[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Let's get something out of the way before moving on to discuss the events of 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken', an episode of Game of Thrones that, tonally speaking, was all over the place, and struggled at times to remain thematically consistent with its disappointing return to a particulalrly troublesome narrative element. The Dorne pieces of season 5 are, let's say, not great.
Now maybe that's because the season has only had time to devote a few minutes to the southern kingdom, and those precious moments have been spent with Ellaria sounding an awful lot like Cersei, while the fearsome Sand Snakes delivered so much expository dialogue it was like listening to someone read George R.R. Martin's text aloud. Either way, even the high-stakes hijinks of leather-jacket-aficionados Jaime and Bronn have yet to make the visit south a terribly compelling one. That's not to say the Dorne storyline can't (or won't) turn it around (a feat that will be exponentially easier now that all of the key players have literally been rounded up), but as of the sixth episode of the season, it's the one thread that is about as inert as Jaime's golden hand.
The Dorne-set scenes may have also suffered from the fact that they focused so much on betrothed lovers Trystane (Toby Sebastian) and Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) – two characters whose limited screen time is directly proportional to the functionality of their relationship; that is, Game of Thrones doesn't have time for two people in an arranged marriage that might actually work out. Usually, the series manages to make new kingdoms instantly lived-in and interesting, like Arya's journey to Braavos, or Jorah and Tyrion's disastrous coastal cruise through the ruins of Valyria last week. For whatever reason, Dorne has yet to spring to life.
At any rate, the Dorne thread didn’t really fit in with the thematic framework built around the episode's idea of truth and lies anyway – or at least it didn't do so as overtly as, say, the threads of Arya, Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Sansa.
So far this season, Arya's time in the House of Black and White has seen the vengeance-seeking Stark struggle with the concept of abandoning her identity, giving up everything she is – including her unquenchable thirst for vengeance – in order to join the Faceless Men. She's stuck, unable to move forward to complete her quest because she's unable to let go of the past. That's a conundrum that seems to make it impossible for her to successfully play the game of faces, leaving her at the mercy of Jaqen's switch until she gently guides a sickly girl into the sweet release of death. While Jaqen comes to the conclusion Arya's not yet ready to become no one, he shows her the Faceless Men's collection of, well, faces and decides perhaps she's ready to become someone else.
This is certainly the most direct (and tangible) example of deception running through an episode that's full of deceitful maneuverings. The idea of appropriating someone else's identity – in this case, the actual face of another person – comes with some heavy implications, especially for Arya - who has, to date, been unable to reconcile herself to the idea of abandoning her identity. And yet the way Jaqen words his declaration of her readiness, it doesn't feel like a compromise, but rather an alternate route to getting what she wants.
That is in keeping with the goings-on in King's Landing, as Cersei has set a frightening precedent by reinstating the Faith Militant as a way of dealing with Margaery's ascent to power, and the prophecy that began the season. But like everything that Cersei does, she only sees the next play on the board, which leaves her vulnerable to men like Petyr Baelish, who returns to King's Landing with a mouthful of lies that let him make moves so far in advance even Cersei's witch would have a hard time foreseeing them.
Cersei's move is to eliminate the threat to her power that the Tyrells represent, allowing the High Sparrow to take Margaery and Loras into custody, and leaving the normally sharp-tongued Olenna speechless. It's a short-term fix for the shortsighted Cersei, who sees her adversaries jailed and awaiting trial on little more than rumor and speculation. All the while, the dowager queen remains seemingly oblivious to the fact that her relationship with Jaime is perhaps the worst kept secret in the seven kingdoms.
There's a level of foreshadowing in 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken' that cuts through the many lies and half-truths being strewn about. Tyrion and Jorah's fateful encounter with the group of slavers looking for, among other things, a merchant specializing in the trade of one very particular piece of uh…equipment, all but puts the two at Daenerys' doorstep.
Meanwhile, Arya's ritualistic cleansing of a dead body in the episodes' opening moments foreshadows Sansa's own pre-nuptial ritual, in which she expertly handles Ramsay's jealous lover before being wed to the flaying fanatic. There's a lot to unpack in Sansa's second wedding, as Reek is allowed to use the name Theon (if only to give the bride away), becoming another hint to the idea of ritual and identity, and deliberate dishonesty running through the Stark girls' respective storylines.
And yet, while Arya's story ends with the promise of some kind of fulfillment, Sansa's story ends with yet another rape that, although it is intended to be discomfiting and still fit within the framework of the larger world of Game of Thrones, still creates some concern about where Sansa's story is headed and whether or not this rape is a return to a troublesome trope that the series has had difficulty communicating the repercussions of in the past. Since the episode ends with this shocking scene (a fact that is itself troubling) we will have to wait until next week to see where the series intends to take this unfortunate development.
Game of Thrones will continue next Sunday with 'The Gift' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Helen Sloan and Macall B. Polay/HBO
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