Two unexpected returns, an awkward family reunion and the Lannisters are checkmated in King's Landing
Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

For a Game of Thrones episode with “blood” in the title (twice!), “Blood of My Blood” was a surprisingly bloodless hour in a season that — until tonight — has killed off known characters every single week. Hell, we even gained a Stark! The return of Benjen Stark after being absent since the series’ third episode was just one pleasant surprise of the episode, which also included a glimpse of the Mad King’s death and the High Sparrow seemingly check-mating the Lannisters.

We start with…

North of the Wall: Bran and Meera are on the run! Well, Meera is on the run, while Bran is quite literally being a total drag. Hodor’s horrifying sacrifice, the ultimate act of door-holding chivalry, may have bought them some time, but not much. Bran is warging out on the sled, seeing the visions that the Three-Eyed Raven left in his mental inbox in a cramming attempt to get him up to speed on what he needs to know to become the new Raven. What follows plays a bit like one of those YouTube supercuts with titles like “All 5 seasons of Game of Thrones in 5 minutes.”

Thrown into the mix is a jaw-dropping treat from our story’s mythological goodie bag: Jaime Lannister’s much-discussed assassination of the Mad King from back when he was in the Kingsguard for crazy ‘ol Aerys II. “Burn them all! Burn them all!” The Mad King cries, and we half expect Bran to warg into him and drive him even crazier until the only word he can say is “Burall. Burall!”

The Mad King is a tidbit that we never expected to actually witness, and it just shows how much of a narrative game-changer Bran’s story line has been this season that we’ve gone from watching a show that never had a flashback across its first four seasons to being surprised with fan-service-friendly greatest hit moments from Westeros’ past in nearly every episode.

The sled gets stuck and they’re seemingly doomed as the wights advance. And then: A hooded figure in black saves them from the horde. It’s a long-lost game of Thrones character. No, not The Hound. Or Gendry. Or Hotpie. Or Bronn. Or Shagga. Or Salladhor Saan. Or Arya’s direwolf Nymeria standing on her hind legs in a cloak. And no, it’s definitely not Lady Stoneheart (so just stop asking about her). It’s Benjen Stark! … You remember, Benjen Stark — Ned’s brother, the Night’s Watch former First Ranger, Jon Snow’s personal hero. He went missing ranging north near the start of season 1 and has missed all the fun over the last six seasons. This makes him perhaps the luckiest Stark around despite being dead. I’m sure Jon Snow especially would love to see his uncle — just so he can beat the crap out of him for making the Night’s Watch sound like a great career choice. Season 6 body count update: Direwolves -2, Starks +2.

We’ll come back to Bran’s reunion later in the recap…

Horn Hill: Sam is taking Gilly and Little Sam to his parent’s house. Gilly is marveling at all the green countryside; she’s like the Rey of Westeros — except she’s constantly salvaging scraps of Sam’s wrecked self esteem instead of Star Destroyer parts. Sam figures his dad is a jerk, but at least his family will keep them safe while he continues to Oldtown to train as a maester. Sam tells Gilly not to reveal she’s a wildling no matter what, so we’re just waiting for that to pop out. What’s cool about this whole sequence is it’s extremely relatable compared to most things on Thrones — Sam is the black sheep son who’s visiting from college and has a girlfriend his father disapproves of.

Sam’s mother and sister are perfectly sweet. His sister asks Gilly what her favorite color of dress is and she gapes at her like: You mean there’s other colors besides burlap?! In fact, Gilly has delightfully stunned reactions to pretty much everything — baths, clothes, silverware, a multi-story dwelling. I could watch a whole episode of Gilly freaking out about things, and you wish these two could spend a pleasant week at Horn Hill with Gilly marveling at bathrooms and footwear instead of a few painfully uncomfortable hours. She gets a top-to-bottom makeover and staggers up to Sam like a muppet.

Dinner! So Sam’s brother Dickon looks like Robb Stark’s cousin and is nicer than we’d expect, especially given his name is Dickon (and yeah, that’s Freddie Stroma, the bachelor from UnREAL and Cormac from the Harry Potter franchise).

Yet papa fully lives up to his reputation. He’s a card-carrying member of Game of Thrones’ Legion of Terrible Fathers.

They have an awkward dinner as his father uses this special occasion of not seeing his son in years to rip into him with every bit of hostility he can muster. From the moment Sam reaches for the carbs, his father starts laying into him. I’m betting his hunter dad is one of those annoyingly strident paleo dieters.

And so Sam — slayer of a white walker, defender of Gilly, survivor of Craster’s Keep — can’t defend himself against his father jabbing at his childhood vulnerabilities, along with his new ones. So Gilly goes to speak up for him, and promptly outs herself as a wildling.

His father still agrees to let her stay, but she’ll work in their kitchen. “You’re not what he thinks you are Sam,” she reassures. Sam gives the matter some thought, and in the middle of the night collects her and Little Sam to sneak out and continue this journey together. He’s not going to split up his family the way his father split up theirs.

