The Hound is back! It's a Game of Thrones character return so requested and hyped by fans that HBO couldn't even wait for the opening credits to show us - giddy and excited - that Sandor Clegane lives. And the rest of the episode, while it follows the usual multi-character structure, is all about him and his rehabilitation back into the world. The big question, after this episode, is where does he go next? I'll deal with that in a minute.
The episode's name may be ‘The Broken Man' - which is a reference to a conversation in A Feast For Crows, all about The Hound - but it may as well be 'return of the rogues'. Many straight-talking, hard Northmen make a comeback, and it makes for a delightful throwback to some of the earlier series of the show. The Blackfish remains stubbornly locked in Riverrun, and while he looks old and tired, he very much gets the better of Jaime Lannister, who appears to be stumbling from one misstep to the next, a loyal (misguided) servant of a sister / lover who appears to have lost the plot completely. As the Queen of Thorns takes great delight in reminding her. It's sad to see Jaime so easily bested two weeks in a row, especially after he wins the viewer's favour by first bringing back Bronn, then slapping one of the Frey boys square in the mouth.
The stand-off at Riverrun could easily become the stand-out plotline of the season, given the quality of characters in it and their inevitable bloody collision, but this episode is a fleeting taste of things to come. Watch this space. Similarly, The Hound's new story is just starting, with Ian McShane's 'Ray' (or Elder Brother, if you prefer the purity of the books) serving as a delightful device to reintroduce Clegane junior. While the religious enclave stuff will have little lasting impact on the overall Game of Thrones plot, I'm a big fan of the set-up and the way Ray so neatly steers it all. He's a holy man with a likeable edge and some killer lines, and in the single episode he appears, this character sells the virtuous side to Westeros' religion - something that has been sadly lacking since the High Sparrow appeared and ensnared King's Landing with his fanaticism. I know Ray had to die - his role was to focus The Hound's rage on helping rather than hurting, which is the only way the series can truly justify his comeback (otherwise it's just empty fan-service) - but his death saddened me more than many supposed 'major characters'.
Speaking of which, it's looking pretty bleak for Arya. But does anyone truly care? She's been treading water in Braavos for two seasons now, and the end result is: she's leaving largely unchanged, if slightly perforated. I wouldn't be too sad to see her finished off in the next episode, although something tells me we haven't seen the last of her list, and that there's a smart twist to Arya's tale. Even if it does look pretty bleak for her at the moment.
And while we're on the subject of bleak... it looks like Jon Snow is having the same trouble uniting the north as, well, everyone except Ned Stark. While this episode features some neat scenes that follow Jon, Sansa, and Davos gathering troops, you can't help but feel this plotline has gone a bit flat. I don't doubt it'll regain interest when the Bastards of Stark and Bolton finally clash (in episode 9, it seems) but there's a real grimness to it all in this episode, as if HBO is deliberately lowering our expectations of Snow and his chances of winning back the north. Probably to make the final parts of season 6 feel even more bloody spectacular. I know your game, HBO!
And while it's a bit plodding, the Jon Snow plot does give us the stand-out scene of the week, where Lyanna Mormont - a 10-year-old girl who rules her house - humbles Jon, Sansa, and Davos when they request her support. It's a perfectly pitched scene that demonstrates the fragility of Jon's plan, reminds us that Game of Thrones characters can still surprise us, and finally - wonderfully - it ends on a dark joke that further reinforces the 'how the hell are they going to get out of this one' nature of the Stark's plan. 62 men from House Mormont - count 'em.
It's the highlight in an otherwise ordinary episode. Sure, 'The Broken Man' is mostly filler, and all we're really seeing here is the fuse being lit on some explosive plotlines for later in the season. However, the return of The Hound and a whole bunch of your favourite rogues is one hell of a distraction, and when this season's stories finally detonate... it's going to get very messy.