As we move further and further into a post-book Game of Thrones, it’s becoming clear that the series needs to move away from the relics of its past glories and embrace the freedom that going off the rails can provide. Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken is an episode that follows through on both the potential and risks of this. It misses the mark more than once, but the episode’s soaring moments are enough to elevate it overall. Combined with a script that effectively intertwines the thematic concerns of Thrones, it’s quite possibly the season’s strongest episode so far.
Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6, ‘Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken’ Review
Warning – Spoilers Ahead
The last few episodes have favored setup over payoff pretty heavily but Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken sets out to change this right from the get go with a heavy investment in Arya’s plotline. I’m enjoying this season’s approach to Arya’s arc with the script tuning the audience in at just the right moments to understand how she grows and develops. It also helps that the aforementioned pay-off of revealing the Faceless Men’s vault of disguises is so very well executed. The scene accomplishes so much with so few lines of dialogue and stands as one of those rare moments where the show more or less defeats my imagination in single combat.
This wasn’t the only big payoff this week with the various plotlines in Dorne coalescing. Though I’m enjoying the glimpses of Dorne provided by these subplots, this part of the episode did leave me in two minds. On one hand, it was a big step forward on the Dornish front that leaves one wondering where things will go from here. However, it felt like the show dropped the ball with what, on paper, should be a slam-dunk of a fight scene. In spite of the novelty added by the Sand Snake’s various weapons, the sequence failed to capitalize on the characteristics that make the series’ depictions of violence so thrilling. The choreography here felt generic and the outcome inconsequential. I’ve expressed worries about HBO overemphasising the sexuality and bloodlust of the Sand Snakes in the past but now I’m more concerned that the trio are ending up a joke more than anything else.
As mentioned before, this episode was particularly thematically dense, concerning itself particularly with the act of lying and the consequences attached to it. Kings Landing was the arguable centrepiece of this, where Olenna Tyrell returned to help dismiss the charges laid against Ser Loras. As usual, Diana Riggs was a delight – especially when it came to her interactions with Cersei. Lena Headey nailed Cersei’s desire to emulate Tywin in this scene and while she might have gotten the better of Olenna for now, I’m very interested to see the next move that gets made between the pair.
Finally, the episode ended with the wedding of Ramsay and Sansa where (perhaps unsurprisingly) Sansa was raped and humiliated by her new husband. There’s been a lot of outcry and complaints online over this final scene – and rightfully so. The use of rape as a plot device in storytelling is highly divisive and it’s absolutely worth scrutinizing when it does find itself used.
Why spend so much time building up Sansa as a powerful woman if she’s only going to fall into the same victim role that she did when Joffrey was on the show. What purpose did the scene serve other than to remind us of what we already know (that Ramsay is bad, Theon is broken and the world of Westeros is cruel to women)? Why did the scene frame itself around Theon’s inability to do anything but watch when it’s Sansa who is the one being traumatized? It’s less sudden and misguided as Cersei’s rape last season but remains a symptom of a greater problem.
One of the characteristics that drives the success of Game of Thrones is it’s ability to exist in a cycle of self-destruction and reconfiguration. The show is constantly changing its status-quo and each season it doesn’t hesitate to cut away entire plotlines and focus on new characters. However, as the showrunners reach the end of Martin’s material they find themselves in a worrying situation where they must choose between repeating the same techniques and plot devices of the series past and venturing on to more fertile ground. In spite of this, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken succeeds in more or less achieving a balance between these two extremes and is certainly one of the season’s strongest efforts yet.