Can something that has been broken ever truly be mended? And, if so, what does that leave you with? Can it ever be the same as it was before it was shattered? Will the result be something weak, wary, and forever fragile? Or, is it possible that the pieces, like bones, can grow back together stronger, and be strongest at exactly the place where they were broken?
The hardest steel is tempered by the hottest fire. Back in "Two Swords," the second chapter of Game of Thrones began—after the War of Five Kings ended—with this image, with the weapons of the past being broken and reforged into the metal of the future. Now, we are in the final act of the story, and "The Broken Man" begins with a similar image: a nail being fired on a forge, hammered into shape, and quenched in cold water to make it hold its strength.
Our characters—those who have survived—have all been broken, tempered by fire, hammered and hardened and reshaped into something new. They all remember what they were, but they all know they are something different now.
This week, we see all the broken people trying to figure out what can be built from the shattered pieces of the past.
"I did what I had to do to survive." — Sansa
What becomes clear from "The Broken Man"—written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Mark Mylod—is that everyone in Westeros is broken.
Game of Thrones has focused on a handful of families, and we tend to count the losses in personal terms. Hundreds of people have died on-screen since the series began, but there have been perhaps a dozen deaths that we took personally and a score that we could call "significant."
But "The Broken Man" reminds us that the War of Five Kings—and the larger "game of thrones"—has destroyed tens of thousands of lives. The country has been decimated, everyone has suffered losses, and—in one of Game of Thrones' central themes—it's always personal.
That's what Jon, Sansa, and Davos are discovering, as they travel the North seeking recruits for their army. The Wildlings are initially unwilling to join Jon's army: getting this far has already cost them most of their numbers, and they fear they are "the last of the Free Folk." The young and wonderfully magisterial Lady Mormont (Bella Ramsey) lost her mother to Robb Stark's crusade, and now finds herself responsible for defending the shattered remnants of a once great house that has only 62 fighting men to offer. ("Why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life to someone else's war?" she asks.) In the War of Five Kings, Lord Glover (Tim McInnerny) saw his lands seized, his wife and children imprisoned, and his people slaughtered, and he has no intention of joining a revolt and sacrificing the tenuous safety promised by the Boltons. ("I could be skinned for even talking to you," he tells Jon.)
In the old days, when Ned Stark was Warden of the North, the unquestioned allegiance of the pledged houses could have been taken for granted. But the old days are gone. The old system is gone. For that matter—as both Lady Mormont and Lord Glover remind them—House Stark is gone. ("As far as I understand, you're a Snow, and Lady Sansa is a Bolton," Lady Mormont tells Jon. "Or is she a Lannister? I've heard conflicting reports." And Glover is even more dismissive: "I served House Stark once," he says. "But House Stark is dead.")
The thing is, all of these people have stories just as sad and horrific as those through which our main characters have suffered. But the difference is that they barely know why: they sacrificed loved ones to wars that had very little to do with them, wars that were led by others for what were—in retrospect—personal and relatively petty reasons. They're angry, and they're tired, and the pull of the old, broken system of allegiance doesn't mean what it once did.
Jon, Sansa, and Davos have only one argument to make: that this time it's personal for everyone. "After they're finished with me, they'll come for you," Jon tells Dim Dalba (Murray McArthur), the leader of the Wildlings, and Tormund makes it personal by reminding the Wildings that Jon Snow literally died for them. "This isn't someone else's war, it's our war," Davos tells Lady Mormont. "The real war isn't between a few squabbling houses: it's between the living and the dead." (The only person to whom they don't make this argument is Lord Glover, and he's the only one who refuses them.)
The challenge Jon, Sansa, and Davos face is, in small, a mission-statement challenge for Game of Thrones: to knit together the broken pieces of the old, divisive world order and create a stronger system in which all of humanity is united. It's not about squabbling houses anymore, not about ancient enmities and class distinctions and the petty grappling for a little more power. It's about recognizing that all people are one, and that they can either stand together or die separately.
