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A pastoral elegy gives Thrones a

This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.

When I filled in here at The A.V. Club to review “Mockingbird,” the seventh episode of Game Of Thrones’ fourth season, I had absolutely no idea that Sandor Clegane might still be alive.

Perhaps this makes me an inattentive book reader (the commenters certainly thought so), but more accurately it makes me among the millions who read the books without necessarily attending to the fan theories surrounding it. Writing about the show has made me undoubtedly more aware of these theories, and readers quickly informed me that Sandor Clegane was alive and well as a gravedigger, a detail gleaned exclusively from character description in Brienne’s chapters of A Feast For Crows.

The theory is well-substantiated, and upon learning of it I was easily convinced—not only do the clues track logically, but there is a certain poetry to Sandor joining the ranks of characters in the books who have “died” and been reborn. The show’s decision to leave Sandor’s “death” an off-screen uncertainty further fueled the speculation, although his absence for the entirety of season five and most of season six created room for doubt. But as “The Broken Man” begins with a pre-credits scene in an unfamiliar locale, it removes all doubt: Sandor Clegane is alive and well (or, alive, at the very least, given the psychological turmoil on display throughout).

This reveal is the latest in a line of careful balancing acts where the show—here under the guide of writer Bryan Cogman—seems very much aware of the different audiences engaging with this story. This is a shocking reveal to anyone unfamiliar with the theory: There was no effort to layer any type of foreshadowing into the show beyond leaving his death ambiguous, and even that was undercut when Stannis’ similarly—if not equally—ambiguous end was made so unambiguous early this season. However, it’s the precise opposite of shocking to anyone who has read the theory, or seen the theorizing about Sandor’s potential showdown with his reanimated brother—dubbed CleganeBowl—in Cersei’s forthcoming trial by combat.

Not every big reveal in the sixth season has been the same—Jon’s resurrection had enough textual evidence that readers and non-readers alike could presume he was far from dead, while neither readers nor non-readers could have realistically predicted the context of Hodor’s demise. The only similar scenario is perhaps Coldhands, but that hardly feels like a significant shock, given that many viewers had likely forgotten about Benjen entirely before his return (which, as discussed after last week’s episode, may not even be something the books adhere to). Every time the show reveals something that neither audience knew for certain, there are still varied perspectives shaped by speculation that make these sequences doubly complicated from a writing perspective.

What makes Sandor’s story in “The Broken Man” work is how it feels at home in the episode around it. Yes, Ian McShane’s presence as Ray—a reformed criminal turned Septon who found and rescued a near-death Sandor—helps to give the story some additional weight, but at its core it is a part of a larger interest in the inescapability of war and conflict in this world. Through distinctive music and unusually bright and vivid cinematography, Sandor’s sanctuary of sorts is almost disarmingly pastoral. This is, in part, to help contribute to the shock of the cold open, which is exceedingly rare for the show. It also serves to contrast the tragic ending, creating a sort of “pastoral elegy” in the poetic tradition. However, on a thematic level it reinforces that this is somewhere that has been untouched by what we’ve come to understand as the series’ status quo: As with last week’s visit to Horn Hill and the episode’s trip to Bear Island, Sandor’s exile serves to show us a corner of Westeros that has lived—but cannot continue to live—outside of this story.

For a show that already has too many characters, the decision to give time to characters like Ray the Septon and Lyanna Mormont could be disadvantageous, but “The Broken Man” handles the task extremely well. Both characters have roughly the same importance to this story: they are people who have been on the sidelines, whose existence serves primarily to motivate other characters to take action, but each nonetheless offers something of substance to the larger tale. Ray mostly exists so that he can offer Sandor guidance on virtuous paths and die in a manner that turns Sandor something of a crusader, but he equally frames the High Sparrow’s basic tenets into something far more palatable. Whereas I find the High Sparrow’s prosecutorial nature odious, Ray’s transformation from “criminal” into Septon reconnects the idea of religion with something other than questions of war and power. McShane brings gravity to a role that—while perhaps not deeply significant—attains a level of thematic richness, which will carry out in both Sandor’s path forward and in the show’s larger interest in the role of the faith. It also serves to give the storyline weight even to those whom knew Sandor was likely to return, a crucial point when considering the more hardcore book-reading audience.

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Similarly, Lyanna Mormont exists on a basic level to demonstrate the scars of war on the North—she has, as a pre-teen, been tasked with guiding House Mormont thanks to her mother’s death fighting for Robb, and there’s no better way to remind us why the Northern houses aren’t champing at the bit to fight another war on behalf of the Stark family. But the choice to use the character in this way has further value, as she has something in common with each of the three individuals who parlay with her on Bear Island. She is a woman in power, which one would expect would give Sansa an advantage, and she is a Mormont, which Jon certainly thinks gives him an edge as her uncle’s chosen steward on The Wall. The very fact of Lyanna Mormont would have been enough to achieve these connections, but Davos sees something that isn’t just about facts. It’s about having lived through some version of what happened to Lyanna, finding himself in positions he never expected to be in. When it’s Davos that is able to appeal to her and win the Stark cause the support of Bear Island, it’s a reminder that such parlays are challenging affairs, and also fairly insignificant ones when the force in question numbers only 62 men.

In both cases, we have two characters that are never explicitly positioned as anything more than a catalyst (although I concur with critic Alan Sepinwall’s callfor a spinoff for Lyanna when the series comes to a close), but yet feel rich and meaningful nonetheless. Lyanna may primarily exist to embody the ragtag nature of the Stark forces and inspire Sansa to write for assistance (presumably to Littlefinger), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t carry similar weight for the audience beyond that function. And while Ray is last seen hanging from the rafters, the episode takes the time to give his life meaning for Sandor and the show as a whole, with the “stunt casting” of McShane only reinforcing the value of the character as opposed to creating it out of whole cloth. It’s deftly done in both cases, making a procedural beat—Jon and Sansa visit the houses—into something more, and resisting coasting on a shocking reveal.

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