To think there was a time when Jon Snow was the biggest comeback Game of Thrones watchers could fathom. How young we were then. How naïve. Rory McCann made his triumphant return as the Hound in “The Broken Man,” a visually sumptuous hour that reveled in stunning cinematography, stellar acting, and emotionally resonant direction.
And what a masterfully orchestrated return it was, revealing just enough at a time to whip mounting anticipation into a frenzy. First, the cold open that brought us to a bizarrely unfamiliar scene, a place where smiling—smiling!—men, women, and children shared food outdoors in blissful harmony. (I kept calling this place “The Shire.” Turns out it was in the Riverlands.) Then came the debut of Ser “Tits and Dragons” himself, Ian McShane, and an initially unremarkable rearview of men carrying felled tree trunks two or three at a time.
And then, with a dawning sense of importance, the camera settled on a single gigantic, curly-haired figure lugging one on his own. It was as thrilling as Dany’s last stump speech, more triumphant than Jon’s resurrection: It was the Hound, alive, gruff as ever, and sticking out like a sore thumb in a crowd of hippie-dippie pacifists. The cherry on top? McCann’s name listed first among the series regulars in the opening credits.
The Hound’s return was not entirely unexpected—those who ascribed to “the Gravedigger” book theory (explained in a video below) had a hunch this moment would come. But the moment itself is emblematic of what Season 6, in its best moments, has learned to prioritize. It was more than cathartic, more than yet another rocket burst of forward momentum. It was fun. Remember that? Game of Thrones nearly forgot it in the Long Winter known as Season 5.
In retrospect, the cold open was an early hint that the hour would continually throw everyone, both viewers and characters, maddeningly (yet so rewardingly) off balance. Jaime, who thinks himself so superior to the Freys, failed just as miserably to intimidate the Blackfish. Sansa, in full queen of the North regalia, failed to command House Glover’s loyalty. Arya, already staring dreamily out at the canals from which she first entered Braavos, suddenly found herself near death. (Yes, only “near.” She’ll be back.)
And the Hound. Poor Sandor Clegane’s new life was destroyed in an instant, as he walked back into Ray’s commune to find everyone slaughtered. It was startling, not only because of the violence, but because we never actually saw it unfold. Game of Thrones viewers are accustomed to witnessing every tangentially relevant brutality inflicted on any innocent, milked for maximum emotional torture.
Skipping past an entire massacre that directly serves the plot is a zig where we’d have expected a zag—a kind of flexibility that only makes the episode more dynamic. (Learn from this, Game of Thrones, especially where Ramsay is involved. There are only so many times we can watch him brutalize women and children before he becomes—yawn—predictable.)
That the Hound will now revert back to axe-swinging violence after his short stint in a commune is clear. Where he’ll head next is not. There are those who believe he’ll find his way down to King’s Landing (not an impossible distance away) and become the Faith of the Seven’s champion in Cersei’s trial by combat, a twist that would pit him against his reanimated brute of a brother, Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane. This theory is known as “Cleganebowl.”
The show, at this very early stage at least, appears to want us to think it might happen. Rather than the pious, near-silent “Gravedigger” figure he is in the books, the new Sandor of the show is still interesting enough for that showdown to carry some narrative weight. But would killing his (already undead) brother really be justification enough for the Hound’s second shot at life?
Pitting Sandor against Gregor would make little sense. Gregor is necessary, at the moment, for Cersei’s fight to rid King’s Landing of the Sparrows—if Gregor died again prematurely, we might be stuck with another season of the High Sparrow’s vomit-inducing sex therapy. (“[Sex] does not require desire on the woman’s part, only patience,” he tells a poker-faced Margaery in this episode.) It would also feel strange for The Hound to skip off toward King's Landing without investigating the murderers who slaughtered Ray and his pals. That's a much more immediate and likely outcome than vengeance on a brother he can't possibly know is "alive" again anyway.
“The Broken Man” brought more than renewed fervor to crackpot book theories, however. It gave us breathtaking vistas of the castle of Riverrun, the waterfalls of Bear Island, and the canals of Braavos. It also gave us a few season-best zingers from Lady Olenna (“I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met.”), the Blackfish (“Sieges are dull and I wanted to see you in person and get the measure of you. Now I have. I’m disappointed.”), and the fiercest 10-year-old in Westeros, Lady Lyanna Mormont.
New actress Bella Ramsay, who genuinely commands the energy of a room full of adults, was a treasure to behold in all her regal, no-nonsense, ferocious glory. (Seeing Davos connect with her the way he always did with Shireen added an extra punch of pathos.) She, McShane, and Natalie Dormer as the long-con-scheming Margaery were episode standouts. Not to mention Alfie Allen, who projects an internal shift from Reek back to the old, confident Theon with little more than twitches, eye movement, and a head tilt.
With three hours to go before the end of the season, a fuller picture of the clashes to come is taking shape. Jaime and Brienne will fight on opposite sides of the conflict in Riverrun, the Starks will face Ramsay with less than 3,000 men (unless Sansa’s raven, likely to Littlefinger, prevails), and Cersei will unleash the Mountain on the Sparrows. In Essos, Arya, who has already survived so much, will fight her way back from the brink of death, and the Greyjoys will appeal to Daenerys’s ego and her practical need for ships.
Threads and decisions from seasons past are still bearing weight on the story at hand, like Glover’s refusal to help House Stark because of Robb’s mistakes, or Tormund’s hard-won loyalty to Jon, three seasons after trying to kill him (and exactly one season after the battle of “Hardhome”). The plot grows ever thicker and yet it feels lighter and more nimble than ever. This is the Westeros we grew to love and the one we want to see to the end.