Note: I’m reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, while my colleague David Malitz, who hasn’t read the books, will be writing straight recaps. His write-up of episode 6, “Blood of my Blood” will appear at The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of the May 29 episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Blood of My Blood,” in detail. You can find my recaps of every prior episode of the show here. Our Washington Post Live chats and Facebook Live chats will return on June 6. Have a wonderful holiday weekend!
“I never thought I’d come back here after my father made me renounce my lands, and my title. And threatened to kill me if I didn’t. A person just doesn’t feel welcome,” Sam Tarly (Jonathan Bradley) tells Gilly (Hannah Murray) in a considerable understatement as they ride together towards Horn Hill. But if Sam finds the reception he fears at his ancestral home — Randyll Tarly (James Faulkner) doesn’t need a Valyrian steel blade in his hand to do plenty of emotional violence to his family — “Blood of My Blood” is, as you might expect from the title, an episode devoted to the homes characters can return to, those they can’t, and the families they make or reclaim for themselves along the way.
In the North, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) are the recipients of a double miracle after Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) sacrifice last week. Not only does a mysterious rider turn up to offer them a defense against the (suspiciously paltry) wights who are still pursuing them, but he turns out to be Bran’s long-lost uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle), who it turns out was rescued by the Children of the Forest after he was stabbed by a White Walker. This storyline would have been hard-pressed to match the pathos of Hodor’s death last week, and I don’t think this scene lives up to it: there’s simply too much exposition to be gotten through here, (this is also true of a number of other moments in “Blood of My Blood”). But as Benjen explains his predicament while brewing up a nice, toasty cup of rabbit’s blood for Bran, his reappearance is a reminder that there can be more than one kind of light in the darkness.
King’s Landing finds Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman) doing what normal married people do, though in unusually stressful circumstances. They form a bond that pulls them away from their own parents and grandparents, and into a new family unit, this one with the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) as its patriarch.
I don’t have Tyrell (or Lannister) money, but I’d be willing to wager a smaller pile of lucre that Margaery’s seeming conversion here is as much strategic as it is sincere. When she confesses to Tommen that her appearance of goodness wasn’t more than that, she may be telling a partial truth; it’s wearying to pretend to be someone that you’re not, and if a gap between the public and private Margaery continues to exist, Margaery’s admission at least creates a sense of complicity between herself and her new husband. It also allows Margaery to do what her grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg), father Mace (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) could not: save herself from a walk of shame without bloodshed.
And in the bargain, she manages to separate Tommen from his mother Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and give him the confidence to order away Jaime, who Tommen knows only as his uncle, not his father. This is a dangerous game Margaery and Tommen are playing, not least because the High Sparrow has a sharper sense of politics than his enemies expected from him. And this maneuver threatens to create tensions between the parents and parental figures who now find themselves marginalized.
“He has our son. He stole our son. He’s torn our family apart. How should we treat people who tear our family apart?” Jaime asks Cersei of the High Sparrow. Jaime may have been relatively indifferent to his parental duties or ties while Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) was alive and claiming Cersei’s children as his own. But last season, Jaime got to know his daughter Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) when he went to retrieve her from Dorne. And before she was murdered, Jaime learned that that Myrcella knew he was her father and loved him for it. It was a seminal step in his moral evolution: Jaime wants to protect Tommen, his only surviving child, but the only parenting tool at his disposal is violence.
By contrast, where Jaime once focused obsessively on his bond with Cersei, she’s now the one who is, however subtly, pushing the question of their living child to the side, telling Jaime “We’re the only two people in the world” as she seduces him and urges him not to fight Tommen’s decision to send Jaime to reclaim Riverrun from the Blackfish (Clive Russell).
In Horn Hill, by contrast, Sam turns his back on the sad little compromise that he thought was the best he could do for Gilly, as well as on the rigid notions of the Night’s Watch. Randyll may browbeat and verbally abuse Sam, who is as close as “Game of Thrones” has to a truly good person. But at the last moment, he proves unable to break the spirit Sam developed for himself at the Wall, a sense of family truer or better than any of the virtues Randyll preaches at Horn Hill.
“We belong together,” Sam tells Gilly simply, claiming his father’s sword, Heartsbane, for good measure on his way out the door. If his father is going to persist in seeing Sam as a disgrace, Sam might as well enjoy his role to the hilt, and to assert his vision of what it means to be family with a dash of puckishness and sass. “Game of Thrones” has been smart to throw small triumphs, levity and joy into recent episodes. And if Sam’s flight couldn’t match Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) for pathos, his refusal to leave Gilly behind was an act of sheer gritty decency, unassisted by luck or good timing. No matter what else happens to Sam and Gilly over the course of “Game of Thrones,” this wonderful pair will always be the greatest heroes of their own little domestic drama.
If Sam managed to avoid the immediate costs of that rebellion in “Blood of My Blood,” Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) may be courting consequences in making her final break from the House of Black and White in Braavos. If the players’ version of Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) death showed Arya how the tragedy of her life had become fodder for other people’s petty amusements previously, this week, Lady Crane’s (Essie Davis) eloquent performance as Cersei Lannister helped Arya to have sympathy for the woman who has long held a prominent place on her kill list.
Lady Crane may think the speech that marks the climax of her performance is awfully bad writing. But when she declares on stage that “All hope is lost. All joy is gone. And there is no tomorrow,” Arya seems to understand that Cersei is feeling some version of the killing rage that Arya herself possesses. It’s how she can tell Lady Crane how to improve the role, and how Arya comes to decide that the path she’s on is the wrong one for her. The act of uncovering Needle doesn’t necessarily mean that Arya’s long-muddled moral universe is entirely sorted out. But it does suggest that when the Waif (Faye Marsay) comes for her, Arya will fight to stay a Stark. She’s learned an important lesson in the House of Black and White even if it’s not the one Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) intended for her: not all substitute families are worth joining.
And not all real ones are worth holding onto. In the Riverlands, Walder Frey (David Bradley) continues to berate his sons, telling them they’ll recover Riverrun, the traditional Tully house, which the Blackfish has reclaimed, by using Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) as a hostage. “I’ll not leave the world until they all choke on that laughter,” Walder Frey grumbles as he enumerates the slights, perceived and real, that have ruled his life and given him license in his own mind to cause so much misery to other people. If Randyll Tarly rules his family with a set of values that have calcified into painful, unyielding, and ultimately deformed stone, Walder Frey never had much in the way of values in the first place.
In Vaes Dothrak, Dany (Emilia Clarke), whose whole campaign through Slaver’s Bay is an ambitious and deeply flawed effort to build a new society in which she serves as the mother to all, tries to unite the khalasars by promising them not peace, but a mission. “I am not a khal. I will not choose three blood riders. I choose you all,” she tells them*, warning the Dothraki that “I will ask more of you than any khal has ever asked of his khalasar.”
It’s a daring innovation, to think of a state as a family, rather than simply as a prize to be claimed and controlled by a particular family. But Dany grew up with a rotten brother as her last living relative. She lost her husband and the khalasar that served as his family, rising from the ashes as a goddesss rather than as a member of an extended family circle. She abandoned the freed slaves who called her Mhysa. Family is more of a fantasy for Dany rather than a real experience. And everyone else on “Game of Thrones” can tell her just how difficult it is to keep a family together, no matter how many generations bind it.
*Though I’m sure Dany doesn’t mean it this way, I’m not sure you get to pick your bloodriders when they have to ride dragons. I’m willing to bet the dragons have some role in the picking.