Last night’s Game of Thrones episode, “No One,” was a tough nut.
Like last week’s “The Broken Man,” it was almost all talk, punctuated by sporadic moments of violence. But even more so than the previous episode, the conversations this time felt momentous: real character reveals and turns in their arcs. Yet at the same time it suffered Game of Thrones perennial problem: too many storylines, so the episode felt more like a collection of encapsulated scenes than a coherent whole. And as so many people are noting, good Lord the show is moving fast.
It almost didn’t seem that way at first, with Lady Crane’s mesmerizing opening monologue. The camera just stayed on Essie Davis playing Crane, playing Cersei, playing the scene of Joffrey’s death — and she used it for all it was worth. Taking advantage of Arya’s advice last time, Crane turned the monologue from grief to vengeful fury, kicking off the episode under a cloud of ominous portent.
Appropriately, moments later, Crane discovered Arya herself, knifed and bleeding, in the back of a dressing room. I remember wondering last week where the hell Arya was going to go. It was satisfying to suddenly have the show remind me that of course this was her one option. Crane took Arya in, patched her up, and then they had a talk about about Crane’s long string of bad lovers, which taught her both how to put holes in men and how to bandage those holes, as she put it.
Then there was a bit of talking between Varys and Tyrion, which is probably the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen the smallest and the best of the Lannister siblings. Varys is off on some secret mission — we don’t know what, but it clearly has something to do with securing Daenerys a new fleet — and the whole exchange was basically a dance around the unspoken fact that Tyrion is terrified to see his last friend and pillar of support leave him to govern Meereen alone. The city is certainly doing better, though Varys still suspects that aligning with the priests and priestesses of the Lord of Light will come to no good. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such naked pain on Peter Dinklage’s face, not even when Tyrion and Bronn parted ways. When that pairing ended, it was good to see Tyrion gain himself a new oddball compatriot in Varys, when both of them landed in Essos. Last night paid off well, in that regard.
But I don’t think anyone communicated more while saying nothing than Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie. After nearly two seasons apart, Jaime and Brienne were reunited last night, when the former arrived to try to convince the Blackfish to join Sansa and Jon’s army. They struck a bargain that if the Blackfish surrendered Rivverrun peacefully, Jaime would allow him to march north unmolested. Brienne was clearly wounded to see Jaime reverting to his old ways. But when she reminded him that if the Blackfish refused to surrender, she would be required to fight alongside him against the Lannister army, that caught Jaime up short. Talk about swallowing hard to choke down your emotions.
The Blackfish did refuse to surrender — though not before making this season’s subtext text when he read Sansa’s letter and remarked that she’s “just like her mother.” Brienne looked like her whole world had come crashing down when she told Podrick to send a letter to Sansa informing her, “that I failed.”
But Brienne was saved from battle by one last trick Jaime had up his sleeve: He told Edmure — Riverrun’s actual lord and king, whom Jaime still held prisoner — that he’d release him if he surrendered the castle. If Edmure refused, Jaime would kill his wife and infant son. This led to probably the most profound dialogue of the episode, with Edmure asking Jaime what he tells himself in order to believe he’s a decent human being. Then Jaime turned it, reminiscing that he admired Kat Stark for the same reason he admired Cersei — they both loved their children above all else. Jaime loves Cersei with that same steamroller devotion (this may have been the first time he’s said it out loud to anyone other than Cersei herself) and will slaughter whoever he must to be reunited with his sister.
The gambit worked: Edmure returned to Riverrun and handed it over, despite the Blackfish’s objections. But maybe Jaime was boasting more than telling the truth. The Blackfish died fighting, but Brienne and Podrick escaped on a boat. And that allowed Jaime and Brienne one last silent and stricken goodbye, hands raised from across the ramparts.
As for Cersei herself, she presented a striking image last night, marching around Kings Landing with Zombie Mountain and Qyburn at her side: an oddball trio surrounded by enemies.
Zombie Mountain literally ripped the head off one of the Faith Militant with his bare hands, and sent the rest scurrying. But this only prompted King Tommen, now fully in league with the High Sparrow, to ban trial by combat. So Cersei will be judged by seven septons, effectively neutralizing her one advantage. Or maybe not. After a long and powerful shot of Cersei walking along the wall of the throne room, matching pace with her son as Tommen left, we got one final tidbit from Qyburn: His spies have unearthed some secret (no idea what, though I’m betting it’s some corruption on the part of the High Sparrow) that may give Cersei one last card to play.
