The return of Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) in last week’s episode of Game of Thrones is more than just wish fulfillment on the part of diehard fans, and it’s more than just an overt confirmation of the subtle hints and clues in George R.R. Martin’s books that the Hound has managed to survive his seemingly life-threatening injuries – it’s actually an important continuation of the main themes that the series has been busy developing over the course of the past five years, generally, and this season, specifically.

While Sandor may not actually end up making it all the way to the final episode, and while he may never ultimately end up criss-crossing with the other main players again, he doesn’t have to in order for his character and his arc to be hugely vital to Thrones – his development (or lack thereof) is doing more than its fair share of the thematic work already, by just what we saw in “The Broken Man.”

What Does the Return of the Hound Mean for Game of Thrones? Quite a lot, actually. Let’s break it all down.

The search for a new identity

The Hound Game of Thrones Game of Thrones: What Does the Return of the Hound Mean?

Like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Sandor Clegane is a man who’s had a major near-death experience (okay, yes – Jon’s was a little more than “near”) and has come back profoundly, perhaps even fundamentally, changed; again like the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The Hound is less prone to fighting – presumably since he doesn’t have an avid desire to return to death’s doorstep – and has become at least a bit more contemplative and self-reflecting. More than likely for the very first time in his emotionally and physically abusive life, he senses that there is another path available to him to walk – one that doesn’t involve the constant infliction or receiving of pain.

This means that, like Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), the Hound now finds himself on a quest to escape his past identity, although he has just begun to start down this road, while Arya has well been on her evolution (or is that devolution?) for the vast bulk of the series. This comparison is an important and a conscious one (on the part of the writing staff), as the two characters spent a large amount of time together, backing during the third and fourth seasons, as unintentional traveling companions, a turn which has proven to impact the both of them: Arya’s descent into being a cold-blooded murderer significantly accelerates under his watchful eye, while Sandor gets the first taste of how his self-serving actions affect those around him.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones Game of Thrones: What Does the Return of the Hound Mean?

But what’s interesting to note is just how “Broken Man” affects each of their character arcs: while Clegane is just tentatively beginning anew, Arya has resolutely decided to turn her back on the existential nothingness of the Faceless Men and to fully embrace her past life as Arya Stark – a decision which results in violence finding her, and maybe finding her way close to death. The two are still at loggerheads, even when separated by an entire sea.

And this outcome – of outside reality crashing in and shredding both characters’ attempts at turning new leafs – also ends up befalling the Hound, of course: when the brotherhood without banners comes calling to Brother Ray’s (Ian McShane) flock and is repudiated, the fledgling congregation is slaughtered en masse, and Sandor feels the old stirrings of violence arousing him to action once again.

The inability to escape his past

Qyburn Robert Strong Game of Thrones Game of Thrones: What Does the Return of the Hound Mean?

It’s no accident that the brotherhood comes crashing back into Sandor Clegane again here. More than just reinserting the band of bandits into the plot – despite Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) mentioning them last week, “The Broken Man” marks the first time the banner-less brothers have been seen in three long years – there is the larger thematic parallel. After running away from King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) during the Battle of the Blackwater at the end of season 2, the Hound had lived a life that was remarkably self-serving, even going so far as to accept the food, drink, and lodgings offered by a single father and his young daughter, and then mugging them the next morning, breaking the sacred vow of guest right. In this way, both Sandor and the brotherhood without banners are essentially the same, committing (and justifying) atrocities in the name of self-perseverance, which makes the brothers’ effect upon the Hound – silently declaring vengeance – all the more deliciously ironic. This episode also helps to finally cast both in a new light: the brotherhood is seen as the clear-cut villains for the very first time, while the Hound, incredibly enough, gets to be the hero.

There’s another, perhaps thematically richer comparison to be made, with Sandor’s brother – the former Ser Gregor Clegane and the current Ser Robert Strong. One is now, essentially, a mindless automaton. a literal puppet to Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey), while the other is now more mindful than he ever has been before – but both seem destined to still tread the same ultimate path, the one that their previous lives were already dedicated to. It just may be that Sandor will finally get his chance at that final duel with Gregor and realize his life-long goal of killing him, after all. Audiences got to see the start of this long-awaited encounter all the way back in the first season, during the Tourney of the Hand, but it was interrupted by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). It’s been a five-year wait – and counting – for its conclusion.

What does it all mean?

Ian McShane as Brother Ray in Game of Thrones Game of Thrones: What Does the Return of the Hound Mean?

In Game of Thrones, no one can escape his past – a sad truth both the Hound and Arya are currently discovering, and one that King Robb Stark (Richard Madden) (by reneging on his wedding promise to House Frey), King Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) (by murdering his younger brother), and countless others have already discovered, much to their often-mortal chagrin. Sandor is (technically) an outlaw and a tool for the infliction of misery and death; the only thing he can hope to change now, the series seems to be telling us, is that he can be the master of his own tool.

Of course, Clegane’s return could also mark a plot-based dividend above and beyond the thematic footwork: his return to the main narrative fold. With the brotherhood without banners poised to return to vex the likes of Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and, if next week’s preview is anything to go by, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), it may very well be that Clegane will be (inadvertently) tagging along, and maybe even helping to set up a certain book-ending, cliffhanging scene for the Kingslayer – one that has gone unresolved in Martin’s novels for the past five years.

Ultimately, however, at the end of the narrative day, the Hound’s turn in “The Broken Man” is the perfect manifestation of what another character says in this week’s installment: “F*** justice, then – we’ll get revenge.” How much more Game of Thrones can one get?

Was it a mistake for the writers (including, apparently, George R.R. Martin) to bring Sandor Clegane back? Where do you think the Hound will – or can – go from here? Join the conversation in the comments.

Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with “No One” at 9:00 pm on HBO.

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