“Dragonstone” kicked off the penultimate season of Game of Thrones by tying many different cords of far-reaching storylines ever closer together. For the first time in the series, all of the remaining main characters are in Westeros. With only twelve episodes of our beloved series left between seasons 7 and 8, “Dragonstone” feels like it set in motion several of the events that will factor heavily into the end of the series.
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.”
In “Oathbreaker,” Game of Thrones continues to explore the theme of multiple perspectives, challenging conventional assumptions of right and wrong, good and bad. The show has never focused on the single-sided narrative, but it has leaned heavily on the notion that the Starks and their noble history is largely unassailable. In this episode, the writers challenge even that history, showing how all characters exist in a grey area—even the honorable Ned Stark.
When Varys captures an agent of the Sons of the Harpy, he listens to her side before offering his own. “Well, that makes perfect sense from your perspective. I have a different perspective, of course. I think it’s important that you try to see things from my perspective, just as I will try to see them from yours,” he says. The High Sparrow does something very similar with King Tommen, mollifying the innocent young ruler by showing sympathy for his point of view without yielding an inch.
Among the Dothraki, the high priestess of the dosh khaleen reminds Daenerys that she, too, thought of herself as the khaleesi to conquer the world; from her view, the mother of dragons is simply another widowed khaleesi who has broken the rules.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow reawakens to confront his murderers and their hatred of him. “I did what I thought was right and I got murdered for it.” He is shaken by this fact and the notion that many of his brothers view him as a traitor, not a savior. If his murderers already regard him as an oathbreaker, Jon decides to assume that mantle completely and end his service to the Night’s Watch.
Power and control are the prizes awarded in this game of thrones. However, in the wake of Robert Baratheon’s death, no one has held onto the actual authority to wield that power unchallenged. In “The Gift,” the authority of many characters comes into question as they lose some of the control they worked so hard to acquire.
There are mutterings of dissent at the Wall as Jon Snow readies to bring all of the wildlings south to settle in the land known as The Gift. Sansa is once again stripped of much of her control, locked away and abused by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. Stannis is losing men and beasts to the advancing winter and is unwilling to sacrifice for a greater assurance of victory. Daenerys struggles to control an insurrection against her authority by marrying into the local ruling elite and agreeing to reopen the fighting pits. Jaime cannot convince his daughter, Myrcella, to return to King’s Landing, and Lady Olenna is surprised how little authority she has over the High Sparrow. Worst of all, Cersei has given up all of her authority to the Faith Militant, assuming that she could control them. In the end, only Littlefinger may be left smiling in the chaos.
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” – Littlefinger – Season 3, Episode 6
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.