A tremendously effective tone piece of rising action. The decision to do a cold open to dispatch the episode’s headline event sets the tone well, and seems where you have to start in looking at the episode. First, the obvious criticisms, which are numerous: they literally bring him back after sixteen episodes with nothing more than a Missy-esque “well I escaped”; there’s nothing like room to actually build his arc this episode; it amounts to a Martin-esque “I BROUGHT YOU ANOTHER VIEWPOINT CHARACTER I HOPE YOU LIKE IT” of exactly the sort that the show historically does poorly (and for that matter so does Martin). Fine. But of at least equal weight is the sort of bloody-minded televisual efficiency with which it’s done. The Hound does Unforgiven and we got Ian McShane to be the walking cliche needed to do it. Fair enough. It’s hard to complain about an eleven minute western shot in Northern Ireland with Rory McCann and Ian McShane.
Aside from giving the episode a sense of oddness from the get-go, it sets an almost necessary theme; one that’s fairly quickly emphasized as we deal both with fellow religious fanatics (and Maribald is definitely a religious fanatic, even as he’s a somewhat more straightforwardly sympathetic one than the High Sparrow) and old wars. The relatively large number of parts and of hard cuts belies the tightness of the episode, with scene after scene of people preparing for battles and getting dragged into old conflicts. Things like the cut from Lyanna Mormont to the Kingslayer and Blackfish’s parlay and back to Jon Snow are elegant things. And it’s difficult to seriously call the Hound-Arya-Hound sequence at the end a set of arbitrary “hard cuts” even as they don’t quite fit into any of the standard categories of transition.
There’s also a stripped simplicity to the majority of scenes. All of them have straightforward stakes and a clear structure of someone trying to get what they want. For once the profusion of short scenes is simply an episode moving quickly and with pace. Even the quiet scenes have great moments - Olenna’s “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met” is fantastic, as (once again) is Natalie Dormer’s performance of “I am very clever and two steps ahead of everyone else in the room.” And the Yara/Theon scene is a small delight, with some of the best chosen nudity in the series’ history, a bunch of great lines (Gemma Whelan’s delivery of “fuck justice then, we’ll get revenge” is perfect) and a throwaway line about Daenerys that does a lot of larger structural work for the season. And the short Arya scene is quite effective, abruptly putting Arya in a very new sort of danger - she’s literally never had any sort of serious injury before, and seeing Maisie Williams get to do a very standard bit of Game of Thrones acting for the first time in season six is a delight.
Seeing Jaime in a decidedly different place, at once taken down a few notches and put in a new position of power, is similarly rewarding, and having both Clive Russell and Jerome Flynn back after absences of varying lengths is satisfying. The establishing shots of Riverrun are wonderfully effective at quickly giving a sense of what’s going on even if you don’t remember the three-year-old character they don’t even bother to introduce in the previously segment (it seems obvious who After the Thrones will be picking for “who the fuck was that” this week). And even if you don’t, Clive Russell is just a lot of fun in his slightly disheveled effectiveness. And again, there’s some nice larger season structure in play with the knowledge (confirmed in the trailer for next week) that the situation we’re seeing set up here will get Brienne added next week.
But the real point of the episode’s structure is simply to get in four separate Jon Snow scenes, as the “rally the northern Houses” plot is done with considerable haste. On the whole this is efficient - it’s worth noting the odd narrative structure for Jon’s plot this episode - two victories, a defeat, and an ambiguous bit that’s really more of a Sansa scene in the end. It’s not quite rising action. The episode is structured around it, just as much as it’s structured around the Hound’s return (so the two resurrected characters, then; and note the sinister return of the Brotherhood; Lady Stoneheart truthers must be going wild), but it’s on the whole underplayed - a story that’s still a long way from climax. Still, it is again consistently fun. The Lyanna Mormont scene is an utter treat - funny without being light. Jon and Tormund are at this point as reliable as Tyiron and Varys (and I don’t believe we’ve ever had two consecutive Tyrion-free episodes before). The House Glover bit is a nothing, and as I said the last segment is anticlimax, but it’s a really effective motor driving the episode forward.
About the only thing I’m genuinely disappointed by - and forgive me for becoming a momentary book purist - is that the “broken men” speech that the title comes from doesn’t actually make it into the episode. The bits Ian McShane does get are lovely in their own right, but it’s a speech you can properly understand why Martin is proud of - one where he actually pays off the materialist promise of his approach with a bracing explanation of how war’s systemic devastation extends long after the battles are all over. It’s a bit that would have gone in very nicely within this episode of looming battles in old wars. Alas, it’s instead an instance where the show’s instincts go just a bit more soap opera than is actually wise.
Still a great episode though.
State of Play
The choir goes off.
There is a cold open of two minutes. It is set in the Riverlands. The opening image is of a nail being forged.
The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Riverrun: Jaime Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
The Direwolves, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
The Dogs, Rory McCann
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
The Paw, Tormund Giantsbane
Chains of Riverrun: Bronn
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Winterfell, The Wall, and Meereen are empty.
The episode is in parts. The first runs three minutes and is set in the Riverlands, picking up directly from the cold open.
The second runs five minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Septon Maribald and the Hound talking about the gods to the High Sparrow and Margaery doing so.
The third runs three minutes and is set at the Wildling camp in the Gift. The transition is by hard cut, from a satisfied Olenna Tyrell to an establishing shot.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Tormund to Cersei.
The fifth runs six minutesand is set at Riverrun. The transition is by family, from Cersei to Jaime Lannister.
The sixth runs five minutes and is set on Bear Island. The transition is by image, from Riverrun to Mormont Keep.
The seventh runs three minutes and is set at Riverrun. The transition is by hard cut, from Lyanna Mormont to Jaime riding through the camp.
The eighth runs two minutes and is set at Deepwood Motte. The transition is by image, both being scenes of men meeting at the gate of a castle.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in Volantis. The transition is by dialogue, from Lord Glover speaking of the Ironborn to Yara and Theon.
The tenth runs two minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by hard cut, from Theon to Jon Snow’s camp.
The eleventh runs five minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Sansa to a wide shot of the framed sept.
The twelfth runs two minutes and is set in Braavos. The transition is by hard cut, from the Hound splitting wood to Arya walking down the street.
The thirteenth runs one minute and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from an injured Arya to the Hound chopping. The final image is of the Hound picking up his axe.