When Game of Thrones does a cold open, you know something big is about to go down. Tonight’s well-paced and well-packed episode — “The Broken Man” — is only the third time in the series’ history that the show has started with a pre-credits scene, the others being the Season Four premiere and the pilot. What warranted the break from tradition? The presence of two of the most intimidating actors in HBO history: Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, making his first (and only) appearance as a cheerfully profane man of the cloth called Ray, and the return of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, the motherfucking Hound himself. It urns out the mad dog of Westeros survived and joined a religious community in the Riverlands. After a lifetime of violence, a new life of peace was within his grasp. Seen in that light, the episode’s final shot, of Sandor reaching down and picking up the Axe of Vengeance, is crushingly depressing.
But more than that, it represents a surprising lapse on the part of the show itself — a Walking Dead style conflation of principled nonviolence with fatal naïveté. Ray’s belief that “it’s never too late to come back,” functioned as, well, a ray of sunshine in GoT’s bleak world. There’s no reason such faith in humanity need be portrayed as Pollyannaish; as Ray himself explains, it’s the result of bitterly earned shame in having participated in war atrocities himself. But the extreme sanction he and his flock face for this belief — slaughtered in minutes, with the septon hanging from the eaves of his own house of worship — makes him seem like a sucker, not a sage. He looks idiotic for leaving his followers defenseless, and Sandor’s Rick Grimes–style decision to murder the perpetrators seems like the just and moral choice.
You can say “Violence is a disease — you don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people” all you like; you can even sincerely believe it. But actions speak louder than words. And by wrapping up this subplot in such spectacularly grim fashion, the series is shouting “kill or be killed,” at least in this circumstance.
Elsewhere, however, the episode spells out the thesis statement about war and violence it’s been implying since the start. When the power trio of Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, and Davos Seaworth take their rally-the-North tour to Bear Island, home of the fearsome young Lady Lyanna Mormont, the child ruler of the Stark-loyalist stronghold is reluctant to commit her people to dying in “someone else’s war.” “The real war isn’t between a few squabbling houses,” the Onion Knight explains to her. “It’s between the living and the dead. And make no mistake, my lady: The dead are coming.” In other words, the game of thrones is a deadly distraction from the real threat — a crime against our shared humanity. Maybe that’s the speech Sandor needed to hear.
The Blackfish could have used a dose of it, too. The grizzled leader of what remains of House Tully escaped the Red Wedding and now commands his ancestral home of Riverrun against the besieging Frey and Lannister forces. Sent packing from King’s Landing by his royal nephew and forced to lead the fight against the ‘Fish, Jaime Lannister points out, not incorrectly, that “the war is over, Ser. Why sacrifice living men to a lost cause?” His rival retorts that he’s prepared to die in the place where he was born and raised. It sounds noble enough, sure, especially when you compare and contrast this black-clad badass with the loathsome Freys. But ultimately it’s a self-inflicted version of a vintage Vietnam-era Orwellianism: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” If fighting for your home means ensuring the certain death of yourself and everyone in it, what’s the point, other than bloody-minded pride?
In fact, if the episode can be said to have a theme, it’s people planning to take back what once was theirs, whether or not that’s such a hot idea. Sure, the Stark/Snow/Seaworth/Tormund Giantsbane alliance is a reasonable enough enterprise, enhanced by powerful performances from all the actors involved; look at Jon’s discomfort as Davos touts his resurrection, or Sansa’s awe at the literal giant who sides with them, and you’ll see how much Kit Harington and Sophie Turner bring to the table even when they’re not speaking. Hell, maybe Arya will join them, assuming she survives her assassination attempt by her faceless rival known as the Waif. Even Yara and Theon Greyjoy‘s race to Meereen to recruit Daenerys and reclaim the Iron Islands makes some sense given their opponent, their awful uncle Euron — though stopping at a whorehouse in Volantis so that the unexpectedly queer Lady Greyjoy can promise to “fuck the tits off” some lovely working girl reduces the urgency of the situation somewhat.
But in King’s Landing, it’s a different story. Queen Margaery‘s High Sparrow-induced Stockholm Syndrome is revealed to be a ruse, when the supposedly pious royal slips her grandmother, Lady Olenna Tyrell, a note bearing the rose sigil of their House. The Queen of Thorns thus heeds her granddaughter’s advice to get the hell out of Dodge, interrupted only by a visit from Cersei Lannister. “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” the Tyrell matriarch deadpans to the disgraced royal, before delivering the coup de grace: “You’ve lost, Cersei. It’s the only joy I can find in all this misery.” If the Queen Mother wants to take back the capital from the religious fanatics she herself empowered, she’ll have to do it with little more than Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, who like his baby brother survived a near-death experience, albeit with a little help from mad science and black magic. Could a family reunion be in the works? Woe betide the innocent bystanders of Westeros if so.
Previously: Get Back