[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 6, episode 6, 'Blood of My Blood'. There will be SPOILERS.]
After last week's revelatory 'The Door,' Game of Thrones is faced with the unenviable challenge of competing with itself. Given how so many hours of the series this season have met that challenge head-on, delivering a succession of moments that have put season 6 in a league of its own, it's not too worrisome a prospect. Following a conventional start, the first five episodes have helped move a number of narratives forward and altered the landscape of the series as it pushes towards the end. Now, 'Blood of My Blood' is tasked with carrying through on the emotional fallout of Bran and Hodor's "hold the door" moment, while at the same time ensuring storylines elsewhere are tended to in the same way previous hours focused on Daenerys, Jon, and Bran have been.
That means taking the action back to King's Landing – at least partially. It also means bringing back director Jack Bender – a former Lost director, who helmed last week's genre-bending hour – to follow up with the adventures of Bran and Meera as they continue to flee from the Night's King and the White Walkers, while also shifting the focus from one long-simmering dispute to another. Joining Bender is writer Bryan Cogman, who penned last season's controversial 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,' and attempts to weave in the familiar theme of family and the expectations therein that come to the foreground as the Tarly's are reunited with their son-on-the-Wall Sam and are subsequently introduced to Gilly.
The reuniting of families under various circumstances has been a consistent element running throughout season 6, and as a result the unanticipated – or impossible – return of characters is the upside, and sometimes the consequence, of such an exploration. Already the season has given viewers Jon's return from the dead, the return of two Greyjoys to Pyke, and a hint at the return of Brynden Tully or the Blackfish (and you can even throw the return of Arya's sight in there, too). But who else is waiting in the wings to return? Some obvious choices have been Walder Frey, Benjen Stark, and the Hound, who, although being properly clobbered by Brienne the last he was seen, followed the age-old rule of "If they don't die onscreen then maybe it didn't happen."
As is the case with Game of Thrones this season, 'Blood of My Blood' delivered in that regard by bringing both Benjen and Walder Frey (and Edmure Tully for a few extra points) back with the promise of more conflict to come. But is Benjen really Coldhands? And what does he know about how Bran fits into the story now that he's become the Three-Eyed Raven? For those who haven't read the books (or haven't read the books in a while), you might have to step into the wayback machine to remember who the heck Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle) is. He's the younger brother of Ned Stark and a high-ranking member of the Night's Watch who bore a passing resemblance to Adam Driver before he disappeared north of the Wall soon after Jon Snow arrived at Castle Black in season 1.
And while his appearance here – and D.B. Weiss' assurance after the episode that Benjen is the character known as Coldhands – will undoubtedly stir much debate, it's what he represents to Bran and his journey moving forward that is perhaps of more interest than if the show is once again combining characters for the sake of time and getting to know someone new. For now, Benjen represents something that hasn't been in the Stark children's vocabulary for a long time: the hope for a second chance. It's another in a series of them recently experienced by Jon, Arya, and Sansa – and now it is Bran's turn. Benjen stands as proof that all is not hopeless for Bran and Meera and, like the resurrection of Jon Snow, all hope is not lost for the world of Game of Thrones either.
Hope is not lost down in King's Landing, either, even though tensions between the Lannisters and the Faith Militant have been building toward a violent confrontation for some time now. One of the earliest promos for Game of Thrones season 6 featured Cersei and cousin Lancel positioning for power against one another. Lancel offers her a choice: she can either order FrankenMountain to step aside or violence will ensue. Cersei, being who she is and having an understanding that, for all their supposed piety and devotion to a higher power, the Sparrows are as covetous of earthly power as anyone else in Seven Kingdoms, chooses violence.
Even though it has yet to happen, showing the scene ahead of time actually enhances the tension of Jaime trying to stop Margaery's walk of atonement, making High Sparrow outplaying everyone feel more exciting. (It's the rare instance when Game of Thrones forestalling violence results in the more dramatically satisfying moment.) Besides, for the High Sparrow to have lured Tommen into his web of supposed piety using Queen Margaery as the device through which he might get the king on his side and make a fool out of Jaime and the Tyrells makes delaying the inevitable confrontation between Cersei (or the Mountain) and Lancel better. But it also makes the question of who's playing who between Margaery, Tommen, and the High Sparrow a more compelling angle than if the scenario played out with straightforward violence.
The same goes for several of the other threads running through 'Blood of My Blood.' The hour excels at maintaining a level of consistency that still has a few surprises. It may not be the sort of story-altering reveals that made 'The Door' one of the most important episodes of the season – if not the last few seasons – but it's still intent on moving the story forward in important ways. The return of Walder Frey is also a strong indication that the series' narrative is still progressing even though parts of 'Blood of My Blood' felt distinctly more like table setting than anything else. Arya confirming that she is still Arya and not, as she told Jaqen H'ghar, No One, also fits into this equation, as it seems her time in Bravos has come to an end – one way or another – and seeing her move forward with her long-delayed plans for revenge reenergize a story thread that has gone on too long.
The potential for seeing Arya move closer to where the action is – or is going to be – is satisfying in the way Daenerys' story has been this season, after her time in the Dosh Khaleen proved to be shorter than expected. If Arya's arc in the coming weeks is able to deliver moments like Dany has had in 'Book of the Stranger' and again tonight as an upgraded Drogon gives the Mother of Dragons yet another convincing edge in the conflict to come, then season 6 will continue its march toward being one of the series' strongest yet.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'The Broken Man' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: