18th May2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×06: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“What do we do with the bodies after we clean them?”

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Two people are bathed in the course of ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.’  One is a corpse being laid to rest in the House of Black and White while the other is Sansa Stark, betrothed of Ramsay Bolton.  Arya discovers that the bodies of those who die in the House are stripped of their faces which then become part of the arsenal of identities wielded by the Faceless Men.  It’s a fantastic sequence, a slow pan through the dimly-lit vaults of a cathedral of fleshly death masks, and its hideous remarkability is equaled in every way by the quotidian ugliness endured by Sansa. The Stark sisters open and close the episode, and by its end they’ve both been ushered formally into an adulthood which years of cruelty, caprice, and terror entitled them to claim long ago.

If there’s a fatal flaw in ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ it’s that the episode leaves itself precious little time for stage-setting in between its breakneck plot developments.  Jaime and Bronn crash into the Sand Snakes in the water gardens of Dorne like two sets of Stooges bumbling into the same dimension and immediately committing themselves to mortal combat.  The trial of the siblings Tyrell, limply staged if ably presided over by the incredible Jonathan Pryce, goes off with similar lack of front-loading.  There’s something contrived in how swiftly everything transpires.

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For an episode named for the House words of Dorne’s ruling family, the Dorne material in ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ feels perfunctory in the extreme.  Doran and his captain of the guard, Areo Hotah, exchange a few words about how dangerous it is for Doran’s son Trystane to walk around the water gardens with princess Myrcella.  If that’s true, why are the two unguarded?  How are Jaime and Bronn able to walk right into said gardens, to say nothing of the Sand Snakes passing unchallenged?  It all feels like a protracted hiccup.  It does, however, net us a new song, the bawdy ballad “The Dornishman’s Wife,” so now Westerosi wedding DJs can finally stop looping “The Rains of Castamere” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”

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The Tyrells are rejoined by their matriarch, Olenna, who spends several enjoyable scenes spitting venom and throwing shade.  “Oh,” she exclaims in disgust as her wagon approach’s King’s Landing, “you can smell the shit from five miles away.”  She seems primed as an agent of no-nonsense solutions, a power player too old and savvy to bother with petty schemes and the paper-thin distinctions between who had whom arrested, so there’s an element of horror for the city’s nobles when her bluntness and wit fail her entirely.  The Sparrows and their leader, raised now to leadership of the entire Faith, care nothing for gold, power, or old names.  Cersei’s smirk as Olenna rages against the arrest of her grandchildren is some weapons-grade dramatic irony.  We know, even if she’s somehow missed it, that she and her gaping, hapless son are next.

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Jorah and Tyrion’s schlep down the coast is considerably better-paced than the episode’s other diversions.  There’s time for the considerable chemistry between the two actors to unfold naturally around the deaths of their fathers, their hopes for redemption.  When Jorah hears the news of the old Lord Commander’s death at the hands of his own men, his face crumbles and Tyrion gives him a sincere apology just before slavers ambush them in a secluded beach.  Surely, the line “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant” will live in infamy, but Tyrion’s panicked bullshitting when he realizes his life is worth precisely dick(har, har) to these people is the real point of note.  He spins a line designed to deliver himself and Jorah to Dany despite developments to the contrary, but it’s one that might cost him both heads.

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‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ ends with a scene which cruelly mocks its title.  From the unearthly beauty of the godswood where lanterns float like stars in the drifting snow we’re drawn down into the bedchamber of Sansa and Ramsay, now man and wife, where the predictable unfolds with hideous deliberation.  We’re meant to think, as the camera shifts from Sansa’s tears to Theon’s, not just of poor, tortured Reek and whether or not he’ll snap to save his erstwhile foster sister, but of Brienne, of Petyr, of all the protectors who’ve failed Sansa throughout her life.  Setting up the idea of rescue by Brienne in last week’s ‘Kill the Boy’ makes the miserable hopelessness of that final shot all the more cutting.  There’s a thread of hope, and it’s unbearable.

In the novels, Sansa doesn’t go anywhere near Winterfell or Ramsay Bolton.  Her place is occupied by her childhood friend, the serving girl Jeyne Pool, and Jeyne’s atrocious suffering is experienced largely through the lens of Theon’s guilt.  Sansa, as a main character with agency and an independent narrative, stands to navigate her personal hell with greater heft and moment.  In an ocean of thoroughly sanitized feudalism, it’s easy to forget that the rape Sansa experiences is the wedding night of every teenage bride sold off to an older groom for the express purpose of making an heir. There is no consent in noble unions, and Game of Thrones has never shied from the appalling horrors of the world in which it is rooted.

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