Before Season 6 aired, I talked with friends about my predictions for the story. As Game of Thrones fans are wont to do, I focused on who would die and which characters might return after a long hiatus. I thought my friend’s prediction that Sandor Clegane (a.k.a., “The Hound”) would return was absolutely inane. As much as I’d enjoyed the Hound-Arya buddy comedy in Season 4, I wasn’t sad to see the character go because I thought he’d already had a satisfying arc. Moreover, Arya left him at the bottom of a cliff after he’d suffered fatal wounds in a battle against Brienne. Surely, he was dead.
I’m happy to say that this was one of the few times in my life when I was absolutely wrong. “The Broken Man”* opens with a shot of Rory McCann playing Sandor Clegane, alive and apparently well. It turns out that the Hound was rescued by Septon Ray (played by Ian McShane) and brought to a religious commune. The episode is subtler than to suggest that Clegane has suddenly found religion, but it seems clear that he has found some measure of peace in the village. Septon Ray discusses his own past as a soldier and how he abandoned his life of violence. When he tells Clegane that violence only begets more violence, the Hound seems genuinely moved.
Of course, this being Game of Thrones, all does not end well. The Brotherhood Without Banners, which worships the Lord of Light and despises the Faith, comes to the village and demands tribute. Septon Ray tells them they have nothing to spare. He seems to believe that settles the matter, but Clegane warns that the bandits will come back. Sure enough, while the Hound is chopping wood in the distance, the Band returns and slaughters the villagers, including Septon Ray.
At the end of the episode, Clegane grabs an axe and marches off into the forest. It looks like he is set to return to the cycle of violence by seeking revenge against the Brotherhood. I have little doubt that Clegane will track down the bandits. Yet, I’m not so sure he will kill them, or, if he does kill them, that Clegane will simply return to a life of violence.
Many commentators have interpreted this episode as a cynical commentary about life in Westeros. At first glance, the fate of Septon Ray’s commune seems to suggest that violence is inevitable and inescapable. Turning away from violence, as Septon Ray did and Clegane started to do, only exposes oneself to weakness. In a Hobbesian world of might makes right, right is won at the end of a sword.
Given his ultimate fate, it’s easy to overlook the fundamentally optimistic message embedded in Septon Ray’s character arc: people can change. Individuals can choose how to respond to the violence and the problems in the world around them. As Father Ray says in his speech, one need not respond to violence with violence. A soldier need not always be a soldier.
Ironically, of all the major characters on Game of Thrones, Clegane has done the most to break out of the cycle of violence and retribution. The Starks, Baratheons, Lannisters, and Targaryens are all focused on grand political machinations. They are all stuck in a cycle of violence, with armies going to war in order to avenge some past injury. In this episode, the Blackfish even justifies his continued resistance against the Lannisters out of sheer spite for the Lannisters and the Freys.
By contrast, Clegane completely eschews “the game.” He deserted during the War of Five Kings and is not aligned with any of the noble houses. He tried in his own way to mitigate Sansa’s suffering at King’s Landing and became adorably protective of Arya. It’s noteworthy that when he advocates fighting in “The Broken Man,” it’s for defense, not offense. He wants to protect the people in the commune, not to achieve power or glory.
I don’t expect Clegane to become a Gandhian advocate of nonviolence, but the character has already shown that he is more than simply a killing machine. I suspect the show didn’t bring him back just so he could partake in a revenge fantasy.
* Once again, Ramsay Bolton does not appear in this episode.
Originally published on Legendarium Media…