It Is Known: “The Broken Man”

“Fuck justice, then – we’ll get revenge.”

It’s a funny line, delivered by Yara Greyjoy to her devastated brother, Theon (one of just several titular broken men in this week’s installment), but it’s more than just a glib one-liner – it also just so happens to be the very heart of Game of Thrones’s (and, of course, A Song of Ice and Fire’s) thematic core.

This episode in particular plays the idea to the hilt. Sandor Clegane is a man who has had a near-death experience and is in the midst of being born again – another motif that, just this season alone, has seen great purchase among Jon Snow, Theon Greyjoy, and Sansa Stark, in particular – with him finding an unlikely friend, possible mentor, and, even, a forgiver in Brother Ray (“Why haven’t the gods punished me?” the Hound asks, referring to his manifold past sins. “Maybe they have,” Ray responds). But then Sandor gets broken all over again when the brotherhood without banners (yet another theme here, showing the three-dimensionality of nearly all Westerosi citizens and institutions) strikes the fledgling congregation and draws the Hound back to a life of violence – although, at least now, he’ll have vengeance to potentially provide some meaning to his deplorable actions.

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And then there’s Ser Jaime Lannister and Ser Brynden Tully, better known as the Blackfish, who each have been busted up by various injuries that have been inflicted upon him (whether that be the loss of an appendage or of practically his entire family) and are now parleying in a region that has, itself, been all but ravaged. The only difference between them is that Jaime hopes to rush through this process as quickly as possible in order to get back to King’s Landing and attempt to reach some type of normalcy again, by returning to his sister-lover and rescuing his son-king from the manipulations of others, while the Blackfish wishes to prolong the standoff (both literal and figurative), knowing that the situation more than likely provides the last vestige of meaning his life will probably ever know.

But the series as a whole has, in retrospect, been dedicated to showing the damaged psyches of a whole cavalcade of characters attempting to knit themselves back together – or to inflict as much further damage on others as possible. King Robert Baratheon, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister, the High Sparrow (with his recently-divulged backstory), Brienne of Tarth, and Arya Stark all fit the former category; King Joffrey Baratheon and Lord Ramsay Bolton dominate the latter. All constitute a series of cripples, bastards, and broken things – hell, even the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are arguably the most fractured they’ve ever been since the Targaryen invasion 300 years ago – and all invariably turn to revenge at one point or another to allay their suffering. Indeed, it just may be that the ending of Game of Thrones will revolve around how thoroughly the survivors of this brutal process cope, huddled in a similarly catatonic land.

Jaime and Bronn

Such broken men may occur so repeatedly throughout the narrative due to a particular type of character that George R.R. Martin wanted to explore (and explore and explore), but it’s also due to a particular time period that they all dwell in: medieval Europe (specifically, Wars of the Roses-era England), which was not a period renowned for its egalitarianism, representative governance, or freedoms of self-expression (or -fulfillment). Westeros is a brutal land dictated by even more brutal personalities, a fact which is meant to (indirectly) underscore the structures and meanings of our modern existences.

Still, even in present society do we find such nakedly raw, perfectly objective sentiments like Theon’s – “If I got justice, my burnt body would hang over the gates of Winterfell” – almost completely absent; in arguably the biggest epoch of self-aggrandizement that history has ever seen (now it is for all the smallfolk to act out their self-absorbed fantasies on a hugely public platform, not just kings or lordlings), one could actually argue that both our society’s and an individual’s capacity for objectivity is the lowest it has perhaps ever been. This makes Theon, the single most damaged broken man of them all, something of a role model for all the other characters and viewers alike to honor, respect, and, even, to emulate.

It’s just terrible – and terribly telling – that it took so much for him to get to this point.

 

You can view all previous It Is Known posts here. Or you can peruse my older column, Anatomy of a Throne, here.

24 responses

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    1. Martin does love his underdogs rising above their handicaps to become more important than the favorites and provide some unlikely, unorthodox success stories.

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    2. Together, my lord R’hllor, we shall rule this Westeros. The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist of Men.

      (a shameless paraphrase about last episode’s opening shots, the forging of some nails, using fire & water)

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    3. If we see Theon, Varys, and Grey Worm in the same room together I am going to loose it! It will be a suffer-off of epic magnitude.

      The Suffer Bowl!!

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    4. Excellent as always Marc.

      This makes Theon, the single most damaged broken man of them all, something of a role model for all the other characters and viewers alike to honor, respect, and, even, to emulate.

      It’s just terrible – and terribly telling – that it took so much for him to get to this point.

      I think Hound might be close behind, but yeah – heres a little kid who is tossed off to another family for something his dad did, who never felt part of that familiy (tho they made him welcomed and part of it), then goes home to find he’s not wanted, Then does something really stupid to try to win honor and is tortured physically and psychologically, completely broken. Then slowly comes back together, piece by piece, to help someone escape. He’s still Reek, but Theon keeps coming out little by little. As much as I hated his character for much of the books and show, I am really pulling for him to make peace with himself and to bring the world back together by his actions.

      And btw if he doesn’t get best actor this year for his role this season, well, I’d just be rather sad. Hes been on top of his game for years, but the struggle this year has been amazing to watch.

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    5. I really liked this essay. I have one quibble, do we really know that the trio of marauders who killed Brother Ray and his followers were really members of the Brotherhood without Banners? I saw them as the sort of marauder opportunists that take over most regions during times of war.

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    6. Riverhawk,

      This. epBep 6 we heard that the was attacking Fred rallying commoners against them which implies that BwB was cooperating with the and hardly had time to attack the community of septon Ray. Hence, it should be another group pretending to be probably under the orders of the Fred committing murders in its name to cut it from the publick support. Of cause, it may be wishful thinking but such things used to happen in real history, so why not?

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    7. House Stork:
      If we see Theon, Varys, and Grey Worm in the same room together I am going to loose it! It will be a suffer-off of epic magnitude.

      The Suffer Bowl!!

      lol

      Enuchbowl

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    8. Riverhawk:
      I really liked this essay.I have one quibble, do we really know that the trio of marauders who killed Brother Ray and his followers were really members of the Brotherhood without Banners?I saw them as the sort of marauder opportunists that take over most regions during times of war.

      Yeah the casting call made mention of a different outlaw gang

      While groups like BwB would spring up from a Knight

      Naturally there is going to be bands of Marauders filling the vacuum or taking opportunity from it

      What’s interesting though is that the Lannisters have just sent a quoted 8000 men into the region to besiege Riverrun, so presumably once they’ve taken the castle those troops can theoretically be used to secure the area etc

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    9. Nice article

      What I like is that we are exploring a whole heap of Broken people (can perhaps include Sansa as well, even Arya, of course Cersei) but the way they all act and piece themselves together is totally different

      Or perhaps rather the same, eg imagine Sandor slaughters those he perceives responsible, this adds to the cycle of violence and is exactly what LS of the books is doing

      Sounds similar to a Trailer quote of Sansa’s as well, that “Umber can hang” really stood out to me so personally during the Wall meeting I am as intrigued to see what happens to Lord Umber and Lord Karstark and their castles as much as Ramsay

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    10. ash,

      I agree. It’s been frustrating for me at least to see (and still see) how little attention Alfie Allen’s acting gets. I know we GoT die hard fans here and a bit on reddit too notice it, but outside of our little corner of the world, it seems as if Alfie/Theon’s mostly ignored (or ridiculed.) I do hope AA will get a nomination this year at least. But it’s a complicated character and while more and more people are beginning to view Theon differently and with more interest, I doubt it will happen.

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    11. Riverhawk,

      No, we don’t know for certain that they’re the brotherhood, but I just took that at face value, given the series’s tendency to show the seemy underbelly of our characters and their institutions (as I think I rambled on about at some point in my article). And, if I’m not mistaken, the books make mention of the brotherhood’s tendency to plunder and pillage, as well.

      For me, it would make for the most dramatically satisfying setup heading into the last few episodes: just like the Hound, how can the brotherhood without banners redeem itself?

      ~M.

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    12. Marc N. Kleinhenz: For me, it would make for the most dramatically satisfying setup heading into the last few episodes: just like the Hound, how can the brotherhood without banners redeem itself?

      Is redemption part of this story? Redemption stories usually are very different from this one!

      I think that there is another angle: unsavory alliances. We are seeing several of the main characters make (or break) alliances at some cost to themselves. The Hound obviously is not a main character: but having him somehow make peace with the BwB (if only temporary) and then use that alliance to do something else (Battle of X armies? Riverrun siege?) to further expand alliances would be in keeping with what appears to be the Winter story.

      EDIT: But I certainly agree with the general take of the essay. People trying to shoehorn Thrones into a Tolkienesque “Good” vs. “Evil” typical of this type of fantasy are cramming a square peg onto a piano keyboard.

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    13. Riverhawk,

      There is a definite tie-in between the three outlaws and the Brotherhood without Banners:

      If you’ll notice, the man in the middle of the three is wearing a yellowish cloak. The actor playing him (in his Twitter) identified him as “Lem Lemoncloak,” who, in the books, was a member of the Brotherhood when Beric was its leader, as well as when a certain reanimated corpse took over. At one point, Lem even ended up with the Hound’s helm.

      The actor has said that he will be in Episode 8, so we’ll find out more tomorrow.

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    14. I keep wondering how Daenerys will react if Yara and Theon manage to get an audience with her. Especially since Tyrion and Theon have met before.

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    15. I don’t believe that getting revenge is the heart of ASoIaF’s thematic core (though it may be the heart of the oversimplified-for-TV version). I think that the author’s final takeaway message is going to be something more to the effect that the rewards of revenge are hollow. Only time will tell.

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