'Game of Thrones' Recap: Stark Reality

Once again, the show breaks from the books and delivers this season's most upsetting scene

Sophie Turner and Iwan Rheon in 'Game of Thrones.' Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

What's in a face? To Jaqen H'ghar, the Faceless Man, the answer is: everything. When he takes his young pupil Arya Stark into the cavernous crypt where his order of assassins houses the flayed human countenances they use to become other people, he rattles off the features she must be prepared to sacrifice to become "no one." Eyes, ears, lips, tongue, voice — "All that makes a girl who she is, forever."

Faces tell so much of the story in "Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken," tonight's mystical and comical and ultimately brutal episode of Game of Thrones, that Jaqen would surely approve. All that makes these characters who they are is communicated by a glint in their eyes, a tremor in their cheeks, a tug up or down at the corner of their mouths. And whether you want to see what's there or not, it's hard to look away.

Unsurprisingly, Jaqen himself can read faces like a book. When he interrogates Arya to see if she's prepared to leave her old self behind, he's so good at recognizing her tells that he detects a lie she doesn't even realize she's telling: She hated the Hound. Sandor Clegane was just the latest and greatest of the series of surrogate warrior-fathers with whom the Stark girl formed attachments, but it's clear she's not ready to examine what this says about the severity of her loss. "I'm not playing this stupid game anymore!" she shouts. "We never stop playing," H'ghar replies, in what could well be the motto of the entire show.

To the east, Jorah Mormont learns that, indeed, the game goes on whether you're there to play along or not. Without realizing it, Tyrion breaks the news that the exile knight's father, the grizzled Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, has died. As he learns the terrible truth — the patriarch was killed by his own men in the wild beyond the Wall — the camera lingers as grief, shock, horror and love ripple across his weatherbeaten face like the sunlight on the water behind him. No wonder he's ever more adamant about returning to Meereen for a reunion with his beloved queen Daenerys: She represents the honor and valor he lost in his own father. "Have you ever heard baby dragons singing?” he asks the ever-skeptical Imp. "It's hard to be a cynic after that."

Granted, the tender moment has its thunder is stolen by the sure-to-be-immortal words of Malko, the hard-bargaining slaver who captures this odd couple: "The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant." (Don't ask.) Even here, though, the deal that lets the pair survive is sealed by a face we've come to know and love — the mug of Tyrion, wide-eyed and frantic, bullshitting as if his life depends on it, which it literally does.

Though Lannister's older brother Jaime and his buddy Bronn are bogged down in a somewhat contrived confrontation with the vengeful Dornish women known as the Sand Snakes. And as they fight for the fate of his niece Myrcella, Tyrion and the Kingslayer's sister, Cersei, is involved in more compelling intrigue. Her scheme to thwart the upward trajectory of her hated daughter-in-law Margaery has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. (Or her worst memories, given its roots in the prophecy about her downfall at the hands of a "younger, more beautiful" monarch decades ago). The High Sparrow — now the High Septon, though his clothes are no fancier and his followers just as fanatical as ever — orders Loras Tyrell to stand trial for fornication. But he throws Marge on the docket for perjury as well. Again, the faces say it all: the older queen's triumph, the young lord's terror, King Tommen's uncertainty, the queen's surprise, the holy man's blessed certainty, and — most ominously for the prospect of peace in the city — Lady Olenna Tyrell's utter fury.

Few of these developments hold a candle to the episode's most upsetting and controversial development: the wedding night of Sansa and Ramsay. In the books, Lady Stark's place in this storyline is held instead by a childhood friend, groomed to impersonate Arya and dupe the Northern lords into believing House Bolton has wed itself into Winterfell's ancient line. What befalls her is no less awful than what happens to Sansa, but because she's a comparatively minor player in the saga rather than one of its most prominent and beloved figures, the events hit even harder here. The groom's sadistic grin, the bride's look of resigned and mounting agony (so reminiscent of Daenerys on her first night with Khal Drogo all those full moons ago), the tears of Theon Greyjoy as he's forced to watch —  these faces will be hard to forget.

So yes, Sansa's rape by Ramsay is of the show's own devising, and it feels every bit the violation it is. But by involving a multidimensional main character instead of one introduced primarily to suffer, the series has a chance to grant this story the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The novels present this material through Theon's eyes, relegating Bolton's bride to a supporting role in a man's story. Sansa has a story of her own, of which this is now an admittedly excruciating chapter — but she, not Theon, is the real victim here, and it remains her story nonetheless. The next chapters will be hers alone to write.

Previously: Everybody Must Get Stoned