Sansa herself is proof that what has been broken can become stronger through the healing. "I did what I had to do to survive," she tells Lady Mormont, and in the end that's always what it's about. And it's this realization that leads Sansa to put aside her own personal feelings and reach out to Littlefinger for assistance in the battle to come. Littlefinger is a master of manipulating the old system, of playing divisions and rivalries against each other for his own personal gain. But the scale of the conflict is so far beyond Littlefinger's tiny, mendacious milieu now that even Sansa's entirely justifiable hatred of him doesn't matter: all that matters is survival.
"If the gods are real, why haven't they punished me?" — Sandor Clegane
"They have." — Brother Ray
It's no coincidence that "The Broken Man" begins with images of building, of people cooperating to construct something new from the ruins of the old. What is surprising is to find Sandor Clegane among the builders—and not just because he was supposed to be dead. A solitary figure of misanthropy and mayhem, he is perhaps the last person we would expect to be working with others to build a church.
But the man formerly known as The Hound has changed, at least a little, since his near-death and near-resurrection. (The symbolism of his carrying a pole like Christ carried his cross is not lost on us.) He was a broken man when last we saw him, in nearly every sense: he'd been broken physically by Brienne of Tarth, and—whether he'd admit it to himself or not—he'd been broken emotionally by Arya Stark's betrayal and abandonment. Arya changed him: if they were not quite the father-and-daughter they sometimes pretended to be, they had developed a complicated but genuine affinity. It was an extension of the strange fondness Sandor once felt for Arya's sister Sansa, but it was deeper: both fighters at heart, both emotionally scarred from their terrible childhoods, and both much more tender-hearted than they would ever admit to being, Sandor and Arya were queer kindred spirits. She was, one suspects, the closest thing to a friend he had ever had, and perhaps the closest thing to family. (Remember, he fought Brienne—and almost died—to protect Arya. "And that's what you're doing, watching over her?" Brienne asked him sarcastically. "Ay, that's what I'm doing," he responded, with complete sincerity.)
"Violence is a disease," Brother Ray (Ian McShane) says. "You don't cure a disease by spreading it to other people." This is pretty inarguably true, and one of this season's themes, as we've seen how the cycle of violence has perpetuated itself throughout the generations. The corollary is also true, and one of the fundamental themes of Game of Thrones as a whole: kindness and empathy are also contagious, and can be spread to other people. (We've seen this throughout: it was Jon's empathy for the Wildlings, for example, that wins him their assistance and loyalty now.)
The Hound had a miserable, hateful life, spent in violent service to other people's petty causes. When Brother Ray speaks of his own senselessly violent past, every word resonates with Sandor. "That's all I was," Ray says. "A coward following orders." (Obviously, this also ties into the rest of the episode, and with the various houses no longer willing to sacrifice their lives to someone else's war.) But it was caring for other people that changed Sandor Clegane: he let himself care, first about Sansa, and then about Arya, and he's not the same person he was before. (His gruff manner may be unchanged, but simple things give him away. "It's going to be a cold night," he says, when Ray tells him to knock off work. "We'll need firewood." Do we suppose Sandor Clegane has ever expressed communal concern before?)
Ray is a priest, but a strange kind of priest: he admits he doesn't know anything about the gods, not even their real names. ("Or maybe they're all the same fucking thing," he says, of the various gods.) His faith is in goodness, not in doctrine, and thus he stands in stark, accusatory contrast to evangelical charlatans like the High Sparrow. Ray is the real deal, with a kinder, more authentic vision than anything offered by the Faith Militant. What he offers is not divine intervention, but the possibility of real redemption that comes from within, not without. "All I can do with the time I've got left is bring a little goodness into the world," he says. "It's never too late to come back…It's not even about the gods. It's about you, learning you have to answer your prayers yourself."
Does it weaken Brother Ray's argument that his entire congregation is slaughtered by brigands? Perhaps. If Sandor had been among them, perhaps he could have saved them, and only the most pacifistic among us would begrudge his resorting to violence then. (Pacifism is an ideal, not always a practical doctrine: there comes a time—as Jon and Sansa tell everyone—when there's no choice but to fight.) But Ray and his followers were working to build a community, not tear one down. Sandor, if he had fought for them, would have been fighting to protect, not to destroy.
