Episodes of Game of Thrones are titled after events, names or phrases that exist in the show’s reality, but in most cases the narrative of an episode is spread across so many characters and locations that the title doesn’t mean much. This episode at least tries to have some levels of similarity between some separate narratives to show how “No One”, how conflicts of identity, are operating in front of and behind the scenes to change the stage and the players.
(I assume any audience reading about Game of Thrones has read a lot about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones and I will not be responsible for any information you may gain as a consequence of reading this. As particular plot lines for the rest of this season have been leaked, I will write this in a way that will not talk about those).
Lady Crane leads off this episode with a moving elegy for Joffrey (!) in her portrayal of Cersei Lannister. Cersei has been and remains one of the more difficult entities in Westeros to actually adapt, because her book self is not a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s not only a villain, she just might set her priorities a bit (okay, more than a bit) badly. But the show here is highlighting the danger of underestimating Cersei; that she is always more calculating than she might appear superficially, and she will wreck her enemies if allowed to do so. This doesn’t even qualify as foreshadowing, because everyone in the audience should know by now that Cersei is dangerous.
Lady Crane is similarly deeper than she might appear, as she is able to apply some first aid to Arya because she has some experience with both causing and curing stab wounds. Of course one might ask “hey why did the Waif do such a poor job of stabbing Arya” but it’s because the show can’t kill another Stark okay just calm down and let her plot armor slide. Also Lady Crane did something to Bianca’s face as revenge for Bianca putting out an assassination order for Lady Crane. This violence is very casually mentioned by Lady Crane and unremarked on by Arya because I guess Arya has no moral high ground here saying as how she’s done worse to people who tried to kill her.
Arya you need to talk to GRRM about this because he says one of your ancestors (one of many Kings in the North named Brandon) tried to find out and he was never heard from again. Also he says no one actually knows; naval / compass / food storage? technology isn’t good enough to allow someone to survive crossing the Sunset Sea. But this all raises the good point that Maesters, the proto-scientists of this world, do know that the world is round. Lady Crane (education = ?) might not but Lady Arya if she was ever taught by a Maester (…and she was) should know about this. That makes this seem like an act where Arya is pretending to be a commoner who got in over their head, when she’s actually a noble who intentionally chose to put herself (and anyone near her…) in mortal danger.
These four guys are sitting around a campfire being, you know, dumb guys, when suddenly they find themselves in a horror movie starring one Sandor Clegane who just dispatches with their lives for the crime of … well Sandor/the audience knows that two of them are bad guys, but one of them just gets de-headed for standing in Sandor’s way, and the other gets an axe to the chest for the same reason. Two of these guys did recently wipe out a whole small village but the other two are maybe not actually evil but Sandor is one of the good guys (?) on the show so we’re just going to move on to the next scene rather than think about the ethics of what just happened here.
The show chose to send Varys across the Narrow Sea along with Tyrion because Varys wants to help Daenerys become the Queen of Westeros. So here we are a season and a half later and Varys is … going across the Narrow Sea in the opposite direction to help Daenerys become the Queen of Westeros. Both of these are what, in the books, would be something that Varys would not have to do himself, but in the show he has to go because the plot has to move with characters we know. So… when he shows up in (I have my leak-based suspicions about where) don’t act too surprised. Anyway before he leaves he tries to point out to Tyrion that making alliances with religious fanatics is a bad idea (Varys watches what happens when Lannisters make alliances with religious fanatics), Tyrion makes a quip dismissing Varys’s concerns and then after expositioning Varys leaves. It all feels odd because Tyrion is only alive because Varys risked and upended his own life to save him. And here Tyrion is just … letting Varys go. No mention of security or … uh, who Varys is going to see or what to do if Varys’s trip doesn’t work… It’s the show using mystery artificially and it’s kind of annoying. Varys “can’t” tell Tyrion where he’s going because then the show can’t surprise us in the finale when he arrives there. Blech.
