This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email eadams at avclub dot com or contact Erik on Twitter, and he’ll take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’thappen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is the type of episode that makes its themes plain: If you’re keeping a running tally of the word “lie” (or variations thereof), you’ll get the gist of it pretty quickly. The truth may set you free, but a lie can ensure a longer life in Westeros—even if it’s the truth dressed up like a lie.
This is also an episode in which no one thread marks itself as the dominant storyline. Arya and Jaqen H’ghar share the first half of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” with Tyrion and Jorah, but the episode turns away from these characters at its halfway mark, tending to the other half-dozen narratives that make up season five. Game Of Thrones is a television construction unlike any other, mimicking the deliberate build and intertwining paths of a novel, making episodic chunks out of scenes shot on multiple continents with scores of actors. There has to be some sort of connective tissue to explain why these particular chapters are being told within the same hour, and that’s why I’m always willing to give more leeway to an episode like “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” It’s blunt in its language, but it might come across as a series of unconnected turning points without that bluntness.
Bigger, costlier happenings are in the offing, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” advances several season-five stories in intriguing fashion. Arya gains access to the the Faceless Men’s secret chamber, where the towering columns of death masks suggest the assassins’ inventory of disguises. Jaime and Bronn reach Myrcella at the same time as the Sand Snakes—and both wind up apprehended by Dornish guards. Ser Loras’ distinctive birth mark not only deepens his troubles with the Faith Militant, but it winds up contradicting Margaery’s testimony, leading to the incarceration of both Tyrell siblings. And that’s not to mention Tyrion negotiating his way out of death and dismemberment, Littlefinger’s twisty play for Winterfell, or Sansa’s torturous wedding day. It’s an awful lot to sort through, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” pulls it all together on strands of honesty and dishonesty.
A Game Of Thrones character telling a fib isn’t front page news, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” stands out based on the sheer volume of lies told and variety of whom they’re told to. There are lies that save their necks, like the slightly embellished account Tyrion gives of Jorah’s heroic deeds—none of which sink in as deeply as the incredible true story of Mormont Vs. Qotho. There are lies that lead characters to the next step in their journey, as with the comforting words Arya offers to the sick girl in the House of Black and White. There are even lies that go unspoken because their consequences have proven so dire: Theon didn’t kill Bran and Rickon, but pretending like he did kicked off the chain reaction that took him from Prince of Winterfell to House Bolton torture puppet. Coming clean to Sansa would thaw the chill that now exists between the surrogate siblings, but it would also mean reliving a gauntlet of physical and emotional pain.
Both types of pain are familiar to the Stark girls; what’s interesting about Arya’s current arc is that it invites her to channel the losses she’s experienced into the experience of complete strangers. There’s still so much about the House of Black and White and the Faceless Men that’s unknown to us, but “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” provides a tantalizing look at their methods. Curious about the corpses she’s shown meticulously cleansing (in ways that are eerily echoed by Sansa’s pre-wedding bath), Arya pushes The Waif for more information. She counters with a story that’s similar to Arya’s: Daughter of a noble, dead mother, mistreatment at the hands of other nobles, assistance from the Faceless Men. Once she’s finished, she puts this question to Arya and the viewers: “Was that true or a lie?” The answer isn’t really important—what’s important is that she told the story so convincingly that it could go either way.
But this also exposes the shortcomings of lying as a narrative device, because while it’s one thing to be a Faceless Man, it’s an entirely different thing to be a man of as many faces as Petyr Baelish. Westeros’ ultimate schemer returns to King’s Landing this week to relay information that Cersei finds too good to believe: Sansa Stark is alive, living in Winterfell, and promised to Roose Bolton’s newly legitimized son. As we’re helpfully reminded, Cersei once tasked Littlefinger with locating Arya, so this report is partially meant to compensate for a failure. It’s also setup for the latest Baelish power grab: If the Vale remains loyal to the crown and seizes Winterfell from whatever depleted army wins the pending Baratheon-Bolton bloodbath, Baelish will be named warden of the North.
It’s an awfully fragile deal he strikes here, one that seemingly contradicts everything we’ve seen from Littlefinger since the early part of season four. The key to decoding the sequence is in Aidan Gillen’s evasive tone and his character’s non-answer to “I’ll know you’re a man of your word when I see Sansa Stark’s head on a spike”—this is pure Baelish trickery, a chess move where a potential vulnerability enables victory after a few more turns. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” already has him fulfilling one of the promises he makes to the queen mother, as the Lion flies over the entire meeting between Cersei and Baelish.
But it might also be one wrinkle too many, muddying whatever understanding we have of Baelish’s character and what he’s actually trying to get out of all his time in the North. It comes down to The Waif’s question for Arya—“Was that true or a lie?”—and whether we think Baelish is more truthful with Sansa or with Cersei. He’s a shifty guy, and his plan is still in motion, but in the wake of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” it feels like all he has left is shiftiness. When the show leads us to believe he’s lying to everyone, is there any way it can show us which lies actually contain a grain of the truth?
Loras’ arrest is a crisis that calls for intervention from Highgarden, resulting in Diana Rigg’s first fifth-season appearance as Olenna Tyrell. Being a Tyrell homer, I cheered the mere appearance of Rigg in previews of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” and she doesn’t disappoint, matching wits with Cersei and announcing her arrival with a new addition to the leather-bound Highgarden Burn Book: “You can smell the shit from five miles away.” Rigg totally sells the olfactory offense, too.