There may be little difference in practice between fighting to protect and fighting to destroy—one suspects the next people he encounters with his ax will not appreciate the distinction—but there's a world of difference in spirit. Sandor Clegane is haunted by the horrible things he has done, but—if we believe in the gods—we can suppose that they brought him to Brother Ray to learn this one lesson: it's never too late to come back, never too late to bring a little goodness into the world.
"If you're so broken that there's no coming back, take a knife and cut your wrists." — Yara, to Theon
And is it too late for Theon Greyjoy?
There's probably not a more broken man in all of Westeros. Ramsay Bolton flayed Theon's soul, but Theon's disintegration started even earlier: he began to fall apart the moment he first betrayed his "brother" Robb Stark, all the way back in "What is Dead May Never Die." ("Gods help you, Theon Greyjoy," Ser Rodrik said to him when he took Winterfell. "For now you are truly lost.")
Or did it begin long before that? The first real information we ever learned about Theon was—appropriately enough—in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," when we discovered that Theon was essentially a hostage held at Winterfell as insurance against further rebellion from the Iron Islands. Sent away by his father, raised by his father's enemy, Theon's identity—his very soul—has always been fragmented.
To be honest, Theon never struck me as having a lot of character to begin with, and I've held out little hope for his redemption. He earned some small measure of atonement when he helped Sansa escape from Winterfell last season, but it's not enough for us to forgive him his sins, or for him to forgive himself. He left Sansa because he knew he didn't deserve to stay with her, and now he scoffs at Yara's mention of "justice." "If I got justice, my burned body would hang over the gates of Winterfell," he says.
"Fuck justice, then," Yara says. "We'll get revenge." She asks him to find within himself the "real" Theon Greyjoy, not this "ratshit pretender." But who is the real Theon Greyjoy? Is he ruthless Baelon's son? Kind Ned's son? Ramsay's wretched creation "Reek?"
The sad truth is, there has never really been a "real" Theon Greyjoy. (When Yara asks him to find his real self, we suspect he doesn't even know where to look.) The best version of the man we've ever seen is probably this sad, tortured soul who knows he's damned, and I have no desire to see a return of the cocky, selfish, entitled shit he was before he met Ramsay. If he had stayed with Sansa, Theon might have had a chance at true redemption: the (no doubt short) remainder of his wretched life might have gone towards something good. But—as much as I like Yara—there is nothing particularly noble about her cause. She's not trying to build anything, not trying to right anything, not trying to gain anything except power. Her "fuck justice, let's get revenge" philosophy may not be the one Theon needs right now: where complicated figures like Sandor Clegane are moving forward, she's asking him to move backwards into the less sympathetic person he used to be.
Not everything broken is going to heal better.
"Bargaining with an oathbreaker is like building on quicksand." — The Blackfish
Which brings us, finally, to Cersei and Jaime.
I said last week that I'd be sorely disappointed if the Lannister Twins end the series as more or less exactly the same people they were when it began. As my commenters pointed out, however, that outcome is perfectly realistic, and completely in line with what we've come to expect from Game of Thrones. People are complicated, and multi-layered, and they go through many changes, but it would be unreasonable to expect that everyone is going to learn from their lessons and become better people in the end. Some people will be destroyed by the fires of adversity, some will be purified, and some—perhaps like Cersei and Jaime—may just be tempered into harder versions of the people they've always been.
Certainly, they've both been broken and reassembled many times over at this point. But, each time, they are trying to rebuild themselves exactly as they were before, and it doesn't work: the resulting Lannisters are cracked, chipped, far less convincing and far more fragile.
Once, it felt like Jaime might become a hero, but those days are past. He came a long ways in his travels with Brienne of Tarth, but once he returned to King's Landing—and to Cersei—he tried to step back into his former position as though nothing had changed. In retrospect, his giving his sword to Brienne, back in "Oathkeeper," seems like not so much an acceptance of change as an abdication. (You go be the hero, he now seems to have said.)
