As much as we may wish to deny it, we are in the final days of Game of Thrones. Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced their intention of barreling towards the ending, and that there may be as few as 13 episodes left after Season Six concludes.
God knows, there is plenty of material in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire that could still be mined, but I think we should all be grateful that Benioff and Weiss have decided not to drag this story out. The show's incredible success might have been used as an argument to pad out this story with a lot of extraneous subplots, postponing the inevitable conclusion for another few financially lucrative seasons. But last season's somewhat disastrous detour into Dorne was an indication of what that might have looked like, and we can all be relieved at the way the show cut bait on that storyline this year. Very few series in television history have managed to maintain a consistent quality and integrity over even six seasons: I have no desire to see this show try to spin its wheels to reach 10.
That being said, knowing that we may have fewer than 20 hours of Game of Thrones left makes me slightly resent an episode like "Blood of My Blood." Written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Jack Bender, "Blood of My Blood" is self-consciously a bit of a breather, and a brief respite from the show's "barreling" forward. The series has always needed one or two such table-setting episodes per season, of course. Every week can't be "Blackwater," "The Rains of Castamere," or "Hardhome," and we wouldn't want it to be.
But "Blood of My Blood" doesn't seem to be setting the table so much as fussily rearranging the wine glasses and salad forks. I've said before that I like the episodes where nothing much happens, because they provide an opportunity for the characters to breathe and develop as people, not just as elements of a plot. But that's not what really happens here. There are a few significant developments along the way—and, yes, a couple of nice character moments—but "Blood of My Blood" mostly feels like it pivots between anti-climax and redundancy. It feels like padding, and as such left me a little underwhelmed.
A weak episode of Game of Thrones is still better than most things on television, so I'm not really complaining that much. However, I find I have little to say about "Blood of My Blood" that I haven't already said about more interesting episodes. So—as I've been running increasingly behind on my reviews lately anyway—I'm going to keep this (relatively) short this week.
"I choose you all." — Daenerys
Let's begin with the ending, since it offers both a succinct summary of this week's thematic throughline and encapsulates my problems with the episode.
The thematic throughline for the episode is contained, obviously, within its title. "Blood of my blood" is the phrase the Dothraki khals use towards their "blood riders," the close lieutenants who they basically name as family. "Every khal who ever lived chose three blood riders, to fight beside him and guard his way," Dany tells her assembled khalasar, from atop her dragon steed. "But I am not a khal. I will not choose three blood riders. I choose you all."
This, of course, is a reassertion of one of the most important themes of the series as a whole: the notion of choosing your own family, and extending the circle of sympathy beyond the narrow tribal radii everyone lived within when Game of Thrones began. (Throughout "Blood of My Blood," as we'll discuss, we see Jaime and Cersei, and Sam, and even Arya making decisions that speak to this theme: as we near the final act of Game of Thrones, it's getting time for everyone to decide who their family really is.)
Dany has always been the most powerful personification of this theme, which I discussed at length in the episode where she became mhysa (mother) to all the people of Meereen. Dany is out to unite the entire world as one family, with her as that family's head. It's both a noble goal and a highly problematic one. (Here, Daario—who continues to be a bad influence on her—articulates the inherent conflict in Dany's well-intentioned philosophy: she wants to see herself as a queen, but he calls her a conqueror. As we know from real life, the line between liberator and oppressor is often a thin one, and Dany has already discovered that her "children" may come to resent the firm loving hand of their "mother.")
So this is all well, and good, and on-point—but it's also repetitive, as is the grand speech with which Dany closes out the episode. As we remember from Season Two, Dany's passionate speeches are often a good indicator of the show spinning its wheels a bit, and this scene accomplishes little that her more significant scenes in "Book of the Stranger" didn't already achieve. (She already recapped Drogo's promise to ride wooden horses across the sea there, and—from the way they all bowed down to her flaming magnificence—I'm pretty sure the Dothraki were on-board with whatever she wanted to do.) Yes, it's fun to see Dany majestically astride the now gigantic Drogon, but one suspects this scene was included just because someone realized the episode didn't have a big majestic visual or a rousing crescendo on which to end.
