Warning: Spoilers if you aren't caught up through season six, episode eight.
My Heart's Been Broken Too Many Times Already
You know how it goes. You're squatting in a clearing with a captive audience of fellow wastrels, telling some bawdy tale full of sexual fortitude—perhaps reaching halfway up your mate's bum in lieu of a punchline—when a gold-plated giant, a wandering swordthrift or, in this case, a haggard breakfast spokeshound, comes tearing ass out of the trees and lops your head off. If this week's episode Game of Thrones, "No One," felt familiar, it might because we got our usual quota of head crushings, soliloquies on personal honor, and profane character bits, simultaneously fulfilling viewer demand for violent exposition and frustrating our hopes for a more nuanced brand of mayhem.
Yes, this one was a bit of a retread, with plenty of callbacks and do-overs of the show's best dynamics, and precious little novelty to punctuate the hack-and-slash that we've become inured to over the course of a season that is, if not full of surprises, at least consistent with our expectations. Maybe this is to be anticipated from a late installment of a show that succeeded, at least initially, by way of shock value: After a while, chaos becomes the norm.
But it's not all bad news in Meereen, where Tyrion bids a fond farewell to Varys (coming on a bit Morrissey with the "my heart has been broken too many times already" bit), who is embarking on a mission of secret diplomacy. Where is he going? We don't find out, but both Dorne and Highgarden seem like good guesses. There's no debating that the suddenly bustling Slaver's Bay seems to have prospered under Tyrion's custodianship, so we're treated to an oddly dull game of truth or dare in the pyramid, as the Imp teaches Missandei and Grey Worm how to tell jokes and drink some of that old cougar juice. Ah, wine appreciation; the lowest aesthetic standard known to civilized man. That said, when Missandei laughs the Seven Kingdoms laugh with her and even Grey Worm gets to cut the rug a bit ("I make joke").
Naturally the revels are cut short by the invasion of the masters' armada, so we'll probably never know what happens when a man walks into a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass. But we at least get some smiles out of our supporting cast before Daenerys shows up to break up the party, resume command of the Unsullied, and return the action to its grim standard.
He's Milord, Milord
More temporary levity follows at the siege in Riverrun, where Bronn plays the cad to Pod's straight man in a scene that sounds fun on paper but proves weirdly tiresome. Next we see Jaime and Brienne's negotiations in the Kingslayer's tent. "I'm proud of you," he tells her, and he should be. In a show full of fallible lords and morally corruptible kings, Brienne has been one of the few real heroes, and Jaime seems to see in her the white knight that he might have been but for a bad case of incestuous lust and the odd act of regicide.
Their dynamic makes for rich, often charming dialogue ("We shouldn't argue about politics"), even if Brienne's quest is plainly doomed this time around. The Blackfish reliably refuses to give up the castle, tool-of-the-realm Edmure is reliably weak-willed in allowing Jaime's forces to take it anyway, and that's a good shorthand for the whole episode: Everyone is reliable to the point of routine (though I thought the "He's milord, milord" guy did a great job delivering the most thudding line in fantasy history). Brienne even seems to acknowledge as much when she tries to return Oathkeeper, the sword Jaime gave her, to its original owner: "You gave it to me for a purpose. I achieved that purpose," she says, but the show must go on, so characters don't arc so much as circle round the same solemn chores.
The real upset is that the Blackfish doesn't even get a warrior's death, but, following an atypically bloodless surrender, is reported killed as Brienne escapes the siege (through the secret passage in the conservatory) with Pod as Jaime looks on from the battlements. It's a lovely moment, though it sucks that the Freys are saddled with a staid castle-design crest instead of a bear or a fucking three-headed dragon or something, as well as proof that Game of Thrones might actually be tiring of its own bloodthirsty MO.
Just So You Know, I'm Starting the Rampage Now
One person who certainly doesn't shy away from a bit of the old ultra violence is Cersei Lannister. "I choose violence," she tells Lancel and his press gang of Faith Militant; but actually, I was surprised that Mountain-stein let them off with a single head ripping. In a season that's been pretty cavalier about offing its more tertiary players, doesn't Lancel seem ripe for righteous disemboweling? Instead, Cersei strides into the throne room, endures her uncle Kevan's sexist courtly standards, and hears King "Butters" Tommen declare the barbaric custom of trial by combat discontinued.
Imagine that—could it be that the "rumor" Qyburn reports on is nothing less than the dawn of neoliberalism in Westeros? Will future episodes replace the gold standard with Friedmanian economics and show us the gentrification of Flea Bottom? Or are we just getting cheated out of Cleganebowl? And if that's the case, somebody better tell the Hound, whose rampage in the hinterlands begins with head chopping and ends in barter and sets up... something with Thoros and Ser Beric of the Brotherhood Without Banners. What are our beleaguered band of misfits up to? Beats me, but I smell serious spin-off potential.
Face-Takers Anonymous, or: A Tear for No One
In the run-up to Arya's final confrontation with ballistic schoolmarm the Waif, the internet was ablaze with conspiracies. Was the Arya we saw stabbed actually Jaqen (the facilitator of Face-Takers Anonymous) in disguise? Would the Waif be revealed as an invisible aspect of Arya's id à la Fight Club? Or would the Waif steal Arya's face and wreck havoc back in Winterfell?
Now we have our answer, and it is a resounding "nope." The Waif dispatches poor Lady Crane and then takes off like a T-1000, chasing Arya through Braavos, leaping from balconies, knocking over fruit carts, all for a showdown where... well actually, your guess is as good as mine, since Arya cuts the lights, and we presume that whatever happened must have been some sick shit because the Waif's slashed-up face now adorns the House of Black and White's year-round Halloween display. Arya tells Jaqen she won't be No One because she is Arya Stark of Winterfell and she is going home, at which point Jaqen more or less turns to the audience and shrugs, because whoops, there goes two seasons of training sequences and what did we really get from Braavos? Spilled fruit and a poxy scrotum.
Well, sometimes we all need to tread water to keep from drowning, and if "No One" felt like a placeholder episode, it's at least a place we recognize. And judging from the preview for next week's big Snow-brawl between Jon and Ramsey's armies, perhaps we would be wise to take Tyrion's advice and smile while we can, though our hearts be breaking.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.