With the season already more than half over, it’s interesting to see how far the characters have come since we started. Arya and Tyrion are both a whole continent away; Arya, an initiate of the band of assassins known as the Faceless Men, and Tyrion, a captive again, yet still on the road to Meereen. Jaime is in enemy territory, hoping to rescue his niece/daughter Myrcella from Dorne. Thanks to Cersei, Queen Margaery and her brother are in jail. And thanks to Littlefinger, Sansa has married her second so-called “monster”– this time, a real one.
In the House of Black and White, Arya is seen washing bodies that are eventually taken away on a stretcher through an elusive wooden door. Just like when she was made to sweep the floors for weeks without any progress, Arya grows impatient with her training. When Arya demands to play “the game of faces” with the other young girl, she refuses. Changing tacks, Arya asks the girl who she is. The unnamed girl tells a story about how she was the daughter to a Westerosi lord whose new wife was cruel to her. With the help of the Faceless Men, she claims to have had her stepmother killed. Arya smirks ever so slightly, enjoying the revenge tale. She’s embarrassed when the girl follows with, “Was that true, or a lie? Did you believe every word I said?” and leaves. Arya learns that, in order to play the game of faces, she must become a much more convincing liar.
Jaqen comes to her at night and wakes her from her sleep with the familiar, “Who are you?” This time, instead of saying “No one,” Arya begins to tell her own story, only she sprinkles in a few lies. “I’m the youngest daughter of a great lord, Eddard Stark. He died in battle.” At this, Jaqen hits her with a switch.
She tries a few more lies and is hit every time. Then, she gets to the Hound. When she mentions Sandor Clegane and leaving him for dead, she snarls, “I wanted him to suffer, I hated him.” Surprisingly, even to her, Jaqen smacks her. “I hated him!” she insists, and gets hit again. “That’s not a lie!”
“A girl lies to me, to the many-faced god, to herself,” Jaqen says, confirming all of our suspicions (and secret hopes) that Arya developed an odd affection for the Hound during their journeys together, despite the fact that he was once a prominent member of her hit list.
He hits her one last time when she claims that she wants to be No One, knowing that Arya is not ready to give up her identity as a Stark girl on a mission to avenge her family.
Later, as she continues to clean the House of Black and White, a father approaches her seeking help for his suffering daughter. He says he’s taken her to every healer in Braavos, but has been unable to help his daughter find peace. Arya sits next to the girl by the fountain and tries to comfort her with an artful lie: “I used to be like you. I was sick, I was dying, but my father never gave up on me. He loved me, more than anything in the world, just like your father loves you… I drank the water from this fountain, and it healed me.” She gains the girl’s trust enough to give her a cup that will put her out of her misery, and in that moment, Jaqen appears.
Having successfully lied, Arya passes the latest test, gaining entry into the world beyond the mysterious wooden doors. She is led down into a giant room called the Hall of Faces. Thousands of faces fill every pillar and wall, from all of the corpses that the acolytes have been forced to cleanse.
As Arya walks around in amazement, Jaqen comments that she is not ready to become No One. “Is the girl ready to give up her ears, her nose, her tongue, her hopes and dreams, her loves and hates, all that makes a girl who she is, forever?” No, he knows she cannot give up her Stark past, or her need for revenge.
However, Jaqen says that she is ready to become “someone else,” implying that she will begin to receive training in his ability to assume many faces. The Faceless Men, an assassins’ guild, use shapeshifting in order to better hunt their prey. For a girl with a long hit list, this skill could prove invaluable. It’s what she’s sought ever since she showed her coin to the Braavosi sailor in Westeros and uttered the words, “Valar morghulis”: all men must die.
In Essos, Ser Jorah and his captive finally have a conversation about why Tyrion was found across the Narrow Sea in the first place. Tyrion admits that he killed his father and escaped a death sentence. Then, he accidentally breaks the news that Jorah’s father, the former Lord Commander Mormont, has also died. With no small measure of compassion for his captor, Tyrion tells Jorah straight that the Lord Commander is rumored to have been murdered north of the Wall, killed in a mutiny by his own men. He quotes the Night’s Watch eulogy, saying, “We shall never see his like again,” and genuinely praises the Lord Commander’s style of leadership.