The other burst of surprisingly gut-turning violence last night came courtesy of the Hound, who is strikingly adept with an axe, and who tracked down the rogue bandits that killed his commune. It turns out they aren’t with the Brotherhood Without Banners, but were rogues from the group. So when the Clegane found the rest of them, they were already set to be hung by Berric Dondarrion and Throros of Myr. What followed was some bizarre dark humor as the Hound debated the Brothers over how many of the three bandits he could kill personally, and in what manner. (This did allow for some great self-referential one liners — “I’ve fought women tougher than you,” Clegane sneered at one of the archers.) It all ended with Thoros, Berric and the Hound around a campfire, with the Brotherhood’s leaders trying to convince the latter to join up: “It’s not too late for you, Clegane,” in an almost word-for-word repetition of Ian McShane’s speech from last week.
That brings us back around to Meereen, where Tyrion tried to get Missandei and Grey Worm to lighten up. It’s not his first attempt, but this time Varys’ departure brought an extra pathos to Tyrion’s efforts to reach out — and, of course, this time included wine. So Tyrion made a joke, and then Missandei made a joke, and then the seemingly impenetrable Grey Worm declared it was the worst joke he’d ever heard.
And the weird dialogue worked — before it was interrupted by the arrival of a fleet led by the Masters of the other slave cities. So much for Tyrion’s bargaining and diplomacy. I don’t think this proves Tyrion wrong, necessarily. It’s always better to try for peace, and accept war only if it’s forced upon you by the other side. But the naval siege of Meereen certainly focuses the mind as we close in on season six’s last two episodes. And it gave Daenerys a chance to return to Meereen in high dramatic fashion.
Finally, “No One” ended where it began, with Arya. The Waif from the Faceless Men tracked her down, brutally killing Lady Crane in the process. (That sucked.) And the foot chase that followed through the streets of Bravos was admirably weighty and painful to watch. Arya repeatedly endured physical punishment, reopening her gut wounds, to stay ahead of her pursuer. And the Waif seemed almost Terminator-like, an unholy smile on her face, as she stalked her prey.
But it ended in solid fashion: Arya use her blood trail to lure the Waif back to her lair, where Needle lay waiting. And then, Arya sliced the top off the candle, plunging everything into darkness. I’m sort of glad we didn’t get to see the fight: The show had packed so much investment into the rivalry between these two already. There was a poetry to how, after being tormented by the Waif while blind, Arya turned her newfound ability to fight in total darkness to her advantage.
The thing about season six is that a lot of the story ideas have been great: Clegane’s slow transformation into a hero; the implicit war between Brienne and Cersei over Jaime’s soul; the strange self-contained horror-movie trio of Cersei, Qyburn, and Zombie Mountain; Daenerys reclaiming her position as Khaleesi of the Douthraki horde before returning to Meereen; Arya being offered the chance to start a new life as an actor and then turning it down to return home; and of course Sansa and Jon reclaiming their mantles as Starks to make war on Ramsey Bolton. Watching all this, you can begin to see what George R.R. Martin’s grand plan was, and where he ultimately wanted to take the giant mess of plot threads that was books four and five.
But jeez, he had so much left to tell. It’s now obvious that book five marked the halfway point in his story — the moment of maximum plot diversity and chaos. We’re in a four act play, and we’re just transitioning into act three. I don’t know how he thought he could get through all this, and all that’s obviously yet to come, in two books. I also don’t know how David Benioff and D.B. Weiss think they can do it in thirteen episodes, which is all they reportedly have left after season six ends.
Martin may have overdone it complexity-wise, but his threads still work best on slow-burn mode. At the speed Game of Thrones the TV show is now running at, it feels more like a cliff notes version of Martin’s endgame. For instance, we’ve been waiting forever for the declaration that “a girl is Arya Stark, and she is going home.” (Anyone catch what almost looked like a pleased smirk on Jaqen H’gar’s face, like this is what he’d intended all along?) But man, I actually feel like we got it too soon and too easy.