Reader, sit down: It’s time I told you a story. It’s a tale about a bunch of fantasy fans who were granted their greatest wish, and a smaller number of haters who grumbled through the whole thing.
Yes, that’s right — I’m talking about Cleganebowl, the long-awaited Game of Thrones fan theory that was finally brought to life in Sunday’s episode, “The Bells,” when Sandor Clegane at last clashed swords with his brother as a crazed Daenerys Targaryen laid King’s Landing to waste around them. “What they did to you doesn’t matter,” Sandor promised the zombified version of his big brother when they last saw each other in season seven. “It’s not how it ends for you, brother. You know who’s coming for you. You’ve always known.”
Let’s back up a bit and explain what Cleganebowl actually is. As you’ll remember, one of the first things we learn about Sandor is his fraught relationship with his older brother, Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane. When they were children, Gregor was the one who thrust Sandor’s face into burning coals, giving him distinctive scars and a lifelong fear of fire. Later, Gregor became a knight and committed a whole bunch of war crimes, which gave Sandor a deep distrust of the entire concept of knighthood. Though they spent the show’s first few seasons on Team Lannister, you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of siblings who hate each other more. Remember the tournament from season one?
Since then, both Clegane brothers have changed a lot. The Mountain got killed in a trial by combat, then turned into a Frankenstein monster, and now acts as Queen Cersei’s personal bodyguard. The Hound joined the kingsguard, quit the kingsguard, wandered around the Riverlands, made a friend, got whupped by Brienne, took a gap year, joined the Brotherhood Without Banners in their fight against the White Walkers, then wound up teaming up with Arya for a road trip back down to Kings Landing with vengeance on his mind.
The dream of Cleganebowl first emerged at the end of A Dance With Dragons, where Cersei still has to stand trial for her crimes against the Faith. (In the show, she got around this by blowing them off, and then blowing them up.) She’s planning on having a trial by combat, and is going to use Zombie Gregor as her champion. Wouldn’t it be cool, then, if the Faith called up Sandor freaking Clegane to fight on their side, making the two brothers have to face each other, mano a mano? Would that be enough to get you hyped? If you’re not sure, why not try watching this video?
Popular opinion on Cleganebowl in Song of Ice and Fire fandom is split between three separate camps. The first thinks that Cleganebowl is super-awesome and sincerely can’t wait for it to happen. The second doesn’t really care much either way, but likes to pretend to be really into it for the lolz. (Naturally, it can be hard to distinguish between these two.) And the third, the one that I’m in, hates it.
To understand why, you’ve got to look at where we left the Hound in George R.R. Martin’s novels. At the end of A Storm of Swords, Sandor was in the same basic spot he was at the end of season four, bleeding out in the middle of the Riverlands. While he hasn’t reappeared the way he has in the show, Martin drops hints in the next book, A Feast for Crows, that he survived. While searching the Riverlands for the Stark sisters, Brienne comes upon a quiet monastery, one of the few places in Westeros that hasn’t been ravaged by the war. (It’s similar to the community where Hound lived in season six, though without the violent ending.) There she meets a healer called the Elder Brother, who tells her, “The Hound is dead. Sandor Clegane is at rest.” From a distance, she also sees a lonely gravedigger who just happens to have an injury similar to the Hound’s, a horse that looks exactly like the Hound’s, and a scarf that conveniently covers his face. Oh, and he’s got an affinity for dogs. Add it all up and it seems likely the Elder Brother was speaking metaphorically: Sandor has retired his Hound identity for good, taking up a life of quiet contemplation. For Game of Thrones, that’s pretty much the happiest ending you can hope for.
To those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction, taking Sandor away from this just so he can fight his brother again seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of the Hound’s character arc. His whole story has been learning how to get away from a life of violence, not leaning into it. Cleganebowl is emblematic of one of my least-favorite aspects of modern fandom: fan theories that emphasize spectacle and surprise instead of character and theme. Game of Thrones fandom is particularly attracted to these, and many of them seem driven more by the culture of message-board one-upmanship than any actual analysis. (Of course, thinking you know more about what characters would do than their creators is also a defining trope of modern fandom, so those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction are hardly in the clear either.)
Whether or not Cleganebowl happens in the books, it’s now officially happened in the show’s eighth and final season — and, since Sandor tackles Gregor into the raging fires below the Red Keep, it’s surely the last time we’ll see either character on the show. Still, those of us in the anti-Cleganebowl faction are still holding out hope that George R.R. Martin’s got a better arc in store for the brothers in the books, and that it’ll be a hundred times more interesting than Cleganebowl. If you disagree, what are you gonna do, fight me about it?
This post originally ran in 2016. It’s been updated to reflect the events of Game of Thrones season eight.