Both Sansa and Arya Stark have been apprenticed to monsters lately on Game of Thrones. But in last night’s horrifying episode, they both learn that imitating their mentors may come at a higher cost than they realized. Spoilers ahead...
Since the start of the season, Arya Stark has been studying with the Faceless Men in Braavos, a cult of face-changing assassins. And mostly, that’s involved washing corpses and sweeping the floor. Arya knows that in order to become a Faceless Man, she must be “no-one,” but she hasn’t recognized until now how much lying is involved in this process.
In last night’s episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Arya discovers that there’s more to the “Game of Faces” than she realized — she previously thought it was just a matter of claiming to be “no-one” and not giving away any hint of your real identity — she “lost” previously because she had all of Arya Stark’s possessions (and Arya’s baggage). But this time around, the game involves lying in a way that convinces the other person of a false identity.
Arya’s frenemy, the other young girl tending the House of Black and White, spins her a yarn about being the only daughter of a great lord in Westeros, whose new wife tried to poison her. Arya doesn’t even think to question this tale, until she’s encouraged to do so. Later, Arya tries to tell Jaqen, her mentor, her real life story with a few lies sprinkled in — but Jaqen can always tell when she’s lying, even about hating the Hound.
So later, when a man brings his sick daughter in to the House of Black and White, Arya practises lying — she tells the daughter that she, too, was sick, and convinces her that the poison water from the fountain is actually medicine. The daughter buys it, and becomes another corpse to wash. This proves to Jaqen that Arya is ready — not to become “no-one,” but to become “someone else,” taking on a new identity.
And Jaqen shows Arya the monstrous secret under the House of Black and White: a huge chamber full of faces that the Faceless Men have apparently taken from all those corpses she’s been washing. This is some sort of face databank, that they can call upon when they need a new face.
So the thing of being a “Faceless Man” isn’t just about losing your own identity and giving up everything you were or cared about — it’s about learning to take on a new identity so convincingly, people will believe your stories and accept you at, um, face value. That’s actually a deeper level of identity loss, becoming a grifter rather than a ninja, and it’s easier to say “I am no-one” than to claim a totally fake identity with conviction. In her desire to become enough of a monster to claim revenge on the people who wronged her, Arya risks getting brainwashed to the point where she really doesn’t remember who she was or what she was fighting for.
And meanwhile, in the episode’s most upsetting subplot, Sansa discovers the incredibly high cost of trusting Littlefinger — who had assured her that Ramsay was a sweet harmless boy that she could control using her feminine wiles. In fact, Ramsay is a monster, who rapes Sansa on her wedding night and makes Theon “Reek” Greyjoy watch.
Earlier in the episode, Ramsay’s jealous lover Myranda tries to scare Sansa by telling her the (actually true) stories of how Ramsay hunts the women he gets tired of, with hounds and everything. Sansa shuts Myranda down, with sheer force of personality, mocking her for thinking that Ramsay would be hers forever, and then reminding her that this is Sansa frickin’ Stark she’s dealing with, not some scared girl.
Of course, after pretending for a while to be Alayne Stone, Sansa is having to learn how to be Sansa Stark again, and it’s almost like another performance — she’s putting up a brave face, as we see in the moments when she looks in the mirror with nobody else around.
So Sansa winds up being brutally stripped naked by her new husband, who interrogates her about her virginity and then deflowers her while insisting that the crying “Reek” should watch. It’s a deliberately humiliating, degrading moment that’s intended to tear down Sansa’s tough facade and shut down whatever manipulations she’s up to, in the vein of her teacher, Littlefinger.
And meanwhile, Littlefinger still seems to see Sansa as just a pawn, in spite of all his statements to the contrary. The first thing he does on arriving in King’s Landing (after having a nasty confrontation with the Sparrows who trashed his brothel) is to tell Cersei about Sansa’s presence in Winterfell and her impending marriage to Ramsay. Littlefinger advises her to let Stannis and Roose Bolton fight each other, and then they can take down the weakened victor.
And Littlefinger offers to go up with the Knights of the Vale, and kill the survivor of that battle — either Stannis or Roose. In return, Littlefinger gets a decree from King Tommen naming him Warden of the North in Roose’s place. But Littlefinger has to know there’s no way he can convince the Knights of the Vale to attack Winterfell — not without explaining how Sansa got there, when she left the Vale under Littlefinger’s protection.
So is he just playing for time, hoping to convince Cersei not to take any other actions while she waits for Littlefinger to handle it? Assuming Littlefinger still believes that Stannis will win, what then? Will he throw his support behind Stannis, in exchange for getting to keep the Warden of the North designation? (And then marry Sansa, to seal his legitimacy?)
In any case, this is one of the areas where the cracks are starting to appear in the show. Sansa’s decision to agree to marry Ramsay, in the name of getting revenge for her murdered family, happened awfully quickly in retrospect — the lack of time spent convincing her to go through with a frankly insane idea only fully bothers me, now that I’m witnessing the terrible result: Sansa once again trapped with a sadistic brute who rips her dress, in exactly the same way that Joffrey’s minions had her dress torn in the throneroom. This would be easier to stomach if we’d seen Sansa struggle with the decision to agree to marry Ramsay, and finally agree to do it. But the show rushed through that plot point a few episodes ago, and this storyline is harder to watch as a result.