On the way, Sam “steals” — it was supposed to go to him anyway — his dad’s cherished family sword Heartsbane since its white-walker-killing Valyrian steel and you never know when those might come in handy. Besides, this will infuriate his father, which is a total bonus; like stealing a rich dad’s sports car.

Braavos: Arya is watching the play. Even though her dad is mocked and beheaded she’s getting a kick out of watching Joffrey die over and over again. What’s interesting is the mirror here with Bran — both are getting to see events from the past in Westeros, though in two very different forms. I watch this and wonder how their respective knowledge might be put to use later on. And of course what’s also fun is that Arya is ordered to kill the actress playing Cersei, who’s on her actual hit list, but the play is putting her in the position of having to sympathize with a character she despises. An Arya vs. Cersei scene is something I’ve wanted for years, and now I’m wondering if watching this play is setting us up for something very much like that.

Arya observes the young actress off to the side of the stage trying to learn Lady Crane’s role and deduces she’s the Faceless Man’s secret client. She goes backstage and gives a wary glance at the Ned Stark dummy head. She poisons Lady Crane’s rum, goes to leave, and gets pulled into a conversation with her target. She realizes she can’t do this and knocks over the bottle and warns Lady Crane that the young actress wants her dead. She gets Needle from its hiding place, and the Faceless Man gives smirking Waif permission to kill Arya.

Few thoughts: Maisie Williams has perhaps the least flashy dramatics of any of the main characters in this episode, yet she rocks every shot she’s in — she’s really compelling just reacting to what’s around her (Lady Crane is right about that). The sequence at the play very deftly gives Arya multiple opportunities to show her humanity, then switches to the coldly sinister House of Black and White, showing viewers a stark contrast (Stark contrast?) between the two; illustrating both emotionally and visually why she doesn’t belong there. Frankly, I’m glad Arya is seemingly finished with the Faceless Man and his abusive minion and their creepy face-cutting death cult of gloomy weirdness, mind games, and annoying grammar. As an audience, we have emotionally hit the same point as our hero (you don’t mind if I speak for you, do you?). Arya, like Sam, is better than the “family” she’s been stuck with.

King’s Landing: The High Sparrow finally lets Tommen see Margaery. She’s been cleaned up from her time in prison. Let’s hope she didn’t have to endure Septa Unella bathing her. She’s seemingly a total convert to the High Sparrow’s ways and is ready to do her Walk of Atonement. “It’s not an easy thing admitting to yourself what you really are,” she says with pinwheel eyes. “I’ve had lots of time to think about how good I was at seeming good.” I suspect not many of you are buying this; we know Margaery to well.

“It’s about Loras,” Tommen says, proving that — while firmly and inarguably dumb — he’s not quite that dumb.

Meanwhile Jaime and Mace Tyrell prepare to rescue Margaery and stop the walk. Mace tries to give a rousing speech that practically has Jaime rolling his eyes.

There’s a standoff at the stairs of the Sept. There’s Margaery, who, unlike Cersei, got to keep her hair.

Jaime, looking dashing on his horse, leads in the troops. The Faith Militant is outnumbered. Jaime mounting those stairs with his horse was an extremely cool shot (which I’m betting wasn’t really Nikolaj Coster-Waldau because that’s considered a highly dangerous piece of stuntwork).

We think, okay, finally the Lannisters are going to outmaneuver the Sparrow. And then the Sparrow plays his trump card — or rather his king. He declares there will be no walk of atonement today, which surely disappoints the poop-throwers who have been lined up on the streets for hours waiting for a shot at the queen. Instead, the Sparrow announces a new alliance with the crown and the Faith Militant. Out comes Tommen with his Kingsguard, who got new church-and-state emblems created just for this occasion.

The High Sparrow has played that masterfully — he abused Ser Loras, got Loras to convince Margaery, then Margaery to convince Tommen.

The Lannisters are in checkmate — their queen had already been captured, and now a bishop just took their king. Or put another way: Tommen just managed to checkmate himself.

In the Throne Room, Tommen declares he’s going to release Jaime from the Kingsguard, sort of like how Joffrey released Ser Barristan back in season 1. He’s become a total puppet. Somewhere in hell, Joffrey is highly frustrated. Instead, Tommen wants Jaime to go to the Riverlands and get back the castle of Riverrun, which Sansa’s uncle the Blackfish seized back from the devious Freys (so no, Littlefinger wasn’t lying about that last week). Basically, Tommen/The Sparrow want him out of the picture. I want Jaime to pull a Vader here: “Tommen, I am your father,” but he holds his tongue.

Later, we see Jaime a bit drunk and furious, which is rare. He wants to assassinate the High Sparrow. Cersei, however, is sober and keeping her cool. This is total role reversal. Normally it would be Cersei guzzling wine and demanding rash violent steps for Jaime to make her feel more secure. But Cersei doesn’t want to misstep and we’re seeing a more calculating side to her than we have in the past. They kiss, and we’re once again reminded of how weird it is that the show’s most passionate, longest-running romance is the one between two murderous incestuous siblings.

