We don’t know who’s pulling the strings that tie the different corners of Westeros together. It may be the Old Gods; it may be The Seven; it may be the Drowned God; or it may be the Lord of Light. Septon Ray suggests they may all be different names for the same thing. But whoever has that power has left any number of those in Westeros and beyond in some sort of weakened state. They’ve taken away people’s strength, sapped them of their power and position, and left them, in a word, “broken.”
No two characters in “Broken Man” exemplify the title of the episode better than Sandor “The Hound” Clegane and Theon Greyjoy. Though the rest of the episode is filled with individuals and institutions that have been shattered or diminished in one way or another, Game of Thrones draws a more direct parallel between these two men, both of whom have sinned and suffered a great deal, and wonder why they’re still around to contemplate their path to that point.
The Hound–who makes an unexpected return here in a rare cold open sequence–was left for dead by one of the few people in the world who cared for him. When Septon Ray stumbled across the wounded Clegane, he believed this massive man to be already gone, unlikely to last the night, let alone recover. Theon, for his part, was repeatedly tortured by Ramsay and as the High Sparrow puts it, shattered in both body and mind. Given the degradation he’d suffered; his traumatized complicity despite Yara’s rescue attempt, and the cruelty of his captor, he too had no reason to expect to get any semblance of his life back.
But, against all odds, both of them did. The Hound and Theon both find themselves with a second chance, and each of them questions what to make of that fact in the face of its improbability. Theon says that if there were any true justice in this world, he’d have been burned to death and displayed on the ramparts at Winterfell. The Hound, in turn, asks the Septon why–if there’s some higher power meting out justice in this world–hasn’t he been punished? The man who saved him offers an interesting response — maybe he has been.
The Hound and Theon have each done terrible things, things that gnaw at them even in their most peaceful moments and make them wonder why they’re still allowed to walk the earth. Maybe it’s because, as the Septon seems to suggest, there’s more left for them to do. Perhaps there is some good that can be reclaimed from the wreckage of their lives and deeds, and the gods, whoever they may be, are not done with them yet.
“Broken Man” contrasts the locales and manner in which these two men receive this message, but shows them being led to the same place. We meet The Hound in an edenic setting, surrounded by lush greenery and receiving guidance from a pious man who knows the spoils of war and vows not to fight again. Theon, on the other hand, is in a den of sin, surrounded by flesh for sale and prodded by his battle-tested sister who is as inclined to wage war as she is to indulge.
Despite those differences, both Septon Ray and Yara bring their companions to a decidedly similar point. As the High Sparrow explains, there are men of the cloth who know chapter and verse but are blind to their meaning, and members of the unwashed masses who understand higher truths. Here, the same meaningful sentiments can emerge from two vastly different place and two vastly different speakers, who nevertheless speak with one voice.
They say to The Hound and to Theon that they may have done awful things, that they may even have earned the punishments they’ve received, but they are, nevertheless, still here. And regardless of whether there’s a Reason for that, they each have the chance to forge a new life in the aftermath, to make amends and be a force for something better, to make the most of what’s left of their lives. Whatever the reason for it, Sandor Clegane and Theon Greyjoy still live and breathe, and they can either sit there wondering why, or they can take the opportunity they’ve been given, try to do better, and strive to go on and become something more than mere broken men.
Those mirrored sequences are not perfect. The scenes of The Hound in the Riverlands amount to something of a rushed parable meant to reintroduce the character, but they don’t give the audience enough time to understand or invest in his new way of life or mentor before they’re both gone and left as mere fodder for his probably rampage of revenge. And while it may be true to the kind of gruffness we’ve seen from the Iron Islanders so far, Yara’s insensitivity to Theon’s trauma is a bit off-putting. But both sequences explore, like much of the episode, what it is to be broken, and how hard it can be to find the path toward being repaired.
The show draws a similar parallel between another pair of characters who take different approaches when facing the same problem. Both Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister were imprisoned by The Sparrows; both were effectively stripped of their rank and the power and privilege to which they had become accustomed; and both found ways out of their captivity. But one found herself stripped of everything while the other regained her place as queen.
Margaery and Cersei were once equally broken, each having been cowed by the religious fanatics who brutalized them. Cersei, one the one hand, endured the walk of shame, opened herself to the ridicule and abuse of the people to get back to safety, and was left in a state of weakness. As Olenna Tyrell points out, though she escaped the Sparrows’ prison, Cersei lost everything in the process. Her son is under the influence of her former captors; her brother and lover is gone; the rest of her family has abandoned her; and the rest of the powerbrokers in King’s Landing (excepting the mute brute who follows her around the castle and the Dr. Frankenstein who created him) despise her.
It is, as Lady Tyrell points out and Cersei acknowledges, a mess of her own making. But Cersei is not deterred. Her plan is to regain her position from without, to marshal her allies and, as she once tried to do with The Sparrows, employ an outside force to topple the system that threatens to divorce her from the power and influence that she defines herself with. Cersei has been left bereft of the advantages she once knew, made into something broken, but she plans to correct this from the outside in.