In the books at least the Faith Militant are a collective term for both a group of nobles and a group of commoners. Here the term is all-inclusive, there’s no indication that there’s two groups that have joined together. The Faith Militant are warrior monks who have given up their Earthly claims (kind of like the Night’s Watch) in order to serve the Seven and here they confront:
1 a Maester who has been un-chained
2 a Queen who has been overthrown
3 a Mountain’s corpse who has been reborn
And there’s just like oodles of subtext here as people act out the roles they have had placed on them, in order to serve the gods they wish to serve. It seems, in light of everything Lancel knows, like this is a weird time for Lancel to ask Cersei if she chooses violence. Since when has Cersei not chosen violence? Cersei was so sick of Robert Baratheon owning her that she conspired to have him die a violent death. Lancel should know about this, since he helped that violent death occur. The unnamed Faith Militant who attacks an UNDEAD MONSTER should know about this but it’s okay he then loses his head in this episode’s fifth murder and second beheading and ominous music plays over this because Gregor is a monster and the episode wants us to really know that there’s future violence planned here by golly! This scene is kind of amazing to see because Cersei is pulling a very villainous move here. Gregor full-on murders this Faith Militant guy in front of everyone and she maybe thinks she can get away with it.
I’m not calling Brienne or Pod jerks, they’re not jerks, but they’re going to be talking to some very blatant jerks in the Riverlands. Bronn is … well, Bronn. I don’t think there’s much to say about Bronn because he’s still the same Bronn as he always was, which is a bit jerky. But he’s nice (… in a way) towards Pod because the two of them were once Tyrion’s pals. Also Bronn remembers that Pod had the weirdest scene ever on the show (FYI “cock merchants” gets second place). The real jerk here is Jaime. He’s nice (…in a way) to Brienne for part of a conversation at least, claiming he’s proud of Brienne for fulfilling her duty. Before he reminds her/the audience that he is still Pro-Cersei and, like Cersei, might actually want Sansa dead, or maybe just brought to trial for a crime she didn’t commit (not that he knows that). And like Cersei he sees nothing ethically wrong with the Red Wedding. Jaime is playing his identity very very strongly here, insisting that as a Lannister he can’t side with Sansa (even though that was once his oath) or against the Freys (even though he finds them boorish at best). This scene is probably the closest Season 6 Jaime has been to acting like his Book 3+ self. There’s very strong indications of some kind of ethical struggle; Brienne feels as if she’s just words away from getting Jaime to realize how ridiculously hypocritical he is being here, but she leaves because she realizes that reasoning with this man is a lost cause, so she might as well try to reason with a different stubborn man.
Speaking of people really playing up their family identity, I also don’t think that the Blackfish is a jerk. The show for some reason chose to make the story of Riverrun more complicated; here it was lost to the Freys, then a resurgent Tully army led by Brynden took it over, and the Freys are so desperate to get it back that they call in the Lannisters. Brynden doesn’t actually have the “right” to hold Riverrun; the Tully family inheritance passed from his older brother Hoster to Edmure, and Edmure is still alive. It is in Brynden’s best interests (in terms of legitimacy) for Edmure to die, which is why the Freys were dumb earlier when they were earlier threatening to kill Edmure. Like, seriously, go ahead Freys. Keep threatening to cut the necks of Tullys, see if that gets you the allegiance of the Riverlands.
Brynden reacts as well as he can to Sansa’s request for help. He’s lost his two nieces, his nephew seems to be halfway to betraying him, he only has the word of the Kingslayer that he can retreat northwards (PS that would drive him past The Twins so he’d also have to hope the Freys up there wouldn’t just set a trap), and as he says this is his home. So Brienne fails. She completely and utterly fails in her quest to get the Tully army for Sansa’s war. This is a hard episode to watch Brienne in because the audience wants her to succeed, to not fail, very strongly, but things just aren’t going to work out. Rewatching this, this is maybe the saddest scene of the season where someone isn’t dying to a pack of zombies.
What shall I write?
Tell her I failed.
No show you don’t get to hit me in the feels so hard how dare you.