Jorah, cut off from Westeros and his family for so long, had not known about his father’s death and can do nothing about his murder. When his father joined the Wall, Jorah was left as the Lord of Bear Island and the head of his house. His wife, Lynesse Hightower, demanded a life of luxury that Jorah could hardly afford. Desperate and foolish, Jorah sold poachers into slavery and broke an ancient Westerosi law. Ned Stark was set to execute him for his crimes, but Jorah fled to Essos in the east, where he has remained in exile ever since— making him more like Tyrion than he originally realized. He’s been sitting on this guilt—the guilt of dishonoring his father and House Mormont—for years, and now will have no chance to make amends with his distinguished father. There’s only a moment’s mark of sadness on his face before the old soldier urges himself, as much as Tyrion, that they better keep moving.
As they continue on, Tyrion wonders cynically why they should support Daenerys over any of the other options. Jorah tells him about witnessing Daenerys step into a fire with three stone eggs and emerge, unharmed, with baby dragons. Tyrion, a realist, is still not convinced of her right to rule, dragons or not. “Targaryens are famously insane,” he quips.
Jorah claims that the throne is hers by rights, to which Tyrion replies, “Why? Because her father, who burned living men for amusement, was the king?” Tyrion is unsatisfied with Jorah’s romantic answers to the real question of her legitimacy and experience. Certainly, part of the reason why Varys wants Tyrion to play advisor to the young queen is due to this realism and his ability to understand the minds of the Westerosi. If Daenerys is to rule the Seven Kingdoms, a land she has never seen in her adult life, she will need some serious help.
The two of them come upon a slave ship and are captured by the slavers. Malko, the leader, tells them that they will be taken to the city of Volantis, with Tyrion’s privates cut and sold to fetch a handsome price. “A dwarf’s cock has magic powers.”
“The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant.”
Tyrion, ever the quick wit, manages to convince the men that Jorah is a veteran of a hundred battles and tournaments in Westeros, having unseated Jaime Lannister himself. Therefore, he would fetch a much better price if sold to the fighting pits in Meereen, which Daenerys has just reopened. When the slaver is unimpressed by Jorah’s jousting abilities, “A fancy game for fancy lads,” the old knight tells him about the time he killed Khal Drogo’s bloodrider in single combat. This impresses the slaver, and he agrees to take the two men to Meereen. After being captured twice, Tyrion is still on the road to Meereen and Queen Daenerys. A dwarf has magic powers, indeed.
The episode’s title, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” comes from the motto of House Martell. The Dornish are the only of the Seven Kingdoms not to have been conquered. Their inclusion under the rule of the Iron Throne is only due to a century’s-old marriage alliance between the Martells and the Targaryens.
The latest marriage alliance between the ruling family and Dorne is between Myrcella Baratheon (Lannister) and Trystane Martell, Doran’s son. This alliance is insulting to Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes, who plan to abduct and kill Myrcella “for Oberyn.”
Little do they know that at the same time, Jaime and Bronn have come to “rescue” Myrcella from Dorne. They arrive in the Water Gardens only to find her making out with her betrothed. “Uncle” Jaime is unable to convince Myrcella to leave her beloved Trystane, who is suspicious of the blood stains on Bronn’s stolen clothing.
After Bronn knocks him down, they are set upon by the Sand Snakes, who also intend to steal Myrcella away. The lot of them engages in a rather boring fight until they are all caught and captured by Prince Doran’s bodyguard, Areo Hotah, and his longaxe.
In King’s Landing, Brother Lancel, who has abandoned his family name, confronts Littlefinger and offers him a warning about his business with the brothels. Littlefinger is unfazed. “We both peddle fantasies, Brother Lancel. Mine just happen to be entertaining.”
When he meets with Cersei, he calls her out for having Loras Tyrell arrested; though she plays coy, he sees right through her obvious schemes and vaguely hints at his skepticism. She pretends to be hurt over Loras choosing the company of men over her, his betrothed. To the brother- and cousin-lover, Littlefinger replies, “One’s choice of companion is a curious thing…”
Cersei likes to imagine that she is equal or even superior to Littlefinger in her ability to manipulate power, but she has always been far too emotional in her decision making, as evidenced by her reaction to the news that Sansa is alive and in Winterfell. Littlefinger uses this marriage—a marriage alliance that he set up himself—to scare Cersei into considering the Boltons as a threat in the North and give him permission to take over as Warden.