I'm all for the show cranking the emotional amplifier up to 11, but—when it's not really in purpose of anything—the returns tend to diminish.
"We belong together. All of us." — Sam
And the emotional redundancies continue in Sam and Gilly's storyline—though I mind them less here, since the episode does make room for some nice moments between two of my favorite characters.
What, one wonders, was the point of this sudden (and suddenly abandoned) side-trip to Horn Hill? Has anyone forgotten Sam's extraordinary monologue in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," which told us everything we need to know about his home life? Yes, the sequence is painfully on-theme: Sam rejects his birth family—specifically, his monstrous father Randyll (James Faulkner)—and declares anew that Gilly and Baby Sam are his real family.
But we knew that. It's been clear to everyone for several seasons, and it was declared outright as recently as "Oathbreaker." Their relationship has always been one of the most important declarations that the strict, old world order will have to expand to make room for new kinds of families. As such, Sam's decision to leave Gilly and Little Sam with his birth family was as stupid, ill-conceived, and doomed-to-failure as that time he left them in a Mole's Town whorehouse. "From now on, wherever you go, I go too," Sam promised her, in "The Watchers on the Wall," and the authenticity of that moment (and many others) just makes this feint at separation now feel a little weak.
It's entirely possible that the only real reason for this side-trip, from a plotting perspective, was so Sam could claim his birthright: the Valyrian-steel sword Heartsbane. (As Randyll says, there are only a few such swords left in the Seven Kingdoms, and they're all going to be needed in the war to come.) And, from a character perspective, this is a nice moment for Sam. After five seasons of character development, we now get a glimpse of the scared, abused child Sam was before we met him. (The way Bradley plays Sam's reversion to his bullied childhood during the dinner scene is very convincing.) But we also get to see Gilly leap magnificently to his defense, assuring both him and his father that Sam is not that scared child any longer. "You're not what he thinks you are, Sam," she says, in what she thinks may be the last words she ever says to him. "He doesn't know what you are." This gives Sam the strength to come back, and the courage to take the sword that will be much more useful in his hands than in his father's or brother's. ("It looks better on you anyway," he tells Gilly of his sister's dress, and she could say the same, right back to him, about the sword.)
"It's not an easy thing, admitting to yourself what you are." Margaery Tyrell says these words elsewhere in the episode, and they constitute another thematic throughline in this episode. Sam has always called himself, and felt like, a coward. But, in taking the sword, and in accepting responsibility for his family, Sam is tacitly admitting that he might just be a hero.
"We've always been together, we'll always be together. We're the only two people in the world." — Cersei, to Jaime
Both the points and the problems of "Blood of My Blood" are echoed in King's Landing. Like Sam's trip to Horn Hill, the massing of the Tyrell army on the Faith Militant is another storyline that fizzles out in a bit of an anti-climax, retreating to yet another repetition of family loyalty.
Maybe I'm just biased, because I really wanted to see Jaime cut the High Sparrow into several pious pieces. (I hate that guy.) But it doesn't happen this week, and it may not happen at all: "He's beaten us," Olenna says to her idiot son Mace, after seeing the High Sparrow play out his hand. Jaime, demanding the Sparrow free Margaery and Loras in the name of King Tommen, is deflated when the Sparrow hauls King Tommen himself to announce "a holy alliance between the Crown and the Faith." (The Gold Cloaks even have a new crest on their armor to symbolize this de-separation of church and state: a crown sitting at the center of the Seven-Pointed Star.)
I confess to being vaguely interested in where this is going, because I strongly suspect this is Margaery playing a long game. "Everything will be better than it was before," she tells Tommen, in a conversation filled with double-meanings. ("He's not quite what we thought he was, is he?" she says of the High Sparrow, and—though Tommen agrees—we assume they mean different things by that.) We've always assumed Margaery would be a force to be reckoned with if she ever seriously joined the game, and I think she's making her move. Does her line about admitting to yourself what you really are mean she is ready to embrace her own goodness, as she pretends, or that she's ready to embrace her hidden ruthlessness? (And, given the episode's theme, I don't for a moment undervalue the significance of this line: "I love my brother, I will always love my brother." Loras is family, and her first allegiance, whatever else she is pretending.)