Cersei finds out that Tommen doesn’t want her standing near him when he’s speaking from the throne (Cersei is not surprised here, since her son’s gone Full Team Seven Gods) and that Qyburn’s plan to have an undead monster fight for her during her trial by combat is a plan that won’t happen. Cersei is not pleased at either of these failures, and Tommen may or may not be signing a death warrant for his mother (I don’t think the show has explicitly said what will happen to Cersei if she is found guilty of her crimes?) so there is a lot happening here that is not outright said. There’s a lot of nonverbal acting until it turns to a short discussion between Qyburn and Cersei about a rumor the two of them are looking into. The main audience guess as to the rumor’s identity is that it’s a very large stash of explosive materials (wildfire) beneath King’s Landing. In A Feast for Crows he uses wildfire to burn down the Tower of the Hand, and in the show (Season 2) Tyrion gets the idea to use wildfire in the defense of King’s Landing from Cersei (via Lancel). And this season has made a point of showing Aerys II ranting about wildfire. And the show … okay I’ll just stop here and say that this seems like the show wants to make Cersei willing to burn down her enemies, and so … expect bad things to happen in King’s Landing? A Lannister always pays her debts. In full.
I am not at all a fan of watching Tyrion peer pressure Grey Worm and Missandei into drinking. Why is every Lannister a jerk in this episode? Here’s a scene where Tyrion fails to bring peace to Meereen. Earlier this season he argued with Grey Worm and Missandei about peace. They thought that Meereen was doomed to be in conflict with the Masters (the rulers of Astapor, Yunkai, and Pentos) because they view slaves as … well, slaves. Subhuman. He thought that the Masters were people who could accept that Slaver’s Bay could be part free-state and part slave-state. He based this argument on “oh we’ll just give them some money to massively alter their economic system and they’ll be cool with that” because he has little experience living in and no experience governing in Essos. Tyrion was wrong and this is yet another example of where a Lannister could have maybe done a better job of governing if they had been willing to listen to advisors who knew more than them. Tyrion attempting to be Cersei and ruling by gut impulses alone, even if those gut impulses are more cerebral than Cersei’s, still results in Tyrion failing, badly.
This is some Emmy-nomination caliber stuff here as Edmure and Jaime push against one another with nothing but their words. Jaime Lannister puts every non-violent card he has on the table to intimidate the hell out of Edmure, and Edmure, like Brienne earlier, tries to make an appeal to the good nature of Jaime Lannister. But Jaime has no good nature. He wants to be with Cersei and failure is not on the table for him, so he refuses to fail, which requires emotionally breaking Edmure. And Edmure crumples. Edmure has two dead sisters, a son and a wife he hasn’t seen in years, and an uncle who doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He doesn’t want anyone else in his family or his house to die, but Jaime is willing to kill each and every one of them to break Edmure’s resolve.
So Edmure marches up the bridge and demands entry and there’s a brief argument between the guy running the castle’s defenses and the Blackfish over whether Edmure’s demands should be met and we all know where this is going. Everything here is pretty much just-follow-the-numbers. Edmure is let in, the Blackfish is pissed, Edmure orders that everyone put down their weapons, Edmure surrenders Riverrun, the Freys/Lannisters march in. No one is seen dying; it’s a fairly peaceful takeover. Brienne and Pod are still in Riverrun (waiting for the Blackfish, because Brienne feels like she won’t be as much of a failure if she can at least get the Blackfish to come with them) and he tells them he’s going to die fighting. And then he goes off to die, fighting. Offscreen.
It’s possible that the Blackfish escaped here: he might be rowing down the river that Brienne and Pod are rowing up. But unless he paid off a member of the Lannister army it’d be weird for a random member of the Lannister army to report to his commander that Brynden Tully is dead. I think this is an actual death, not a “well it wasn’t seen so they’re not actually dead” moment. But I could be wrong here because I have often erred in my guess on who has or hasn’t died.
And then Jaime sees/hears Pod and Brienne (SLOWLY) rowing away and he … waves at them. And Brienne waves back. It’s possible that Jaime doesn’t pursue Brienne and Pod here because he has some moral fiber. But my feeling here is that he is still underestimating Sansa. Earlier he stated that he already thought she was dead, and here he sees no reason to stop Brienne and Pod because he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if they get back to Sansa, because he’s already assumed that Sansa is a lost cause. And besides he just wants to go home and make out with his sister more; pursuing Brienne and Pod might slow that down, so it’s not worth his time.
