[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 6, episode 7, The Broken Man. There will be SPOILERS.]

‘The Broken Man’ marks the beginning of the end for Game of Thrones season 6. As the series draws closer and closer to its eventual endgame, each hour that pushes the overarching narrative forward becomes exponentially more important. As showrunners D.B.Weiss and David Benioff have claimed, and certain directors appear to have confirmed, the series will end with two shortened seasons that will mean plot threads and character developments will move much swifter than ever before. So far, season 6 has put that to the test, offering a handful of episodes that have positioned characters and plots to come to a dramatic turn in a quick but not hasty pace. After last week’s ‘Blood of My Blood‘ positioned Bran and Meera with Uncle ‘Coldhands‘ Benjen to begin the next phase of the Three-Eyed Raven 2.0, and Daenerys was reunited with an upgraded Drogon to further inspire her ever-growing army, it is now time to find other characters in position to make dramatic steps forward.

In addition to growing tensions between the Faith Militant and the Lannisters and Tyrells, Game of Thrones season 6 promised a massive battle on a scale unlike anything the show had ever attempted before. As Sansa Stark and Jon Snow go around recruiting houses of the north to their cause of overthrowing Ramsay Bolton and retaking Winterfell, it has become clear that the teased skirmish will likely be the battle for the former Stark home and that, keeping with Game of Thrones tradition, it will likely comprise the entirety of the season’s ninth episode, following in the footsteps of action-heavy installments like ‘Blackwater‘ and ‘The Watchers on the Wall.’

With that battle looming, there’s plenty more table setting to take care of in ‘The Broken Man’ – the title of which suggests both a moral question and hints at the possible return of the Hound, who was last seen as a man broken and left for dead by Arya. And of course that is just what the episode delivered in a rare pre-opening credit sequence that introduced Ian McShane’s septon character and also confirmed that Sandor Clegane is alive and well – and now forced to return to a life of violence after suffering a near-death defeat so long ago.

Rory McCann and Maisie Williams in Game of Thrones Game of Thrones: The Broken Man Review & Discussion

The Hound’s survival is at this point another bit of character shuffling, but that doesn’t mean moving pieces around the proverbial game board won’t offer some compelling surprises. Written by Bryan Cogman (who handled last week’s duties) and directed by Mark Mylod (who previously helmed ‘Sons of the Harpy’ and ‘High Sparrow’) ‘The Broken Man’ is really about the things characters do and have done to survive and the unlikely alliances that often spring up as a result. The return of Sandor Clegane is at first written off by him as something due to his size and his nature – two things that make him difficult to kill – but Ray argues he was brought to the edge of death and back again for a different purpose altogether.

McShane’s Ray was another case of Game of Thrones giving its audience a likable character with a different way of doing things; he was a man who spoke out against violence and believed that it’s not too late for anyone to make a change. And then the show killed him. It would have been difficult not to have seen that particular death coming – though one might have thought McShane would have stuck around to deliver at least one more monologue, since, you know, Deadwood was canceled and HBO kind of owes him… and us. But this is GoT we’re talking about here; you should never become too attached to anyone, especially not a peacenik Septon like Ray or an actor like McShane.

But Ray isn’t there to warm the hearts of the audience so much as he’s there to demonstrate even the strongest, biggest, hardest-to-kill S.O.B.s like the Hound will, at one point or another, have to align themselves with someone else in order to survive. For Sandor, it wasn’t much of a choice: he was dying, and without the help of Ray or his little commune, there’d be no Hound to return and set social media ablaze tonight. Later on, though, his staying with the peaceful group and picking up an ax to chop wood, not heads, is his decision, one that sheds some light on who the Hound had become in the interim of season 4 and now. And just as Ray’s efforts to save him and kindness shown to him afterward changed Clegane into someone removed from what he had been, it is Ray’s death that sees him charging back into the fray, ax in hand.

Clive Russell as Blackfish Tully in Game of Thrones Season 6 Game of Thrones: The Broken Man Review & Discussion

To see the Hound on the hunt for the Brotherhood after they slaughtered Ray and his flock (presumably, but really, who else would have done it?) doesn’t mean it is a return to form for the killer. Sandor’s been on quite a journey as of late, and Ray wasn’t the first person to have had an impact on the scarred warrior. The Hound and Arya had a profound effect on one another during their time together, one that saw their unwavering sense of purpose falter in part because of their association, which required them to abandon their loner personas and come to rely on (or at least expect the presence of) another person.

It is a sentiment that’s present throughout the hour, as Jon, Sansa, and Davos go on a tour of the North in search of allies – all while having become valuable allies to one another in recent weeks. The trip to House Mormont to deal with the pre-teen firecracker named Lyanna, in order to procure 62 fierce fighters, seems like a lost cause, but it works out to be a great reminder of just how much the power dynamics in Westeros have changed recently. A young woman in a position of great authority humbles the former commander of the Night’s Watch, and yet the exchange never seems like something Jon’s unwilling to deal with. As a bastard, he’s grown used to compromise, with making due with what he’s given, which not only makes him the sort of partner the Wildlings can trust but also one his sister – and presumably other powerful women – may find she can rely on as well.

What ‘The Broken Man’ does so well is demonstrate how characters used to doing thing on their own find themselves in an increasingly untenable situation in which their only hope is to seek another power and align with it. That’s step one of Yara and Theon’s master plan, as they hope to sail to Meereen and side with the Mother of Dragons before Euron does. But as potentially beneficial as any sort of arrangement between two parties can be, change isn’t so sweeping in Westeros. Brynden Tully remains resolute that he can hold off a siege from Jaime Lannister and House Frey for up to two years. It may seem risky, but a lot can happen in two years’ time.

Lena Heady in Game of Thrones Season 6 Game of Thrones: The Broken Man Review & Discussion

Three other characters don’t have the luxury of time on their side, though, and their lone-wolf approach to such problems may wind up being a windfall or their downfall. Margaery continues to play the High Sparrow at his game of piety, and manages to slip Lady Olenna a note with a hand-drawn rose on it. The sight of the flower – the Tyrell’s sigil – is enough to convince Olenna it’s time to pack up and head back to Highgarden. There’s no such sign for Cersei – unless you count her terse conversation with Olenna in which Cersei’s asked: “Are you going to kill them all by yourself?” It’s probably not a good idea to put such notions into the head of someone with a killing machine under her command, so we’ll just go ahead and figure that, yeah, Cersei’s probably going to try and kill them all herself.

In the end, ‘The Broken Man’ demonstrates that going the solo route may be the most foolish thing anyone can do this late in the game. Things don’t look great for Brynden or Cersei, and they look even worse for Arya, who may have reclaimed her identity, but ends up being perforated by the Waif for her trouble. It’s another bad situation for the original loner, but something seems off about her walk through the streets of Braavos that suggests maybe Arya’s not as alone as she thinks she is.

Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘No One’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below:

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