Unfortunately for Westeros’ best grandma, Olenna spends her time in King’s Landing having her face metaphorically shoved in that shit. The High Sparrow’s interrogation of Loras is another “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” lie, a farcical portrayal of justice in which Cersei keeps her hands clean because she’s not the one dragging they Tyrells’ name through the mud—it’s the people she deputized doing the dirty work, people who answer to a higher power than the queen mother. And all the while she gets to play the victim, a transparent pose that gets some fun fake histrionics out of Lena Headey after Margaery is hauled off for perjuring herself in the presence of the seven. Cersei’s feigning surprise while the rest of us get to experience the real thing.
Those “wars to come” are starting to look surer by the minute, with the Lannisters betraying multiple alliances during “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” The Tyrells are seemingly neutralized, but the Martells have the upper hand in Dorne. The collision of Jaime and Bronn’s rescue team and the Sand Snakes’ abduction plans might seem a little too convenient, but the ensuing fight scene is a proportional payoff for efforts that have been brewing in the background all season. Crossing paths in the Water Gardens, the best warriors from their respective lands square off in a kinetic action sequence, the Sands’ varied arsenal bringing some novelty to Game Of Thrones’ battle vocabulary. When Nym attempts to make off with Myrcella, the sequence almost collapses into an “Our princess is in another castle” anticlimax—thank goodness for the intervention of Areo Hotah and the Dornish guard.
The fight highlights one of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”’s most admirable qualities: There’s a sense of newness about the episode that Game Of Thrones can’t always muster on a weekly basis. We know the major players and the major settings so well now that some of the best parts of season five harken back to the surprise and seemingly endless possibilities of the show’s early years. The epic scale of the show is tied up in its sense of undiscovered lands, and these episodes have delivered on that front, like the glimpses of Dorne they’ve afforded or last week’s cruise through the Valyrian ruins.
The chamber beneath the House of Black and White expands our knowledge of this world while retaining some mystery. The set is a feat of production design, massive in scale and simultaneously alien yet familiar. The way the scene is lit, the columns may as well reach to the sky; it’s a space that dwarfs both Maisie Williams and Tom Wlaschia, all the better to suggest all the different people a girl can be once she becomes no one. No matter what she may have told herself before—be it the truth or a lie—these faces are the reason Arya has been cleaning floors and cadavers.
One of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”’s most vibrant images is also its most tragic: Sansa, looking every bit the prisoner and the bride. With her hair restored to its natural color and the gothic tones of her Vale disguise traded for wedding whites, it stands to reason that this is Sansa playing a part, that the strength she gained since leaving King’s Landing hasn’t melted away in the intense heat of Ramsay’s madness or Myranda’s envy. She demonstrates as much, refusing to take Theon by the arm as he escorts her to the the Godswood. There’s an impressive show of strength from Theon later in the sequence, when he represents himself by name and status during the wedding ceremony, reclaiming some part of the self he lost to Ramsay at the Dreadfort.
Unfortunately for Sansa and Theon, Ramsay’s still around to rob them of whatever strength they manage to muster, going to particularly despicable ends to do so at the end of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” It’s a deeply unpleasant scene, centering on the biggest lie that’s told throughout the episode: The spartan “Do you take this man?”/“Do you take this woman?” wedding vows between Sansa and the Bastard of Bolton (still an apt sobriquet). On their marriage bed, Ramsay forcibly consummates the union, making Theon watch as he does so. It’s a rape depicted only through audio, director Jeremy Podeswa sparing us the visual for slow zooms in on Sophie Turner’s and Alfie Allen’s faces.
Game Of Thrones has whiffed with this type of development in the past, failing to treat an established reality within its universe with the proper amount of gravity. In the episode’s one majorly sour note, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” swings too far in the opposite direction, as the ominous score, the characters’ reactions, and the involvement of Ramsay all scream “Game Of Thrones does not endorse sexual assault!” Here’s an example in which bluntness was the incorrect tactic, deployed largely to demonstrate to Sansa what a horrible dude she’s married. Whether or not this was a complete misstep will depend on whether or not the rape has repercussions on anything deeper than a story level—something that, as Myles points out in the experts review, Game Of Thrones isn’t equipped to handle, on account of how many characters and stories are being dealt with each episode. I’d like to think the people who make the show have learned from past mistakes with Daenerys and Cersei, but I could just be lying to myself.
- This is the final version of tonight’s Game Of Thrones (newbies) review, barring any further tweaks or corrections. Because our readers are so eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, for the rest of season five I’ll post a review that examines a major thematic or story element of the episode, then update throughout the night with further analysis on the episode, screenshots, and stray observations. (I’m taking a page from John Teti’s Mad Men book, and addressing the fact that HBO isn’t sending early-review screeners for the remainder of season five.) There’s always so much packed into a Game Of Thrones episode that trying to unpack it all in a timely manner can prove difficult. I hope this method will satisfy those of you who want to read and comment before you go to bed on Sundays, but still want a deeper dive into the contents of any given episode later on.
- Know Your Sand Snakes (By Weapon!): Tyene wields two daggers. Her name looks like “tine,” and a tine is like a teeny-tiny dagger. Easy enough!
- Nymeria is the one with the whip. She also goes by “Nym,” as in “Nym getting out of here, that Sand Snake is good with her whip!”
- Obara carries a spear. Remember it this way: “O” for “Obara,” like “O” for “Oh, shit, she’s got a spear!”
- One more Olenna zinger for the road: “Put the pen down, dear—we both know you’re not writing anything.”