This episode, more than any other in this middle stretch of the season, typifies the problem with three-act structures in television. Rising tension doesn’t translate well across multi-episode storylines, and is even harder to maintain on a show which has any number of individual character arcs operating concurrently.
Season Six has pushed against those problems in part because many of these storylines are starting to dovetail together and, freed of the labyrinthine source material, the writers now seem able to draw out connections between different character arcs in a way that has given the show its greatest sense of unity and cohesion since the first few episodes in Season One.
Additionally, we’ve also had the unusual mid-season emotional core of Bran’s revelation about Hodor, which fed into last week’s rebirth of Sandor Clegane. Everything in Game of Thrones seems ready to tie many threads together in a way that confirms its direction into the final act of the season, and potentially the series.
But they’re not there yet. While we can glimpse the battle of the bastards in the North on the horizon, and we know bloodshed is going to come one way or another in King’s Landing, there’s still work to do. The pieces aren’t yet in place and the writers know there will be a greater payoff if the hard work is done with the characters now.
And so, we have rising tension all throughout this episode.
It’s an episode that does end with one resolution, but on the whole is filled with more table-setting plots and anti-climactic events. It would all be disappointing if it didn’t seem so, well, intentional. The seige of Riverrun ends with barely a skirmish. Cersei’s trial by combat is over before it began. Brienne takes a slow boat back to Sansa with no Blackfish, and no Tully army. Clegane’s attack on the Brotherhood finishes with them sharing a meal. Arya’s confrontation with the waif happens in darkness, and offscreen. So too does the Blackfish’s end, and that of Lady Crane.
Earlier in the season I mentioned that Game of Thrones had a long way to go before it reached Sopranos territory of trolling its audience with anti-climactic fakeouts, and this still holds true. However, there is definite intent in this episode to off-set what the audience might think is going to occur. The real story, the writers are telling us, is elsewhere. Hiding in plain sight. We might think we know what’s going to happen, but we don’t. And even if it does happen, it’s dealt with in a way that illustrates how we’re focusing on the wrong details, getting preoccupied with the wrong features of the story. Consider how the bloodshed in this episode was kept to nameless, meaningless characters. Those we have developed a connection to are killed offscreen. There’s no satisfaction in glorifying their deaths.
In addition, the writers side-step one notable fan-theory in this episode, as well as a final moment to include another key character from the novels that hasn’t made the journey to screen. And, whether they anticipated this or not, the show also undid a week’s worth of speculation about Arya in the opening scene of the episode.
It was all quite simple, in the end. Arya was stabbed by the waif, was lucky to survive, and she finds her way to Lady Crane for safety.
Before that realisation happens, we are treated to a replay of Lady Crane’s acting onstage again. Only this time her portrayal of grieving Cersei, clutching the corpse of stage-Joffrey, is greeted with tears for her loss, and then applause for her words of revenge. Lady Crane has changed the story, as Arya prompted. There is some clever sleight-of-hand here which sets up the episode’s conceit: we think not much is happening, but the show is working subtle shifts on how we perceive specific characters.
In this case, we are being primed for actual Cersei’s storyline back in King’s Landing. We had no empathy for her when Joffrey was poisoned back at the beginning of Season Four, but now we’re given an opportunity to grieve with her, and understand her isolated position. And, in hindsight, we can realise how she has never received resolution for Joffrey’s murder, and that this consumes her still. Even more so when we witness how much Tommen has separated himself from his mother, referring to her as Cersei Lannister while he still carries the Baratheon name.
Tommen has, under the High Sparrow’s manipulation, moved Cersei closer to oblivion. That Lady Crane dies in this episode, as a surrogate Cersei to Arya, is a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, but potentially not in the way we might expect it. Cersei is conscious of her position in her scenes, she knows where she is being placed and that the High Sparrow has out-manoeuvered her reliance on the Mountain for trial by combat. And as her little moment with Qyburn suggested, she is working hard to avoid Lady Crane’s end, even if it means severing herself from Tommen totally.
There are two working theories here. Firstly, that Cersei has discovered the whereabouts of Robert Baratheon’s bastards and is prepared to strip Tommen of his legitimacy to the throne if it means saving her life. Secondly, and more likely based on how the season has prepared us, Qyburn has discovered the stores of wildfire the Mad King stored under King’s Landing, and Cersei is preparing for an act of explosive brinkmanship to escape her fate.
Either way, Tommen’s future doesn’t look bright. And if this is the case, Cersei’s actions may put her at odds with Jaime, in a way that may confirm the prophecy of Maggy the Frog from Cersei’s flashback at the beginning of last season.
This possibility gains traction when we consider Jaime’s scenes. Again, on the surface, it appears very little has happened. Jaime was sent to Riverrun to end the siege and retake the castle, and he manages to achieve this quite easily, setting him swiftly on a path back to Cersei at King’s Landing. And this would be futile, if not for two moments.
