Monday, June 13, 2016

Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 8 "No One" review

Reunions can be a tricky thing. Sometimes they’re emotional affairs of barely suppressed tears, at other times they disappoint the people reuniting, at other times they end violently, in some instances they show how much the world has moved on and in other cases, they fall entirely flat. So let’s wade right into the Game of Reunions and sort out which is which, shall we?

The farthest north we get this episode are the Riverlands, which take up about the amount of time they should have taken up in season 5. The siege of Riverrun is ongoing and, as the Blackfish promised last episode, is a dull affair. Brienne and Podrick are arriving, noticing that it might prove difficult to the Blackfish’s army home with them being besieged and all. Littlefinger’s clever tactical ploys are paying off once more. Not. Has anything that guy tried worked since season 3? That’s a pretty abysmal track record right there. Anyway, Brienne takes the direct approach as usual, telling the guards that she needs to talk to Jaime and “bring his sword”. If that doesn’t bring the feels, you’re clinically dead.

The show then cleverly teases the confrontation between Jaime and Brienne by showing Pod and Bronn reuniting, and it’s a heartwarming rehash of their relationship way back in season 2 and 3. Brinn speculating about how badly Jaime wants to sleep with Brienne is hilarious and shows the depths of his understanding for complex human relationships, which is pretty much nonexistent. Plus, Pod starts learning to fight dirty! I wonder if there’ll be a small payoff to that in a quick scene down the road.

After this little interplay, we get to Jaime and Cersei, both of which really do not admit their feelings to each other. Jaime feigning casual surprise over Brienne’s success with bringing her mission to a close fools exactly no one, and Brienne’s returning of the sword in lieu of any possible satisfactory end to their relationship is only trying to avoid the inevitable. Both of them desperately want to stay together and be on the same side, but they can’t. Brienne would never betray what’s right (helping Sansa restore Jaime’s enemies to power, in this case), and Jaime cannot (yet) break with his family and the hold that Cersei has over him. When he gives Brienne the sword back, there’s the very real possibility that he will die at its pointy, pointy end. Both of them dodge that bullet for now, and their departure in the night is heart wrenching. One can only bow before the actors involved, they’re making the best of this stuff.

Before that happens, however, we come to the first major contrivance of the episode: Jaime going for the rat-ass plan to allow the Blackfish and his troops to go North fighting the Boltons. Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense. If you allow that, you can pack up and join them for all that your mission of saving Lannister influence in the region is worth. You do remember that the Freys had an alliance with the Boltons, right? Luckily, the logical coherence isn’t tested much further as the Blackfish doesn’t go for the plan in any event, preferring to die in his home. The conflict here is well written and acted, so one can’t really be angry about the circumstances.

Given Brienne’s lack of success, Jaime goes to the next step and berates Edmure. After Catelyn’s baby brother calls the bullshit on his usual schtick, Jaime lets the mask fall and tells him that he can go fuck himself and that he’s bloody well talking condescendingly to him about their sisters (as a side note, there’s quite a lot of namedropping Catelyn this episode…). The moment is incredibly strong and gives Jaime a really good rationale for his actions. At this point I have to eat crow a little bit because I also criticized their relationship for not being the same as in the books, but really, this works very well in the context of the show. So mentally erase the criticisms of this particular storyline. Jaime wanting to end the siege a.s.a.p. to return to Cersei is almost the opposite of the books, but it works incredibly well especially given the King’s Landing plot this episode.

Anyway, Edmure cracks when Jaime shows that, yes, everyone is right in calling him evil. There’s still all the willingness to kill children to save his incestuous relationship that was on display in the cliffhanger of the very first episode. And of course, the ploy works, and Edmure returns to the castle, where we get a nice shakeup with the Blackfish. The man really is an asshole through and through. I know it’s a pet peeve of mine, but to reiterate: the Blackfish’s last stand is condemning a whole lot of people to death because of his injured pride. In the event, he even gets his heroic fight (off-screen, mercifully) and dies in his home – without anyone else having to go with him. Why not do that in the first place? Could have really saved people. I also like the decision to keep it snappy and not let him join the Brotherhood, there’s enough of that with the Hound.

