by: Geoffrey Golia w/ Michael Shields
ATM’s GOT Guru (#GOTguru) returns after a week’s hiatus and triumphantly makes up for lost time, readying us for the final three episodes of Season 6….
Apologies are in order for missing last week’s column. By way of making amends, I’m going to include some context and commentary from last week’s episode, “Blood of My Blood” as I deconstruct this week’s episode “The Broken Man.” But, first, a small cavil:
I was, initially, concerned about covering this season of Game of Thrones for Across the Margin. Clearly, I love writing this column, and when invited back, I jumped at the chance to lend my voice to the chorus of those who provide context and commentary from the perspective of book readers. My concern, however, had to do with the fact that the show was going to advance the narrative beyond the published books and, I assumed, take something away from the depth and breadth of the story. It is, after all, the vastness of Martin’s creation, with its rabbit trails and subplots, which allows us to lose ourselves in the story (one of the true wonders of the written word) and find diverse characters, places, and ideas that shed light on the variance of human experience, beliefs, and values. While at times, I lament the inevitable loss of this diversity (how can this show possibly come close to the vastness of the books?), there are also moments when the show pays homage to some of the book’s most interesting and memorable scenes. At best, these are incredibly satisfying, confirming and reifying both my initial image of the scene and the feelings and thoughts that are brought up when I read (or reread, a million times) those sections of the books. At its worst, a scene or a character or a bit of dialogue just does not live up to the book, and it’s like ordering your favorite pizza and it just comes out wrong.
“The Broken Man” included both. In terms of bad pizza, we have the return of Sandor Clegane and the extended dialogue about the challenges of healing from one’s emotional and physical traumas, atoning for sins, and seeking to do good in the world. We find Sandor (the warrior formerly known as “The Hound”) living in a commune led by Brother Ray, an iconoclastic, down-to-earth Septon who seems committed to trying to help ordinary people live peaceful and fruitful lives. Ray and his flock, along with Sandor, are building a sept on a plot of land. During meals, and what I can only describe as medieval group therapy, Ray engages his flock, and especially Sandor, in discussions on ethics in the context of the moral vacuum that is Westerosi society. Sandor, a former scoundrel currently trying to reform himself, and Ray, also a former scoundrel but much further along on his moral journey, are perfect for this dialogue, and Ray really pushes Sandor to wrestle with some heavy, existential questions.
Brother Ray is a combination of two minor, but philosophically important, characters from A Feast For Crows, book four in the series: Septon Meribald – an itinerant, good-natured Septon who travels an annual circuit of minor Riverlands villages, providing succor (and, occasionally oranges) to the poor inhabitants – and the Elder Brother on the Quiet Isle, who oversees a colony of penitents, many of whom have sought refuge from the recent horrors afflicting Westeros (including a rather large man who walks with a noticeable limp and has an affection for dogs). While the Elder Brother has a good deal to say about ethics and the effects of trauma, Septon Meribald gives perhaps the most important commentary in the (book) series on the futility of war. Aside from Martin’s own contention that his books are fundamentally about “the human heart in conflict with itself,” I’d argue that this work has an awful lot to say about how people ought to, and ought not to, treat others, especially in the context of armed conflict.
Septon Meribald’s speech is too long to place here, but it was not too long to include in the show. While it was great that the show featured a character that spoke important truths about man’s inhumanity to man – and his unfortunate demise provided a perfect symbol for the essential impossibility of decency in the show’s universe – Brother Ray’s monologue in this episode lacked Meribald’s radical authenticity.
On the other hand, Jaime’s parley with the Blackfish was a perfect pizza pie. And while much of my appreciation has to do with the fact that this is one of my favorite encounters in the book, the execution and fidelity to the spirit and letter of the text was profound.
This scene, also featured in Feast, is part of Jaime’s “redemption” arc, where he is sent to the Riverlands to subdue the last of Robb Stark’s bannermen, most notably, Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully, who is holding Riverrun – the Tully’s ancestral castle – along with Robb’s widow, Jeyne Westerling, and other members of her family. Jaime, rolling deep with a Lannister host and a gaggle of loyal friends and relatives, encounters the pathetic Frey siege of Riverrun, and vows to end it and seize the castle. Remembering his vow to Catelyn never to take up arms against House Stark and their allies, and seeking to redeem himself for his previous ethical transgressions, Jaime fantasizes about persuading, one way or another, the Blackfish to turn over the castle.
