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The books are back!

Well, sort of, anyway.

One thing readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels have been pondering for a while now is the character known only as “Cold Hands.” He was a mysterious figure, always shrouded — all you could see of him were his icy, seemingly-dead hands — who shepherded Bran, Hodor, Meera and Jojen north of the wall. Theories abounded that he was Benjin Stark: Ned’s brother, who disappeared beyond the wall early on. No one knew for sure, and it seemed David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had decided to dispose of him in the show.

But last night’s “Blood of My Blood” brought him back. And lo and behold, he is Benjin Stark; stabbed in the belly by a White Walker and saved from death by the same magic the Children of the Forest used to create the White Walkers in the first place. (A process which also apparently involves obsidian — i.e. “dragon glass” — a detail I didn’t catch in that first reveal last episode.) Now he’s set to shepherd Bran and Meera, the only remaining survivors of this tragic little band, south of the wall instead. And we’ve discovered this all in the course of a single episode. Talk about cinematic adaptation whiplash.

Speaking of south of the wall, Walder Frey is moving his forces to make war on the Blackfish, who has retaken Riverrun. The Blackfish, if you’ll recall (something you have to do a lot with this show) is the late Kat Stark’s uncle, who managed to escape the Red Wedding before the unpleasantness went down. Frey still holds his nephew Edmure hostage thanks to that debacle. This is another instance of something from way back in book four or five suddenly popping up in the show again, as is Cersie’s decision to dispatch Jaime to deal with the siege.

Here’s what’s funny about all this. In the books, Jaime returns to Kings Landing after his adventures with Brienne, losing his hand and so forth, and is immediately sent back out to Riverrun. There’s no intervening trip to Dorne, and he and Cersei leave on bad terms. In fact, his departure for Riverrun is the next step in Jaime’s moral reclamation: Having been humbled by the loss of his hand and Brienne’s influence, Jaime goes out to Riverrun to discover he may have a knack for diplomacy and making peace as opposed to hacking people to death. Or at least he begins to make that discovery. The plot thread got lost in the morass of books four and five pretty quick.

But here Jaime’s out there with his moral development having gone essentially full circle: He and Cersei are like peas in a pod again, them-against-the-world, and Jaime seems prepared to do whatever it takes to defend their power as Lannisters.

Cersei, meanwhile, is going to have her hands full in Kings Landing, now that Tommen and Margaery have made their alliance with the High Sparrow. I feel like Benioff and Weiss have played a little fast and loose with the audience on this one, making it seem like Tommen’s loyalty was tilting towards Cersei one episode, and then the High Sparrow the next. Tommen ultimately siding with the latter is certainly the kind of perverse twist Game of Thrones excels at — and man, the filming and staging of the confrontation before the Sept was amazing — but the back and forth with Tommen over the course of this season sapped the moment of the kind of the doom-laden momentum it needed.

The big question mark here is Margaery. Tommen is as earnest as ever, but in their reunion scene Margaery had that bright-eyed blankness she always uses when she’s pulling a fast one on somebody. In retrospect, the scene’s maddeningly cryptic dialogue was clearly Margaery sussing out Tommen’s loyalties before stating her own, and then playing those cards however they turned up. You get the sense she’s still got something up her sleeve — and hopefully so, given what a defeat the whole turn was for Jaime, Lord Tyrell and Lady Olenna.

Things went considerably better for Sam and Gilly. Honestly, it’s almost like their plot thread last night was from a different show. The warmth of the welcome from Sam’s mother and sister, and Gilly’s first chance to be done up in finery to dine with a lord, were all like something out of My Fair Lady. (And I can’t say I blame Sam for having his breath taken away for a moment.)

Then, of course, things turned spectacularly bad at the dinner table, as Lord Tarly mocked his newly-returned son for his lack of martial qualities, and turned furious when he discovered Gilly is a wildling. This was not a good development, as the whole plan was for Sam to go become a maester while leaving Gilly and their son in the care of his family. It was maddening to see Sam remain silent — though he had good reason for it, as his father held all the institutional power in the room. And equally thrilling to see Gilly fearlessly sticking up for Sam instead, recounting the time he literally killed a White Walker.

We of course know that Sam was in a blind panic when he pulled off that feat, and half of it was blind luck. But isn’t that how heroism actually happens? Not when people are on top of their game, but when they’re scared shitless and clawing for any solution at hand to protect the people they care about? The storytelling smoothes things over later: that’s how any culture makes its heroes. And the fact is, Sam does have a White Walker on his belt.

Which may have been what Sam was thinking later that night when he barged back into the bedroom, scooped up Gilly and their son and decided, screw the old man, the three of them were a family and are gonna stick together. Oh, and then Sam stole his father’s White-Walker-killing Valyrian-steel sword to boot. Talk about brass balls when it counts. This being Game of Thrones, it’s been marvelous to watch this little family unit hold together amidst all the ongoing terribleness. At the same time, I’m terrified, because (again, this being Game of Thrones) shouldn’t something go wrong for them soon?

Finally, let’s talk Arya. I was wondering how the play-within-the-show thing would work out. Apparently, it was to remind Arya of home, and get her sufficiently riled up at the way her father as portrayed that she’d head back to Westeros and help. But the key break came last night, when Arya discovered she wasn’t prepared to live by the code of the Faceless Men after all. She intuited that she’d been sent to kill Lady Crane simply because the other actress is jealous of her co-star’s capabilities. And then Arya and Lady Crane had their human-to-human moment backstage, when Crane mistook Arya for a girl who wants to join the acting troupe, and Arya played along, and they discussed why her character (Cersei, of all people) wasn’t written well. Someone she loves has just been killed, Arya pointed out. She wouldn’t just sit there and grieve. She’d get mad, and she’d get even. And that’s Arya’s code: She doesn’t want to deal out death capriciously, as the Faceless Men do. She wants to deal it out to specific people, for specific wrongs. More to the point: for specific wrongs against the Starks.

So Arya left the House of Black and White, went and dug Needle out of its hiding hole, and vanished into some unnamed grotto in Bravos. Presumably, she’s headed back to Westeros — assuming the Faceless Men don’t kill her for her betrayal first.

I still remember the moment last season when Arya couldn’t bring herself to drop Needle in the bay, and hid the sword under the rocks instead. It was well-orchestrated gut punch, and I wish her retrieval of Needle had carried the same weight. But like Tommen’s alliance with the High Sparrow — or, for that matter, Daenerys finally retrieving Drogo last night and giving a rousing speech to her new khalasar from the beast’s back, declaring her intention to invade Westeros — the whole thing felt a little thin. Like the show is skipping over story ideas rather than really digging into them, all in its rush to finally get things moving.

In fact, the scene that really hit hard for me was the first one out of the gate, when Meera was dragging Bran through the snow and ice, the zombies on her heels, before Benjin showed up to save them. Meera’s gotten the short end of the stick during their entire odyssey, losing her brother and then forced to sit and wait in a cave while Bran learns god-only-knows-what from an old man in a tree. You could hardly blame her for being mad and restless and resentful of her charge. And yet, at the end of hope and all her strength, there was Meera desperately trying to put a few more feet between Bran and the oncoming horde of the dead, weeping when she could go no further, and telling Bran she was sorry and covering him with her body as the wights closed in.

Sometimes, family is the people you’re stuck with by history and biology, as it is with the Starks. And sometimes, as with Meera and Bran, it’s the people you choose. Blood of my blood indeed.

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