“I’m angry that horrible people can treat good people that way and get away with it.”
When Gilly says this line to Samwell, she captures the spirit of this week’s entire episode. “Blood of My Blood” is an hour in which moral compasses are properly calibrated, where people who have been consistently good (Sam), sometimes not (Margaery), or tempted to both dark and light sides (Arya) find the better angels in their natures and gravitate toward them.
On the heels of last week’s terrific episode, “Blood of My Blood” — which is also directed by Jack Bender — feels even more narratively sure-footed and beautifully realized. Given all the characters, locations, and plot developments that swirl around in this story, it’s easy for Game of Thrones to feel unwieldy. But in the hands of Bender, best known for his signature work on Lost, each moment carries emotional weight, and the story lines feel seamlessly interconnected. Even the scene-to-scene transitions are purposeful, elegant, and designed to highlight that interconnectivity, as displayed right out of the gate when we segue from the horseback rescue of Bran and Meera to the clip-clopping of hooves leading Gilly and Sam to Horn Hill.
Of course, the “surprises” in this episode may not have been shocking to some fans. Readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels have long suspected that the mysterious hooded figure known as Coldhands, who comes to the aid of Bran and Meera, might be Benjen Stark. In the HBO version, that theory turns out to be correct. Surprise or no, that reveal and others — Arya’s decision to save Lady Crane, Tommen’s “gotcha!” allegiance to the High Sparrow — are nevertheless immensely satisfying. Plus, who can hate an episode that features an exchange like this one?
Daario, to Daenerys: You weren’t made to sit on a chair in a palace.
Daenerys, to Daario: Oh, okay. Hey, dude, I’ll be right back.
[DANY RETURNS ON THE BACK OF A MUTHA-EFFING DRAGON, THEN DELIVERS A SPEECH THAT MAKES MEL GIBSON’S BRAVEHEART MONOLOGUE SOUND LIKE THE MUTTERINGS OF A HALFHEARTED WEAKLING.]
But let’s focus again on that Gilly comment about bad people getting away with things. That happens an awful lot on Game of Thrones, to the point where it seems fair to assume that “good guys” (or women) may not triumph in the battle for the Iron Throne. (Or anything else, for that matter.) As much as this show encourages us to empathize with characters who have proven to be decent or redeemed, it also routinely bumps them off and delights in the strategies of the dastardly. Like the best, most delicious soap operas, Game of Thrones invites us to enjoy watching the Cerseis and Olenna Tyrells of the world scheme their schemes. In this episode, however, the show sides with the characters who have abandoned such practices and are now trying to rise above their destructive instincts.
This is abundantly clear for Arya, whose intention to be the Girl Who Has No Name and Poisons Actresses is short-circuited by what she sees in that play (working title: A Song of Ice and Flatulence) and Lady Crane’s attentiveness toward her. When Arya witnesses the theatrical reenactment of Joffrey’s poisoning, she instinctively laughs. But when she sees Lady Crane’s Cersei respond to his death, Arya is reminded that if she also resorts to poisoning someone, she’ll be taking away the life of a real human being who means something to others. If only subconsciously, Arya seems to realize that the person she’s training to become is just as bad as Joffrey, the boy who treated the death of Ned Stark with such cavalier indifference.
When Arya slaps the poisoned rum out of Lady Crane’s hand, she points to the woman who’s playing Sansa, who clearly covets the Cersei role. “Careful of that one,” Arya says to Lady Crane. “She wants you dead.” It’s a wonderfully rich line considering the history of sibling rivalry between Arya and Sansa, the often chilly relationship between Sansa and Cersei, and the fact that Sansa was suspected of being involved in Joffrey’s murder. In reality, of course, the culprit was Olenna, the grandmother of Margaery, who has undergone a spiritual transformation back in King’s Landing that has seemingly turned her into a totally different queen from the wife of Joffrey she once was, as depicted in that play. The same sort of transformation seems to have taken hold within Arya. When Lady Crane asks Arya her name, she doesn’t say “A Girl Has No Name.” She immediately responds, “Mercy,” which is what she’s showing the woman. Still: Mercy may be, well, merciful, but she’s not stupid. She knows she’d better have a knife on her. Now that she failed this “test,” the Waif will be coming for her.
