Before the show returns in three days, let’s look back on an episode dear to my heart.
Quarreling with one’s identity is something I imagine we can all identify with, especially those who never felt quite right in their assigned bodies or roles; or those who suffered such physical or mental trauma they lost their concept of self along the way. My love for this Benioff & Weiss-penned episode comes from this thematic link, ironically reflected in the title: No One. Needless to say, this episode is about someone. Several someones, in fact, in their journey to discovering who they are, should be, or may one day become.
It’s not only Mark Mylod’s direction and P.J. Dillon’s cinematography that I admire here (though I do, and the duo returns in this coming season’s second and third episodes,) but the writing as well, especially for Arya. The only problem here doesn’t lie in No One but in Arya’s awkward cliffhanger in The Broken Man, which resulted in expectations of an elaborate ruse that would of course never come to pass. By the end of this trip down memory lane, I aim to convince you that, judged by its own merits, this episode served as a perfect, poetic resolution to Arya’s arc of realistically struggling with her identity.
Appropriately enough, an episode on identity opens with a stage actress playing a role. Abiding by Arya’s scarily spot-on insight into Cersei’s psyche from a previous episode, this time Lady Crane plays the queen’s reaction to her son’s murder with a fiery wrath.
Taken in by Lady Crane, the wounded wolf girl receives motherly care for the first time in years, and so she lets go of this ‘tough girl’ act that one day ceased being just an act. Arya is just Arya with Lady Crane, in a way she could never be with Syrio, Jaqen or even the Hound. She lets us and herself see this new Arya, this mature Arya who wants to know “what’s West of Westeros.” And so do we! At least, we do if we can accompany her in this exciting adventure some day. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a degree of sadness to it: if Arya survives, is her fate to become an explorer without a home to call her own?
In Meereen, Varys heads to a mysterious “expedition” as a certain small man casts the largest shadow he has since he was Hand. Brick by brick, Tyrion has been rebuilding his sense of self, which was completely demolished by the betrayals of Shae and Tywin and their subsequent murders at his hand. Tyrion’s rule over Meereen was slow-going, but in No One it pays off at last: with Meereen on the rise, Tyrion doesn’t so much find his old self as a better, less cynical version, someone who can believe in Daenerys Targaryen; someone who can finally, truly connect with the likes of Grey Worm and Missandei.
These former slaves are also in a journey of self-discovery, or rather a climb out of a hellish pit of systemic dehumanization. And they are doing it together and it’s beautiful, dammit! I cannot fathom how anyone could be unmoved by the loving, laughing looks they exchange, as they make jokes at the insistence of this foreign Westerosi. By the way, Tyrion offers a possible fate for himself after these wars end: retiring to a vineyard where he may share “The Imp’s Delight” with friends. After yearning for politics for so long, if he can truly let go of that need (and survive,) a tranquil life with friends in the countryside would be a truly happy ending for him. Such a possibility is a long way away, however — right now, their happiness is interrupted by the slavers’ siege. Grey Worm is quick to take command, yet it doesn’t last long, as Daenerys arrives triumphantly on Drogon. The look on her face says it all: Mamma’s home and the kids have been naughty.
In King’s Landing, when the queen’s presence is “requested” at the Great Sept, I can almost see the walk of atonement flashing before Cersei’s fearful eyes. This is why I find the criticism that they chose a less “badass” take of the “I choose violence” line ludicrous. Yes, the line in the trailer is more badass, but the final take, in which she utters the words in dread, more to herself than to anyone else, is more powerful. It means more.
Cersei’s mask is ripped away and the girl tormented by prophecies of doom is revealed. And so she strikes back. It might not have been a wise move, but her trauma makes it so we can empathize, or at least sympathize. Gregor’s way of putting his queen’s words into gory action makes the move momentarily satisfying, too, although any such joy soon turns to ashes in all our mouths as Tommen forbids the practice of trial by combat. Perhaps as a direct result of her actions, Cersei cannot “choose violence” any longer… or can she? Qyburn’s birds have a new song to sing, and it’s “much more” than a rumor.
At the siege of Riverrun, as Brienne approaches and catches sight of Jaime, their entire relationship comes back to her —we can see it plainly in her face, in all its beautiful messiness. Brienne seems disappointed by Jaime’s regression to indifferent assholery, as was I, until she manages to break through these carefully-orchestrated defensive layers by appealing to his better self. And so, Jaime gives Brienne leave to ask Brynden Tully to go north with her. Before their tense farewell, Brienne tries to give back Oathkeeper, as she and it have achieved their purpose, but Jaime won’t have it: “It’s yours. It will always be yours.” He isn’t just talking about his sword. Because of their stations and opposing sides in a war, they are not allowed to freely express their feelings, which must be at least as frustrating to them as it is to many of us. They seem doomed to only be able to speak of their love (whatever form it takes) in subtext, a heartbreaking interpretation shared by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in interviews and the audio commentary.
After the unstoppable force that is Brienne fails to move the unmovable object that is the Blackfish, Jaime goes back to plan A: Edmure. By the end of this acting masterclass of a scene, Edmure is broken and gives up the castle, resulting in the Blackfish’s death, but earlier on Edmure does get in Jaime’s head: only after Edmure questions his morality repeatedly does Jaime decide to play the role expected of him, putting up his ‘I don’t give a fuck’ persona again, going as far as threatening to catapult Edmure’s baby to Riverrun. Jaime may not know who he is anymore, but we do: with Edmure he had to act the monster; with Brienne he had to stop himself from being honest to his true identity.