Ah, the Brotherhood. Home of the weird ass jokes. Sometimes I wonder what exactly the writers are up to when they write scenes like this. Not that it’s bad, mind you, it’s more, shall we say, embracing the weird. Anyway, weirdness soon takes a dive when the Hound kills four guys with his lumber axe, which is an impressive feat. One also has to like that he gives one of the dying the chance to change his last words from “Fuck you” to “Cunt”, and the contemptuous look. Like, “that’s all you can do?” He then continues his streak of killing in a badass way, this time with the approval of Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr.

Over dinner, they try to recruit him to the cause, trying out several avenues of approach. Appealing to fate or responsibility works as well as you might expect, but the Hound really listens up when they appeal to him using his fighting abilities for good when they go North and fight the Others. Huh. After my cautious criticism of the storyline last episode, this seems to be taking it into some thematically coherent direction at least, with the Hound fighting for the right thing for once. While I still not like the contempt for peaceful solutions in general, it seems like it might work here. Label me cautiously optimistic.

With that, we’re finally leaving the Riverlands and move to King’s Landing. There, Cersei has some visitors: the sparrows, led by Lancel, come to demand her coming to speak to the High Sparrow, a clear breach of the conditions of her Walk of Shame. Cersei “chooses violence”, letting Ungregor gruesomely slay one of the fanatics and sending the rest back with the message. Unfortunately for her, the High Sparrow continues to outplay her. Cersei forgot the most important fact of Westerosi politics: all power flows from the king. So when Tommen’s Small Council ban her to the gallery and Tommen himself announces that from now on, Trial-by-Combat is outlawed, Cersei knows she’s been outfoxed once again. A trial by seven septons is spelling doom. Qyburn’s mumbling of “rumors of war” isn’t exactly helpful in this situation, only ominous. Let’s see what comes of that. For now, while enjoyable in its individual performances, Cersei’s plotline in King’s Landing seems to be treading water quite a bit. At least Jaime should be back in time for episode 10, where I assume this whole thing will be going down.

Over at the Narrow Sea in Braavos, the whole treading water bit becomes much more pronounced, as Arya’s plot is winding down to a wholly unsatisfactory conclusion. One can’t help the feeling that in retrospect, the whole thing didn’t amount to all that much. Sure, we got incredibly good scenes with the actor troupe (Lady Crane today improved on her performance using Arya’s insight in Cersei’s character (and her own)), but in the end, all it amounts to is “Arya is now better at killing people”, which frankly could have been managed in one training montage. The Faceless Men come off as especially weird. Not only is the waif staggeringly incompetent, she’s also violating the tenets of the order left and right. Many have speculated that Jaqen is indeed just testing her or that the waif didn’t get Arya last episode because her demeanor was way too cocky, but no such luck.

Instead, in Braavos, we’re firmly in A Game of Contrivances. Last episode, Arya strolled through the city as if she owned it, and the waif still managed to botch the assassination in the worst manner possible, stabbing her repeatedly in the gut without doing any damage whatsoever. This must be the equivalent to a roll of “1” in D&D. Lady Crance is able to nurse Arya back in one night, as if Milk of the Poppy is suddenly a healing potion +5. And then, Arya is able to parkour through the whole of the city like she was never wounded. Don’t get me wrong, the action was incredibly well choreographed and filmed. But it all didn’t make any sense, and I lost count of how many times the waif, flashing her face and knife for all the city to see, simply slowed down to let Arya escape. And while Arya’s final fight was of course the payoff to all her training since she first encountered Syrio Forel, it too was contrived. It literally hinged on the waif closing the door behind her, because else, it wouldn’t have been dark.

And don’t get me started on her return to the temple. Not only does Jaqen not notice her or the obvious trap she laid in the sanctum, he also nonsensically announces that she is now “No One”. What, it this a title you can inherit by killing the former No One? Is this tied to any philosophy at all? And why does he smile approvingly when she professes she is Arya Stark? This kind of sloppy writing for me diminishes a lot of the intended payoff here because it makes no fucking sense to me.

