The following post contains spoilers for Season 6 Episode 8 of Game of Thrones, “No One.”
Many fans were disappointed by some of the anticlimactic plot line resolutions this week on Game of Thrones. Several major stories seemed to come to an end without much of an exciting pay-off. But one thing that is important to remember is that Game of Thrones never gives you exactly what you hope for.
Game of Thrones, after all, is a show known for its ability to subvert our expectations. The key example, of course, is the death of Lord Stark in Season 1. When he was imprisoned by the Lannisters, we assumed that he would somehow survive. After all, he was the noble, heroic protagonist of the story. Surely, we thought, he would find some way to live through this ordeal, for the sake of the plot. But his startling and dramatic execution proved us wrong. No one was safe in this world.
We had been taught that being a noble, honorable figure gave a character absolutely no guarantee of survival. It had been made clear that traditional narratives of heroism had no place on Game of Thrones. Yet, we quickly bought into the narrative that Robb Stark, the young King of the North, would rise to be a great leader and avenge his father. Of course he would. That’s how these stories work, right? But we were proven wrong again, when Robb’s mistakes came back to destroy him in brutal fashion at the Red Wedding.
Since then, expected narratives have continued to be subverted. Melisandre believed fervently that Stannis was the heroic Prince who was Promised, but that prophecy quickly fell apart with Stannis’ death. On the issue of heroism, who would have expected at the beginning of the series, that Sansa, one of the “weaker” characters, would now have a pivotal role to play in reclaiming the North? Daenerys’ heroic act of freeing the slaves quickly dissolved into a political and administrative nightmare as she struggled to control Meereen. No “traditional” story of heroism functions quite as expected.
However, there has been one “narrative” about Game of Thrones that has been consistently maintained: that this is a world of shocking moments and grand, dramatic gestures of brutality, and death. At every turn, an exciting “climax” is waiting to jump out and kill our favorite characters or provide us with yet another violent, blood-filled clash.
In the latest episode, “No One,” Game of Thrones continued this trend of subverting expectations… by providing us with a bunch of anticlimaxes that reverse the show’s own trend toward narratives of death and destruction.
No Vengeance for the Hound
Let’s start with the Hound. He starts off this episode by killing four members of the Brotherhood without Banners, in retaliation for the murder of the villagers last week. Brutal, horrific deaths? Completely normal, and expected for Game of Thrones.
Then, he runs into the Brotherhood, and it turns out that the massacre of the villagers and Septon Ray was perpetrated by rogue members of the Brotherhood. What follows is a very odd negotiation with the Brotherhood about how many of these rogue agents he gets to kill and how violently he should do it. It’s a strangely “civilized” scene, amidst such violence and destruction. The Hound says that, once, he might have fought all of the Brotherhood for the chance to slaughter these men, but he quickly puts that aside–even he seems tired by the constant death and destruction of Game of Thrones.
He ends up getting to kill two of them, by simply removing the stumps beneath them and letting their necks break–no brutal, violent deaths for them, and the Hound earns no satisfaction of achieving proper vengeance. As Rob Bricken from io9 notes, “It’s an anticlimax for the Hound and everyone watching.”
The trend toward bloodbaths as a narrative resolution in Game of Thrones is subverted, and, unusually, especially for someone like the Hound, this plot line ends peacefully and amicably, with Sandor Clegane apparently about to join the Brotherhood and set out on a new mission. We are almost amazed at the lack of violence.
Riverrun is Taken
Now, let’s talk about another anticlimax: the death of the Blackfish. Earlier episodes had built up the Blackfish as an obstinate, stalwart defender of Riverrun. Yet in this episode, that reputation quickly falls apart. The true Lord of Riverrun, Edmure, overrules the authority of the Blackfish and commands his men to surrender. The Blackfish refuses to escape with Brienne and decides to stay to defend the castle, and we expect a dramatic final scene as he fights to the death–a heroic moment to justify his reputation.
.As Jaime says, “He is an old man. A good death is all he can hope for,” but even that is taken from him, for the Blackfish receives no heroic or worthy death on screen. He simply dies, and we do not see it. His death is pointless. His character has been built up, only to be broken apart, with no purpose fulfilled. He represents no advantage for Sansa’s efforts in the North. He loses Riverrun to the Lannisters and Freys. Contrary to his reputation, he achieves no dramatic, final moment.
We have to note that the entire siege of Riverrun ends without a single drop of blood being spilled on-screen. Jaime Lannister captures Riverrun without once raising his sword. Not quite the exciting battle that we hoped for. Instead, the most brutal scene of all is not a grand bloodbath of armies clashing, but the conversation filled with dark, threatening words by which Jaime forces Edmure to capitulate. This time, violent words prove just as effective as violent actions.
