Arya faced trouble, Sansa and Jon faced the North, and a lost friend returned twice over in Game of Thrones 6×07.
The “Broken Man” speech from George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows is an elegantly tragic piece of writing, a subtle reflection that stands as a banner of humanism against the brutality of Westeros and war. For all the evil and ugliness Martin perpetrates in his novels, Septon Meribald’s quiet truth reminds readers of the literary purpose beneath what can seem like an orgy of horror.
But “The Broken Man” episode of Game of Thrones seems to tip toward the orgy. Independent of other factors, this is not inherently negative, though it is less graceful than Martin’s work. The divide comes down to the differing natures of show and books. The show, more lurid and grim, is simply a colder creature — one that rejects Meribald’s human hopefulness just as soon as it embraces it.
Game of Thrones 6×07 sets an appropriate scene for the discussion of differing natures, as the subject is broached across nearly every plotline. In King’s Landing, Margaery Tyrell adopts the visage of penitent queen — the woman whose love, as the Book of the Mother states, “calm[s] a man’s brute nature.” Margaery is so compelling that she nearly convinces Lady Olenna of her frustrating devotion. Only the smuggled image of a rose (which itself conceals a thorny reality) hints to the survival of Margaery’s true nature.
At the same time, the Queen of Thorns has apparently lost the patience to pretend civility with Cersei. “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” she says, brushing away Cersei’s protestations of mutual need with the reality of the queen mother’s lonely straits.
“You’ve lost, Cersei,” Olenna says, asserting — rightly or wrongly — Cersei’s reduced nature. “It’s the only joy I could find in all this misery.”
Misery, unsurprisingly is another prominent theme in “The Broken Man,” presented quite potently in the person of Theon Greyjoy. As Yara carouses and partakes of life and ale, Theon practically vibrates with discomfort and unhappiness. But Yara believes that his anguish and trauma are a thing apart from Theon’s true nature.
“I need the real Theon Greyjoy,” Yara tells her brother, forcing ale into him. Alternating draughts of compassion and impatience, she promises not to harm Theon, then gently suggests that he slit his wrists if he can’t get over Ramsay’s torment. “If you’re staying, Theon,” she says, “I need you.”
Plied with ale and utterly alone, Theon agrees to return to his true self. But Theon’s identity has always been a complicated one — part Greyjoy, part Stark, part pure confusion. Which fragment of Theon’s nature will assert itself now that he has devoted his heart to life once again?
This question is strikingly similar to those raised amidst Jaime’s renewed siege of Riverrun. The Freys, it turns out, suck at siege warfare just as much as they suck at guest rights, so Jaime and Bronn set to the serious job of erecting a proper siege around the Tully castle. Jaime also takes control of Edmure Tully, who has been held at noose and blade before the Blackfish’s dispassionate gaze. After all, why waste resources (or tears) on a man who is surely doomed — whose nature is no longer among the living?
The parlay between Brynden Tully and Jaime Lannister pivots on this idea of natures and identities. The Blackfish calls Jaime “Kingslayer,” and the two disagree on the fundamental nature of their shared situation.
Jaime says that the war is over, that Riverrun legally belongs to the Freys, and that Tully men need not die for a pointless holdout. But the Blackfish disagrees. “As long as I’m standing, the war is not over,” he asserts. Riverrun, after all, is fundamentally his — the place of his birth, and if need be, the place of his death.
And even this tense parlay is not what it seems. All Tully wanted was to “get the measure” of Jaime — to uncover his true nature. “Now I have,” he says. “I’m disappointed.”
Debates of nature are also percolating amidst Jon and Sansa’s recruitment tactics in the North. Tormund successfully convinces the wildlings that aiding Jon is not a betrayal, but a preservation of their true identity (as, you know, not cowards). The brilliant and tiny Lady Lyanna Mormont is hesitant to provide aid (and questions Sansa’s Stark nature) until Davos steps in to compare both of their unexpected circumstances — and point out the true nature of the coming war.
“The real war isn’t between some squabbling houses,” Davos says. “It’s between the living and the dead. And make no mistake, my lady, the dead are coming.”
But sadly, it is the dead that doom Sansa’s attempt to recruit the Glovers. She reminds Lord Glover of his oath to House Stark, but he reminds her of the tremendous losses suffered by his family and smallfolk during Robb’s war.
“I served House Stark once,” he tells her. “But House Stark is dead.”
Sansa, however, is not content to face the death of her House and sends an illicit raven to another family further south. This act is quintessential Sansa, an eerie echo of the Lannister-dictated letters she was once forced to send to her family. But with Sansa’s own nature so changed from what it was, is it too much to hope the outcome might be brighter this time?
(Yes. Yes, it probably is.)
Bright outcomes also seem likely to elude Arya, who makes her first truly critical mistake after strutting around Braavos like butter won’t melt on her tongue. How quickly Arya has forgotten the true nature of her situation — her unfathomable debt to the Faceless Men. But the Waif has not forgotten, and shifts her face (but not her nature) to brutally stab the girl who was once No One. Drenched and dying, Arya staggers through the streets, bleeding out her identity to a fate I cannot yet guess.
Somewhat easier to guess, however, is the ultimate fate of Sandor Clegane. The Hound, left for dead at the close of season 4, is still brutally strong — and it seems that his true nature has not changed much since we last met him. What drives him, he tells the Septon, is hate, and his stubbornly atheistic streak pervades through attempts at soothing wisdom.
“What matters is that there’s something greater than us,” the Septon persists. “It’s got plans for Sandor Clegane.”
Plans indeed. The Septon delivers Game of Thrones 6×07’s version of the Broken Man speech, recounting the horrible deeds to which he was compelled in war. He recalls being called an animal by the mother of a boy he killed, but observes the lie of the words.
“Animals follow their true nature,” he says. “We had betrayed ours.”
As such, the Septon urges his flock — and Clegane — to reject violence and bring good into the world. “I’m done with fighting,” he tells Clegane after an unnerving encounter with the Brotherhood without Banners. “Violence is a disease. You don’t cure it by spreading it to other people.”
“You don’t cure it by dying, either,” Clegane says, chopping wood.
And Clegane, it seems, has the right of it. The Septon and his entire flock are slaughtered like animals while Clegane cuts his trees; in Game of Thrones there is no rightness in the world, no stand men can take to purify their violent nature.
Clegane surveys the carnage, the rotting innocence. He gazes at the Septon, hanged from his own nascent sept. And a look breaks across his face, not one of rage or sorrow, but of understanding — of recognition. In the face of this slaughter, Sandor Clegane recognizes his true nature.
His axe will not be biting firewood any time soon; the Hound is destined for flesh.