We’re officially into the second half of season 6 of Game of Thrones with episode 6, “Blood of My Blood.” After two intense episodes we could expect a slower paced break—and we got it. We also know we have to get certain plot points covered before several huge battles arrive—and some were covered. And we also had some characters whose fates were unresolved that eventually needed resolving—and they were at least reintroduced. From a writer’s perspective, it only makes sense to do all of this narrative buttwork at just this mid-season moment after a climactic battle and farewell to a beloved character.
So why was “Blood of my Blood” such a letdown? It wasn’t jump-the-shark bad, but it did offer several painful reminders that even the most developed characters in Game of Thrones fall prey to hackneyed writing from time to time…and the supernatural elements seem to be getting more arbitrary and silly.
Arya Breaks The Fourth Wall
Speaking of hackneyed writing…
Arya Stark is back at the theatre, and for a minute I was really bonding with her. I, like her, get the stink-eye for laughing at inappropriate moments during movies and plays. And when she is pulled aside by the woman she is meant to assassinate, the endearing actress Lady Crane, she speaks true about the bad writing in the play…the lack of verisimilitude in its portrayal of Cersei Lannister as merely heartbroken, not a raging mama bear out for vengeance. We even see Arya have a moment of sympathy with Cersei herself. All of this is entirely believable. (Remember when Arya was even cautiously palling it up with Tywin Lannister?)
But then, in spite of all her training and past ruthlessness, Arya basically signs her own death warrant by stopping Lady Crane from imbibing the rum she poisoned and even warning her about who presumably called for her death (the young actress of the troupe). The Waif is there to see it all, who then smugly reports to Jaqen H’ghar of Arya’s willful failure to follow orders. Now The Waif is coming for Arya, and Arya will be waiting with Needle. Someone’s face is getting added to the collection in The House of Black and White, and I’m guessing it will be The Waif…not because that makes the most sense, but because it’s expedient in the narrative.
Arya has become less angry over time, more lucid and confident in her personal ethics. She remains reckless, so perhaps she is justified in making a snap judgment and (for all she knows) assuring her own death for the sake of a near stranger. She seems to suspect that the House of Black and White, for all its mysticism and power, is a petty assassin’s guild without a larger vision. It will be disappointing if that is the case, though it does fit into a running theme in the show: petty people wielding enormous power, sometimes supernatural, whose applications become corrupted because they are without genuine vision. If so, it could take someone like Arya to correct the application of these powers, but by all accounts she is not ready and I think she would have done more investigation before assuming just that. In short, she should be dead meat, but she won’t be, and so it all feels sloppy.
Walder Frey Can’t Take a Joke
Speaking of sloppy, the scene in which we meet Walder Frey again and hear him rail on and on about being laughed at was not great storytelling either. Here we have another petty, thin-skinned patriarch wielding way too much power and being completely inept about it. We know his days are probably numbered, and we had to be reminded that Edmure Tully is still his hostage (especially since we haven’t seen him since the Red Wedding), and his days are numbered, too, and it’s not something any of us really care about at this point. But the scene goes on too long with a lot of bumbling and it treats Edmure’s reveal like a twist. All the vital information in it could have been delivered more succinctly through more central characters and kept up the pace rather than miring us in what feels like a failed attempt at comic relief.
Gilly and Sam are Terrible at Improv
Speaking of failed comic relief and interminable sequences that exist just to set up key actions later: Sam and Gilly are back and more dead-eyed than ever in the Horn Hill adaptation of August: Osage County. I can understand why the show needs them; they are its primary example of uncomplicated devotion and affection amidst its sprawling web of plots and power-plays. Sam and Gilly aren’t dumb or useless, nor are they ambitious and cruel. But Sam is also whining to the point that his father is to some degree justified in hating his guts. Lord Tarly is a callous philistine who thinks fat-shaming his son at the table shows he’s a better man, but for all that nonsense, he’s also a pragmatist who has his reasons to hate Wildlings and whining in a world where the stakes are always fatally high for people in his position. Did anyone else notice that when his wife (Sam’s mother) stood up to him, he respected it, while dumbfounded Sam just sat like a deer in headlights? Gilly is the one who has spoken up for him, but she can’t win any points because she is the hated enemy. They both blow it, but in a sense the writers do, too.
Sam and his father’s relationship is not central, but it’s presented in a way that foists sympathy for Sam upon us while ignoring the larger dynamics that pervade the series. It doesn’t make Lord Tarly’s behavior any less nasty, but certainly makes him consistent.