Grey Worm tells Tyrion he was dumb. Missandei tells Tyrion he was dumb. Tyrion agrees that he was dumb. Daenerys shows up. Interestingly the Fleet of the Masters is just lobbing everything they have at Meereen, to siege the city until they either land their land forces and take back the city or until Meereen surrenders without a fight. No one in Meereen seems to remember that dragons are really good at setting wooden boats on fire but maybe Viserion and Rhaegal (last seen: being freed of their chains by Tyrion) can’t be released without things … getting worse? But now that Daenerys is here maybe she will remember she has dragons that could be used to attack that Fleet.
Sandor meets up with his old fr… frenemies Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion and the audience realizes that the reason why the Brotherhood Without Banners has turned evil is … … because that was just three guys who went evil, the BWB as an organization is still trying to do its best at protecting the smallfolk from the ravages of endless war and conflict. Here the BWB are hanging three of their turned-bad members; Sandor gets to kick the stump out from underneath the legs of two of them, and this episode’s on-screen death total jumps up to 8.
Later, dining, Sandor misses eating chicken and Thoros and Beric say that they have a reason for still being around: going North to do something about the Others. Maybe this planned change in tactics (from being anti-bandits in the Riverlands to being ? in the North) is why some of the members of the BWB split off. Maybe not all of them believe the rumors about the walking dead, but apparently Thoros and Beric do. I don’t know how to respond to this adaptation change. Thoros, as a R’hllor worshipper, would believe in the Great Other as the divine enemy of R’hllor; that’s who Melisandre believes leads the Others. But I don’t know if Thoros would come to the same theological conclusions. Nor do I know why Beric would think he would be more important in the North than in the Riverlands other than “because Thoros said so,” which is just building guesses on top of guesses; it’s putting a mysterious character choice as the responsibility of a different character whose choices were also not explored. As the scene ends there’s no decisive answer from Sandor on whether he will or won’t join them but the show hates having people just traveling by themselves so he’ll most likely join them.
Oh also this scene is the only scene in this entire episode of nudity with a brief glimpse of Sandor’s penis. So. There you go.
(emits a deep sighing noise)
So as a showfan-turned-bookfan I like the concept of Faceless Men. I like the idea of a group of assassins who are so good at assassinating people, discretely, that they are paid high prices for their services. I like the idea that they think they serve the only god, and that this god must be served. I like that their magic is not entirely explained but that it involves a form of blood magic that bonds an assassin’s face to an actual literal carved-off face of a person who has died at the House of Black and White: that somehow if you do this all properly you can change your own face into that face, or back, seemingly at will.
Arya’s blood is used to soften the leathery mask into living skin, which then bonds to her head and becomes her new face. The kindly man warns Arya that she will suffer the nightmares of the girl whose face she has taken, but only for a time. His promise proves to be true, and that night Arya dreams of the abuse that was suffered by the girl at the hands of her father.
This sounds kind of awesome; the faces even come with memories attached to them because they’re kind of alive somehow. And it sounds like this should translate into a tv scene pretty easily and…
Wait what is this? How does the show think face-changing works? Why does the House of Black and White have a huge chamber full of faces if these faces aren’t needed to make the face-changing magic work? Why are there only 3 people (“Jaqen”, Waif, and Arya) at the House of Black and White? How is it an assassin organization if there’s only one assassin? Are all the other assassins off committing jobs? For an entire season and a half?
For some reason the show decided that, in addition to not understanding Euron Greyjoy (Book: guy with one eye. Show: they don’t put an eyepatch on the actor), Doran Martell (Book: guy with very long revenge plan. Show: no sign of planning at all), Dorne in general (Book: where women are born into leadership roles. Show: where women kill to take leadership roles), kinslaying (Book: major sin! Show: Euron and Ellaria do it, proudly), and a host of other things, it also didn’t want to understand how the Faceless Men work. And since Arya’s plot for a season and a half revolves around the Faceless Men, it hurts her character. The people who think this character arc is a waste of time think so, at least in part, because the show somehow screwed up “school of face-changing assassins.” How do you even screw that up?
