Major spoilers about tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones follows.
Liberated from the books on which it’s based – thanks to George R.R. Martin taking much longer than expected to complete the 6th novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series – the sixth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been utterly reinvigorated. No longer shackled by the pressure of both streamlining and expanding upon the source material, the season has been defined by a fast paced escalation of action and tension paired with genuine advancement of the story. A nice touch after the rather uneven seasons 4 and 5.
Tonight’s episode, “No One”, was largely an enterprise of moving pieces into place for the final two episodes of the season (each directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed last season’s best episode, “Hardhome”). As such it lacks the impact of the resurrection of Jon Snow in episode 2 or the epic, fiery takeover of the Dothraki by Daenerys in episode 4, but even so it continues the season’s pacing and narrative momentum, ending with the powerful conclusion of an arc spanning several seasons, and setting in motion terrible events to follow.
We’ll get to that shortly. First however, to briefly recap, the episode jumps back and forth between Braavos, where Arya Stark is on the run from the Faceless Men, to Riverrun, under siege by the Lannister army, to rural Westeros where Sandor Clegane (The Hound) is bent on avenging the death of the priest (played by Ian McShane) murdered last week, to King’s Landing, where his Holiness the High Sparrow is in the middle of turning Westeros into a theocracy, to Meereen, still being governed by Tyrion Lannister, Grey Worm and Missandei while Daenerys (last seen rousing her newly-won Dothraki army to the cause of taking over Westeros) is away.
The resolution of the Siege of Riverrun is anticlimatic – without spoiling too much, it’s ended by talking, and veiled threats, and the elimination of a major character offscreen. It serves largely to establish that Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are still very much friends despite being on opposite sides of a simmering civil war, and introduce an element of possible uncertainty into that war’s outcome.
Likewise in Meereen, Tyrion’s hubristic attempt to make peace with the masters of Slaver’s Bay comes back to bite him then the masters renege on the peace deal and attack the city with a fleet of ships. All seems lost, but in the final Meereen scene, Daenerys returns, dropped off at the Pyramid from which she rules by her dragon, Drogon, to take command and, presumably in the season finale, destroy the Masters once and for all.
And meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Cersie learns that her attempted end run around the growing power of the church has hit a roadblock when the king, her son by the way, fully in thrall to the High Sparrow (Westeros’ Pope), declares an end to trial by combat, and decrees that Cersie will be put on trial by a jury of priests. An unexpected setback that, again, will likely be revisited in the season finale. The most interesting element is that Cersie clearly intended the reanimated Gregor Clegane (the Mountain) as her champion. Speaking of, Sandor, Gregor’s brother – it’s looking very much like he might end up joining the Brotherhood Without Banners.
But the episode is called “No One”, which also happens to be the creed of the Faceless Men, assassins who shed their names and even identities in order to live as remorseless, effective killers who will remove anyone for a price. This storyline grew long in the tooth in season 5 as Arya strove to join their ranks, but in season 6 it became interesting again as Arya learned their whole raison d’etre is to get paid, not to mete out any kind of justice. Arya, after all, only joined them in order to become a better killer and avenge her slain family. She ended up leaving the order after refusing to kill an actress in episode 6, “Blood of my Blood”, and was immediately marked for death for doing so, almost dying from stab wounds at the end of last week’s episode “The Broken Man”.
Which brings us to tonight. Arya spends most of the episode hiding out with the actress whose life she spared, but ends up in mortal danger again when a Faceless Man who attempted to kill her last week – actually a teenage girl (called “the Waif” on the casting sheet) who both trained and tormented her – appears. First killing the actress in order to fulfill the contract for which the order was paid, The Waif then sets about finishing Arya too. Pursing Arya through the streets of Braavos, The Waif was unrelenting and implacable, very much like the Terminator – let’s call her the T-1000 A.D. – but ultimately, she’s lured by Arya into a darkly lit, narrow room, where Arya makes quick work of her, slicing off The Waif’s head and placing it in the temple where the Faceless Men worship.
Confronted by Jaqen, the faceless man who recruited her into the order and ordered her death when she left, she’s told “finally, a girl is no one.” To this, Arya declares defiantly, “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell. And she is going home.” This garners a nod of approval fraom Jaqen – hit revoked. Cut to credits.
The ending of “No One” isn’t just a promise of revenge killings to come, it’s also the promise that Game of Thrones as a series is done belaboring the point. In previous seasons we would have spent half a season between Arya leaving the order and her surviving the price on her head but now it’s happening in just under three episodes. More importantly, it ties into the way the show has been quickly building toward some kind of endgame, with Daenerys planning her invasion, and Jon Snow attempting to take back Winterfell. In short, it’s another strong episode in a season full of them, perhaps the strongest run of episodes since season 3.
Which brings us to next week’s episode, “The Battle of the Bastards,” another single-storyline episode like season 2’s Blackwater that features Ramsay Bolton facing off against Jon Snow. I can’t wait.