Trouble for Cersei
In King’s Landing, Cersei unleashes the zombified Mountain against the Faith Militant. That one moment of grotesque violence foreshadows Cersei’s ultimate plan: to escape the charges against her via trial by combat, which is guaranteed to be an exciting bloodbath, if the Mountain is involved.
Fans had been clamoring for the “Cleganebowl”–a showdown between the Hound and his brother. But Tommen, under the power of the High Sparrow, outlaws trial by combat, and what would have been a violent, dramatic plot device vanishes: no climactic Cleganebowl for the fans and no magical escape for Cersei. Exciting bloodbaths, this time, are not the answer.
Arya Remains Arya
Now, let’s discuss Arya. After her serious blunders last week–flaunting her bags of cash, walking around Braavos seemingly without a care in the world, and then getting stabbed–fans were expecting some kind of trickery. Perhaps some clever face-swapping. Maybe this Arya was not the real one. Or was this a test from Jaqen? But no–it seems that Arya was in fact careless enough to get stabbed. Whether that’s bad writing or purposeful characterization is debatable, but in any case, our expectations again are subverted.
Some people predicted, like I did, that she would receive help from the actress Lady Crane, and that turned out to be correct. However, that too was an anticlimax: instead of Arya joining the acting troupe and creating a new connection with this mother-figure, the Waif kills Lady Crane–a bit of a disappointment after all the emphasis being placed on the acting troupe, but of course, no one is ever safe in Game of Thrones.
After Arya takes down the Waif,she returns for a final encounter with Jaqen, who proclaims, “Finally a girl is No One.” Whether he’s just saying that because she has a sword pointed at him, because she happened to “win,” or because she has passed another test is unclear, but here is her chance to learn some exciting, face-changing, assassination skills. This is what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? The culmination of her story in Braavos…
But no. Arya rejects all that and decides to remain Arya Stark. Perhaps a fitting conclusion for her, yet in some ways this is a huge anti-climactic letdown: all that development over two seasons, all that time spent in magical assassin school, and nothing to show for it, except something that could’ve been resolved long ago?
But I think, in fact, that she did achieve some significant character development. Jaqen gives a subtle nod when Arya affirms her own identity, as if that was what she needed to do all along. Perhaps Arya learned that power for its own sake–as embodied by the amoral Faceless Men ideology–is not worth abandoning her sense of personal identity and morality by killing Lady Crane. To some extent, she did learn some of the advantages of being No One–of being anonymous and hidden–through exposure to the Faceless Men, but she did so without forgetting who she is.
She did also improve her physical abilities: she is is able to run and jump rather quickly across Braavos, and her fighting skills allow her to fight in the dark to take down the Waif. And, if it was her plan to lure the Waif back to that dark room, where she would have an advantage, then perhaps Arya wasn’t as stupid in this instance as we thought and was actually showing her quick thinking under pressure.
Not exactly the most exciting stuff: no magical face-swapping, no stealthy assassination techniques, or mystical Faceless Men secrets, but maybe the point is that she doesn’t need any of that in the first place, and perhaps being true to herself is the more important source of power for her. The question had been introduced of how far she’d be willing to lose herself in order to gain power, and now, we have an answer: no, not quite that far. In the end, personal development and a confirmation of identity proves more important than the flashy, exciting stuff.
So, what we see in the end is that Game of Thrones remains committed to subverting our expectations. No vengeance for the Hound. No heroic death for the Blackfish. No Cleganebowl and no trial by combat. No new assassination skills for Arya. In some ways, this episode represented a letdown for everyone: not just us, but some of the characters too. Nothing goes the way we expect or hope. It’s as if Game of Thrones is commenting that its own reliance on dramatic spectacles of death, destruction, and violence has been overdone, and perhaps, there are other ways to resolve a plot line that are almost shocking because of the exciting, flashy moments we’ve come to expect.
This adds an undercurrent of dread to the other plot lines. With Daenerys’ return to Meereen, we hope that her dragons would devastate the Masters’ fleet and lead to a great victory, but who knows how Game of Thrones will try to pull the rug out from under us? Next week, Sansa and Jon will try to retake Winterfell from Ramsay, and knowing how our expectations are always subverted, can we really hope for any kind of victory? It’s along this same line of reasoning that I expect Varys’ journey to turn out badly, somehow.
How far can Game of Thrones push this idea? At some point, the story will have to wrap up in a satisfactory way, instead of continually subverting our hopes and expectations. It’s a question I’m sure George R.R. Martin and the showrunners have had to contend with, and we’ll have to see how, ultimately, they decide to conclude this story.