(breathes out slowly)
So in the show the Waif fulfills the contract that Arya didn’t fulfill by killing Lady Crane, the ninth on-screen death of the ep. That’s one of the things that the Faceless Men do; they fulfill contracts because they have a reputation to uphold and Arya not only refused to carry out the contract she was assigned, she also told Lady Crane that there was a contract, who exactly ordered the contract, and Lady Crane then did some kind of bodily harm to who ordered the contract. None of that looks good for the Faceless Men so Waif kills Lady Crane. They usually do so in a way less brutal than what the Waif did. But hey whatever the show’s gotta show. Waif pursues Arya. Arya pretends to be more injured than she really is, leads Waif to very obvious trap where she hid Needle. Arya slices a candle (it looks cool, sure) and scene goes to black as the Waif fights Arya in the dark with a dagger even though Waif has no “fighting in the dark training” and she knows Arya has a sword.
Let me rerun that fight setup again.
Waif follows Arya into a cornered room with two sources of light: a single candle near Arya and the door. Waif closes the door, putting the lighting condition of the room solely under Arya’s control. She walks into the room, finds Arya crouching, and tells Arya to either die on her feet or on the ground. Arya reveals she has sword, Arya gets up with sword, Waif says that won’t help her, Waif starts walking more into room, Arya “turns off” candle. Waif then dies. Because she’s a moron.
This is a ridiculously good trap set by Arya wherein she takes all of her enemy’s faults (pride, lack of specific training) and throws them out the window. Arya assumes (apparently correctly) that Waif never needed to learn how to fight in the dark. Because apparently only people who make mistakes (like Arya) during Assassin training learn how to fight in the dark. That sounds kind of dumb for an assassin school but
So Jaqen follows a blood trail in the House of Black and White leading to the basement, the hall of faces. And in the hall there’s the Waif’s face. Because Arya cut it off sometime. And Jaqen’s reaction to Arya killing Waif (who, presumably, he and/or the House has spent more time training) is
“Finally a girl is No One.”
What in the seven hells are you talking about Jaqen? Are the Faceless Men the post-Darth Bane Sith, wherein there can only ever be a Master and an Apprentice? Why are you not angry about this turn of events? And then Arya says her real name and that she’s leaving and Jaqen sort of … grins?!? And Jaqen. Jaqen she’s walking away. Jaqen she just… she just … you now have zero trainees. Your corporate growth structure lacks synergy and this is not optimal but
UPBEAT AND TRIUMPHANT MUSIC PLAYS, A COMBINATION OF THE FACELESS MEN THEME AND THE ARYA THEME
Okay well. That ending is like a lot of what has been going on in Braavos, a mix of dumb and smart. I can see how it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
But I don’t think Arya’s time in Braavos is a waste of time. She failed to become an assassin. She tried to bury herself and tried to abandon what was left of her true identity, but she couldn’t when she was faced with reminders of her past, and she couldn’t when she looked into the eyes of her target and didn’t see a monster. She couldn’t actually make a clean break from Westeros by hiding in Essos. And when she wanted to break from Essos, she couldn’t until she had slain her foe there. In a way she ends up completing her assassination assignment (since Lady Crane did die…) but she learns from her failure. This is not something she is going to do ever again.
And this narrative theme is hella strong in this episode. People are failing everywhere. Brienne fails in Riverrun. The Blackfish fails in Riverrun. Tyrion fails in Meereen. Cersei fails in King’s Landing.
And every one of these people who fail in this episode has redefined who they are over the course of their lives. Cersei is no longer a Queen and with Tommen’s betrayal of her she’s now all-but-renounced her motherhood. The Blackfish has changed from the outcast of House Tully to the only person who wants to keep the House free. Tyrion stopped being a Lannister long ago and here he works to aid the Queen who will overthrow his family, particularly his nephew Tommen. Brienne decided to bring honor to her house by being a knight, and has changed from patron to patron as they have fallen to enemies.
Where the narratives will differ is in who learns what from their failures. I’m not too sure what Arya will do now other than what she said; that she’ll leave Braavos. Brienne learned that the Lannisters and Freys are not yet done with their treachery and they might need to be dealt with (if Sansa’s first war succeeds). Tyrion’s brief rule over Meereen is over but (hopefully) he learned something about maybe not being so bullheaded about good advice. The Blackfish … oh he can’t learn anything because he died. And Cersei…
She might be finally learning that it’s up to no one but her to take what is hers.