The Twins: Murderous perv Walder Frey is back and rather furious that his men have lost the castle at Riverrun — that was their Red Wedding gift from Tywin Lannister. Everything about the Frey’s castle looks like it needs sunlight and disinfectant. Frey brings out his ace — or Tully — in the hole, Edmure Tully, who we haven’t seen since season 3. It’s easy to forget the Red Wedding was an actual wedding and this poor guy was the groom. He’s been locked in a cage ever since, but now he’s a potential bargaining chip to play against Brynden Tully (a.k.a. “The Blackfish”) to give the castle back.

Thought: Jaime is going to try and retake Riverrun with Lannister forces… and Sansa has sent Brienne to Riverrun to sway them to the Stark cause… and now the Freys are also about to go to Riverrun to try and take it back. You know a good place to avoid in Westeros next week if you want to stay healthy? Riverrun.

North of the Wall: Benjen gives Bran some yummy rabbit blood and explains what’s going on with his face.

Apparently Benjen sort of died. Yet he’s more normal-ish than we’re used to seeing inhuman creatures in this show. He’s kind of in his own category. This is also a character book-readers know as Coldhands that George R.R. Martin fans have long suspected is Benjen. Benjen says the Three-Eyed Raven sent him, which once again brings into question how much about last week’s cave disaster the Raven knew was going to happen in advance (I’m guessing all of it).

Benjen explains that his ranger party was attacked by white walkers, he was stabbed in the belly and left for dead, and the Children of the Forest saved him by stabbing him again, this time in the heart, with dragonglass (which is apparently like an adrenaline shot for white walker overdoses).

Since Benjen never returned to Castle Black, this also means there are two Starks that have escaped their thankless Night’s Watch wall-defense and castle-chores with the “Hey I technically died” oath-break loophole (back at Castle Black you can bet Dolorous Edd is eating a lousy dinner and jealous). Speaking of which: Benjen gives Bran a mission to go to Castle Black and get ready for The Night’s King’s attack.

And so it’s perhaps fitting in a season with so much relative hope and uplift compared to years past that a character we were cruelly tricked into thinking had reappeared at Castle Black in the season 5 finale would suddenly show up for real. For Bran, this is saving him not just from the immediate threat of the wights but also gives him a family member when he perhaps needs it the most.

Also, I’m wondering if next season we’ll all be shipping Benjen and Melisandre like we’re doing this year with Brienne and Tormund (Coldhands meets Coldboobs?).

Somewhere in Essos: Daario explains to Dany she’s got a daunting task ahead of her if she wants to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. She decides to kick her new Dothraki horde’s commitment up several notches by turning them from mere followers into true believers, since he knows she’s going to be asking a lot of them in the coming months and years.

She wrangles Drogon and comes back to give a fiery speech that for once is sans fire — at least, not of the literal kind, as Dany’s rally itself is full of fiery language. She whips up her new followers into an idealistic frenzy by asking them to follow her across the narrow sea to conquer Westeros. When someone on an enormous dragon asks you for something, you say YES.

UPDATE: Wanted to add something here, because I’m seeing so much speculation in the days after the episode about whether Dany could become a villian after this brutal-sounding speech — especially coming in the same episode that we were reminded of her father, The Mad King. The episode is called “Blood of My Blood,” after all. So might this be a tipping point for Dany as she starts down a path of tyranny? The scene didn’t strike me that way … but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t supposed to strike us that way.

My thought is: We’ve seen Dany in so many tough spots, facing difficult moral choices, over the last six seasons, and she’s consistent in displaying her intelligence and humanity. Just last week she had the scene with Ser Jorah where she wept for the first time in many seasons and showed an enormous amount of empathy toward him. So what she says to rally the Dothraki for a couple minutes struck me more as a political move — she’s saying what she needs to say (and basically quoting another effective Dothraki leader, Khal Drogo) to turn the horde from followers-for-now into true-believer zealots that will help accomplish her conquest goals. I don’t see her moral core in danger of eroding; if anybody on the show can handle enormous power, it’s Dany. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show began to toy with the idea of Dany losing her way. But I think it would be too huge of a reversal for her character to totally flip to the dark side — personally, I just couldn’t buy it. So it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if we see more hints of this during her private moments.

And that’s it for this week. See Thrones, nobody needed to die. You don’t have to hurt us to get us to love you. So maybe everybody we care about on the show is safe for the rest of the season, right? At least, as long as they’re not at Riverrun?

ALSO: Read our interview with the writer of this episode, Game of Thrones co-executive producer Bryan Cogman, who answered some of our burning questions about “Blood of My Blood.”

Trivia question for our Thrones game. Think the prize is a Funko Pop figure this week: We’re told Sam’s family’s sword is Valyrian steel. What’s the name of that sword plus the names of three other Valyrian swords we’ve actually seen in the show (yes, reforged versions can count). Send answer to

Also, your holiday weekend is a good time to catch up on our Thrones podcast. Listen to the latest episode below.

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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