her own plot. After unsuccessfully trying to bond with the younger girl, Sansa has to stand there in frustrated silence while Davos sweet talks the child into giving them her sixty-two men. Sansa’s not being completely cut out of the story the way Melisandre seems to be—I expect that D&D just have very little use for Mel now that Jon is safely resurrected—but it’s still very obvious whose story this really is as Jon and Davos take center stage and shove Sansa figuratively and literally into the background.
After Bear Island, the company teleports to Deepwood Motte, where they’re soundly rebuffed by Lord Glover, who is still pretty sore about how Robb Stark fucked the whole North and got a lot of people killed. Like last week’s look at where the Freys are now, this is another case of very selective application of logic and consequences. Sure, this all makes sense, but literally no one gave a shit about it until just now, and it just doesn’t ring true, probably because literally no one anywhere in Westeros cares at all about tradition, honor, and dynastic politics except for when it’s convenient to what we can only generously refer to as the “plot.”
Oh, and remember how Sansa told Littlefinger to take his army and shove it? Yeah, her resolve is already crumbling on that point. I mean, she should have taken his army in the first place, so this is a wise choice for her, but why not just have her do the smart thing to begin with? (We know why.)
Jaime and Riverrun
Jaime and Bronn make it to Riverrun this week, where they swiftly take control from the Freys, who are apparently completely inept at everything. It’s nice to have Bronn back, although I could have done without yet another joke about eunuchs (“That’s like saying I have a bigger cock than anyone in the Unsullied army.”), especially since it doesn’t actually make any sense that this idiom would exist. Before Daenerys, there was no single Unsullied army; they were slave soldiers that were bought and sold in usually smallish groups to be used essentially as a type of special forces, and Daenerys’s use of them as her main military force is unprecedented, even in the world of the show. Also, even Dany’s Unsullied have been part of her larger integrated military might. Since “Unsullied army” isn’t really a thing, Bronn’s statement is just one more piece of toxic masculinity in a season heavily characterized by that trait. These writers are obsessed with eunuchs of all kinds, and statements, “jokes,” like this have come up again and again this year.
The Riverrun stuff this week is notable largely in how more or less true to the books it is, and not even just on the surface. It’s even pretty true to the spirit of the source material, for what it’s worth. Sadly, at this point in the show, that’s not worth much. It’s fascinating, in a way, to see the show so slavishly devoted to adapting scenes from the books after several seasons now of showing that they have little understanding and less respect for the source material, but I can’t even summon up much academic interest in comparing the show and books at this point. The Riverrun material is familiar, and there’s still some part of me that enjoys seeing the show when it’s at its best, as it assuredly is here, but without the rest of the show’s many moving parts in alignment, it doesn’t matter. Jaime going toe to toe with the Blackfish is entertaining, but not particularly interesting. As Brynden Tully says, sieges are dull.
Yara and Theon
As expected, Yara and Theon have taken the Ironborn fleet to Essos, but instead of heading straight to Slaver’s Bay and Daenerys, or even just continuing to run in order to be certain of evading their enraged uncle Euron, they’ve stopped off in Volantis to visit a brothel. Literally everything that happens here is gross, and on multiple levels.
- Yara is based on a character from the books, Asha, who is aggressively heterosexual, which offers some interesting commentary in the books on how a woman like that can exist in a violently patriarchal society. The show has chosen to portray her as an aggressively misogynistic lesbian (arguably bi, but this is the first time we’ve gotten any evidence of her sexuality at all) who very literally objectifies other women (“Nothing in the Iron Islands has an ass like that.”) and happily consumes the services of a sex slave.
- The show continues to portray sex slaves as cheerfully willing participants in their own oppression. Because slavery is bad, except when the show wants to encourage the audience to leer the tits at trafficked and raped women.
- Yara mocks Theon’s lack of interest in the brothel, which is due to the emotional and physical trauma that he’s suffered, then apologizes, then says she’d never hurt him, in spite of the fact that she literally just said something incredibly cruel and hurtful.
- Yara admits that Euron is hunting for them, but still thinks it’s a cool idea to just chill out in a brothel full of slaves because “it’s a great big world and we have fast ships.” I mean, okay, but Euron knows exactly where they are headed. I’m not sure what annoys me about this the most: that we’re supposed to believe that Euron has magically built a fleet of his own already or that Yara has no fucks to give about it.
- Yara encourages Theon to drink, even though he doesn’t want to. Because she “[doesn’t] care what [he] want[s].” This is definitely not another totally cruel and hurtful thing to say.
- Yara minimizes Theon’s experience by referring to it as “a few bad years.”
- Still forcing him to drink, she does manage to offer the consolation that he has escaped and that he’s never going back to Ramsay, which is good. However, she frames this all in the context of her need for her brother’s support, and she goes on to tell him that if he can’t get over his trauma he should kill himself.
- Yara is explicitly shown to be narcissistic and abusive here, and it’s all framed as heartwarming sibling bonding, complete with a sweet kiss from Yara on Theon’s forehead and some nice music to underscore the point that we’re supposed to be rooting for this moment.
Finally, in Braavos, Arya books her passage back to Westeros, but she still has to survive another night until the ship leaves. Unfortunately, the Waif catches up with her first and stabs her in the belly several times before Arya leaps over the edge of the bridge they’re on and doesn’t resurface right away. The Waif looks over the edge of the bridge for a few seconds, then smirks and leaves, which is a good thing, since Arya pops right back up at the shore almost immediately and if the Waif had stuck around for even a full minute, she’d have seen her. This is all profoundly stupid.
Why wouldn’t Arya be on the first ship to anywhere? Surely there are ships from Westeros coming and going constantly, but if she’s concerned about her safety in Braavos, I’d think anywhere would do to start with.
If Arya isn’t in fear of her life—and she doesn’t particularly act like she is—why the fuck not?
How does the Waif stab Arya several times without being sure of a killing blow? If she wanted to torture Arya or prolong Arya’s death, why not secure Arya first? Even if she is pretty sure that Arya is dead, why would she not stick around for more than a few seconds to make certain?
Are we really supposed to believe that a young girl can walk down the street in Braavos, holding her guts in, bleeding all over, and clearly reeling with shock and not a single person gives a shit? People just stare and glare at her like they’re pissed off that she’s getting blood everywhere? LOL, okay. I mean, sure, there have been instances in real life of pretty appalling things being ignored by crowds, but these people aren’t ignoring Arya; they’re staring right at her, looking angry and disgusted, which is very different than just ignoring her.
How is Arya going to survive this? Because surely she is, but the injuries she’s sustained are ones that can kill over days and weeks if she doesn’t die immediately. She’s alone in Braavos and it seems unlikely that the Waif won’t find out somehow that Arya is still alive. There aren’t even other characters in town for her to have a serendipitous meeting with, and she probably will need to make some new travel plans. I just don’t even really understand where the show is going with this. Probably she’s going to go to the House of Black and White and Jaqen H’Ghar will heal her somehow, but that seems even stupider than this mess. Who even knows.