Anyways, we know the whole point of it was just to bring in another Valerian Steel sword into the picture: Hartsbane. Sam has it now, and with the White Walkers coming he’ll surely need it, and the whole sequence is reduced to an item sidequest.
Benjen Stark is an Undead Deus Ex Machina
Speaking of White Walkers…we get more inconsistencies over what animates them with the re-appearance of a now undead Benjen Stark. He tells us that The Children re-animated him with a shard of dragonglass in the chest, the same way that they made the White Walkers. How that magic actually works or fits into the cosmology remains to be seen and may never be explained. But we can at least ask…why did it allow him to keep going as Benjen instead of turning him into a necrotic version of the Winter Brothers like it did with the White Walkers? Who or what is the source of this power? If this sort of ritual is regularly practiced, you’d think that it might have been brought up by the Three-Eyed Raven or revealed in one of Bran Stark‘s visions. But no, we’re too busy being entertained by Benjen’s deadly fire poi and last minute rescue of Bran and Meerah.
Again, I don’t expect to have everything revealed, or for the cosmology to be spelled out, but we should hope for a little more coherency as these supernatural events pile up and seem increasingly arbitrary, deployed by the writers to get the characters out of a jam without making it fit into the larger story. They may manage to tie it all together in the end, but at this point, it’s distracting.
But the episode was not without redeeming qualities…
Margaery Plays Along
Margaery Tyrell is such a smug manipulator, and yet I can’t help but adore her, because her opponents are brutish and seek to control by instilling fear, while she seeks control by instilling adoration. The Tyrells and Lannisters are all imperious snobs, but Olenna and Margaery embody that tryphé that our own culture still covets and upholds; they are glamorous, and less overtly malicious.
Margaery has even managed to get in The High Sparrow‘s good graces with her phony atonement, and she gets Tommen convinced, too. She admits to the counterfeit nature of her generosity and outreach to lower classes, but only because by admitting this duplicity, she can convince others that she is now free of it, when in fact it only really absolves her from having to reach out at all, as she can affect piety at a distance.
You can see the relief on her face when her walk of atonement is called off; she was willing to do it if there was no other choice, but she also unwittingly gave Tommen the final push to fall in line with the Sparrows’ agenda. You can tell she’s unnerved, while Olenna is downright despairing. They know that by proceeding from a church militant to full-blown theocracy, the power of the nobility no longer rests in its remoteness from the commoners, or the unattainable heights that inspire awe and deference in lower classes. Now the power is contingent on a moral law that demands equality before the gods and brings the nobility to heel beside a man whose power is decentralized, more pervasive, not based on the costly maintenance of glamor, but its opposite: effortless squalor. In other words, people like the Tyrells are suddenly out of style and therefore running out of time.
Daenerys Rides Again
And FINALLY Daenerys Targaryen owns her conqueror title and, as expected, this reconciles her with Drogon, who just keeps getting bigger. We are spared their meeting: Daenerys leaves her Khalasar for a solo ride and trades up from a horse to a dragon. (I’m guessing the horse was actually lunch.)
She rallies the troops and says that, unlike the dude khals who only picked three bloodriders, she’s picking the whole horde to be at her side…and they are going all the way to Westeros.
They are stoked (and if I were a pillaging murder mob, I’d probably be excited about mucking up new territories with a dragon queen).
What’s great about this scene is how dumbfounded Daario Naharis looks in the end. He’s been suavely giving her pep talks and seeing over and over that she really is supernaturally gifted, but he’s had a prime spot by her side and has still been out for himself. As the episode ends he looks a little lost in the crowd, a little worried that maybe he won’t still be around when she’s done conquering the world. He probably has nothing to worry about it, but it’s good to see him squirm a bit, as if he knows he’s been taking too many things for granted.
We’ve been waiting for that moment with Daenerys for a long time. Maybe it will be rocky coming back to Meereen to find Varys (whom she believed was only out to kill her) and Tyrion have brokered the temporary return of slavery for the sake of peace. We may presume that she and the other dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, will reconcile and along with the Unsullied, Second Sons and Khalasar will probably retake the slaver cities for good before hopping on a new fleet for Westeros. (Maybe an Ironborn fleet, if Euron Greyjoy gets his way.) We can expect all of that to shake out in the last four episodes, while King’s Landing goes to shit and Sparrows become martyrs (and Tommen, too, probably), and to the north Melisandre sees Jon Snow stand on the ramparts of Winterfell.
That’s a lot to see happen in four hours, not counting all the other side plots, and Arya and Bran in their own far-flung storylines. It seems like the writers were trying to give the audience a breather with “Blood of my Blood,” but we didn’t need it, and overall it felt more like they were the ones that took a break. Better luck next week.