‘Game of Thrones’ brings back a long-absent character, and welcomes some new ones

A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I wonder if you're the worst person I've ever met…

“Never too late to come back.” -Brother Ray

“The Broken Man” does an unusual thing, structurally: it's the first mid-season Game of Thrones episode to open with a scene before the credits (the show did cold opens in some of its early season premieres, like Tywin melting down Ned's sword), revealing that the Hound survived his wounds from the fight against Brienne, not to mention Arya's decision to abandon him to a slow and agonizing death, rather than the quick one he pleaded for.

I have mixed feelings about the return of Sandor Clegane, since I love the actor and character, but think Arya's decision to leave him bleeding in the middle of nowhere is uglier and more powerful if he actually stayed dead. But his return does bring back the very mixed feelings the show generated when she was apprenticing under him, and the way we were being taught to root for her to lose her innocence and become just as horrible as her enemies so she could more easily kill them. Game of Thrones is often at its most interesting when it's playing with our sympathies and sense of morality like that – when it wants us to accept that the best way of dealing with a horrible world is to be horrible yourself, and “The Broken Man” was frequently about characters being asked if they're willing to become like their enemies in order to defeat them.

This was most explicitly spelled out in the Hound's brief apprenticeship under Brother Ray, a warrior-turned-clergyman played with all the warmth and gravitas you would expect from very special guest star (and HBO drama Hall of Famer) Ian McShane. Ray candidly tells his flock about the worst atrocities he committed in his earlier days, and when the bandits threaten the group, Ray refuses the Hound's suggestion that he fight back, because “Violence is a disease. You don't cure a disease by spreading it to more people.” He is a man of principle, and those principles end up getting him and all his people – save the Hound himself, who is absent at the time of the massacre – killed. Responding to the sight of his mentor hanging from the frame of the church he'll never deliver a sermon inside, the Hound grabs his axe with the determination of a man who is planning to use it for chopping something other than wood. It's portrayed  as simultaneously a fist-pumping moment – Give 'em hell, Hound! – and one to lament, because Brother Ray wouldn't have wanted him to take up arms again, and because the Hound seemed relatively at peace with himself during his time as a lumberjack(*). But even if the show wants us to admire Ray's pacifism, it also acknowledges that it's out of place in this nasty, cruel world. We don't want our heroes to become more like the villains, but the villains keep winning because they're always prepared to do worse than their opponents will.

(*) RIP, Dexter.

That idea of having to become what you hate in order to destroy it permeates a lot of “The Broken Man.” The episode thankfully doesn't drag out the question of whether Margaery has truly been converted or not, as she slips Lady Olenna a note with a drawing of a flower on it, making clear her true loyalties in the only way she can with the Sparrow's people constantly watching her. So all of her quoting from scripture – and her accepting the Sparrow's advice that sex “does not require desire on the woman's part; only patience” – is just acting until she can execute some kind of plan to free Loras and rid the capital of the Faith Militant. Still, there's always the danger of losing oneself in a role, and the Sparrow unfortunately seems entrenched enough(**) that her performance isn't likely to end in the immediate future.

(**) I also appreciated how Brother Ray's comments about believing in a higher power without pretending to have all the answers about said deity came immediately before the Sparrow's first appearance of the episode. It's a shame Ray had to die so soon, not only because we only got one hour with McShane, but because I would have loved to see him go on a tour of the show's various clerics to tell the Sparrow, Melisandre, etc., what he really thinks of them.

Up in the North, Jon Snow, Sansa, and Davos set about building an army the sincere and honest way, with mixed success. Jon is able to keep the wildlings on his side – with help from both Tormund and Wun Wun (like E.F. Hutton, when Wun Wun talks, people listen) – and Davos is able to break through to the delightfully stoic Lady Mormont (who is about the same age as Shireen was when she died), but their forces are still too small, which prompts Sansa to send a raven for help – and the only other army we know of in the area happens to belong to Littlefinger. Last time around, Sansa wisely recognized the folly of enlisting Lord Baelish as an ally; enlisting the Knights of the Vale may be the only way to beat the Boltons, but any deal Littlefinger makes is always designed to benefit him most.

This was a structurally unusual episode in other ways beyond the cold open. Where the standard GoT approach most weeks is to spend 10 minutes in Location A, then another 10 in Location B, then 10 in C, etc., with maybe a brief reprise of an early locale and character subset, “The Broken Man” bounced back and forth much more often than usual, returning continually to the Hound and Jon Snow's group in particular. This isn't always the right approach for the show to take, since those longer vignettes often have the impact that they do because the show isn't constantly cutting away. But in an episode that, like last week, was largely set-up for events to come, the quick transitions and constant back-and-forth movement among subplots generated more energy that, when combined with several characters we either didn't know before (Ray, Lady Mormont) or hadn't seen in a long time (the Hound, the Blackfish), made “The Broken Man” feel livelier than it otherwise would have.

Some other thoughts:

* Never play poker with the Blackfish – at least not if you're one of Walder Frey's idiot sons. That man knows how to call a bluff, as he did excellently at the empty threat to murder Lord Edmure.

* Arya looks to be in pretty rough shape at the moment: badly wounded, soaking wet, and perhaps with nowhere to turn to now that Jaqen has sicced the Waif on her. I wonder if anyone in Lady Crane's acting troupe is a doctor in their spare time…

* Map talk: the Riverrun animation makes its first opening credits appearance since season 2. Also, Braavos has been appearing on the map for several seasons now, and I'm still no closer to being able to make sense of the movement from the Wall to there, even though I know roughly where it's supposed to be in Essos.

* I'm excited that Yarra has, indeed, stolen Euron's plan of offering up her fleet to Dany for several reasons: 1)Anything that speeds up Dany's exit from Meereen is extremely welcome; 2)The show is always more fun when separate groups of characters intersect; and 3)As I've said before, Varys and Greyworm might be the exact people Theon needs to meet in order to fully come to terms with his mutilation. Really, I just want Varys (and Tyrion) back after they had these last two episodes off.

* Speaking of character intersections, while Brienne hasn't made it to Riverrun just yet, I'm even more excited about her pending reunion with Jaime, since now Bronn – making his very belated entrance into season 6 – will be involved as well. My kingdom for a scene where the two of them drink and share stories about how annoying the Kingslayer is.

* Once again, storylines take place at vastly different paces, with Arya's recent scenes covering maybe a few days, while Jon Snow and Sansa have time to travel among several Northern houses, and Yarra and Theon are able to sail all the way from the Iron Islands to what looked like Volantis.

Keeping in mind, as always, that we are here to talk about Game of Thrones as a TV show, and not bring up material from the books that the show has not featured, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com