“I think last night’s episode was my least favorite Game of Thrones episode ever.”
This is the text I received earlier today, from my roommate Theo. Of course, this is the kind of message I could have received from any number of you, as I’m not sure that “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” the sixth episode of season 5, was ever going to be a particularly popular frame in the Game of Thrones saga. After sleeping on the idea, I’m convinced that this episode was never trying to be your favorite. In the eyes of showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, alongside episode writer Bryan Cogman, this episode had to have been seen as a necessary evil. Because in the end, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” reminds us of the show’s most prominent theme: that for every venture, there is a cost.
Ned Stark and later his son Robb and wife Catelyn learned the cost of being righteous, as did Jaime Lannister when he lost his hand in an attempt to save Brienne. Last season, Prince Oberyn learned the cost of hubris. His need for a very public confession overwhelmed him and in an instant, he was squished produce. And above all, the audience has learned time and time again that there is a cost to caring about and rooting for a particular character. The show, like the Lannisters, always pays its debt. Our debt is created when we begin to think someone is winning, as if the word “game” in the title suggests that someone may eventually succeed.
The truth is that in this world, no one wins. At least not for long.
The one offer of solace I can offer prior to getting into the big lessons each character learned this week is that with Game of Thrones it’s often difficult to see the forest through the trees. Terrible things happen, but what’s interesting is seeing how those terrible things cause ripple effects throughout the rest of the story. Often those things don’t seem necessary – as was the case with this week’s final scene – but they become important later. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s important to remember that while the night is dark and full of terrors, there is potential for light ahead.
Let’s explore this week’s big idea, which involved characters learning the cost of their particular quests:
1. What Arya Learned
In a wonderfully crafted sequence, Arya Stark finally learned what they do with the bodies after they clean them in the House of Black and White. The truth is far darker (and much more beautiful, in a cinematic sense) than we anticipated. Below Braavos’ premiere mortuary there are pillars filled with the faces of those who have chosen to die inside its walls. It’s become clear how the Faceless Men get their new identities. And as Jaqen explains to Arya within this breathtaking scene, she must be ready to give up her actual face in order to become no one. It’s more than just a metaphor.
Arya’s lesson is that there’s a great cost to attaining the level of power she wants. In order to exact revenge upon those on her list, she believes she must become a Faceless Man. In order to become a Faceless Man, she must give up everything (both emotional and physical) that make her Arya Stark. Jaqen can see that she’s not ready to become no one just yet, but the promise that she is ready to become someone else sounds interesting.
2. What Ellaria Learned
I’ve got a lot to say about the Kingdom of Dorne and the way the show has made a mockery of what was one of the coolest elements in George R.R. Martin’s latter books, but I’ll save that for an article tomorrow. For now, let’s look at the plight of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. They learn almost too quickly that hurting little girls isn’t something that you should do in Dorne. Their quest isn’t necessarily for power, but for the means to instigate a war. This means doing something terrible to the seemingly innocent Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free), whose only real crime is the Lannister blood that boils for her betrothed, Trystane Martell (the Rico Suavé of Dorne).
In a scene that feels haphazardly slapped together, the paths of Jaime and Bronn collide with the Sand Snakes as they both simultaneously attempt to kidnap Myrcella. Their poorly choreographed battle is interrupted by Areo Hotah, who leads Prince Doran’s guards in and takes everyone prisoner. The only bloodshed is a dangerously subtle knife wound sustained by Ser Bronn at the hands of Nymeria. If there’s one thing we know about the Sand Snakes, it’s that they are their father’s daughters (aside from his stance on hurting little girls, that is). Were those daggers tipped with anything nefarious? Time will surely tell.
3. What Queen Margaery Learned
Tommen is powerless. That’s a pretty simple lesson to be learned from King’s Landing this week. Margaery’s intent was to out maneuver Cersei by using her son, but she overestimated the young king’s ability to get things done. Now she’s in prison for being a sinner.
While it’s great to have Diana Rigg back as the Queen of Thorns, the tables are very quickly turned against her. It’s clear that Cersei’s decision to arm the Faith Militant has put the sinners of King’s Landing in a dangerous spot. And for the moment, everything seems to be coming up Cersei. Ser Loras has been indicted by the Faith, Margaery went with him, and any opposition to her authority is seemingly dead. But I can’t help but think that two things are true in King’s Landing:
1. Cersei is meddling with powers she can’t control.
2. The Queen of Thorns is not someone with whom you should trifle.
All of this suggests that the situation in King’s Landing will become far worse before it ever gets any better.
4. What Theon Learned
This section should really be about Sansa. By any measure, she took the worst of what happens on her wedding night. Her lesson is simply that her quest for power, aided and encouraged by the scheming Littlefinger, has run her alongside yet another incarnation of Joffrey. This time it’s Ramsay, whose sadistic ways are darker and more immediate than anything Joffrey could have ever inflicted. Squirreled away in the North, isolated amongst those who murdered her family, Sansa is in grave danger. For a moment, she was unintimidated. Then she was reminded, in the most horrible of ways, that there is plenty to fear.
For Theon, this is perhaps one of the show’s longest and most grueling lessons. Ever since he turned on the Starks and took Winterfell for himself, he’s been paying more than The Iron Price for his crimes. Ramsay’s torture has stripped him of his flesh and his identity. And this wedding night scene is meant to do the same for Sansa, all while further punishing Theon. In Alfie Allen’s exceptional performance, we live the horror of what’s happening on the other side of the room. It’s the most affecting part of a scene that likely left plenty of watch parties in silence.
What will be most interesting about the Winterfell storyline is how Sansa and Theon choose to respond. Sansa has endured something terrible, but she’s not broken. Her cost is higher than we’re comfortable with, but her quest can continue. For Theon, the toll is immense. It’s hard to imagine him ever coming back from this and being of any use to Sansa, but perhaps their shared experience will inspire him toward redemption.
5. What the Audience Learned
Once again the Game of Thrones audience has been repaid for caring about an individual character. And if you still, for some sick reason, liked Ramsay Snow, this episode should seal his position as the season’s darkest villain. Until his final moments, we can all root for the worst. Whether he’ll get any comeuppance is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt that he deserves it.
The other lesson here is that our implicit trust in the show’s creative team might be a little misplaced. This episode was by far the most off-book episode to date. And while some of the changes are for the better (Ramsay’s wedding night in the books, though not with Sansa, is far more gruesome), some are not. In an upcoming article, I’ll run through the details of how the show has failed the Dorne storyline. The greater issue I have this week is that the show has truly fallen in love with its shock value. The Sansa scene more than any other proves this. I worry that such an infatuation will cause problems in the future. Then again, it’s important to see the forest through the trees, which means that I’ll reserve judgment on that until the end of the season (and perhaps the series itself).
Related Topics: Game of Thrones