With Sansa on their side, Littlefinger argues that the unpopular Boltons could in fact prove a formidable force against the South and King’s Landing. However, he counsels patience, informing her of Stannis’s plans to march south on Winterfell. He suggests that a force be sent to clean up whatever force is left after Stannis and the Boltons tear each other apart.
Conveniently, he offers his troops from the Vale to be at the service of the throne. So far, the Vale has remained neutral in the war, but their strength would tip the balance of power in favor of whichever side they chose to support. Littlefinger suggests that he would love to see the Lannister flag fly over Winterfell, so long as he is named Warden of the North.
Cersei seems to give in to his demands, agreeing to talk to the king about it. However, she makes one final order. Still assuming that Sansa played a part in Joffrey’s murder (Sansa did, in fact, but not to her knowledge), she demands that Littlefinger put Sansa’s head on a spike. Without missing a beat, the same man who took Sansa under his wing and professed great affection for her, replies, “As I said, I live to serve.” The only person Littlefinger serves is himself.
Her next visitor is Olenna Tyrell, who is given the nickname “Queen of Thorns” for her famously vicious wit. Also, considering the sigil of her house is a flower, the thorns represent the not-so-soft side of the powerful Tyrells.
The great matriarch of the Tyrell family confronts Cersei for arresting her grandson. However, she grows impatient when Cersei pretends to be too busy to look up from her writing. Unmoved to quit, Cersei calls her the “famously tart Queen of Thorns.” Olenna responds, “And famous tart, Queen Cersei.” That gets Cersei’s attention.
Cersei denies having anything to do with the Faith Militant’s decision to arrest Loras and convene a Holy Inquest into his alleged sins. “I have no love for these fanatics, but what can a Queen Mother do?” Olenna warns her that her actions have jeopardized the fragile Lannister-Tyrell alliance. The Tyrells provide “gold and wheat” for the crown, which is severely in debt. Cersei’s jealousy for Margaery has put not only her son, but the whole Lannister reign at risk.
Foolhardy despite Olenna’s threats, Cersei claims victory over the Tyrells by arranging it so that both Loras and Margaery end up in prison. In the Holy Inquest before the High Sparrow, Margaery testifies in defense of her brother, denying any knowledge of his homosexual relations. Enter Olyvar, the prostitute and spy for Littlefinger who was conveniently left untouched by the Sparrows’ raid on his brothel earlier in the season. He claims to be Loras’s squire (a lie), and says that Margaery once walked in on them (a truth). His testimony condemns not only Loras, but also Margaery. Cersei’s longtime rival is found guilty of bearing false witness before the gods.
The siblings are arrested on the spot, much to Cersei’s barely-concealed delight. King Tommen, useless and weak, sits helplessly idle as the queen and the queen’s brother are dragged away by the fanatics his mother armed.
“[Tywin] was no fool. He understood sometimes we must work with our rivals rather than destroy them.” – Lady Olenna
Cersei has worked hard to ensure that “House Lannister has no rival,” but in doing so, she has created enemies kingdom-wide.
Finally, to the North, Ramsay’s lover Myranda asks to help Sansa with her bath in preparation for the wedding. Sansa lets her in, but not without trepidation. As Myranda washes the black dye out of Sansa’s red hair, she tells her about all of the other girlfriends that bored the young Bolton. “Ramsay gets bored easily. You don’t want to end up like the others,” she threatens.
As Myranda details the abuse and torture, even alluding to Tansy’s murder (“Have you ever seen a body after the dogs have been at it? Not so pretty.”), she continues to wash Sansa with faux sweetness. All the while, Sansa sits in silence.
“How long have you loved him Myranda?” she asks at last, cold and measured, catching the girl off-guard. “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home and you can’t frighten me.”
We’ve watched Sansa grow up on screen, little by little. She started as a young girl, bickering with her sister and dreaming of princes. She suffered abuse after abuse in King’s Landing, a victim of her circumstances, trapped in enemy territory with the wrong last name. Only just recently has she found her strength and gained some agency, determined to stop being a bystander to the tragedy in her life. Despite it all, Sansa has emerged unbowed, unbent, and unbroken.
