Warning: Spoilers ahead if you're not caught up to season six, episode seven.
Of Tits and Dragons
This Sunday's Game of Thrones contained hype levels so extreme, they could not be contained between the credits. Thus the rare cold open, wherein Ian McShane—who elegantly described the show as "tits and dragons"—brought gravitas (and collected a paycheck) as a reborn killer who has traded in his swords to lead a community of hardscrabble peaceniks. Now that GOT is the world's favorite feudal soap opera, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to feature a guest star from the golden years of showbiz every episode: an all-singing, all-dancing Muppet Show–style revue featuring Rip Torn and Kris Kristofferson as wisecracking deserters from the Night's Watch, Roger Moore as a serially tardy lord who always apologizes for being late to the feast, and Sandy Duncan as the queen of the elves.
In any case, Ian McShane's Brother Ray reintroduces us to Sandor Clegane, the Hound, who has foresworn both violence and his chicken diet to help Brother Ray's commune build what I assume is a sept, unless they are indeed celebrating their liberty in true pagan hippie fashion and constructing a Wicker Man. "Violence is a disease," he tells the Hound. "You don't cure a disease by spreading it to more people." Clegane is a gravedigger in the books, and, even though the show has him becoming a lumberjack, he's still bound to bury quite a few bodies after McShane is strung up by brigands. I don't know which is bleaker, that the Brotherhood Without Banners, once a merry band of Marxists, have been reduced to extortion, or that the Hound is seeking vengeance for a devout pacifist. Either way, it's a wonderful frame for an episode titled "The Broken Man," but sure to be remembered as "The Ian McShane Episode." Rest in peace, you classy, swearing cowboy/pirate, you.
Comfort in Prayer and Good Works
I was a bit slow on the uptake last week in believing that Queen Margaery's conversion might be genuine rather than characteristically prudent politicking. At least I'm not alone; the High Sparrow seems equally blindsided by Marge's ability to quote scripture. So much so that, after conceding that the poor are "hard to love" and counseling her to close her eyes and think of Highgarden when performing her wifely duty, he suggests that she try out her "water rounding the jagged stones and calming brute natures" talk on her Grandmother Olenna. Not bloody likely, as Dame Diana Rigg makes clear in two saucy dialogues. First the Queen of Thorns upbraids Marge before receiving proof of her granddaughter's family loyalty (in the form of a sketch of a rose on parchment). And then she positively owns Cersei, asking, "I wonder if you're the worst person I've ever met?" It's a rhetorical question, and a hell of a way to refuse an olive branch, but this is not a show where wit and care prevail. Given King's Landing's regression into a theocracy and Cersei's penchant for turning petty quarrels into internecine warfare, I worry if the Tyrells aren't about to wind up like the old guard Starks: a red smear on a parquet floor.
House Stark Is Dead
In the North, Jon, Davos, and Sansa take a sort of NPR pledge drive to the wildling encampment, House Mormont, and House Glover. That's three gentlefolks of diverse vocation visiting three strongholds. Is this a joke, a math problem, a fairy tale? The wildlings do have a giant (the same 7'1'' former Predator who played season two's Mountain), but Jon compliments Tormund's appeal to messianism ("He died for us!") with pure down-to-earth survivalism. And when you're talking survival to a bunch of crusty rabbit-eating beardos in pelts, you're speaking the same language. The trio's errand on Bear Island runs more like a joke, as we meet ferocious, adorable child-regent Lyanna Mormont (niece to the late Lord Commander Jeor, cousin to Jorah), who runs a very tight ship indeed, given they've got a whole 62 men to loan, each of whom "fights with the strength of ten mainlanders." I guess that's where the math comes in. Ser Davos's real talk is a success—but the trick doesn't work a third time, as House Glover (its sigil is a glove, sadly not a Crispin) is unmoved by Sansa's reliance on traditional medieval codes of loyalty. This forces Sansa to send a conciliatory raven to Littlefinger in the Vale, and it's not just plot-motivation. It's another solid chapter in Sansa's education. Her journey from royal mores of conduct to savvy realpolitik is the best distillation of the show's major theme, the tug of war between fantasy (where faith in the old world is rewarded) and history (where the past is always being repositioned by present circumstance). Lord Glover may be right: House Stark is dead. Long live House Stark.
Now that season six is truly underway—thanks in part to a base-covering bottle episode last week—we're finally getting some nice roomy scenes, where characters get to strut around a bit. This is especially true of Jaime (who hasn't been this charismatically insolent since season two) and perpetual second-banana Bronn (who hasn't appeared at all this year!). The two of them arrive at the "sorry attempt at a siege" over in Riverrun for a funny back and forth over semantics that plays like a cross between Blackadder and Hee Haw. There are even pigs. Hostage negotiations between the Frey numbskulls and the Blackfish (a sort of grizzly nautical-themed Batman) are going poorly, maybe because Edmure Tully isn't the sort of hostage that inspires compromise. Nor one who inspires screenwriters apparently, as Edmure has yet to actually speak this season. Fortunately, the Kingslayer and the Blackfish find plenty to talk about: "Hundreds will die." "No, thousands." "The war is over." "No, it's not." "Sieges are dull." It's a shame these two have to meet in such arrears. In a better world, they'd be fighting over who's got the prettier breastplate.
We check in with the Greyjoys, who are making a pit stop in a Volantis brothel on their way to meet Daenerys. Theon gets some tough love from sister Yara, who tells him to drink his goddamn ale and either end his own suffering or banish the Reek within. In any other show, this would be a weird setting for a spiritual rebirth; the butt cheek–driven " sexposition" that probably costs the show as many viewers as it attracts is back in force, and Yara, for one, seems to be into it, ending her big motivational number by saying, "Now, since it's my last night ashore for a long while, I'm gonna go fuck the tits off this one."
The last bit of full frontal comes in Braavos, where Arya is stabbed in the front by the Waif and, for a moment at least, appears fully dead. She survives—barely—by leaping into a moat and staggering past a staring crowd while holding her entrails inside her stomach. Next week's episode is called "No One," so we'll presumably find out if Arya lives to kill again. And before you say that it's unthinkable that Maisie Williams would be written off the show, recall that we're talking about face-takers; Arya doesn't have to live for Williams to be back, and the Waif could do some real damage in Westeros disguised as a long-lost Stark-let. Far-fetched? Probably. But when the show is working, you lose the sense of safety with which most serials imbue their characters, the reassuringly predictable design of the plot, and feel instead the threat of death and betrayal, the hazards of chance and prevalence of barbarity. It becomes, in other words, the stuff of tragedy.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.