Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Game of Thrones season 6, episode 7
Game of Thrones has introduced audiences to all manner of weird and wonderful things across its six seasons, but a feel-good hippie commune might be the weirdest so far - at least, in the context of a world where death and horror seem to lurk around every corner. It's also the last place you'd expect to find actor Ian McShane, whose past roles as Al Swearengen in Deadwood and Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had many assuming that his secret Game of Thrones role would be some kind of villainous or rough-edged character.
Instead, "The Broken Man" introduced McShane as Brother Ray, leader of a small, peaceful community belonging to the Faith of the Seven, who are doing their best to ignore the many political maneuverings of Westeros in favor of building a pastoral church. Helping them in their efforts is Sandor Clegane a.k.a. the Hound (Rory McCann), who was rescued from the brink of death by Brother Ray and is spending his convalescence chopping wood and watching the horizon uneasily for approaching danger. Since this episode was named after a famous speech in George R.R. Martin's book A Feast for Crows, given by a character called Septon Meribald, some fans had guessed that this was who McShane would be playing... and it seems that this guess wasn't far off.
Speaking to EW, co-executive producer Bryan Cogman explained that Brother Ray is partly based on two different characters from the books (Septon Meribald, plus a character who will presumably be introduced in a future novel), as well as being partly the creation of the show's writers.
"[Ray] is a combination of a couple characters in the books – with additional characteristics we added. One of those characters gives a speech in the fourth book referred to as 'The Broken Man' speech by A Song of Ice and Fire fans. The speech itself didn’t make it into the episode, but it inspired the character and some of his dialogue. So the title of the episode is a nod to that speech – kind of like when we called episode 205 'The Ghost of Harrenhal,' even though that term wasn’t spoken out loud in the show."
This melding together of characters is part of an ongoing trend in Game of Thrones, which often combines characters or alters plot points for the sake of streamlining the overall story arc; after all, the TV show doesn't have quite as much room to indulge as the books. To use another recent example, Joseph Mawle recently made a comeback as Benjen Stark, who also serves the same role as a character from the books called Coldhands. In the upcoming novels, it may well be the case that Benjen either doesn't return at all, or returns in a different capacity.
Those who were excited to see McShane in the role may have been disappointed by how quickly Ray is killed off - by the end of the episode the commune has been slaughtered and Ray himself hanged from the framework of his church. Also speaking to EW, McShane said that his time on the show was limited to just five days of filming in Belfast, and that the show's producers wanted to cast him for his speech-making skills, since the character had been given a two page-long Deadwood-esque soliloquy.
"It’s nice. It’s like he’s holding an improvised meeting – not Alcoholics Anonymous, but Murderer’s Anonymous. He’s an ex warrior who’s grown tired of the murdering life and trying to lead another kind of life. But I think my main use was to re-introduce a character people thought was long gone and who needed some humanity. The Hound has not been shown much humanity in his life, and he gets a little from Brother Ray and carries that forward into his character, which makes it more interesting for those who watch him."
While McShane said that he doesn't know what's on the way for the Hound in the upcoming episodes, he speculated that, "if they’re following the Western code, he’ll seek to avenge me, then continue his life in a different way." If this speculation proves correct, it means that the Hound's next step will be to take out the followers of the Lord of Light, who were responsible for the slaughter. The return of the character has also renewed hope for an event that, in Game of Thrones fan circles, is referred to as "CleganeBowl" - a battle to the death between the Hound and his brother, Gregor Clegane a.k.a. the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who was resurrected as a zombie and is now serving as the thrall of Cersei in King's Landing.
Though McShane's role on Game of Thrones was short-lived, it will be interesting to see the impact that Brother Ray's life and death has on the Hound going forward.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with "No One" @9PM on HBO.