– However, with all that off my chest, the Arya subplot also represents the huge problems I have reviewing this series right now. I honestly cannot recall how much of the philosophical background of the Faceless Men we really got in the series, and how much of it is the baggage from the books. This doesn’t affect the waif, of course, which remains incoherent no matter the background, but I increasingly come to realize that I have huge problems keeping show and books apart, no matter how hard I try. Once the season is over, I’ll have to revisit it and check for this more thoroughly. So, enough with the navel-gazing. –

Our last bit of the episode is set in Meereen, where Varys leaves Tyrion in a surprisingly emotional moment to go to Westeros and recruit people who have ships after making clear that Meereen is now united under the flag of R’hollor, nicely mirroring the events in King’s Landing. Given that the show is unlikely to introduce more players to the political game, this leaves two options: the Greyjoys and the Martells. I’ll put my money on the Martells. Not only have they – mercifully – been absent since episode 1 and are the Greyjoys on their way anyway, it also makes sense that Varys would seek them out rather than the bloodthirsty Vikings. I’m still not looking forward to it much, despite the obvious thematic fit (Dorne is now controlled exclusively by bloodthirsty women, and Varys very much works for one).

In the meantime, Tyrion finally manages to break Missandei to open up to him by making her drink (not succeeding with Grey Worm), and finally, the jokes stop, since the Yunkai’i have arrived with their warfleet and start to bombard the city. Well, at least Tyrion’s annoying cockiness comes back to bite him, and no one is inclined to listen to his apologies or his stupid-ass plan to invade the beach. This last bit is actually really clever writing: Tyrion’s whole strategy for Meereen has been to recreate King’s Landing, and it has been a disaster. Now that the chickens have come home to roost, he tries to rescue them the same way he did it back then: riding out and attacking the invaders on the beaches. Unfortunately, this structurally nice idea was drawn out over far too many eunuch jokes and drinking this season and doesn’t really come together, which is shown conclusively in the lame-ass Daenerys reveal. What should have been a kind of fist-pumping moment lands with a flat, wet thud.

These pacing issues plague Meereen and Braavos the whole season now. One can only hope that the ship will be run tighter from here on out. In total, though, this was a really enjoyable episode that bodes well for the season finale to come.


  1. Kings Landing: I somehow thought the rumors Quyburn spoke about were concerning wildfire.

    In Braavos, I really anticipated the solution to near-dead-Arya wouldn't be anything complicated or complex (it wasn't Arya or something like that), but they would choose the cheapest way you can think of. The only persons we know in Braavos besides Faceless Men and Iron Bank are the solution. And why? Because the actress used to stab bad guys? What a shitty writing!
    And why should Jaquen let her go - that makes no sense at all. But I never liked the Faceless Men anyway (neither in the books), so let's hope that's their final appearance.

    I could understand that they cut out Lady Stoneheart, but instead of the Battle of Ice (with Stannis), Battle of Fire (longer than perhaps a few scenes), an appropriate Kingsmoot or (more scnes at) Oldtown, we get mediocre jokes and the arsehole scene?

  2. The entire Arya-in-Braavos subplot was botched by the show from start to finish, and it didn't have to be. However, the budget for the Battle of Ice (as most people imagine it will go down in TWOW) would have been prohibitive, so I'll reserve judgment until we see what "The Battle of the Bastards" looks like. And the writers are probably regretting the homophobic finger joke in the wake of Orlando.

  3. As always I like your reviews very much, I just want to add someting in defense of the Arya plot...

    In hindsight I was under the impression that it was Arya's plan from to lure the waif to that dark chamber from the point where she hid needle there. Her first try just failed miserably. Should the effects of the two stabs have been worse? Maybe, but she was pretty shaken up after the stabbing and came to Lady Crane in pretty bad shape. Lady Crane explicitly told her that milk of her puppy let her sleep (hence no feeling of a greater healing potion here for me). Lastly we have no Information how long exactly Arya was asleep when the waif came to kill Lady Crane, so she might have been rested for a couple of days. Is this realistic? Probably not. Is the show exaggerating? Of course. But as a part of a heroic cinematic story it is okay enough for my suspension of disbelief.

    Could the Arya plot have been managed in one training montage? Of course but that would apply for any Karate Kid or Shaolin movie ever.