But the way it plays out here feels like a lot of spectacle just for the sake of spectacle, and some arbitrary moving of characters just for the sake of plot. Jaime is stripped of his Gold Cloak, and is on his way to Riverrun, where it seems several major storylines are destined to converge in the back half of the season. (Brienne is also on her way there, on a mission from Sansa, to recruit the Blackfish, who Walder Frey is determined to defeat, to overthrow Ramsay. We haven't seen or heard from Riverrun in more than two seasons, but suddenly it's the most important place in Westeros.)
Cersei and Jaime's follow-up scene is on-point: it touches on this week's theme—as Cersei makes clear who is, and who isn't family—and last week's theme of horrible things happening for a reason. ("They've made us both stronger, all of them," she tells her brother, of their trials.) But it's all a little too familiar, and a little uninspired. Two weeks ago it seemed Cersei was changing, opening up to the possibility that she needed to drop her petty agendas, be smarter about how she played the game, and forge alliances with former enemies. Now, we get a return to pre-enlightened Cersei, swearing vengeance and discounting everyone outside of her immediate family as disposable. "We've always been together, we'll always be together," she says to her brother, in another speech we've heard a dozen times from her. "We're the only two people in the world." It's an interesting note that she now seems to be discounting her last remaining child—is Tommen now as dead to her as Joffrey and Myrcella?—but it sometimes feels like Cersei's character development takes two steps backwards for every one step forward.
(And, when Jaime and Brienne are reunited, I guess we shall see if the character development he went through in Seasons Two through Four has been—as it sometimes seems now—completely forgotten. If Jaime and Cersei both end the series as the exact same people they were when they began it, I'm going to be disappointed.)
"Do you like pretending to be other people?" — Lady Crane, to Arya
Finally, let's talk about the one storyline that did work for me this week: Arya's.
Last week we discussed the possibility that Arya is not quite ready to embrace being a Faceless Man, and the nihilistic view of life and death that they espouse. In fact, she probably never really intended to do so. Given the constant misery that her life has been for years, it's understandable that the idea of surrendering her former identity—and truly becoming "no one"—might have tempted her once or twice. But really, joining the Faceless Men was always a means to power for her, and the quest for power was inextricably tied to her quest for justice. She didn't really want to be an assassin: she just wanted to be able to kill the people who deserve killing.
Whether or not she admits it to herself, Arya has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. (This was one of the first things I ever observed about her, in my very first review, oh so many years ago.) We have seen her lose her innocence, during her long and arduous journey. We have seen her steal, and lie, and we have even seen her kill, viciously and without mercy. But we have never seen her kill anyone who didn't, in some way, deserve it: to do so would be crossing a line that would turn her story into a tragedy.
"Do you like pretending to be other people?" Lady Crane asks her. Arya has spent years now pretending to be other people, trying on different roles and identities to replace the one she had lost. She's briefly joined the Night's Watch, the Brotherhood Without Banners, and the Faceless Men. She's been Arry the Orphan Boy, and Tywin's cupbearer, and the Hound's daughter, and Lana the Oyster Girl, and now Mercy the Theater Fan. So many times she has found a new home, and a new role, and she has no doubt been tempted to stay in each one.
But when the time came last season to put away Arya Stark's things forever, she couldn't do it: she hid away Needle, her most treasured possession. It was the symbol of her brother's love, and the hope of her family's vengeance, and the icon of her own unique, peculiar identity.
She tried to put away the Stark goodness, too—tried to become the heartless killer she thought she wanted to be—but she couldn't do that either. When push comes to shove, she is too much her father's daughter to kill a kind, decent woman who doesn't deserve killing.
