In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.
In this latest episode, ironically titled “No One,” characters throughout the land reclaim their identities and humanities. Over the years, inspired by Brienne, Jaime has found a sense of honor worthy of his true name, not the Kingslayer moniker that labeled him with disrepute. In this episode, Jaime may pretend to be the Kingslayer in his words to Edmure Tully, but his actions fulfill a long-held duty not only to Cersei, but also to Brienne and the late Catelyn Stark.
The former queen Cersei chooses not to give up the fight for her life and the life of her last remaining child. Even as her son outlaws trial by combats, she makes a clear choice: “I choose violence,” she tells Lancel and the Faith Militant, and though we only see one of their deaths, we can be sure that Cersei will continue to choose violence if it means protecting herself and her son. “Catelyn and Cersei… they’d do anything to protect their babies: start a war, burn cities to ash, free their worst enemies,” Jaime tells Edmure. Cersei has been pushed aside for too long. This is the episode where she reasserts the only kind of power she believes in: power, pure and simple. “Power is power.”
In Meereen, Greyworm and Missandei find their humanity in humor, laughing and smiling for what feels like the first time in their lives. Both of them—Greyworm especially—have been deprogrammed of their selves for their whole lives. Over time, with the help of Daenerys and now Tyrion, they are figuring out how to become someone more than a mindless cog in someone else’s machine.
Sandor Clegane is still searching for his larger purpose, but rediscovers his true nature as the Hound. For some time now, he has ignored his instincts and sought to live in peace, chopping wood for a rural septon and his followers. After last week’s massacre, the Hound emerges once again as he uses his superior skills of violence to get revenge on the rogue members of the Brotherhood Without Banners.
Finally, Arya has at long last stopped pretending to be anyone other than Arya Stark of Winterfell, running from her family and her past. She refuses to be No One, as the Faceless Men (seemed to have) wanted. She reclaims her true identity and sets on a path towards home.
The characters in Game of Thrones have suffered a lot over the years. Most are almost unrecognizable to their former selves. This episode’s title, “The Broken Man,” may be referring most specifically to the surprising return of Sandor Clegane (the Hound), but many other men and women bear this title, as well. One of the most important themes of the series is that war is awful business. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector in Vietnam and has spoken out against the glorification of war in other fantasy series. None of his characters escape the damaging effects of war.
In this episode, Jon Snow, still reeling from his murder, is unable to articulate the importance of his cause to the wildlings and minor Northern houses. He needs the help of Tormund, Sansa, and most importantly Ser Davos to sell a cause for which he once argued passionately.
Theon and Jaime have both been physically broken, a trauma that has similarly marked their psyches for life. Jaime wears his father’s armor (or something made to look like it) and plays the part of stern commander, but he is missing more than a sword hand in his limp confrontation with the Blackfish at Riverrun. Theon’s sister, Yara, does not understand what it means to be abused and urges him to find himself, not realizing that a broken man cannot just flip a switch to be healed again.
Sansa also carries around the trauma she suffered at the hands of Ramsay, using it to fuel her quest for vengeance on the Boltons. She tells Lyanna Mormont, “I did what I had to do to survive, my lady. But I am a Stark. I will always be a Stark.” Her sister, who only recently realized the same, is physically broken in this episode. Stabbed and left for dead, Arya searches the unfriendly Braavosi faces and finds no help or sympathy.
Finally, Margaery plays the part of a broken woman in her complete conversion to the Faith. Unlike the other characters, she has not actually been broken, but pretends to be in order to play the High Sparrow. Even her grandmother fears for her until Margaery is able to slip her a reassuring drawing of their house rose. She is still a Tyrell, and as their house motto goes, she is “growing strong.”
“Blood of My Blood,” the sixth episode of Season 6, several characters make important reunions with family that will drive the narrative in the final episodes of the season. Beyond the Wall, Bran reunites with his long-lost uncle, Benjen Stark, who promises to help him in his role as the new Three-Eyed Raven; when the White Walkers come south, he says, Bran must be ready for them. Sam briefly gets together with his family and decides to take Heartsbane—the family’s Valyrian Steel sword, a rare weapon needed to kill White Walkers—to spite his abusive father.