Elsewhere in the Riverlands, the Hound lets loose on some renegade fools, which I admit feels “awesome” in a primordial kind of way, though that doesn’t diminish his tragedy: Brother Ray was aiding him in letting the Hound die, in getting to know himself —whomever that may be now—, in being at rest as Sandor. Alas, Ray’s murder delayed that possibility, at best. And yet, who knows, perhaps he will find a quest in which to channel his rage for the good of all… Yes, Sandor reunites with the true Brotherhood!
This sequence with Lord Beric and Thoros of Myr is many wonderful things at once: thrilling, because of the merry men’s return after such a long absence; hilarious, because of the black comedy and the callbacks (“The fuck you’re doing here?”, “I prefer chicken”); sexy, because, very much like Jorah’s, Beric’s voice does something to me I’m still trying to figure out; and climactic, as it gives Sandor a new purpose and sets the stage for the Brotherhood’s new quest. Though the Hound is reticent about joining anything after the recent disappointment, Beric and Thoros try to recruit him anyway. They have a specific mission now: “the cold winds are rising in the North” and they need to stop them. We don’t see the Hound’s response, but if the second season seven trailer is anything to go by, he will finally find new purpose with the Brotherhood, which appears to play a key role in the new War for the Dawn. Hopefully it means a new dawn for Sandor too.
No One ends in a climax not only to itself but to two seasons of Arya’s story in Braavos. Arya will return in the finale, but that feels more like a coda and a preview of things to come than a true ending to this identity crisis arc. In this sequence, the Braavosi T-1000 gruesomely kills Crane and an astutely directed Bourne-style chase scene ensues, ending with Arya making use of her former blind training. Some people wanted to see the fight play out, but action for action’s sake does little for me. The only action I needed was Arya snuffing out the candle; no sword fight could have been as exciting.
Similarly cathartic was to see Arya finally defy the Faceless Men and reclaim her identity. Yet again, different expectations caused disappointment for some people. In my view, expecting Arya to magically lose herself entirely in her path to Faceless Manhood before then regaining her identity is missing the point, very much like so many do with Jon’s resurrection, believing he came through unchanged just because the change wasn’t magical in nature and abrupt. As fellow Watchers author Petra said to me: “You don’t need to join the Faceless Men to lose your identity. Trauma can do that all by itself.”
I quote her with absolute certainty, as I did actually lose all sense of my identity due to years of untreated depression. When I got better, I wasn’t even sure of who I was; my teenage years had passed me by, so the last time I truly felt like myself I was still a kid. I had to learn who I was as an adult, so it was like getting to know a new friend. But it wasn’t easy. I had to learn fully developed thoughts and feelings from scratch.
Arya’s identity crisis wasn’t about magical mumbo jumbo erasing her memories, thank the Gods. It was about the extreme trauma of losing her friends and family in horrific circumstances, which shut her down and made her able to fake her way through murder school (able and willing; as much ‘will’ as she could be said to muster in that state —which, believe me, isn’t much); and it was about clawing her way out of that void. Underneath she had always remained Arya Stark in some way, and certainly not No One, but I know from personal experience that, had she stayed there for too long, she would have lost herself forever, as I almost did. That was the danger. Those were the stakes. That’s what her identity crisis arc was all about. And that’s why this ending works.
Thank you, Petra, for the quote, the GIFs, and for inspiring me to write from personal experience with “How a Game of Thrones Character Helps Me Cope With Anxiety.”
- Riverrun is such a magnificent production. Imagine what an entire army marching to a castle must have felt like back in season one. The things we get used to!
- Brynden‘s House words are “Family, Duty, Honor”, but his immediate family, duty, and honor are tied to Riverrun, not Winterfell, so this is where he must take a stand.
- Kevan gets to flex his muscles a bit more before he gets unceremoniously blown up. We’ll always miss Tywin, but Kevan became a surprisingly serviceable substitute from the moment he gave that show-stopping speech to Cersei in season five, which effectively served as an introduction to anyone who isn’t a book reader.
- Jaqen‘s expectations and motivations for Arya are the only loose thread in Braavos: Why did he think she had become “No One”? Why didn’t he impede her desertion? Was this the plan all along? His original pitch for Arya to join them in season two certainly implies that’s the case… if that was really “him,” and if he wasn’t just lying. Does Jaqen simply accept Arya’s path as a different but legitimate way of worshiping the God of Death? This characteristic vagueness of the Faceless Men is clearly deliberate, but some insight into Jaqen’s thoughts would have been appreciated.
“Lesson number one: assume everyone wants to hit you. ‘Cause they do, Pod. Everyone wants to hit a fucking squire.” —Bronn to Podrick
“Ser Jaime kept his word to your niece Catelyn Stark. He sent me to find Sansa, to help her as Catelyn wanted. He gave me this sword to protect her. That is what I have done and I will continue to do until the day I die.” —Brienne to the Blackfish
“Cold winds are rising in the North. We need good men to help us. […] You’re a fighter. You were born a fighter. You walked away from the fight. How did that go? Good and bad, young and old, the things we’re fighting will destroy them all alike. You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” —Lord Beric to Sandor
Introductions: unreasonably attractive Red Priestess #4, the Captain of the Riverrun Gate who I hope feels really shitty now, and Lem Lemoncloak and several other Brotherhood renegades who have no reason to suspect they won’t live for a long time.
Deaths: probably Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully but it was off-screen so I can dream, unjustly Lady Crane, quite justly the Waif, and the aforementioned redshirts, including Lem Lemoncloak and Steve (played by Steve Love, who I met at Con of Thrones, which made it weird in this rewatch when I saw him getting killed… and fingered in the ass.)
Beautiful Death for No One, by Robert M. Ball