“Violence is a disease.”
Possession, loss, reclamation; these are mile markers on the endless circuit of war down which great houses and their hapless draftees trudge, marching ever lower on a corkscrew path like a frozen whirlpool, like a huge mouth sucking up men and spitting out corpses. But why? Why keep fighting even, as Jaime says, after the war is over? To fix one’s own mistakes and reclaim pride of place as Cersei does in trying to make an ally of Olenna? To honor pacts a thousand years old? Or simply, like the Blackfish, to die at home instead of in the wilderness? It’s that last that resonates most strongly through ‘The Broken Man,’ an episode with the beaten soldier firmly on its mind.
The first walking wounded to stump his way onto the screen is none other than Sandor Clegane, the erstwhile Hound. Having survived his brush with death at Brienne’s hand, he’s giving peace a chance and rolling with a group of the faithful building a sept in the country under the leadership of a soldier-turned-septon. Deadwood’s Ian McShane is earthily convincing as a man who’s done everything, his face careworn and his spirit unflagging, his sermon about his war crimes and how they changed him mixing brutal memories with a thin, rough strand of hope. He’s a man whose desire to make the world a better place comes ahead of all pretension, even toward being better than he is. When the Hound criticizes him for welcoming bandits with a blessing, he shrugs and says, “I’m a fucking septon!”
It’s his words on war that sculpt the episode, his likening of violence to a disease that hangs over a scene in which a gutted Arya staggers through a marketplace in search of help only to find herself shunned like a leper. And what are the Faceless Men if not a metaphor for the hostility that might lurk behind any eyes, for any reason? The world is violent not always because of malice but often, as the septon says, out of cowardice. Just as he feared the derision of his comrades if he held back on the battlefield or when carrying out his superiors’ monstrous orders, so do the people of Braavos withhold aid from Arya out of fear of the House of Black and White. Arya herself is another draftee in a war she never asked for and couldn’t understand.
The other Starks, meanwhile, are trying with mixed results to drum up an army. Tormund helps them make the hard sell to the Wildlings and Davos wins over the tough-as-nails ten-year-old lady Mormont, and all sixty-two of her men at arms, but things go less smoothly with House Glover. Lord Glover hears out Jon and Sansa’s plea until the end, but his stony face and almost-teary eyes betray a man who just can’t face another fight. His family wounded by imprisonment, his brother killed in Robb Stark’s service when the young king shattered the North with his disastrous marriage to a foreigner, his answer to Jon’s call to arms is a terse, “House Stark is dead.” It’s a sharp slap to the face, a reminder that even good-guy Robb played fast and loose with thousands of lives and that being the aggrieved party in a war makes you no less culpable for the hell unleashed on the soldiery and on the people. The North remembers, and the memories aren’t good.
Harington and Turner make a good on-screen matchup, Jon’s discomfort with being in the spotlight grating against Sansa’s fraying good manners and impatience to get things rolling. That each negotiation scene feels unique is a testament to Bryan Cogman’s thoughtful script, with every new vignette telling us something we didn’t know about the world, the characters, the coming war. The scenes are united, though, by a weary stubborness felt on every side of the table. This world is just plain sick of fighting, and the knowledge that now a supernatural foe is coming to sweep away their grubby little squabbles in a tide of snow and death is hardly comforting.
In King’s Landing, the High Septon smiles and lectures like Sandor’s rescuer’s evil twin, every inch the people’s priest even as he tells Margaery she doesn’t need to enjoy Tommen fucking her to do her marital duties and birth the heir heneeds to keep the Faith’s grip on the Crown nice and tight. What he covets as a demagogic pauper is, in the end, what he coveted as a greedy cobbler. He wants what those above him have, his ambitions have just grown in scope. Margaery, for her part, plays the brainwashed convert well, and Natalie Dormer’s performance as she uses supervised tea with her grandmother as a chance to pass a note indicating she hasn’t really gone off the deep end is tender and layered. She chides the old woman for her faithlessness even as her chin trembles and tears threaten, urging Olenna to leave the city ahead of the High Sparrow’s knives while Septa Unella, none the wiser, looks on in approval.
In the Riverlands, the Freys, eternal also-rans of Westeros, are busy botching the siege of Riverrun and making toothless threats on Edmure Tully’s life. The filthy countyside and the vile, disheveled Freys themselves are a perfect embodiment of the viciousness that keeps the wheels of war turning. But here too, everyone is just plain done. The Blackfish watches from the ramparts as Lothar Frey holds a dagger to his nephew Edmure’s throat. The elder Tully says nothing as Frey rants and threatens, then he growls, “Go on and do it.” He’s seen too much of war, and he knows there’s no victory for him. Only, as he says to Jaime, his choice of defeats.
Still holding out hope for a win of their own, Yara and Theon make the episode’s second great on-screen sibling matchup. Yara’s firm bullying/pep talk, framed around making Theon drink a mug of ale at a brothel(where she, revealed as queer, vows to fuck the tits off her companion for the evening!), is like watching someone pull hair out of a drain. The ugliness of what’s been done to Theon makes his going through further humiliation hard to watch, but in the end there’s an enormous sense of return behind his eyes as he rises to his sister’s challenge. It’s a strong parallel to Sandor’s arc, though where the Hound succeeded at fulfilling Westeros’s idea of manhood to the point where he become a bloody, roaring caricature of it, Theon’s masculinity has been stripped from him in the most systematic way possible. Still, both have been through the proverbial grinder during their time at war and both are faced with a choice: fight, or walk away. For the Hound it’s a battle of principles as much as one of flesh and steel. For Theon it’s a life of struggle and hardship or its suicide.
For six seasons, Game of Thrones has made a close study of the things bred by war and killing. Every life it depicts has been deformed in one way or another by the endless conflicts raging in Westeros and Essos, from Arya’s paranoid hyper-vigilance to Sandor’s fatalistic attitude toward violence. The Hound’s return, and the tragic slaying of his rescuer and of the man’s followers by agents of the Brotherhood Without Banners, ends not with a grand statement but with a caesura, a tremor of uncertainty as the Hound disregards the septon’s teachings and takes up an ax in anger. That it’s the same ax he wielded in helping to build the sept where, ultimately, the septon is hanged represents an ambiguity in the episode’s final shot. Was the septon, with all his talk about abandoning war and doing good in the world, naive? Do his teachings lack merit? It would be a crassly cynical point for a show so ironclad in its loathing of violence. But, for now, the moment is unresolved.