“It’s not an easy thing, admitting to yourself who you really are.”
Fanatics, dragonriders, face-peeling assassins, and the walking dead. ‘Blood of My Blood’, the sixth episode of Game of Thrones‘ riveting sixth season, spent its hour marrying intimate moments of introspection to towering spectacle as deftly as the High Sparrow facilitated his erasure of the divide between church and state. The juxtaposition of sweeping fantasy and the struggle to find one’s true self begins with Meera dragging Bran through a frozen forest, her despairing cries a lonely counterpoint to the welter of visions and prophecy through which the young Stark swims. His tutelage ended too early, his mind awash in the Three-Eyed Raven’s knowledge, Bran is adrift and searching for answers as the dead bear down on him and his protector. Their pitiful circumstances make for a bleak contrast with the sheer scope of Bran’s new place in the show’s mythology. Bran is coming to know himself in a wilderness of dreams and terror, a kind of puberty by fire.
The personal and sorcerous metamorphoses undergone by his long-absent uncle, Benjen Stark, seem no less traumatic. His return is pure high fantasy as he gallops across the snowy battlefield laying waste to the undead with a fiery flail, but his unmasking reveals a face marked by frostburn and weighed down by unthinkable experiences and a brush with death closer, perhaps, than anyone this side of Jon Snow has experienced. As an agent of the Three-Eyed Raven Benjen has found new purpose in life, but to come to that purpose he had to be spitted on a White Walker’s frozen blade. The Seven Kingdoms are so myopic, so inwardly focused, that only the literal swords of the enemy can shift the attention of their people.
Elsewhere, Dany’s episode-closing speech to her Dothraki troops, delivered from dragonback, takes her workaday impatience with the speed of the khalasar’s journey to Meereen and transmutes it into a rallying cry for the incineration of her ancestral homeland. Dany’s experiences may have given her an affinity for Dothraki culture, but even more profound is the extent to which they have rendered her a perpetual outsider. She has been brutalized; now she revels in her chance at brutalizing the world. She’s doubling down on the impulse that led her to flee Meereen, to abandon the tedium of ruling for the fiery thrills of conquest. Daario says as much. Dany’s eagerness for bloodshed is part of a season-long trend toward escalating violence even in the wreckage left by previous wars.
The temporary allaying of violence in King’s Landing only presages a grislier slaughter still to come. Margaery’s apparent conversion to the Faith, whether genuine or feigned as part of a power play or survival tactic, is shocking enough, but Tommen’s following suit and the sight of the Kingsguard with the seven-pointed star stamped on their breastplates really brought home how colossal the threat of the High Sparrow’s fanaticism has grown. As a man whose very existence is predicated on confronting the self and rejecting it for a life of perpetual shame, penance, and self-degradation, whose answer to Jaime’s death threat is, “…every man here would gladly die by your hand. We crave it.”, he possesses an uncanny ability to engender this same process in others. Tommen, young and manipulable, succumbs to his teachings out of interest in the words themselves, yes, but also as a way to distance himself from a family he finds complicated and frightening. His meeting with a Stepford-smiling Margaery who makes pious noises about truly learning to love the commoners provides the last little push he needs to ditch Lannister gold for pauper’s roughspun.
‘Blood of My Blood’ does great work during a sequence set in the palatial halls of Horn Hill, the redoubt of House Tarly, where Sam’s lovely mother and sister, along with Gilly, defend him through a deeply uncomfortable dinner with his father. Lord Randall’s mixture of he-man scorn for Sam’s weight and interests and his blistering prejudice toward Gilly are a toxic mixture that leaves Sam trembling in his seat, eyes downcast. Later, though, he flips his plan by taking Gilly and Young Sam, boosting his father’s sword Heartsbane, and lighting out for the territories with the family he found, not the one in which he’s no longer welcome. The whole thing is moving in a way that’s instantly recognizable to any child brutalized by a parent’s words, and Sam’s reaction is both honest in his inability to confront his tormentor and cathartic in his act of defiance against the old jackass’s legacy.
The sudden severing of Arya’s thread in Braavos promises a duel to the death even as it gives the episode a quietly human centerpiece. As we learn about White Walkers, impending doom, invasions gaining steam, and other things of moment and gravitas, Arya has a quiet conversation with the actress Lady Crane about the character the woman plays: Cersei Lannister. Crane mistakes Arya for a theatrical hopeful, asking her if she enjoys being other people and then seeking her insights into Cersei’s feelings and motivations. The meta-textual nature of the exchange is a hilarious head-scratcher, given that they’re discussing the actual events of Arya’s life in Westeros, but it’s the woman’s frank manner and kindness, her explicit attempt to connect with Arya via her own life and experiences, that grounds the sequence and gives weight to Arya’s decision to spare her life and implicate her poisoner.
Reclaiming her personal effects and descending into some deep sewer or cloister, Arya recovers the instruments of death after choosing life and selfhood over servitude and murder. Her difficult journey is far from over, but in the midst of so many calamitous happening, the story of a scruffy young girl clinging to her humanity by her fingernails and coming out, at least for now, without too many cuts and bruises feels like a triumph for the whole species, even when she blows that candle out to meet the faceless killers coming for her.