Juggling its hodgepodge of plot lines without losing coherency or momentum has always been a particular challenge for Game of Thrones. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and company have gotten progressively better at this orchestration as the seasons have gone on, and last night’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” was a pretty good example of the tri-part strategy they’ve settled on: know when a story beat needs a sequence of scenes all in one go, know when you can drop the audience a quick update and keep going, and know when you can afford to just ignore a plot line entirely for an episode.
On the last point, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” gave us no Jon Snow or Stannis or the Wall at all. Daenerys was there, but only in spirit, as Jorah and Tyrion debated just what the hell the point of this trek to find the Mother of Dragons actually is. It was an extension of the conversation Varys and Tyrion began earlier in the season, and once again it ran smack into the problem of, even assuming the war itself all works out and Daenerys takes the throne, then what? “Then she rules,” Jorah responded tersely, which is about as inadequate as an answer could possibly be: just what is implied by those three words determines whether everything that came before was worth it.
The uncomfortable truth is that Jorah’s faith in Daenerys — like the audience’s — is just that. In practical terms, Daenerys is a terrible choice for a ruler: she’s young, hotheaded, moralistic, and may well have inherited a few genetic predispositions towards madness. One the flip side, at the end of the first season, after Daenerys had literally lost everything, she walked into a goddamn fire and came out with three baby dragons. “Faith” is the right word here. There is something prophetic about Daenerys — she seems like some rare in-breaking into their world of something momentarily greater, something that could leave a lasting mark on Westeros for the better. That’s really all we or Jorah have to go on, and it was cool to hear Jorah actually say it.
But the real showstopper last night, and a prime example of knowing when to tell a few scenes in sequence, was Arya’s graduation to the next level in the House of Black and White. We got a problem to be solved — Arya is sick of going round in circles, she wants to know what’s next, and she’s intuited what happens with the corpses is tied to that question — and we got a challenge. Can Arya learn to disappear into a story about herself — maybe true, maybe false, maybe a bit of both — in a way that could fool another person?
She pulls it off, in a dark scene where she commits euthanasia by reassuring a sick and dying girl that she was once sick too, and the waters in the House cured her. But the big reveal was when Jaqen assessed her ability to deceive, and concluded that when she said she hated the Hound, she was lying: not to Jaqen, but to herself. Given the way last season played out, that wasn’t entirely a surprise. But it was cathartic to see Arya and the Hound’s weird camaraderie confirmed, and Arya finally forced to face the truth that she learned to care for one of the people on her kill list. What the consequences of that will be, I genuinely don’t know, as we’re approaching the end of Arya’s material in George R.R. Martin’s books.
The Arya was assured by Jaqen into a massive, cathedral-esque vault where it would appear the Faceless Men, well, keep the faces from all those corpses. Is this how they pull of their disguises? Do they wear the faces? Is their some magic implied in the shift from one visage to another, with the vault as a kind of memory storage? (Probably.) But as an orchestration of plot, creepy implication, music and some spectacular set design, it was a masterful scene.
Back in Westeros, it was slick seeing Cersei’s aim in appointing the High Sparrow and arming the Faith Militant finally come into focus. She knew they’d come after Loras, and must have figured Margaery would get caught up as well trying to defend her brother. Now both brother and sister are headed to the dungeons.
It was a bold gamble on Cersei’s part. She’s dispatched her one big rival when it comes to guiding Tommen’s actions and decisions as King. But she’s also brought Lady Oleanna Tyrell (Diana Rigg, as pointed as ever) back to King’s Landing, and unleashed a cult of religious fanatics on the city as well. It will be interesting to see how that plays.
The latest with Bronn and Jaime was a bit of a disappointment. For one, the scene felt a bit comical, what with the two of them in Dornish disguise. And with both them and the Sand Snakes converging on the water gardens at the same time, each with different agendas, the whole thing seemed like a comedy of errors. Mostly, it felt like the writers were trying to hurry through this necessary step as quickly as possible to get to something they really care about further down the road.
Finally, there was Sansa. In the last few weeks, we had a deeply moving scene between Stannis and Shireen, where the normally brittle king managed to declare his devotion and love for his daughter in a proud manner that kept with his character. Then we had the weird mirroring of that moment last week, when Roose Bolton of all people assured Ramsay of his place in the family. Both scenes included some variation on “you are my son” or “you are my daughter,” and you could feel the force of those words.
Last night, we got Sansa herself continuing the theme. When Miranda tried to get under her skin with stories of what Ramsay, her husband-to-be, did to his previous girls, Sansa turned to her and declared, “I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t frighten me.” Before it was patriarchs declaring their devotion to an heir. This time it was one of the heirs claiming their legacy under their own volition, and it once again brought home the remarkable power and self-possession Sansa has come into this season and last. She saw exactly what Miranda was up to, and cut her to pieces with a few simple words — all while preserving her fear for her one moment alone.
That self-possession was tested as cruelly as it could possibly be when Ramsay violated Sansa on their marital bed — while forcing Theon to look on, no less. That allowed the show to spare its audience the worst of it by cutting to Theon’s horrified face. Sansa, of course, had no such reprieve. But as grim a turning point as this was, there wasn’t really much doubt that Sansa could endure it and remain, as last night’s title appropriately put it, unbowed, unbent and unbroken.