The Broken Man – In the North, Jon and Sansa visit the Northern houses to call upon their old Stark allegiance with varying success while further South, Jaime brings the Lannister army to the Frey’s siege of Riverrun, and across the seas, both Ayra and the fleeing Greyjoys make new plans. All while a familiar face learns hard lessons about making a new start.
Particularly in the North, recent episodes have carried the theme of a new generation with many sons and daughters of earlier seasons rising to new positions power, following the departure of their parents. This episode takes that generational idea right across the map with a heavy emphasis on the battle between the present and the past, old ways & times verses new. People trying to be someone new but unable to escape their old selves, being made to suffer for the sins and mistakes of their predecessors or some good old-fashioned stubbornness overly letting old grudges die. The best example still comes from The North itself as Jon, Sansa and Davos visit the various smaller Northern households to gather their support against The Boltons. Yet their biggest enemy is not Ramsay, The Lannisters or even The Night’s King but the ghost of Rob Stark as everywhere they go, the bitter aftermath of Rob’s failed crusade is felt; houses still on hard times, and in many cases, key family members lost in support of a failed King. They were counting on the North to remember but they should have been careful what they wished for. There are heaps of wonderful emotional conflict in these scenes from the Lords in question. There's no shortage of reluctance as they turn their backs on centuries of traditional in service to the Starks but are forced to prioritize their own people over another seemingly lost cause. This also serves as a good knock back on Jon and Sansa’s struggle over image and identity. Sansa may have made them the glad rags but nobody is looking upon them as dire wolves, “I served House Stark once but House Stark is dead”. Although Jon at least is making some strides as his speech to the Wildlings (with Tormund on hype man duties) really gives him the prescience of a strong and just leader. Although the undisputed highlight of their story and very nearly performance of the episode comes from their trip to Bear Island and House Mormont. You remember how in last season’s Hardhome, we immediately fell in love the Wildling chieftain Karsi before she was cruelly taken from us (“So would mine, but **** them, they’re dead)? Then ladies and gentlemen, meet her season 6 replacement: Lyanna Mormont. The 10-year-old head of House who completely owns everyone on screen in magnificent fashion..... please don’t kill this one off so quickly.
The best performance, however (and it really is close between them), comes from the long-awaited and much desired return of Clive Russell’s Brynden “Blackfish” Tulley as complete and utter badass unimpressed by anything before him at the siege of Riverrun. His face-to-face with Jaime Lannister is a particular highlight. Jamie’s more confident stance of last week still presides as the Lannister’s hilariously greet the incompetent Frey’s, only to be verbally knocked flat on his arse by an old man viewing him as the centrepiece of inferior new generation. Blackfish’s motives are also rooted firmly within the old & new conflict. He has no interest in moving with the times and adapting to the changing political climate of the Seven Kingdoms; he just wants his home back. It’s a great call back to the prior seasons and the War of the Five Kings too, “As long as I’m standing, the war is not over”. The combination of Russell’s stern emotionless resolve, Bronn’s hilarious ripping on the Frey efforts, and the visual spectacle of Riverrun and the army encampments make this the best location of the episode. The message is well-grounded that neither side can afford an all out fight, implying a very sneaky and scheming resolution to come. What was that about 20 good men and some climbing boots Bronn?
That’s exactly what seems to be in the works down in King's Landing too as Margaery goes for the Westeros' Best Acting Oscar. There are few things more gripping than when great players try to play each other and we know from past experiences that Margaery and the High Sparrow can be both dirty and deadly players in their scheming and manipulation. We know that Margaery is planning to make a move against the Faith Militant (most likely to save her brother) that will probably involve killing The High Sparrow but the subtle little mannerisms of Jonathan Pryce as he listens to Margaery prattle on are so good. It implies that he is fully aware of Margaery’s intentions but right now, as she’s turned King Tommen into a Gods-fearing believer, it’s in his best interest to keep playing along. It’s like the pair are ballroom dancing each with a knife behind their back, twirling away while waiting for the other to blink and make a move. There’s no waiting or blinking for Ayra in Braavos as her plans to return home hit some complications. Although we do leave her on a terrific cliff-hanger, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with her this episode (even just one more scene). Although speaking of great stories with just a single scene, full points to the fleeing Greyjoys (now in Volantis), and some excellent writing from Bryan Cogman. Further in keeping with old vs. new the focus, Theon is asked to put aside Reek once and for all and become a true Iron Born at last with his sister’s help. Speaking of Yara, just when you thought she couldn’t be any more of a lovable tomboy.... well now, (Oberyn Martell approves).
Then there is the biggest reveal of all as for the second week, we’re blessed with a surprise character return that even merits a rare pre-credits sequence and brings along none other than Ian McShane for company. Now the identity is revealed in barely a minute but should still be preserved as spoiler; nevertheless, it’s bloody great and puts heavy stock in a certain big and long-awaited event coming before the end of this season. The scenes we get dipping in and out of this odd little happy cult-like community are extremely enjoyable as they embody the new life and new beginning “Who Know You” is trying to make while providing some great exchanges with McShane (who is just brilliant) concerning purpose, destiny and choice. The climax would imply the said mystery that someone is now firmly back in business.
In many ways, this feels familiar of the season opener in way every little scene just works and flows so well across while being outstandingly written. Every stop on the map has something great to enjoy, but even more crucially, nothing feels like filler. We are in the business end of the season now and no time is being wasted. There’s the odd nit to pick but nothing of significance, consequence or justifiable grounds not to give the episode's top marks. This man isn’t broken... it smashed it!