This episode is just full of sequences where people try to be sneaky and it doesn’t go well — in one of these, Tyrion and Jorah try to sneak past a slaver ship, only to get caught by the crew who have come ashore looking for water.
The crew see Jorah as a potential galley slave, but all they want of Tyrion is his cock, because “dwarf cock” is lucky. (This is a weirdly cartoony sequence in an otherwise dark episode, as the apparently dimwitted slavers don’t realize that a dwarf’s penis looks like any other kind, once separated from the body. Leading to the immortal line, “The dwarf lives until we can find a cock merchant.”) Tyrion manages to convince the slavers that his cock is only valuable if he’s still attached to it, and that Jorah is a great fighter, who will make them rich in Meereen’s fighting pits — which Jorah backs up by mentioning he killed a Dothraki bloodrider, Qotho.
So in the end, Tyrion and Jorah are headed to Meereen after all, albeit as slaves. And Jorah still has a nasty case of grayscale on his arm.
Before that, though, Tyrion and Jorah share a great moment together, in which they sort of discuss their life stories. (It’s interesting to see them swapping versions of their actual lives, right on the heels of Arya experimenting with falsifying her past.) Tyrion tells an abridged version of how he was falsely accused of regicide, and then killed his father for sleeping with his lover.
Then Tyrion reveals to Jorah that his father, Jeor Mormont, is dead — Jeor was the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who got killed in Craster’s Keep by his own men. Tyrion mentions that Jeor really cared about his men, knowing all of their stories in depth — but that those men turned around and murdered him on an expedition. In other words, benevolence towards his men didn’t save him in the end, and you can see Jorah’s face when he realizes just how unjust his father’s death really was.
Speaking of people who try to be sneaky and fail really badly, Jaime and Bronn sneak into the Water Gardens to try and “rescue” Myrcella, disguised as Dornish guards. But they don’t do very good recon first, so they don’t realize that Myrcella is actually excited about marrying Trystane Martell — and they don’t try to wait until she’s alone.
So Jaime’s mission is already kind of a disaster, since he’s been seen by Trystane and Bronn has assaulted a Dornish prince. But then it turns out Jaime picked the exact same moment to try and capture Myrcella as the Sand Snakes, the vengeful daughters of the late Prince Oberyn Martell. Jaime and Bronn end up having to fight the Sand Snakes for Myrcella, and they lose.
This is another instance where the cracks seem to be appearing in this show a little bit — first, because the Sand Snakes making their move at the exact same time as Jaime seems like the kind of bizarre coincidence the show has leaned on a lot lately. And second, because we’ve barely gotten to know the television version of the Sand Snakes, so it’s more like “Hey, some random women, one armed only with a whip, are getting in the way.”
One of the Sand Snakes makes off with Myrcella, but the others are captured, along with Jaime and Bronn. Also captured? Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand, who put the Sand Snakes up to this.
The episode’s title, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” comes from this sequence — it’s the House Martell motto, and it symbolizes the Sand Snakes’ adherence to a kind of rigid, simplistic worldview that the show’s other characters have largely abandoned at this point. Everybody else is either bent, bowed or broken by now.
This show made a defining choice when it took the name “Game of Thrones” — that’s just the title of the first book in George R.R. Martin’s series, in which Ned Stark learns the high cost of getting involved in questions of succession. The titles of Martin’s other books have indicated a concern with the danger of multiple sovereigns, the cost of war, and how the aftermath of war can be as bad as war itself. But the show, to some extent, has remained focused on game-playing and has pushed forward some of the more Machiavellian characters — like Lady Olenna Tyrell.
And in this episode, Lady Olenna apparently gets outplayed. She comes back to Westeros to deal with the Faith Militant, who have arrested her grandson Loras for being gay. First she tries to deal with Cersei, who insists that none of this is really her doing and she’s as shocked as anyone — and even Lady Olenna’s threats to withdraw House Tyrell’s support for the crown have no effect, because she’s no longer dealing with the tough-but-sensible Tywin Lannister.
In a sense, this is all Lady Olenna’s own fault — if she hadn’t helped kill Joffrey, Tyrion wouldn’t have been falsely accused and wound up murdering Tywin. She couldn’t have predicted the fallout, but she did choose to set off the bomb.
So then Lady Olenna has no choice but to try and “win” an inquest set up by the Faith Militant — and she assumes, wrongly, that all they have to go on is gossip and hearsay. In fact, they have testimony from Olyvar, Loras’ lover (and Littlefinger’s brothel-keeper.) Olyvar knows the shape of the birthmark on Loras’ thigh (which, to be fair, he could have known just from squiring for Loras, since squires help knights get dressed. But nobody points this out.)
In fact, the inquest is a trap — not for Loras but for Margaery. She’s drawn into testifying that her brother is not gay, when she’s actually seen him in bed with Olyvar. Margaery gets arrested for perjury, and now she, along with Loras, will face trial.
So it seems as though Olenna, like Littlefinger, has miscalculated. But she’s only just getting started, and she’s been doing this for a long time. To bring it back to Sansa and Arya, Olenna has long ago learned the lessons that both Stark girls are just now encountering — that “winning” in the context of Westerosi politics involves putting yourself through a lot of misery. Especially if you’re a woman.
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