For her wedding night, Sansa gives up the black hair and the black wardrobe and dons an outfit true to her family’s legacy. Instead of ravens’ feathers, she wears a fur on her shoulders. The trout pins on her dress are actually her mother’s, representing her maiden House Tully.
When Theon comes to walk her down the aisle, he begs her to take his arm, saying that Ramsay will punish him if she does not. “You think I care what he does to you?” she replies, remembering how he betrayed her family and murdered her younger brothers. He didn’t actually kill the boys, of course, but he may be too far gone to separate his own truths and tales.
Still, when he gives Sansa away in the Godswood, he identifies himself by his true name, Theon Greyjoy, instead of his new name, Reek. He declares that he was Ned Stark’s ward, recalling a time when he was held as a hostage in the Stark home after his father, Balon, led an unsuccessful rebellion against Robert Baratheon. The Starks were good to him, treating him like one of their own. He lived with the Stark children and watched Sansa grow, which is part of the twisted reason why Ramsay orders that he be the one to give her away in the absence of any other living Stark. She was like a younger sister to Theon, but how much does she matter to Reek?
In the marital bedroom, Ramsay confronts Sansa about her alleged virginity, despite the fact that she was married to Tyrion Lannister. Ramsay mocks her, wondering why she is still a virgin and asking if it was because she was “afraid of dwarfs?” In the Seven Kingdoms, many assume that dwarfism is a physical manifestation of a person’s moral depravity; therefore, dwarfs are often seen as monsters to the smallfolk (in contrast to other cases, particularly in Essos, where the smallfolk view dwarfs as good luck). On the contrary, Sansa insists that “Lord Tyrion was kind, he was gentle. He never touched me.” Of course, it’s the young Bolton who is the true monster.
Ramsay rips her dress and roughly consummates their marriage in front of Reek, who is forced to watch. Sansa gravely obeys Ramsay, knowing that this is something she must do in order to accomplish her long range plans to destroy the Boltons from within, but the experience is awful and traumatic. We can hear Sansa’s cries, but thankfully see nothing but Reek’s face as he agonizes over the scene. He weeps but does nothing, despite audiences everywhere willing him to intervene.
With the prospect of Sansa marrying Ramsay Bolton, we always knew that this was the logical consequence, but most of us irrationally hoped that any number of things would intervene before we ever got there. Maybe Sansa would find a way out of it. Maybe Brienne would come rescue her. Maybe Stannis would attack suddenly. Maybe Reek would remember his inner Theon and redeem himself by intervening.
We should have known better. Since Season 1, Game of Thrones has made sure to establish the notion that none of our favorite characters are safe, and it’s futile to hope anything for them. There are no happy endings, at least not without a lot of pain and suffering along the way. When the episode ended on this horrible note, Theon’s face reflecting the audience’s grief, I recalled Arya’s earlier cry: “I’m not playing this stupid game anymore!” And yet, as Jaqen reminds us, “We never stop playing.” The game of thrones goes on, and we’ll keep coming back for more.
Other Thoughts on “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”:
- The likely reason why Sansa’s marriage was so rushed is because of Stannis’s march on Winterfell. The Boltons would need her good Stark name to encourage loyalty among the Northerners throughout the invasion.
- Over the last couple of days, much has already been said about the controversial final scene of this episode. It represents a major departure from the books and Sansa’s character arc. Moreover, many viewers have already expressed troubles over the showrunners using rape as a plot device. Lots of awful things have happened to the main characters over the years, but this was one of the hardest to watch.
- Cersei is awfully gleeful about imprisoning Margaery and Loras Tyrell, but she would do well to remember that Brother Lancel, her cousin, was once her lover. How long until Lancel uses her crime of incest against her?
- When Cersei tries to act distracted as she writes during her meeting with Lady Olenna, she is actually mimicking her father’s power move (and poorly at that, since Olenna calls her out for it). See Season 3, Episode 1, when Tyrion came before Tywin to discuss his inheritance. Also, Cersei was on the receiving end of this tactic in Season 3, Episode 4.