In previous recaps, I noted that both Margaery and Tommen both seem to be captivated by the High Sparrow. This episode confirms it. At first, it’s not clear whether Margaery is putting on an act when she tells Tommen that she believes she and her brother Loras must atone for their sins. “I’ve had lots of time to think about how good I was at seeming good,” she tells her king, in another bit of dialogue that speaks to the distance between the truly ethical and the morally corrupt. But she seems completely serious, so much so that she convinces Tommen that they should work with the High Sparrow instead of against him.
“Together we announce a new age of harmony, a holy alliance between the Crown and the Faith,” Tommen proclaims, thereby thwarting the Tyrells’ and Lannisters’ plan to assassinate the Sparrow and his followers. The king and his queen have suddenly become members of the Games of Thrones version of the conservative religious right. This is troublesome, given the Sparrow and his flock’s tendency to think that imprisoning and shaming people is what God wants. (Not to mention the fact that it represents a total lack of separation between church and state.) And yet, isn’t Margaery correct when she says that she should atone for her sins? Shouldn’t she and other people in her extended royal circle, including Olenna and Cersei, think about the horrible things they have done, feel some sense of guilt, and try to chart a better course? The language Cersei uses during her subsequent conversation with Jaime speaks to exactly how self-centered and vengeful she still is. (“We should treat him without mercy, and we will,” she tells her brother, later adding of their shared desire to get back at the Sparrow, “We’re the only two people in the world.”) The Sparrow sits at one extreme and Cersei sits at the other, but “Blood of My Blood” suggests that a new generation, represented by Margaery and Tommen, might be able to find some sense of balance in the middle. Either that, or it suggests the king and queen have been totally duped by a religious zealot. Honestly, both interpretations have merit.
Plot-wise, the most important thing about Tommen’s crown-and-faith conversion is that it leads him to command Jaime to seize Riverrun from the Blackfish, then deliver the land to Walder Frey. (Remember him? He orchestrated the Red Wedding, along with Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton.) These new marching orders put Jaime on a collision course with Sansa and Jon Snow, who previously discussed their plan to convince the people of Riverrun to become their allies in their battle against the Boltons. With four episodes left in the season, it seems inevitable that at least one Lannister and one Bolton will have to contend with at least one or two Starks about that murderous matrimonial affair.
Bran’s frenetic flashback also speaks to this inevitable clash. With its imagery of the Red Wedding and of Aerys II Targaryen — a Targaryen who actually did “sit on a chair in a palace” — shouting “Burn them all!” just before he’s slain by Jamie Lannister, the sequence serves as a reminder of the core good guy (Starks) versus bad guy (Lannisters) relationship that provides the foundation for Game of Thrones. The idea that the show is finally taking us back to where we started is an exciting prospect. Ditto for the chance that we may finally see some Red Wedding payback. With Benjen back in the picture, even if he’s not entirely a living, breathing person, the number of Starks in this Game is higher than it’s been in a long, long time.
Finally, for those looking for signs that maybe the honest and the decent still stand half a chance, surely the Samwell story line is the most heartening aspect of the episode. Here is a case of a good man — one who has never been anything but good — finding the mettle to do the right thing, in a way that makes Game of Thrones briefly feel a little like a feel-good romance. When Sam bursts back in the room after seemingly leaving Gilly and Little Sam to live under the thumb and judgment of his father, the truly disgusting Randyll Tarly, it feels like a Westerosi version of the “running through the airport” moment.
Shortly thereafter, with Gilly standing beside him in her Disney princess dress, Sam ultimately takes Heartsbane, the family sword his father swore he’d never allow him to wield. “Sam, won’t he come for it?” Gilly asks.
“He can bloody well try,” Sam says, sounding more like a hero than he ever has. In that moment, it’s unclear how Gilly and Little Sam are going to fit into Sam’s maester training, or what might happen if Lord Tarly actually does come after Heartsbane. A few things are clear, though: Sam is a good person, and, like the other characters striving to do good in Game of Thrones, he sure as hell won’t let the horrible people win by default.
Correction: A previous version of this recap misidentified the actress who wanted Arya to poison Lady Crane. She portrays Sansa in the Braavosi play, not Margaery.