He speaks to Brienne and she reminds him that she believes him to be a man of honour, in direct contrast to the Blackfish’s taunting kingslayer remarks last week. Additionally, Jaime recognises in Brienne a devotion to knighthood that he once had but has lost. Not through killing the Mad King, but in his devotion to Cersei.
This is confirmed in his scene with Edmure Tully. He taunts Edmure with the deaths of every single Tully in his way to get back to Cersei – oaths are nothing when there is a higher purpose. But Edmure gets in one line that registers:
‘All of us have to believe we are decent.’
Because despite Jaime’s threats, he kills no Tullys at all. He waves Brienne a farewell, and she departs with a sword bearing the Lannister sigil. Despite himself, despite his love for Cersei, the decency in Jaime is there. And at some point this decency will put him at odds with Cersei, but we are not at that point yet.
This is the rising tension. On the surface, everything seems the same. It only becomes apparent that we’ve moved to a higher level of conflict when we get there.
This is exemplified with Arya’s storyline in Braavos. It has suffered somewhat from conflicting intentions, in that the series for a long time depicted Braavos as the fated destination of Arya’s hero quest. We cheered her solo journey there at the end of Season Four as a new beginning for Arya, free of the past. That it initially appeared so, with her series of trials to enter the House of Black and White, and the carrying over of Arya’s emotional connection to Jaqen H’ghar, meant we were as invested in the lessons she was to learn from the Faceless Men.
However, the stretching of this storyline across nearly two full seasons has been at odds with the rapidity of other events. Consider Arya’s journey in the last two seasons against Sansa’s. They have both reached similar conclusions – Arya’s declaration at this episode’s conclusion that she is a Stark of Winterfell connects her to the rest of her family, finally – but the way this has been handled muddies the emotional coherence of the whole Braavos plot. Her realisation should be an organic moment of triumph, but it instead plays out as a token gesture of finality on Arya’s relationship to the Faceless Men.
There is perhaps a reason for this: Sansa’s connection to her family was never severed in a way that Arya’s was, and so she seemingly didn’t have as far to go to point herself back toward Winterfell. For Arya, she witnessed her father’s beheading, was present at the Red Wedding that killed her mother and brother, and when arriving at the Eyrie, the one place where she thought she had family left, was told her aunt was dead. Her assuming the guise of ‘no-one’ started long before the House of Black and White ever became a destination – one only needs to remember her casual observation of a dying man in Season Four and recognition that
‘Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. Nothing is just nothing.’
Her nihilism and lack of attachment to the Starks started long ago, but it has taken her repurposing as a tool for others to commit violence and death, and her replaying of her past by watching the players on stage in Braavos to lead the revival of Arya Stark from Winterfell. Her final moments with Lady Crane are touching in their humanity, but also in the strange portrait it makes of the orphaned Arya being cared for by the illusion of Cersei Lannister, as her surrogate mother. It’s false, this could never happen in real life, but through a story Arya is able to understand Cersei’s role in life, and therefore Arya’s own, and that brings Arya emotionally back to her family.
Elsewhere we have the contrasting violence of the two resurrected Clegane brothers. The Mountain rips the head off a Sparrow, for no reason other than a show of force for someone else. Immediately after we witness Sandor continue his search for meaning by avenging the death of Brother Ray and his sept by brutally murdering the moonlighting Brotherhood members. One commits violence where none was needed, the other only when forced to.
When the also-resurrected Beric Dondarrion again appeals to Sandor Clegane’s better nature, this is the second character in two episodes to do so. By potentially committing to the cause in the North, the battle against the White Walkers, Clegane is joining a series of individuals who all have abandoned their earlier allegiances and purposes, having now spied the one reason for any violence and for any loyalty. Jon, Sansa, Davos, Brienne, Melisandre, Tormund, Pod – Sandor is the latest to accept that
‘Lots of horrible shit in this world gets done for something larger than ourselves’
even if he says it in jest. If he was doubtful with Brother Ray that he might be redeemed, Dondarrion moves him closer to accepting the truth that perhaps he can be a decent person again, like Jaime.
So just as the waif and Jaqen followed Arya’s trail of blood, so must we all. Some characters in Game of Thrones are choosing violence for the sake of it, others are forced to violence because of ‘something larger’ than themselves. For us, we’re following the trail of blood that every character is leaving behind, and the writers are asking us to choose what is more important. We were seemingly craving the death of the waif just like we did Joffrey seasons ago, and Ramsay still in episodes to come. But we were denied this bloodletting, just as we were denied a fight between Jaime and Brienne when everything seemed pointed that way. Violence cannot come because we want it, it will only happen if it is necessary.
The episode began with a staged story manipulating its audience. Lady Crane changed her performance to extract more out of her crowd, and we were allowed to see the wheels of the story turning to create this manipulation. In episodes like this we can get a glimpse that we are being manipulated in some way, similar machinations are working on us and forcing us to empathise with characters we previously loathed, playing us to make connections between characters that never existed before. Who knows how this will play out in the end, and whether we will be applauding when we reach the end of the trail of blood.