Now, sent on a mission to the Riverlands, he seems a shadow of his former self: neither impressive villain nor sympathetic hero, he's just a broken errand boy working for the cause of the wretched and idiot Freys. "I assume you're here to fulfill the vow you made my niece," the Blackfish says, reminding him that he once made a vow to Catelyn Stark that he never fulfilled. Jaime tries to negotiate a surrender of Riverrun, but he doesn't have the cachét: in an episode with many references to building and rebuilding, the Blackfish makes a poignant one. "Bargaining with an oathbreaker is like building on quicksand," he says. It's an apt metaphor for the shifting and unreliable sands of Jaime Lannister's character. It's no wonder that the Blackfish declares himself "disappointed" in his encounter with the famous Kingslayer.
The judgement Cersei receives this episode is harsher, and even more accurate. "I wonder if you're the worst person I've ever met," says the acid-tongued Queen of Thorns. "Our two ancient houses face collapse because of you and your stupidity."
And she's right. What's more, Cersei knows she's right—but it doesn't seem to make any difference. It never seems to make any difference, because Cersei's trials and tribulations never seem to do anything but calcify her into a more brittle version of herself. "You've lost, Cersei," Olenna says. "It's the only joy I could find in all this misery." She advises Cersei to admit her defeat and leave the city, but Cersei won't even think about it: "Never," she says.
I don't have much to say about this this week, except that it occurs to me that one of the things Game of Thrones is about—one of the things most stories are about—is change. The heroes are the people who can learn from their mistakes and misfortunes and adapt into something better. They are the people who can envision a better world than the one they live in when the story opens, and who set about trying to change the world accordingly.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one who is most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin never actually said this, but it's probably true, and it's certainly true for Game of Thrones. In the beginning, strength seemed to be important, but as time goes on it becomes clear that strength without adaptability is a weakness. Dany has adapted to every situation in which she's found herself, and has dared to imagine and realize a new world order. Jon Snow broke with thousands of years of tradition, and alienated most of the people he knew, because he knew it was right and he knew it was necessary. Even Tyrion Lannister—who once couldn't conceive of any life but as a Lannister of Casterly Rock—has adapted and evolved and forged a new place for himself in the world.
But Cersei and Jaime have never really been open to change: in part because they began the series at the top of the pyramid, they have done nothing but try to maintain that position from the beginning. Each time they've been knocked down, their only response has been to try to scramble back up. Each time they've been humbled, they've doubled-down on their desperate quest for their former respect. The entire world has been broken around them—in large part because of their actions—but their only interest in putting it back together is so they can return to the privileged lives they think of as normal. The old world order worked for them, after all: why should they even imagine something different, let alone work for it?
A long time ago, in one of these reviews, I quoted Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, and now another of her quotes occurs to me. "You haven't suffered," Eleanor tells her husband, the king. "I could take defeats like yours and laugh. I've done it. If you're broken, it's because you're brittle."
One can easily imagine Sansa, or Dany, or Jon, or even Sandor Clegane saying these words to Cersei and Jaime. They've all suffered worse, but they've come out better, because they were open to change and capable of changing. If Jaime and Cersei are broken now, it's because their rigid positions of privilege were so brittle in the first place.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Jaqen should fire The Waif: she's shit at assassinating. Three stab wounds and Arya's still standing.
- It was good to see Bronn again: as I've said before, Bronn + anyone = the best buddy road movie ever.
- And it was beyond good to see Ian McShane back on HBO—however briefly—and swearing his heart out. (No one in the history of television has used the word "fucking" more effectively as an intensifier. I wonder if all those F-bombs were scripted, or if that's just how McShane delivers dialogue after three years on Deadwood.)
- Speaking of resilient people, Margaery reveals she is not broken, playing the penitent convert while slipping a defiant Tyrell rose to her grandmother. Adaptable and willing to play a long game, Margaery may ultimately reveal herself to be 10 times the woman—and the queen—that Cersei ever was.
- "Congress does not require desire on the woman's part, only patience." — from The High Sparrow's Shitty Guide to Marital Bliss
- Apologies as usual for the long delay in getting this post up: my wife and I moved the weekend this episode aired, and my whole life has been horribly behind schedule ever since. (As I write this, I'm almost two whole weeks behind, but I'm going to try to close the gap. My next post, on "No One," may be shorter than usual, as I scramble to catch up in time for whatever ninth-episode fireworks are coming with "The Battle of the Bastards.")