Margaery, on the other hand, found her way out of that cell by working within it. Though she speaks as a true believer, the sigil she surreptitiously hands to her grandmother suggests that Margaery is simply doing what she does best — playing the game to her advantage, taking the cards she’s been dealt, and turning them to a winning hand. Margaery speaks with conviction when she tells the High Sparrow that while she always pitied the poor, she never really loved them, but perhaps she is doing what Tyrion once described his sister as quite capable of — using true feelings for false ends. While Cersei now stands poised to attack the Sparrow from afar, Margaery aims to do so from the inside.
Arya, however, finds herself very much an outsider, an alien in a foreign country. After she’s had enough of her Faceless companions, she books passage back to Westeros. But in one of the more contrived sequences of Season 6, this trained assassin leaves herself open and vulnerable, despite knowing that she’s marked for death. Before long, The Waif shows up to finish her off.
Disguised as an old woman, the killer drives a blade into Arya’s sternum and forces her to dive into the canal below for safety. It’s a pretty cheesy fake out–it seems unlikely that Arya’s done for good–but “Broken Man” at least does well to convey Arya’s paranoia in the aftermath of the attack. As she wanders through the streets of Braavos, gripping her own viscera, each face that gazes upon her could be another assassin there to take her life away.
The Blackfish, however, knows exactly who aims to kill him. Catelyn Stark’s uncle makes his first appearance in Game of Thrones since The Red Wedding, and his sarcastic wit makes a welcome return in both his negotiations with the Freys and his parley with Jamie. Like Cersei, the Blackfish is someone who has lost a great deal. His family members have been almost uniformly butchered or captured; he’s been on the run and trying to muster up support in the years since we last saw him, and he’s an old man without much left to live for.
What he does have is the castle where he and his allies are holed up. It’s the place where he was raised and the place where he’s content to die, even if it means a drawn out siege with little hope of success and a high likelihood of casualties. While Jamie is scrambling, trying to find purpose and direction after being essentially banished by his own son, The Blackfish is battered, but not broken, and in some ways even more dangerous because of how little he has little left to lose.
In the same way, it’s not just individuals who find themselves trying to rebuild and move forward in the wake of such devastation. The North as a whole is struggling after the wars and battles that have left so many dead or beleaguered. As Jon, Sansa, and Ser Davos make the rounds to assemble a fighting force to attack Winterfell and restore the Stark name, they find that misfortune has visited more than a few of their hoped for allies, and the path to mending their home and their names is more difficult than they’d imagined.
So they find themselves having to tell two different sides of the same story to two different groups. When Jon asks the Wildlings to join his fight, they initially bristle at the suggestion. They tell him that their bargain was to help Jon fight the White Walkers in exchange for shelter, and that the internecine quarrels among “Southerners” are not their concern.
The Wildlings have been decimated in the battle at The Wall and elsewhere, and they don’t need to lose any more of their group by joining a conflict they have no stake in. But Jon and his cohort explain that defeating the Boltons is in their interest as well, that as Lord Glover’s expressions of disdain for their kind portends, the Wildlings will not be left alone to live in peace without someone sympathetic to their cause in charge in The North. This fight is theirs too, or at least it will be.
And Ser Davos inverts that caution when speaking to Lady Lyanna of House Mormont. Lady Lyanna (who is equal parts adorable and fierce and gives a magnificent performance for a girl her age) wonders why–after the various skirmishes across the land that have caused soldiers from all over The North to fight and die–she should commit her men to yet another battle, especially when the Boltons will likely let House Mormont recover undisturbed. Ser Davos explains that even if the affairs of The North are in order for the time being, there is a scourge coming from above. The Dead are headed south, and when they come, he warns her, only the Starks will be able to unite the North to fight them. That fight is theirs too, or at least it will be.
But when the three of them go to meet with Lord Glover, they are rebuffed. The Glovers had to fight off the Iron Islanders without any help from the Starks. Lord Glover himself watched his family taken away from him. He too became a broken man from a broken house. But when his people sought help from The Starks, from the house they had pledged to protect and which had pledged to protect them, Robb pressed on with his war and his bannerman at home suffered accordingly. The Iron Islanders raided The Glovers with impunity, and it was the Boltons offered them aid. That fight was House Stark’s too, and when it came time to take up arms, they were off looking out for their own.
And yet they’re all still here. Each of the weakened creatures we visit in “Broken Man,” is soldiering on, whether they’re sinners piecing their lives back together, women who were imprisoned and are striking back at their captors, lost souls hoping for home, or noble families struggling to keep their place in the ashes of the last war and the dread of a new one. The true “gods” of Westeros–writers like Bryan Cogman, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and creator George R.R. Martin–have chosen to keep them all around. They put them through this hell and bring them back from the edge of death for our entertainment. But maybe these “gods,” like the ones their characters pray to, have a loftier reason for their continued struggle, or some higher purpose in mind.