    About Jaqen's reaction...It's easy to forget that the faceless men aren't only an assassins guild but also some kind of religious group. A death has been promised, a death has been given to the Many-Faced God (Death, R'hllor?). Arya has beaten the Waif and is in Jaqen's opinion worth to take her place. Why is he smiling when Arya is leaving for Westeros? Or is he? I'm uncertain. Tom Wlaschiha's face is quite a well acted mixture of expressions that leaves room for a lot of interpretation. Anyway, we don't know what agenda that the Faceless Men have in the Westeros (at least in the show). Maybe it just fits into their plans that Arya is leaving for Westeros, maybe she is just a free person now. We have to wait and see...

    1. Ok, I grant the benefit of the doubt for Jaqen's reaction, but not for the wildfire of incompetence that is the waif.

    2. Fair enough. ;-)

  4. Great review, Stefan! I know you've said in the past that you find it hard to leave the books aside when reviewing the show, but I think you're doing a good job of it! A lot of fans on Reddit etc. seem to struggle to separate the things that really don't work within the show itself (e.g. the resolution of Arya's Braavos plot) with the disappointment they feel when their pet theories are debunked ('Cleganebowl looks to be definitively cancelled, therefore D&D are stupid hacks'). Unfortunately I think we'll be seeing more and more of this as the series progresses and more things don't shake out the way that fans have built them up in their minds. Of course, they're entitled to think that and to say what they think, but at the same time, it's to enjoy talking about the show when there's such a wall of negativity out there.

    Although the Meereen scenes were a mixed bag this time around, I really appreciated the fact that Tyrion failed for once! His scenes this season have been like a funhouse-mirror version of his S2 scenes, and it was really quite satisfying to see that his attempts to recreate his KL success met with complete and utter failure in another environment, taking him down a peg or two. I hadn't given much thought to it before, but it would have been much worse to have him swan into Meereen and be able to find a magic solution to all their complex problems, just because he's Tyrion and he drinks and he knows things. It would have made Dany look ridiculous as well. Overall, this was a really good call on the showrunners' part (though Tyrion's plotline overall hasn't been particularly compelling this season) and one I wasn't expecting.

    Good thoughts on Jaime and Cersei too. I admit that I miss book-Jaime (my favourite character) and that it can be jarring to see him so much still in Cersei's orbit. However, without his internal monologue I can see that it would be very hard to pull off a really moving valonqar scene - it would be hard to convey Jaime's feelings about the event, so you'd just get him turning away from her and then killing her, and there'd be a risk of losing the tragic dimension. This way, that stands to be a really powerful scene. Given that it's going to be absolutely crucial to the arcs of 2 major characters and a huge game-changer going forwards, I can understand them getting rid of some of the twists and turns of Jaime's journey in the books to make it as effective on-screen as possible (TBC)

  5. I'm also really excited for the Hound's storyline going forwards. I wasn't as bothered by his scenes last week as you and some others were, but I am pleased to see that his experiences with Brother Ray have clearly changed and mellowed him and that his relationship with violence appears to be shifting. In the world as it is (and given what's coming) I think that finding a useful outlet for his violence and fighting skill is really the best outcome he can hope for, and the Brotherhood are his best chance of doing that. Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, this makes a lot more sense than Cleganebowl, both thematically and logistically. Though I do think Sandor would have responded to Beric's (or was it Thoros's) vague pronouncements about the cold winds in the North with a degree of scepticism or at least a 'What the fuck're you on about?' Given his scepticism about...well...just about everything, it'll probably take more than words to convince him that the threat in the North is real!

    Finally, just a general thought I've been having about the show. Oddly enough, it's often when things aren't executed perfectly and you do see the join that I appreciate exactly how complex a task the showrunners are engaged in, and what a good job they are doing overall. When things are firing on all cylinders, it can look easy. But when something doesn't quite work and a character's arc falls flat or they end up spinning their wheels for a time (such as Tyrion in Meereen this season) that makes me realise how hard it actually must be to put this show together, and particularly to give every character a compelling arc for every season that keeps their story/character development moving forward and gets them to where they need to be for the next stage of the story. There's a lot of armchair criticism with commenters saying 'It would have been better if XYZ'. Sometimes those people genuinely come up with great ideas that would have worked better than what's in the show! But overall, what they do is an awful lot harder, and they do it an awful lot better, than a lot of their detractors like to assume.