These chapters find Jaime reminiscing about a boyhood encounter with the Blackfish, which reveals Jaime’s continued respect for the seasoned and principled warrior. There is a level of self-awareness on Jaime’s part which was hitherto missing both in his deeds and in his thoughts. But there is also a familiar swagger, which he levels – satisfyingly – against the Freys, who are inept, sloppy, undisciplined, and unprincipled.The show, with a few deviations (Bronn), sets this scene up well, and Jaime’s encounter with the Blackfish, almost verbatim from Feast, is really just fun to watch. Jaime, doing his best trying to be honorable and interpersonally effective, and the Blackfish throwing everything back in Jaime’s face: “Bargaining with oathbreakers is like building on quicksand.” You can’t help but feel a little bad for the guy. Perhaps the only thing that was missing was Jaime’s thoughtful and somewhat self-deprecating internal monologue. I won’t say much more because, of course, I know what’s going to happen, and Unsullied, for the most part, don’t. But, clearly, I’m looking forward to more Jaime, more Blackfish, and much more Frey humiliation.
Finally, I’ll just say that, to me, this season is showing a lot more reverence for the books; perhaps not to the letter of the books, but definitely the spirit, than it is getting credit for. Some of my aforementioned concerns remain, but I, as a book reader, am feeling basically OK with the how the show is panning out. I hope my loyal and lovely readers feel the same.
And that, my friends, was the longest introduction to my weekly column I’ll ever subject you all to.
MCS: Speculation leading up the seventh episode of the season titled “The Broken Man” was about the return of the Hound. The reason for that is twofold. The first is that everyone is clamoring for a trial by combat featuring the Clegane brothers, Gregor and Sandane (The Mountain and the Hound), and Cersei mentioned a trial by combat just last week. The second reason is that many assumed the Hound could return at some point due to hints dropped by Deadwood’s Ian McShane (who does not give one fuck about spoilers) as he described who his character would be this season:
” . . . an ex-warrior who has become a peacenik. So I have this group of peaceful….sort of a cult, a peaceful tribe. I bring back a much loved character who everyone thinks is dead.”
While I am personally ecstatic to have the Hound back in the fold, it was disheartening to see a one and done for McShane’s character, the superb Septon Ray. It just doesn’t seem fair even in the world of GOT! I need/want more. But he did do a profound service though, by giving us back the Hound, and fueling his fire so to speak! (“God’s not done with you yet”) But questions remain. Why is the Hound still with us? What is his purpose now?
G.G.: As I eluded to in my introduction, there is a ton of speculation that the large man with a limp on the Quiet Isle is a reformed, penitent Sandor Clegane, who is atoning for his sins and seeking a more peaceful life. I’d bet a six pack of beer that that character probably is, or was, the Hound. Interestingly enough, there is also a bit of a debate about the future of that character; some want to see the Hound re-emerge to piously defeat his brother, Gregor, who has been necromanced into Cersei’s giant Kingsguard knight. Others, including myself (and, apparently, the Elder Brother), made peace with Sandor’s transition, and – to the extent that this is possible for a fictional character – hoped he could heal from his traumas. Given Sandor’s reaction to the bloody demise of Brother Ray’s group, Sandor is forced to face his Michael Corleone moment: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” To the extent that we can deduce any future directions for the books from the show, it’s clear Sandor is ready to kill again. The real question is: in what spirit will he be doing the killing? Will he be become a champion for the weak and dispossessed? Will he be hell bent on revenge and fratricide? Only time, and his axe, will tell.
I’ll say this though: the perpetrators of the Brother Ray massacre appeared to be members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, Beric Dondarrion and Thoros or Myr’s group of renegades and vigilantes who have since become amoral mercenaries and squatters. We know Sandor has some history with them. While many fans are hoping that Sandor will eventually dispatch his zombified brother, my feeling is he is headed off to dispatch the BwB….with extreme prejudice.
