Baz Greenland looks back at the controversial season five episode.
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO’s programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros, continuing with one of the show’s most controversial episodes…
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven…
And so we come to Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, considered perhaps the weakest episode in Game of Thrones‘ history (at least when you look at a lowly 8.1 rating on IMDB). Of course, most shows would kill for a lowest rated episode that high and it’s a testament to the show that even this episode, which has a somewhat unsavoury reputation, still has such a high quality there is still a huge amount going for it.
For one thing, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken is a very well-paced episode; it doesn’t suffer with the frantic flitting between storylines that earlier season episodes suffered with and devotes quality time on specific characters. The opening act cuts between Arya’s training in Bravos and Tyrion and Jorah’s journey. There is a great deal of atmosphere and mystery to the House of Black and White setting; Arya has been cleaning dead bodies for weeks but has no idea what she is doing or why. Her interactions with Jaqen H’ghar and the Waif find her exposed to secrets and lies as she delves into the murky side of her training.
Faye Marsay is a menacing, intriguing presence, a girl that is further on in her training than Arya but treats her with utter disdain. What seems like her opening up about her own past sees her expertly manipulate Arya with a convincing lie, one that she is forced to adopt when confronted with the desperate father bringing his dying daughter to the house out of desperation. Arya’s ability to tell an expert lie about her own father brining her there for healing as she convinces the girl to drink poisoned water, is chilling. It gives her access to the creepy chamber filled with human faces as she takes her first slow step towards becoming the dangerous trained killer we would see in season seven. At the same time, these intriguing build up never goes into anything significant, which makes it somewhat frustrating on re-watch.
Following their encounter with the stone men at Valyria, this episodes starts to explore the strange new odd couple relationship between Tyrion and Jorah. Game of Thrones excels at putting seemingly very different characters together and this is another fascinating watch that allows Tyrion to explore through Jorah why Daenerys is the saviour Varys spoke of. The moral debate over what makes a good leader and what gives her the right to the Iron Throne is superbly captured between the gruff nature of Jorah and the wisdom of Tyrion, both Iain Glen and Peter Dinklage bouncing off each other superbly.
Their subsequent capture by slavers offers some much needed tension, with Tyrion using all his wits to save himself and convince the slavers to take them to the fighting pits of Mereen and one step closer to Daenerys.
Littlefinger’s arrival at King’s Landing reveals a very different city to the one he left. When he helped Sansa escape the capital, Joffrey was technically still king and Tywin ruled as his Hand with an iron fist. Now his brothels have been smashed and the Sparrows flood the streets; there is real tension as he comes face to face with Lancel and narrowly escapes to treat with Cersei. The conversation with the Queen mother is equally dripping with intrigue and trickery, Littlefinger feigning allegiance to the Lannister while positioning himself to become Warden of the North after Stannis Baratheon and Roose Bolton have bled each other dry.
The Dornish scenes this episode are rather underwhelming; the lacklustre romance between Myrcella and Tristan feels trite and is as underdeveloped as the infamous Sand Snakes. Revenge makes for a thrilling motif and yet the plight of Ellaria Sand and Oberyn’s three daughters is not developed to feel truly engaging; Ellaria perhaps given the events of season four, but certainly not the three daughters who border on cliché with their acrobatic frightening skills and fierce temperaments. The battle with Bronn and Jamie should have been edge of your seat stuff; instead it leaves the audience ready to move on to the next storyline. The one good thing out of all of this is the pairing of Bronn and Jamie. Their dialogue brings levity to even the dullest of scenes.
Talking of dialogue, Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell gets all the best lines this episode, noting rather bluntly that “you can smell the shit from five miles away” as she return to King’s Landing. Rigg truly is a triumph in this show and the best moments of the episode had her face off against Cersei Lannister as she demanded her grandson’s release from the sparrows. While the Queen mother attempts to rule the conversation with the line “well, if it isn’t the famous tart-tongued Queen of Thorns,” Olenna wins with the fantastic retort. “Well, if it isn’t the famous tart Queen Cersei“.
But even a victory here leaves Olenna unprepared for the High Sparrow’s trial of Loras Tyrell, which sees the militant church not only imprison him for his ‘depravity’ but cart Margaery too for blaspheming in her brother’s defence. Yet again, poor King Tommen is utterly helpess as his wife is dragged away to the prison cells, while Cersei allows just the smallest of smirks as she wins the game of thrones against the Queen of Thorns. The marriage of Margaery and Tommen is almost the over the moment it started.
And finally we have the marriage of Sansa Stark and Ramsey Bolton in one of the series’ most controversial moments. Abandoned by Littlefinger, poor Sansa tries to hold her own as jealous rival Myranda bathes her before the ceremony. All the women Ramsey has cast aside and murdered are laid out cruelly before Sansa endures yet another sad affair of a wedding; she might be home among the Godswood of Winterfell but everyone she loves is dead or gone. The cruelty of having Reek dressed up to play Theon, the murderer of her two borthers is another nasty act, but the worst is yet to come.
After all she went through with Joffrey, it is horrifying to see his taunts come shockingly real as she is raped by her new husband as Reek looks on in horror. It’s hard to say whether this is her intended fate in the books – certainly there is a different wife and the last time she was seen in A Song of Ice and Fire, she was still in the Eyrie. But despite all the brutality are darkness of Game of Thrones, this still feels like a step too far. At least the audience is spared the physical act as we leave the episode watching Reek’s aghast face.
Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken is not a bad episode, perhaps because there has never been a bad episode of Game of Thrones. There are certainly great moments, particularly when it comes to the banter between characters – Jorah and Tyrion, Bronn and Jamie or Cersei and Olenna. But between the lacklustre Dorne storyline and the fate of Sansa, it leaves the audience with a feeling that there is a creative step too far.
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