After five seasons of traumatizing its characters—and sometimes, its audience—Game of Thrones has spent quite a bit of its current season examining the consequences of the violence it splashes so liberally, and lavishly, on the screen. Beyond the blood feuds and the domino-effect killings, however, those consequences are increasingly personal; the horrors we’ve seen inflicted on individuals can change them forever.
“I’m tired of watching you cower like a beat dog,” Yara Greyjoy snaps at Theon, as their crew pounds drinks at a brothel in Volantis. “Drink the goddamn ale.” Their fleet has made it across the sea to Essos, and they’re enjoying a little R&R before they head to Meereen to negotiate with the Dragon Queen. Theon isn’t feeling very festive, given the whole castrated/tortured/disfigured thing, but Yara is out of patience for his PTSD and tells him to suck it up—they have kingdoms to conquer.
The Ironborn often feel like a cultural analogue for traditional masculinity, with all the attendant stoicism, machismo and contempt for the “weakness” of human feeling. What Yara’s really saying is that it’s time for Theon to “man up” and just get over his horrific abuse, or at least pretend that it never happened.
And if numbing his pain with alcohol doesn’t quite do the trick, there’s another option available in their society for Tough Guys who can’t talk about their feelings or ask for help: suicide! “If you’re so broken that there’s no coming back, take a knife and cut your wrists,” says Yara, not unkindly. She wants to see “the real Theon Greyjoy, not this wretched pretender,” as though the trauma lives only in a false body, one that he could take off and swap out, like a costume or a name. Like many people, she understands trauma as a binary thing: a window is either broken or not broken. But to be traumatized is often to be quantum, to live forever in two places at once: the moment when it happened and the moment where you are.
The political gutting of the nobility in King’s Landing continues, with Jaime sent off to Riverrun, Cersei still awaiting her trial, and Loras Tyrell languishing in the dungeon until he confesses his crimes—and more interestingly, his title. Why does a religious order care about the political standing of a young man from a noble house, unless its aims are political? Soon, there will be little aristocratic opposition left, just a puppet king dancing to the High Sparrow’s tune. After an ominous warning from the High, Margaery sends Lady Olenna packing to Highgarden lest she become the next target, and reveals via a scribbled rose that she isn’t as brainwashed as she seems. If there’s any hope for the Iron Throne, it’s one young woman pretending very hard indeed to be someone she’s not.
Meanwhile, Jon’s recruitment drive around the North drives on, picking up the Wildlings and a small contingent of Bear Island soldiers courtesy of the wonderfully fierce 10-year-old Lyanna Mormont, but it isn’t enough. Sansa knows quite well that the armies of the Vale are still waiting to serve, but doesn’t want to give the architect of her own extensive trauma the satisfaction of helping—or invite Littlefinger’s oily machinations back in her life. She may not have a choice, though; being a lord or lady often means having to shake hands and make peace and break bread with people who have done horrible things to you or the people you love, instead of stabbing them in the neck. At least in the short term.
Sansa and Theon aren’t the only people trying to eke out new lives in the aftermath of violence, though. Yes, the Hound is back, offering credence to the long-running fan theory that he survived his injuries and retired to live a peaceful life at a religious refuge. Ian McShane of Deadwood fame guest stars as a country septon with a violent past of his own, who renounced the sword to build a pacifist community; that’s where the Hound is, working through his demons via frenzied wood-chopping and listening to folksy sermons that sometimes seem tailored just for him.
“It’s never too late to stop killing people… to start helping people,” says Septon Swearengen, staring pointedly at the Hound. “It’s never too late to come back.”
He, like Yara, wants his broken friend to come “back,” but both of them are wrong. There is no coming back from the sort of damage inflicted on Theon, no returning to the person he was before, only moving forward and trying to figure out who he is now—not Reek, not the arrogant, callow young man we met at Winterfell, but someone else. As for the Hound, there is no version of “back” that will make him a better person, quite simply because he’s always been a killer. Rewind his tape all you like; you’ll only find more death.
Still, not all paths forward lead to redemption, especially if they take you away from your true self. Arya’s decision to leave the House of Black and White allows her to reclaim both her Stark identity and the quest for vengeance that started it all, but betraying the assassins’ guild comes with its consequence: a right proper torso-stabbing by the young acolyte known as the Waif.
The Waif’s eagerness to kill Arya feels off, though; it offers the first hint of individuality within the House of Black and White, and perhaps even a whiff of hypocrisy. After all, if Arya’s vengeance was forbidden because “no one” can’t have a vendetta, then how to explain the Waif’s enthusiasm for beating and even killing Arya, compared to Jaqen’s gentle encouragement? Their faces might change, but perhaps all those self-identified “no ones” protest a bit too much, and are ultimately a lot closer to “someones” than they’d care to admit.
As Arya and the Hound have learned, escaping who you deep down isn’t easy, and is far more than simply taking off your name or changing your clothes. The only real way to become someone else is to actually become someone else—the way Septon Swearengen has, leaving the soldier life behind and foreswearing the violence of his former profession.
“Violence is a disease,” he says when the Hound insists that surely fighting back in self-defense must be acceptable. “You don’t cure a disease by spreading it to other people.” He would rather die than return to his old ways, and so he does. The Hound and Arya are different, though. Violence might have ruined their lives, but they still see it something more complicated: sometimes a disease, sometimes a weapon, sometimes a tool. They may have tried to put down their swords and leave their old lives behind, but when push comes to shove, they would rather move forwards now by being true to themselves—and that means picking the blade back up.