Tommen rejoins with his queen, Margaery, who manipulates him into accepting a pact with the Faith. In Braavos, Arya reunites with her past identity, embracing her family’s history and its moral code. No longer No One, Arya Stark braces herself for the blow-back from the Faceless Men. Edmure Tully, Catelyn’s brother and longtime prisoner of the Freys (ever since his Red Wedding), prepares to be sent back to his home at Riverrun as a political hostage. Finally, Daenerys reunites with Drogon and rallies her bloodriders to her cause: the invasion of Westeros.
In one of the most tragic episodes yet, Game of Thrones explores the cost of war. We see it with the Children of the Forest, whom we learn created the White Walkers in a desperate attempt to fight back against the encroaching settlement of men. This was their nuclear option, and as we know now, it likely causes their own extinction. To secure his place on the Salt Throne, Euron Greyjoy murders his own brother and, in this episode, sets out to kill his niece and nephew. Tyrion forges an alliance between Church and State (much like his sister did, to disastrous effect) by inviting the High Priestess of the Red Temple to Meereen, offering her fanatical ministers free rein of the city in order to spread the great word of Queen Daenerys. Arya has to give up her past, her identity, in order to train to become an assassin, though it clearly still haunts her, and her sister Sansa confronts Littlefinger about her rape and torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton.
Ultimately, though, it is the sacrifice of Summer, the Children of the Forest, the Three-Eyed Raven, and especially Hodor that brings this point home to devastating effect. All along, Hodor’s very life has been enslaved to saving Bran from a certain defeat. In trying to win the battle against the White Walkers—or, at least, not to lose when they’ve only just begun the fight—Bran’s actions lead to the unintended consequence of destroying his friend’s mind, and eventually his life. For Bran, Hodor was probably the greatest cost of war yet, and now he must bear the weight of personal responsibility for his friend’s decades-long psychological maiming and death.
In war, the ends are often used to justify the means, but the costs and consequences of waging war have far-reaching and devastating effects.
In war, death is arbitrary and knows no bounds; the likable die as easily as the unlikable. Though a fantasy, Game of Thrones often draws better historical parallels than true historical fiction; it is raw, real, and complex, just like true times of war. Too often in fiction, protagonists are protected from any real harm even in times of chaos and danger. The risk to them is minimal, the stakes relatively low. One of the greatest conceits of Game of Thrones was established in the first season with Ned Stark’s surprising death: Valar Morghulis, “all men must die,” even your favorites.
In “Mother’s Mercy,” the Season 5 finale, the death toll soars, with many major characters offered up to the God of Death. Ironically, there is no peace or mercy of the Mother in this episode—not for anyone. Viewers were left reeling when the credits rolled on this season as one beloved character’s blood stained the snow, but there may be more to some of these deaths than meets the eye.
War is awful, all-consuming turmoil where death can come on a massive, indiscriminate, and impersonal scale, where friend and foe alike are consumed by the machine of war—in this case, by a dragon’s flames. War is also specific and personal; of the warring factions in the War of the Five Kings, four must die or be destroyed. No one is safe, not even the children.
This episode is named after a Targaryen civil war that took place almost two-hundred years before the events in the show. This war between two factions of the same family pitted a king against a queen for the right to sit on the throne, both of them armed with dragons (hence the “Dance of the Dragons”). The queen, Rhaenyra, was eventually captured and fed to King Aegon II’s dragon in front of her son. However, Aegon II also died from the wounds he sustained during the war, so after all that, neither of them got to rule for long.
As a result of the ambitions of two would-be rulers, cities were sacked and burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt again. King’s Landing was in ruins. Other rival kings across the realm declared their right to rule, resulting in anarchy throughout the land. The Seven Kingdoms took a generation to recover. In just a few years, the dragons were extinct.
“The Dance of Dragons” draws an easy parallel between the Targaryen civil war and the current War of the Five Kings. “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne,” Shireen retells of the civil war to her father. “When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead, and it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered.” War is ruin for cities, species, families, hearts, and minds.
In many ways, Game of Thrones is intensely antiwar. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (he worked with the domestic Peace Corps instead), which may seem odd given the abject violence of his novels and the adaptation. However, it’s in this violence where his views are made clear, and this episode was certainly no exception.
“Many in Dorne want war, but I’ve seen war. I’ve seen the bodies piled on the battlefields. I’ve seen the orphans starving in the streets. I don’t want to lead my people into that hell.” – Doran Martell