One of the more surprising themes of season 7 of Game of Thrones has been its cynical take on religion. Prior to the rise of the High Sparrow, the septas and septons functioned mainly as babysitters and schoolteachers who occasionally oversaw some funeral rites. Similarly, the dogmatism of the red priests was justified because their god is demonstrably real: Melisandre may be a fanatic who broaches no disagreement, but she can command otherworldly powers by virtue of her faith in a blood god, which makes her more magician than clergywoman. This season has portrayed both groups of religious figures as being just as power hungry as the secular lords whom they normally serve, and “The Broken Man” made a strong case against religion as conduit for good deeds.
Sandor Clegane is alive and well, living out his days on an idyllic little farmstead run by none other than Al Swearengen. Both men have turned from lives of violence to the peaceful pursuit of hard work and simple living, with a little bit of sermonizing thrown in for good measure. Swearengen is a septon without faith, a clergyman whose duty is to his flock and not the gods above. He is a thoroughly modern religious figure, who has defined the role of religion in society as one of goodness and not authority demanding subservience. Yet his attempt at living outside the cycle of violence in which the rest of Westeros is caught fails utterly, proof that in the world of Game of Thrones, there is no place for good works.
This cynical sentiment is echoed by Yara and Theon’s conversation at the brothel. Yara talks about justice, and Theon replies that, for justice to be done, he would have to pay for his crimes with his life. “Then fuck justice, take revenge.” Even Arya is punished for sparing the life of someone whose death was contracted for with the Faceless Men, who turn out to be little more than a company offering murderers for hire. In a world where the one true god is powered by human sacrifice, good actions are defined as those that allow one to keep on living. And while this cynical take on right and wrong has arguably been a theme of the show since honorable Ned Stark got his head chopped off for doing the right thing, the High Sparrow’s recent seizure of power and the death of Swearengen and his adherents make it clear that religion is no exception to this amorality.
Though The Hound’s return is billed as survival and not resurrection (another of the season’s themes), his journey is clearly akin to Jon’s in that (near) death has changed him in subtle ways. Where once he was keen on earthly rewards, he now pursues something more, or at least something that is less tangible one than a bag of gold. Whether his revenge will end with The Brotherhood Without Banners or his zombified brother I cannot say, but Sandor Clegane is setting off on a vengeful journey that is not unlike those on which Theon and Arya have recently embarked, which in his case definitely counts as character growth.
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Arya leaving the ranks of the Faceless Men, Sandor Clegane reappearing, and Yara and Theon vowing to go to Dany’s aid are all plots which are almost impossible to twist. For the first time in the show’s run we are now truly on the downward slope of every plot arc, which is to say that the uncertainty that defined the early seasons is a much rarer commodity now. Take, as another example, the excellent scene between Jon and young Lady Mormont: no matter whether she lends him sixty or six thousand men, we know he cannot lose the upcoming battle because Melisandre has seen his victory in the fire. A defeat like the one that Stannis suffered is impossible for reasons both diegetic and extra-diegetic.
The cliffhanger with Arya being stabbed by Lena Dunham is another pointless exercise, because by this point in the show we know that Arya cannot die in such a relatively undramatic manner a thousand miles from Westeros. In fact, placing that scene at the end of the episode was simply further evidence of her survival. If six seasons of Game of Thrones have taught us anything, it’s that the writers revel in shocking deaths, not ones that are drawn out and punctuated by a week of waiting. Arguably the worst part of the whole thing is that the tension of a faceless assassin hunting Arya has now been lost, and after her inevitable survival she will likely be free to return to Westeros without worrying that everyone she meets is the waif in disguise. Plus, in a world where death is becoming less permanent by the hour, the services provided by The Faceless Men are of questionable value. What is stopping Arya from succumbing to her wounds and simply being resurrected by one of the countless red priests running around the Free City? In a world where magic exists, the drama of death loses some of its heft