This might be the most significant moment Arya has had in several seasons. In her quest for vengeance, there was every chance Arya would become a monster, but here she chooses a different path. In her conversation with Lady Crane, she makes a dazzling leap of empathy and understanding, reading her own anger and thirst for violence in—of all things—Cersei's imagined devastation over Joffrey's death. "The queen loves her son more than anything," she says. "And he was taken from her before she could say goodbye. She wouldn't just cry. She would be angry. She would want to kill the person who did this to her."
In my discussion of "The Rains of Castamere" I talked about storytelling as a path to the sympathetic imagination, and that's what Arya experiences here, as she is moved by the theatrical interpretation of her own story to see things differently. For one surprising moment, during the play, she is able to imagine Cersei's grief and anger and connect it to her own. It's enough to shake her out of her single-mindedly murderous quest for power, and it certainly means that she can't murder the kind woman who gave her this gift.
And so Arya thwarts her own assassination attempt on Lady Crane, even though she knows Jaqen may have her murdered instead. She retrieves Needle from its hiding place, reclaiming her own identity and her sense of right and wrong. And, that night, she lies down in the darkness and waits for the retribution that is sure to come.
"It's not an easy thing, admitting to yourself what you are," Margaery said. But here, Arya has accepted who she is. She's had a lot of different families over six seasons, but deep down she has always known who her family really is.
Arya has chosen to do the right thing instead of the smart thing, and it's probably going to get her killed. She's never been more of a Stark than she is right now.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Speaking of Starks, I skipped over Bran's brief storyline this week, and I was happy to do so. The mysterious figure called "Coldhands" first appeared in Martin's A Storm of Swords in 2000, meaning that fans have spent 16 years speculating about his identity. Benjen Stark was always one of the most popular theories, but the way the show instantly introduces him and reveals him is just another anticlimax in an episode full of them. (To be fair, this was always a lose-lose situation for Benioff and Weiss: there was no way to build the mystery on-screen the way it was built in the books, and if Coldhands had been anyone other than Benjen it would have been completely meaningless to viewers. They probably did the best they could with it.)
- As always, I have zero interest in parsing visions and prophecies. I am sure that, by now, several people on the internet have analyzed every frame of Bran's visions for significance, and I refer you to them if you're interested. (The only thing that struck me was how it captured the entire, endless cycle of violence in this world, with the Night King and the Mad King and the King in the North all getting stabbed in the chest. The way the horrors of the past have led to horrors in the present is one of this season's many themes.)
- Another awkward bit of heavy-handed plotting: "Who has a thousand ships?" Dany asks. Hmm, let me think, I feel like I just heard someone talking about building a thousand ships recently. (No, no, don't tell me, it will come to me…)
- I'm not sure we really needed to see Walder Frey again this week, but David Bradley's performance is always a twisted pleasure. And I liked the reminder of how everything he does is driven by family pride and insecurity. ("They're laughing at us," he roars. "I hear it in my sleep.") I gotta say, though, I'm not really sure Edmure Tully is the most valuable hostage.
- I love the shots of Arya laughing during the moments in the play—like Joffrey's death–when the rest of the crowd is crying. (As a critic, I've often been that person, so I can relate.)
- "Madness has had its day!" In his own mind, you just know that Mace Tyrell thinks he's the star of this story. (And: nice hat, Mace.)
- Sam has a true gift for understatement: "I never expected to come back here, after my father made me renounce my title, and my inheritance, and threatened to kill me if I didn't. A person just doesn't feel welcome at that point."
- Sam's little brother Dickon is played by Freddie Stroma, who was Cormac McLaggen in the Harry Potter movies and, more recently, was the "suitor" on the fictional, Bachelor-type reality show in UnReal. (I mention this mostly as an excuse to say that UnReal—which returns for its second season next week—is really good, and you should watch it.)
- My regular readers will no doubt be shocked that this post went up so quickly. (It's Memorial Day in the states, so I had the day off from work. See, I could meet my deadlines if I could just do this full-time. Someday, maybe…)