“Blood of My Blood.” The title gives it away. Though Game of Thrones is frequently centered on the idea of familial legacy, this episode in particular focuses on the bonds of family, the connections between parents and children and the other ties of kinship that can both pull us into place and break our hearts. These are the people who can save us, help us, make us stronger, but who also have a unique capacity to wound us, to frustrate us, and to unravel us.
Nowhere does “Blood of My Blood” explore the different sides of this idea more than in Sam’s return to his childhood home. Despite the smaller stakes and lack of major reveals as compared with the rest of the episode, Sam’s homecoming proved to be the best part “Blood of My Blood.” Game of Thrones spends most of its of time focused on the larger machinations of the plot in one form or another. Even when it’s not devoting time to the dragons or magic or other fantastical elements of Westeros, the show anchors itself around the titular game of thrones, as different players vie for power and an the existential threat comes from the north.
Despite this, Sam’s visit home has the feeling of something apart from the major story arc that drives the series. There’s no magic at play in Horn Hill. And while this brief stop is intended as a respite for Sam, Gilly, and Sam Jr. on the way to the Citadel, where Sam intends to earn his maester’s chain and ostensibly help Jon, there’s also little larger relevance to the detour when it comes to the show’s overarching plots. Instead, these scenes with Sam’s family offer a quiet character study, one whose chief purpose is to tell us more about who Sam is, where he came from, and what he’s become since he left home.
To that end, in many ways the scenes at Horn Hill feel more like a costume drama, something more of a piece with Downton Abbey than with the usual swords and sorcery and political intrigue that make up GoT’s standard operating procedure. The departure is a pleasant one, and this part of the episode stands out for the unique way it focuses on something very rare within Westeros, or at least the part of it we’re privy to — an intact family, with the harshness and difficulties that can accompany it, even when your relations are not being torn apart from one another by murderous rivals or medieval honor.
So we see Sam embraced by his mother and sister. We see his Wildling bride–clearly not the type of highborn lady who might be expected to meet with their approval–nevertheless welcomed as a daughter and a sister into their home. We see little Sam Jr. held by his grandmother and promised the world, spoken of with love and told in affectionate tones that one day he’ll be like his father. In the beautiful open air of Horn Hill, family is a kind embrace and a welcome home.
And then they all sit down to eat with Sam’s father. And a quiet tension hangs in the air. And Sam and his brother make small talk, and Gilly struggles with her knife and fork, and a perfectly cast Lord Randyll Tarly scowls at the head of the table. Suddenly, this consternated scold of a father begins to bark and growl at his son. He calls his offspring fat, a disappointment, unworthy of his mother or his name. Sam looks down, confessing later that he was worried Lord Tarly would not take in his wife and child.
It’s then that a conflict erupts between Sam’s old family and his new one. Gilly will not stand for this affront. She’s seen her beau more than measure up to being the kind of man Sam’s father claims he’ll never amount to. Gilly barks back that Sam has defended her and Sam Jr. from worse than any horror Lord Tarly will ever have to face. But the head of the household continues to debase his son, to tear him down in the way that only a family member can. And at that table, family is judgment and pain and something to suck you back down into who you used to be.
Finally, Sam goes to say goodbye to Gilly and Sam Jr. He is a defeated man. He is capitulating to a father who hates him in the hopes of protecting the people who love him. That love is evident in the endearing scene where Sam and Gilly meet one another just before that very dinner. They fumfer around like a pair of teenagers dressed to the nines, ready to stumble off to the prom like baby deer. The two of them hold each other up. Now, however, Sam feels he has to leave Gilly behind. He kisses her, and walks out that door, and seems to be giving in to his father’s grim assessment of his life, love, and worth.
But then he comes barreling back through the door and declares that he’s taking Gilly and Sam Jr. with him to the Citadel. They are his loved ones now, and it’s the two of them who make him feel like the man he is and wants to be, who enervate him to become stronger, to do something greater rather than be resigned to the weakness Lord Tarly ascribes to his first born son. Sam takes House Tarly’s valyrian steel sword, claiming his birthright and his place as a man worthy of the honor. He brings his wife and his son and storms off to claim his own destiny, to forge his own kin apart from the man who would only degrade him. And here, family is strength; family is the future; and family is love and devotion once more.
But in King’s Landing, choices that strain the relations between father and son do not move in one direction alone. As Jamie leads the Tyrell army to the steps of the Sept, ready to take back Margaery and Loras and Lancel, he challenges the High Sparrow as the public watches. The crowd jeers as the spears and shields are raised and bloodshed seems imminent. Then, the High Sparrow unveils his trump card. Out walks Tommen, Jamie’s son, to announce a union between the Crown and the Faith.
