Although the news isn’t official yet, Game of Thrones director Jack Bender offered a strong indication last week that the series’ last two seasons will be short ones: Seven episodes in 2017, and—if the prediction from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss holds that there are 13 episodes of story remaining after this season—as few as six in 2018. With the endgame fast approaching, that leaves a lot of pieces to be moved into place, and after the emotional highpoint of “The Door,” the show has spent much of the last two episodes resetting the board. Did you remember Benjen Stark and the Blackfish? Unless you’re a reader of George R.R. Martin’s books—or you’ve watched the first and third seasons recently—the odds are high you didn’t, but evidently Benjen and the Blackfish are important enough to George R.R. Martin’s master plan that they can’t be eliminated or subsumed into other characters.
The latest character to be shuffled unceremoniously back onstage is the Hound, or as he’s now known, Sandor Clegane. (Is this like when we had to start calling the Rock “Dwayne Johnson”?) Wounded by Brienne of Tarth and left for dead by Arya Stark, he proved even harder to kill than his zombified older brother. “The Broken Man” reveals that he’s been recuperating at an ad hoc commune run by Ian McShane’s foul-mouthed septon, Ray. It’s marvelous to see McShane cussing on HBO again, even if Ray’s profanity doesn’t hold a candle to Al Swearengen’s, but his character is marked for death the instant he starts talking about renouncing violence, and the whole plotline feels like a formality, a casualty of a series already stuffed with more characters than it can handle.
“The Broken Man” revives the Hound—sorry, Sandor—in a rare pre-credits sequence, which gives his reappearance an added jolt but also seems designed to add just a smidgen of scope to his emotional journey. Ray recalls finding Sandor not long after Arya left him to rot, which means that Sandor has been chopping wood in this leafy valley for months, but the character seems fundamentally unchanged: When Ray asks what kept him from dying, Sandor answers, simply, “Hate.” Ray, however, disagrees. “There’s a reason you’re here,” he counters. “There’s something greater than us. Whatever it is, it’s got plans for Sandor Clegane.”
Ray’s talking about the Gods, whatever form they may take (for a septon, he’s quite the theist), but he might as well be referring to Game of Thrones itself. The show’s sixth season has been one of its best in large part because it’s been freed from the weight of Martin’s books. Although there are still a few stray plotlines to mop up, Benioff and Weiss are largely in territory Martin hasn’t yet covered in print, and that’s given them added leeway to let episodes find their own shape, rather than simply keeping the show’s sprawling plotlines in sync. “The Broken Man” pays special attention to the psychic cost of violence, from the castrated Theon Greyjoy’s mortal discomfort to the prematurely aged Lady Lyanna Mormont, a 10-year-old who speaks with the hardened voice of a war-weary general. (In a world where military heroes burn their own daughters in hopes of ginning up some special combat magic, this makes sense.) But the show is like a freight train with too many cars, unable to stop or even slow down lest they start piling up.
Watching the Sandor-focused segments of “The Broken Man” put me in mind of The Walking Dead’s “Here’s Not Here,” which temporarily put ongoing plotlines on hold to fill in the backstory of Lennie James’ staff-wielding pacifist. The Walking Dead is a far more glib and cynical show than Game of Thrones, invariably justifying whatever atrocities its core characters commit in the name of survival, but for a full hour, it put its reflexive Darwinism aside and seriously considered whether it was worth securing humanity’s future at the cost of its soul. (The next week, of course, it was back to killing zombies.) Game of Thrones has devoted entire episodes to a single plotline but only when a major battle is involved. There’s no room for the equivalent of “Here’s Not Here” or Breaking Bad’s “The Fly,” no opportunity for the show or its audience to catch their breath and reflect on the journey thus far. That’s what keeps it from being a truly great show as opposed to a show full of great moments. It’s TV’s most impressive plot machine, but you can always feel the wheels turning.