A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as soon as you accept it would just be farting, belching and slapping without me….
“It's not an easy thing admitting to yourself what you really are.” -Margaery
After a run of episodes packed with tragic deaths, important resurrections, tearful reunions, and unexpected love connections, “Blood of My Blood” takes its foot off the gas a bit to reassess several major power dynamics and check in on some characters and locales that haven't gotten much attention of late, like Sam's visit to his father's castle or our first glimpse of Walder Frey since season 3. (As a result, it left many of the show's major groups on the sidelines for the week, including the gangs from Castle Black, Meereen, Winterfell, and the Iron Islands.)
It's a necessary kind of episode, both from a plot standpoint and a tonal one – if every episode featured scenes as thrilling as Dany's murder of the Khals, or as devastating as Hodor's secret origin being revealed at the moment of his death, then such moments would lose their power for becoming too common – but its design also means that, like the season premiere, it will almost certainly play better as part of a season 6 marathon than in weekly isolation.
Still, if it wasn't glamorous and packed with Internet-breaking moments(*), “Blood of My Blood” was still lively and frequently thrilling, and did a nice job viewing its major stories through the lens of the Braavosi theater company, and asking who among our cast of characters is committed to the role they're currently playing.
(*) Other than, perhaps, the kaleidoscope of images from Bran's two visions, which I assume the Internet will have given thorough Zapruder film-level analysis by the time I wake up tomorrow. In trying to focus on the episode as a whole, I didn't go back and study it frame-by-frame, but it was an interesting mix of memorable moments from seasons past and ones we had heard about before but never seen, like the Mad King (played by David Rintoul) yelling “BURN THEM ALL!,” and Jaime sitting on the Iron Throne.
Start with the one who actually got to interact with the actors, and who by the end of the episode has chosen to be Arya Stark rather than A Girl. Because we don't understand the exact nature of the Faceless Men's magic(**) and god, we don't know for sure if the poison Jaqen gave her to drink a few episodes back would have actually killed her if her heart wasn't fully in her new (lack of) identity. But her reaction to the play both this week and last was very clearly one of someone who lived through many of the events depicted, who could still feel pain at the sight of her father's murder and amusement at the allegedly tragic death of the monstrous Joffrey Baratheon. (The two deaths merged when Arya offered Lady Crane advice on how to play the latter by drawing on her own memories of the former.) And Arya, like her father, ultimately chooses what she believes is right over what she suspects is the politically savvy move, sparing the life of the talented and kind Lady Crane even though Jaqen warned her what the consequences would be. That she finally retrieves Needle from where she stashed it upon joining the Faceless Men makes clear that she's chosen to be herself again – which makes returning to the temple, and possible vengeance at the hands of the Waif, a move that could turn her into the latest Stark family member to deserve a Stupid title at the front of her name if things go badly.
(**) Though we do get to see Jaqen cutting the face off a corpse, suggesting that the faces in the temple were acquired rather than created.
Down in the Riverlands, Sam and Gilly try on a few guises at once – Sam as obedient (even if only frightened into obeying) son, Gilly as Nothern-born, baby Sam as Sam's biological child – before the awfulness of Randyll Tarly becomes too much for either of them to swallow. Gilly's outburst in Sam's defense at dinner punctures the lie about her not being a wildling – and it speaks to Lord Tarly's utter hatred of her people that he seems to accept the White Walker story as proof of Gilly's birthplace, and doesn't care about the stories of his son's heroism – and though Sam keeps his mouth shut in the moment to keep the family he was born into from shunning the family he chose, we know he's become too much of a man to tolerate that for long. It was damn satisfying to see Sam not only take Gilly and baby Sam out of that fancy but ugly place, but grab the ancestral Valyrian steel sword (Chekhov's Sword!) off the wall, since he knows what's coming and the best way to fight it.
Our stop in the deserts of Essos is pretty brief this week, but potent, as Daario asks Dany to consider her future plans within the context of the role (sitting ruler) she's been consistently terrible at and the one (conqueror) at which she has no peer on this series. Daario's words don't exactly solve the riddle of what his khaleesi might do after retaking Westeros, but they do inspire her to track down Drogon and give a speech ensuring the Dothraki army's loyalty to her no matter what comes next. On the one hand, the speech is a bit redundant, given that the whole point of the end of “Book of the Stranger” was that this one stunt had already given Dany control of the whole Dothraki nation. On the other, did you see the size of that dragon? Also, giving inspirational speeches in invented languages is the role Emilia Clarke has always played best – see also the sacking of Astapor – so why not give her another opportunity to do it and liven up the end of an episode that, by design, is mostly set-up for things to come in later installments?