MCS: I was convinced after last week that Margaery was putting on a brilliant act, and playing the Sparrow like a deck o’ cards. She is no dummy, and she is a survivor. This was confirmed some when she slipped her grandmother a picture of a rose. Can you help us with the significance of the rose (family ties I presume?) and do you have thoughts about Margaery’s game plan?
G.G.: One of the differences between the show and the book is the portrayal of Margaery which, now that I think about it, has more to do with the fact that the show presents her point of view, whereas in the books, we only ever hear about her from other character’s’ perspective (mostly, Cersei)1. This is not to say that she isn’t shrewd and smart in the books; merely that we can see her strength and poise, and cunning, that we witness in the show because of the narrative structure.
I think Tommen drank the Kool-aid, but it’s pretty clear that Margaery is playing a dangerous game by trying to pull the wool over the High Sparrow’s eyes, and I really don’t know if it will work. She’s fighting for something larger here than just her life, legacy, and crown. Like Anne Boleyn, who it’s clear she’s at least in part modeled after, Margaery is fighting for Royal Supremacy over the Faith – the notion that the monarch should exert authority over the religious institutions and clergy, including the nominal head of the religious establishment. It was Anne Boleyn’s albeit convenient advocacy of this position that led her future husband, Henry VIII, to declare himself the head of the Church in England and supplant the Pope’s authority, thereby allowing him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne. In Westeros, royal supremacy over the Faith was established, after a long, protracted battle, by the Targaryens a while back. We’re seeing why the Targaryans, and now Margaery, are eager to do away with this overmighty septon and his army of club-wielding zealots.
With respect to the rose, I think it meant this: “I am still a Tyrell, I still believe that the Great Houses of Westeros should wield temporal power over this land, I am playing a long-game here, and your cooperation is necessary in order for me to try to fix this mess Cersei has created, that her son is exacerbating.” All I can wonder now is, will Queen Margaery share the same fate as Queen Anne?
MCS: Jon is rallying the Wildlings again and while reluctant at first, the last of the Free Folk are all in. But teaming with the wildlings got put him in a tight spot (well….dead) before. Is there any history of Wildlings working with those below the Wall before Jon?
G.G.: Wildings (or Free Folk, as they like to be called) are, by definition, those who reside north of the Wall. And despite the fact that they have developed distinctive languages and culture, and a pathological mistrust of centralized authority, the only reason they’re Wildlings is because, when the Wall went up, their descendants happened to be north of it.
I think it’s easy to feel sympathetic to the Wildling cause, even prior to our full understanding of the threat the White Walkers pose, not to mention the toll their war against the living has had on Wildling communities. This is part of the reason why Jon’s progressive Wildling policy is compelling. Yes, he is trying to reduce the number of potential murderous zombies those south of the Wall have to deal with, but it is also a humanitarian vision. Jon, especially in the books, broke bread with the Free Folk, and had some hot and steamy cave sex with one of them, so it makes sense that he would seek to help them.
Still, the history between the Wildlings and particularly the Northern Houses closest to the Wall is a long one of continuous conflict, kidnapping, murder, and mistrust. There have been many acute incidents that make this mistrust somewhat logical but, like all prejudice and bias, these differences between those north of the Wall and those south of it are social constructions, borne of economic hardship, an unjust social and political paradigm, and a type of medieval red-lining or segregation. I mean, they literally built a wall separating one group of humans from another.
So, to make a long story short (too late): No, there are very few, if any, instances of Wildling-Northerner cooperation after the establishment of the Wall and the Night’s Watch. Of course, more thoughtful members of the Night’s Watch, particularly Rangers, were able to work, to an extent, with Wildlings like Craster (ugh, remember him?), but as you can see from the reaction of the Northern houses in the show (like, for instance, the Glover’s), some bad blood remains. Interestingly enough, in the books, two representatives of Northern Houses visit Jon at the Wall, and interact with the Wildlings; there is speculation that they are feeling Jon out in the context of some conspiracy to legitimize him as a Stark. To sum up, Northerners are a mixed bag; some show emotional and intellectual flexibility and can understand the existential threat the White Walkers constitute and, in doing so, can accept the Wildling policy; for others, old grudges die hard.
