[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 6, episode 8: No One. There will be SPOILERS.]
The weekly wait between episodes of Game of Thrones is filled with more fan theories than even Lost was met with in its heyday. Now that the series is, for the most part, running headlong into the finale without the benefit of George R.R. Martin's roadmap, the days between Sundays are filled with guesswork and speculation that have gone far beyond the usual "R + L = ?" or the suggestion that Tyrion is destined to join Daenerys by commanding a dragon of his own. Now, the guesswork mostly concerns what's going to happen given the heavy scrutinizing of certain clues – mainly the preview for the coming episode – that seems to give theorists the information they need to predict who is going to die or, in keeping with many of the more popular threads this season, who is going to return.
Jon's return wasn't so much of a surprise, as even the most casual viewer had it in his or her head early on that Ned's bastard wasn't long for the ol' dirt nap. But that hasn't stopped the series from welcoming back several other characters with greater degrees of surprise in their respective returns. Last week saw the Hound back in the game after being on the IR for the past season, and his return was marked by the death of all-star supporting player Ian McShane – who did his part and his character promptly died – inspiring the Hound to pick up an ax once more and go off in search of the (supposed) members of the Brotherhood Without Banners. But what surprise (or surprise return) is lurking behind Sandor's journey? Many have openly speculated that it will be the debut of Lady Stoneheart or, more likely, that Sandor will find himself on a journey that leads to him going head-to-head with his brother in what the Internet has dubbed "Cleganebowl."
As it turns out, we'll have to wait just a bit longer as 'No One' presents the surprise return of, well, no one. It's kind of a relief, really, as the past few weeks have been adding so many familiar characters to the board the past few seasons spent culling the proverbial herd has felt somewhat nullified. Instead, 'No One' simply offers the culmination of one important plotline involving the one person it would seem to. Arya's story in Braavos and her time with the Faceless Men has come to an end in a definitive way that even Jaquen H'ghar can't help but crack an appreciative smile for.
In a sense, it's nice to see that at this late stage in the series, Game of Thrones can still surprise – even if the surprise is the result of it going off in the opposite direction of so many fan theories. Perhaps that's the benefit of a show that inspires so much discussion about its past, present, and future on a week-to-week basis. It's a benefit, really, as the show's vibrant second life online and on discussion boards gives the actual narrative a sense of excitement and mystery, especially when things wind up being less outlandish (but entertaining nonetheless) than many of the theories cooked up in the interim between episodes.
There is no better proof of this than Arya's battle against the Waif. The season has been giving fans so many big, rousing moments on a week-to-week basis, the ongoing struggle between No One and the girl who would be Arya Stark felt to many as though it was making room for yet another return of a long-thought dead character or a mind-bending twist that showed just how broken Arya had been by her experiences. Instead, 'No One' delivers a rather straightforward account of all Arya's learned in her time with Faceless Men, and a demonstration of her skills as they are tested against one of her own.
The Waif has been a strange character for so long, a pseudo mentor who is also seemingly hell bent on the Stark girl's destruction, that it became difficult to know exactly what to feel about her. In the end, she became something of a Terminator-like character: relentlessly pursuing Arya through the streets of Braavos less as an actual threat and more so that the audience could see just how ready Arya is for the next leg of her journey. That undercut some of the tension of the proceedings, but it also complicated things for Arya in an interesting way. By coming to Lady Crane for help, she effectively closed the contract on the actor's life, further muddying what was already a murky sense of reasoning for why she no longer wanted to be a Faceless Man. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of acknowledgement that she brought death to a woman who risked her life to help her (and had a reasonable supply of milk of the poppy to boot), but hopefully that will come as Arya travels to Westeros (or beyond, as her conversation with Crane intimated).
Then again, Crane being there in the first place was much like the Waif: it was in service of seeing Arya come into her own as a dangerous and skilled character. Unlike so many other characters, Arya had to become the warrior she is now, and even still, she is compelled to go about her business in less direct ways than simply taking on a foe directly. The payoff of all her blind ninja training, then, feels earned in the sort of way victories have this season, and by settling her debt with Jaquen and the Many-Faced God with the Waif's life it feels like an appropriate end for a very long chapter in the story of Arya Stark.
Other threads don't reach conclusions as definitive as Arya's, but they do feel as Game of Thrones-y as anything the series has presented thus far. In King's Landing, the series has been teasing a showdown between the Faith Militant and Cersei all season long, with FrankenMountain being the proverbial card up the Queen Mother's sleeve. And after a display of extreme violence that left a satisfying look of horror on cousin Lancel's face, the series moves to deny the audience their moment by denying Cersei a chance at trial by combat. It's a huge moment that demonstrates the value of Cersei's character – that the audience might want to see her victorious against the High Sparrow speaks volumes about both – while also putting her one step closer to seeing the prophecy about her children come to pass.
The same goes for Jaime, who has seemingly gone full circle from villain to sympathetic character to villain all over again. Jaime's threat to load Edmure Tully's son into a catapult in an effort to hasten his return to the woman he loves is a return to form of sorts. And yet, there is a conflict in him that is seen as soon as Brienne walks into his tent. Rather than make the siege of Riverrun about the actual siege, the thread turns into a terrific example of how much and how little one character has changed over the course of the series. Jaime is still driven by the one impulse that has seemingly driven him since before the series began – and he's very much still the Kingslayer – but there is another part of him bubbling up to the surface where Brienne is concerned.
On the surface, 'No One' seems to suggest that change is impossible. Arya is still so driven by her personal quest that she cannot give up her identity, and Jaime's ambitions are largely limited to getting back to his sister. But it is also made implicit during the hour that, although motivations remain unchanged, the character experiencing them has in fact been altered by his or her experiences. This is made clear in the Hound's exchange with Berric Dondarrion and the real Brotherhood Without Banners, which also seems to nix any chance of Lady Stoneheart showing up or the promise of a Cleganebowl.
That may be disappointing to those who expected the hour to deliver another round of fan-service-y moments, but it feels more in line with the kind of story that Game of Thrones has proven to be. Victories are rare and hard fought. Jon's resurrection, Dany returning to Meereen just as the Master's are attacking the city, Arya's win over the Waif – these are rarities in this world and the show has spoiled its audience by delivering so many in such a short amount of time. Most of the time, characters end up like Brynden Tully: stubbornly believing in one thing right up until a technicality gets them killed (off screen, but still). For those like Jaime and the Hound to demonstrate the ability to be flexible – even when they inevitably return to a familiar place – is almost a victory in itself.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'Battle of the Bastards' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview for the episode, below: