Arya (Maisie Williams) trains. Jorah (Iain Glen) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) run into slavers. Trystane (Toby Sebastian) and Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) make plans. Jaime and Bronn reach their destination. The Sand Snakes attack.
“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is a curious title for an episode that relegates the obvious related part of the story to a minor note—and a disastrous note at that—in the tapestry, but perhaps the title has greater meaning than that. Might it be that the Martell family words apply, indirectly, to closing events that are easily the most controversial happening in the series to date?
The episode’s structure certainly frames the narrative between two poles: Arya in Braavos, Sansa in Winterfell. There are moments of visual parallel—Arya’s washing the hair of one of the dead of the House of Black and White, Myranda washing out the black dye from Sansa’s hair; Arya’s entry into the hall of faces, Sansa’s into the Godswood—but the nature of their journeys could not be more different. Both of them feature some triumphs of set design, both are—so far as we are concerned—smartly written by Bryan Cogman, but the one where a young woman euthanizes an unwitting little girl seems to have drawn little remark while the one where Ramsay Bolton brutalizes his bride is the one met with immediate outrage. It’s a curious juxtaposition that says something about attitudes towards violence by many viewers of this and many other shows.
But before delving more into Winterfell, sandwiched between these two major segments of the story are three smaller segments. The Jorah and Tyrion part of it is brief enough, but the performances are solid to very good—Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Malko, an unscrupulous slaver, is a very welcome (though, we suspect, brief) addition to the cast—and covers the quite important point of whether Daenerys really has any right to rule the Seven KIngdoms, and why Jorah follows her. The particular highlight of this segment of the story must be Iain Glen’s performance when Tyrion unwittingly informs him of Jeor Mormont’s death… though in close second place was the absurd but very funny (and decidedly not-safe-for-work) exchange concerning Tyrion’s fate.
King’s Landing works well enough once one swallows one’s distaste for the use of Loras’s homosexuality as the fulcrum on watch the plot turns, veering as it does from a wholly more interesting storyline in the novels for the character and defining him consistently as a gay knight rather than as a knight who happens to be gay. Even with the reintroduction of the Queen of Thorns, who had outworn her welcome (so far as we were concerned) last season after having had one too many saucy conversations, stealing time from other characters who we had assumed would play more significant roles in the Tyrell story at court (like Loras and, even, Margaery, who was very much sidelined whenever her grandmother was around).
Hopefully we will only see small doses going forward, and even this small taste did have its infelicities (“pillowbiters”, again; an ugly phrase, and one that doesn’t feel right in the setting). The trap in which Margaery and Loras are caught seems reasonable, though it does raise questions: did Cersei get forewarning from the High Sparrow that he thought he would be able to catch Margaery in a lie, and so be able to seize her? It does not quite feel right, that he’d go so far as to inform her in advance of such things.
It also raises the specter of a very simple solution: Margaery maintains that Olyver lies, and Loras points out that his squire once drew a bath from him and saw him in a state of undress, and that’s it. Who’s to say it happened otherwise? The corresponding situation in the novels was built up with a great deal more evidence against Margaery (and her hand maidens), and we would have thought that Cersei would have attempted to secure more proof against Loras before setting the Faith on him. Perhaps her short-sightedness may simply indicate that, as Lady Olenna says, she really only hopes to disgrace them rather than see Loras dead and Margaery uncrowned… though I think not, personally; she means to destroy the Tyrells, not merely make them insignificant.
And then the other lesser note: Dorne. Sadly, this is almost entirely an unmitigated disaster from start to finish, and it’s hard to articulate just how dismayed we were that the show could be so very far off the mark. We won’t pretend that the producers always or even especially often make choices we think good, but the fact is that even in those situations where we think they chose wrongly we generally could see that they had a grasp of what they were doing and how to go about it. Here? Not so much. Trystane and Myrcella are inoffensive, certainly, and Bronn’s signing of “The Dornishman’s Wife” is pleasant to see, but after that it just becomes a terrible mess of character action.
Worst of all is the fight itself, which is surely the worst fight the show has ever perpetrated. Here’s some statistics to bear in mind:
Total fight length: 64 seconds
Total cuts: ~78-80
Average shot length: 0.8-0.82051 seconds
This is even faster than the Oberyn-Mountain scene which we commented on so negatively last season. For a comparison to other filmed fight sequences, see our post here, or consider our comments regarding the Styr-Jon scene in “The Watchers on the Wall”.
And consider that it’s not just a matter of being cut faster—it’s also a scene with five combatants rather than two! This means that the cuts may ignore two of the combatants at any given moment, so not only is the editing whipping your attention back and forth, but sometimes it’s doing so for the purpose of moving you to a completely different set of combatants. The confusion is only compounded by the generally poor choreography and stunt work, areas where the show generally excels. What went wrong? We may never know, but we’ve some suspicions.
First, again, having established wushu as an inspiration for spear fighting in Dorne, Obara is trapped into having to do the same. What does this means? A stunt double will be integral for many of the spear-twirling movements, which means a deal of intercutting. Second, you have the fact that Nymeria’s whip is a fairly dangerous and unpredictable weapon in the hands of an amateur, doubtless leading to greater space being given to her movements so as to avoid accidents. Sitting in the mid-way point between two separate combats left Nymeria feeling very much like a third wheel.
And finally… well, the fact is that the direction seems to have been so hurried that poor takes were locked in (presumably being improvements on even poorer takes). As proof of the lack of direction, consider the entry of the Dornish guards, and notice how many of them seem to be looking around aimlessly in different directions, as if the director had never bothered to tell them what to do rather than just stand there. Jeremy Podeswa has been able to provide some fine moments in this episode, but this larger group sequence appears to have escaped his grasp entirely.
The less we say about the few lines the Sand Snakes have, and Ellaria’s wild-eyed, vaguely comic search for a way out, the better. The show did not cover itself in glory in this scene, and Dorne remains one of the greatest disappointments we’ve ever had in the series. There are four episodes left, but it’s starting to feel that the time invested in the Sand Snakes has been time wasted. This is no fault of the actresses, who seem to have been game to try whatever was thrown at them, but it clearly is a fault of the production to come up with something so ill-conceived and so poorly-executed.
Not poorly executed—but extremely difficult—is Winterfell. It’s hard to retread many of the points we’ve already raised in our video review that you’ll find below, or in the short video we made countering some of the critiques, so we very much recommend looking at those. Instead, let us point out one additional thought we’ve had.
In the novels, Jeyne Poole—daughter of Eddard’s steward Vayon, about an age with Sansa and her best friend—is repeatedly presented in comparison to Sansa. At the Hand’s tourney, she bursts into inconsolable tears when Ser Hugh of the Vale is mortally injured in front of her. Sansa? Sansa restrains herself and takes it calmly, as is expected at her. Later, during the coup, Jeyne is in hysterics and Sansa is left to comfort her. Soon after, Jeyne is separated from Sansa by Petyr Baelish. Why? So he can have her trained to suit his goals. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Jeyne isn’t just fake Arya. She’s not just Jeyne Poole. She’s a very real proxy for Sansa herself in the novels, one who shares surface similarities but has a far less resolute spirit and, through her suffering, becomes broken much sooner. The writers are not far off in thinking that Sansa in that role may speak in a way to the original narrative, offering the same challenges, offering the same comments, but revealing in its crucible a harder, sterner character. As we mused at the start of this article, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” seemed an odd title for an episode that so little featured Dorne. But as a foreshadowing of Sansa’s response to her abuse? That might well serve nicely.
Ultimately, this episode has some wonderful examples of thoughtful consideration, set design, costuming, and lighting. If we could simply cut out Dorne, it would have easily have been the best episode of the season, but the episode must carry Dorne like an albatross around its neck. Whether the show can ever redeem what it’s done there is a real question, while we can only wait and see if they manage to address what they’ve done with Sansa in a way that is sufficiently sensitive and aware of the gravity of the subject matter.
Other scenes of note:
Jorah and Tyrion: As previously noted, these scenes are inventions of the show. Jorah’s relation to Tyrion in the novels is much gruffer and more violent, but this is a long-standing change in Jorah’s character from that originally described in the books. Of particular note is the fact that Jorah remains unaware of his father’s death in the novels, as Tyrion himself did not learn of the news before events swept him up and away from Westeros.
Arya and the sickly girl: Arya does not give the poisoned water to anyone in the novels, and in general it appears that those coming to die need no assistance in taking and filling a cup from which to drink.
Littlefinger and Lancel: The show’s depiction of the Faith Militant as enforcers of morality strays afield from the novels, where they stay strictly to defending the Faith and the High Septon. Littlefinger is, in any case, not present in King’s Landing at this point in the novels, being in the Vale, while Lancel is at Castle Darry with his bride Amerei Frey.
Cersei and Littlefinger: The two have not been in the same place since part way through A Storm of Swords. While Littlefinger’s plans in the novels do feature the Vale, his plan for getting ahold of the North is to reveal Sansa to the world and have the Vale knights pledge themselves to winning back her birthright, Winterfell and the North.
The Water Gardens: Other than the fact that Myrcella and Trystane like one another (but they are not in any great hurry to marry, in the books, and being younger than their television counterparts do not seem so hormonal) and that Areo Hotah uses an “axe” (in reality, the weapon he has on the show is more of a glaive than the double-bladed longaxe of the novels), the scenes here have very little resemblance to the novels. While there is a plot involving Myrcella, it entails smuggling her out of the Water Garden to take her somewhere to be crowned, and requires suborning a Kingsguard and preparing a double. The show’s version of the plot, such as it is, is extraordinarily basic and seems to lack even basic features of planning (like knowing where exactly Myrcella is when they spring into action). Jaime and Bronn, obviously, are not present in the Water Gardens in the novels and the fight sequence shown here does not exist in the books; one of Doran’s first acts after returning to Sunspear from the Water Gardens on learning of Oberyn’s death are to have the Sand Snakes placed under house arrest. Also as previously noted, Ellaria in the novels does not desire vengeance and does not take part in any plots.
Lady Olenna: Olenna Tyrell is not present in King’s Landing after the marriage of Tommen and Margaery, and is not involved in attempting to resolve any threats against Margaery or Loras.
Sansa and Myranda: Myranda does not exist in the novels, and Jeyne has no real female companionship in Winterfell.