Olenna Tyrell, the grand dame of Game of Thrones, announces in memorable fashion that this collection of parents who were hell-bent on rescuing their children from an unwanted influence have been outflanked. The High Sparrow is craftier than anyone in the Red Keep had imagined. The leader of the Sparrows figured out how to reach the king — through his mother and through his wife. And now the religious faction that Cersei herself brought into the fold has taken over, and it has the ear of her son to boot.
In the aftermath, Jamie is stripped of his command and sent off to Riverrun. Though Tommen does not wield the kind of hatred for this member of his family that Lord Tarly does, he too has his kin before him and deems him unworthy. And though Jamie doesn’t blame his son, he’s clearly infuriated by what’s happened.
His sister, however, calms his nerves. She too is aghast at their son having been swayed by the Sparrows, but she has a plan to retake control. As uncomfortable as it is to see, Jamie and Cersei are blood as well, and when they describe one another as the only two people in the world, it is an affirmation–to an extreme, disquieting degree–that to them, family is all that matters, and through that, they will weather even this.
In one of the episode’s most striking scenes, Arya seems to understand Cersei and this philosophy, if only for just a moment. When Arya’s prodded by Lady Crane to explain how she would change Cersei’s reaction to her son’s death in the play performed on the streets of Braavos, there’s a brief moment of recognition from Arya. She explains to the actress that Cersei loves her son more than anything, so she wouldn’t just be sad, she would be angry and want to kill the people responsible.
And as Arya tacitly remembers how she witnessed her own father killed in King’s Landing and felt those same emotions, it’s a notable moment of maturity and growth from the young woman. There’s a hint of her understanding that she and Cersei are not as different as she might have thought, that they both felt strong connections to their families, to their loved ones, and were moved to shake the world on its axis in order to defend and avenge them.
Lady Crane’s prodding helps her reach that realization, helps her to remember who she is and how she started on this journey, and it motivates Arya to cast aside the mission she’s been tasked with by the Faceless Men. She is not no one. She is a Stark, and Starks are not murderers for hire. Her father taught her to be someone with honor, even if honor in Westeros is a fractured, fragile thing. Like Sam, she reclaims her sword, and with it, her birthright and heritage. She is not simply a girl; she is Arya Stark, and carries with her, in her blood and in her name, all that it means.
Even the smaller moments within “Blood of My Blood” examine familial bonds and how they may be exploited. A long-absent Walder Frey returns to Game of Thrones and admonishes his sons for failing to hold Riverrun. He summons Lord Edmure, his prisoner since the Red Wedding, in order to hold power over his uncle, The Blackfish. He too speaks of his legacy, of the way his children have disappointed him, and how they can use the connection between a family members to defeat their local enemy.
The mother of dragons also returns to her “son.” Named after Dany’s fallen husband, Drogon is indeed the blood of Targaryen blood. While the dragon-riding CGI is still a bit shaky, the scene where Dany flies over her army on Drogon’s back communicates how only someone with that type of connection could mount a dragon this way. Daenerys is strengthened by her bond, made greater and more powerful by her “child.” She tells the Dothraki who have followed her into these desert mountains that though Khals of the past have taken only a few bloodriders to protect their ruler, she will not be so constrained. They will all be her bloodriders; they are all her children, and they are all the blood of her blood.
Finally, when Bran Stark seems done for, when The Wights are about to engulf him and Meera, a mysterious cloaked figure emerges, wielding a scythe and a flame, who defeats the undead warriors in impressive fashion. After he takes them to safety, he implores Bran to drink the blood of his kill in order to fortify himself and reveals that he too is a part of Bran’s family. He is Benjen Stark, Bran’s Uncle, who was saved by the Children and called to be the latest of Bran’s protectors. Unseen since the first episode of the series, Benjen is a welcome return, who shows that, as Arya demonstrated, despite the amount of Stark blood that’s been spilled over the course of Game of Thrones, it’s not gone yet.
For the first time in forever, it feels as though the pieces are falling into place as Game of Thrones begins to move toward its endgame. Dany wonders who would have the ships she needs to take the Seven Kingdoms just as Yara and Theon are heading her way with a fleet of them. Benjen once again shows the effect that fire has on the Wights, while halfway across the world, a queen rides a fire-breathing dragon. From long forgotten corners of Westeros, players like Walder Frey, Balon Greyjoy, and the Blackfish emerge, once more poised to make their presence felt in these events. Jon and Sansa are off to rally their allies and retake Winterfell; Arya is ready to return to crossing names off of her list, and Bran has been reunited with his family as the ever-expanding world of Game of Thrones starts to come together.
And in the midst of all this, we are reminded that from the nation-altering strife between a king and his parents, to the simple, sweet moments featuring a disowned son hoping to do better by his own adopted child, these events are shaped by families great and small. There is, no doubt, much more blood to be spilled before this game is over, but the blood that flows in the veins of the living is a current that carries them, makes them stronger, more devoted, more certain, and more powerful. And it helps to clarify who they are, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not.