In the end, Arya, Sam, and Dany all cast off the roles they thought they should be playing. The episode's big question is whether Margaery has, or if she's in the midst of the performance of her life.
Because she's been in a cell since midway through last season, appearing sporadically over that span, the show hasn't done the best job of letting us know where the Queen's head is at from moment to moment. Still, our last glimpse of her with Loras showed her telling him to keep fighting and wait for the moment, and her conversion to the ways of the High Sparrow seems way too abrupt if it's meant to be genuine. Which means that, even as she was telling Tommen about all the previous roles she tried on, and insisting this was not another, the only dramatically logical and interesting answer is that she's once again acting, at a level that her hated mother-in-law and even her father and grandmother can't see, all to keep Loras safe and, perhaps, in a belief that she can ultimately manipulate the Sparrow like she's tried to manipulate (with varying degrees of success) all the other powerful men in her life.
We'll have to wait for confirmation of that, but whether Margaery is playing the Sparrow or being played by him, the end result is going to force Tommen's parents to do some more acting of their own: Cersei as the nurturing mother who goes along with her son's religious conversion, Jaime as the dashing leader of a Lannister army. Given how pear-shaped most of Cersei's plans have gone of late, I'm assuming her confidence about the trial by combat will be misplaced, but – much like Dany screaming in other tongues – unblinking vengeance is a mode that's served both Lannister twins incredibly well over the years on this show.
And, of course, there's the matter of Bran up in the frozen wastelands north of the Wall. Hodor's sacrifice (sob) only bought Bran and Meera a small head start from the zombies, but their rescue by Bran's long-lost Uncle Benjen brings with it Benjen's insistence that Bran will be prepared to take on the Night King by the time the White Walkers make it to the Wall, even if he'll get no more help from the previous Three-Eyed Raven. This isn't a part Bran is playing – he is the new Raven, whether he wants to be or not – but he's going to have to fake it til he makes it.
Some other thoughts:
* After last week's emotional episode, I had a chat with Kristian Nairn, the man who would be Hodor. Incredibly nice and thoughtful guy. His gentle presence on the show will be missed.
* Funny that the show would put a glimpse of Uncle Benjen in the previouslies before last season's finale so we would understand the lie Jon Snow was being told as Ser Alliser's cabal played out their assassination plan, but he would be kept out of the same sequence in the episode that reveals that he's actually alive (and that he's part White Walker, saved from full conversion by being stabbed in the heart with dragonglass). Too many modern dramas – especially ones with long and complicated histories like this one – are too guilty of spoiling the reappearance of long-lost characters by putting them in the previouslies to remind the audience of their existence, so good on GoT for trusting we would remember. Showing us Walder Frey and Uncle Edmure (who was, indeed, able to appear, despite Tobias Menzies' day job on Starz) in that segment was fine, especially since we'd been primed last week to think about the situation down in the Riverlands; a Benjen clip would have blatantly telegraphed the identity of Bran and Meera's rescuer.
* Jaime Lannister is on his way to Riverrun. Brienne of Tarth is on her way to Riverrun. And somewhere, Tormund Giantsbane's heart breaks just a little bit, though he know not why. So in this particular triangle, Brienne is to Angela Chase as Jaime is to Jordan Catalano as… Tormund is to Brian Krakow?
* Map nerdness: a pretty boring week, map-wise, with Vaes Dothrak reinserted along with the usual suspects, including Meereen, which seems an unfair double-dipping of the last part of the “always King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, and wherever Dany is” rule. I know designing new map moves can be time-consuming and expensive, but I'd have loved to see the Twins return in lieu of one of the last two locales.
* With a little over a week before Lifetime's surprisingly excellent UnREAL returns, nice to see one of that show's alums, Freddie Stroma, pop up here as Sam's brother, who is apparently named Dickon, because of course that is a name that George R.R. Martin would use. (If we can have Richard and Dick as variants of the same name, I suppose this world with its spellings can have Rickon and Dickon both.)
* Speaking of small roles played by recognizable performers, I wonder if the show has bigger plans for the theater company's leading man, played by the great character actor Richard E. Grant, or if everyone just liked the idea of having a familiar face in the role.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org