MCS: Who was that young lady (Lady Lyanna, played by Bella Ramsey) Sansa and Robb were pitching? She is, as the kids say, a boss. Rumor is she is related to Jorah…is this true? And named after Ned’s sister no doubt?? It turns out the North does indeed remember, all sixty two of them! I expected this rallying of the troops to yield more. Is House Stark dead?
G.G.: That, my friends, is Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island. Bear Island is a tough place that breeds tough people, and because the island is subject to attacks by both Wildlings and Iron Born, the women have to be able to hold their own in battle….and sixty two seasoned Bear Island warriors, at least in my mind, is a pretty good get for the Stark children. Lady Lyanna is the youngest daughter of the Maege “the She-Bear” Mormont, who rode to war with Robb Stark when he called his banners, along with her other daughters (Lyanna’s sisters) Dacey, Alysane, Lyra, and Jorelle. (She has no sons and her husband has not been mentioned in the books.) In the books, Maege is currently searching the Neck, along with Galbart Glover, looking for Howland Reed. Dacey was murdered along with Robb Stark’s other companions at The Red Wedding, leaving Alysane as Maege’s heir. The exact location of Lyra and Jorelle is unknown, leaving Lyanna as the Acting Lady of House Mormont on Bear Island. And, yes, Lyanna is related to Jorah: Maege is Jeor Mormont’s younger sister, and Jeor’s son, who he left Bear Island to when he “took the black”, is Jorah Mormont, the President of the Daenerys Targaryen fan-club. (And, let us not forget that Jorah was exiled by Ned Stark for engaging in the slave trade.)
It’s obvious that House Stark is not dead, at least not yet….and I honestly don’t think it will go extinct before the end of the series. Sansa and Rickon are still in the picture, and most people believe Jon is Ned Stark’s bastard. We all know that Arya is still alive….or is she? And, as of now, Bran is chilling with a semi-undead Ben Jen Stark (Ned’s younger brother, and the show’s version of the “Coldhands” character from the books) way, way, way north of the Wall. So there are Starks all over the place.
The questions is, can House Stark retake Winterfell and reassert its over-lordship over the North? That is clearly Sansa’s project, with mixed results as of now. (One major disadvantage is Sansa’s two marriages to unpopular Houses; I can see the rampant sexism of Westeros, and the laws that buttress that sexism somehow complicating her claim to be a Stark.) And even if we all agree that that will be the end game, how will it look? As someone who supports Northern sovereignty and likes to see glass ceilings shatter, I hope we end up with Sansa as Queen of North, though who knows what the map will look like when all is said and done. I just really like Sansa and believe that women should be able to rule in their own right. And it’s clearly working really well for Bear Island.
MCS: Who did Snasa write to? Littlefinger right? If so that’s disheartening but I understand I suppose…
G.G.: Either Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully or Brienne of Tarth or, gods forbid, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Blackfish has a bunch of Tully men-at-arms and remains loyal to the Stark cause. Brienne swore a vow and may have some part to play in the coming hostilities. And Petyr, despite Sansa’s “fuck you,” does have a huge, fresh army of men of the Vale (and we know that Sweetrobin does love him some Sansa). I hope it’s the Blackfish and, given what I know about his fate, it is well within the realm of possibility.
MCS: Arya is fine right? I won’t accept any answer but “yes, she is certainly fine.” I am eager for her to heal, and then take out the Waif before she splits town. Is this going to happen? And again, the only answer I will accept is an affirmative one.
G.G.: Clearly Arya is not going to go out like that. So, yes, she will be fine. I won’t promise she, or anyone, will be fine for the duration of the books/series, but all that ninja training has to come into use at some point. Knowing Arya, she’ll probably take down the entire House of Black and White.
- In case you didn’t know, the books are structured via POV chapters; some characters, including very important ones, have not been featured as POVs, and we only see them through others’ eyes. [↩]