Since we have signs of Sandor Clegane reappearing in Game of Thrones S6, there’s a fan theory going around my fellow Throners that goes basically like this: the healed and reborn Sandor Clegane turns up in King’s Landing as the Faith’s champion in Cersei’s trial by combat, whereas Cersei’s champion is Ser Robert Strong, who is very obviously a re-animated Gregor Clegane. Thus, Cersei’s trial by combat is the premise for the Ultimate Showdown of the Clegane Brothers. We call this theory Cleganebowl.
I admitted yesterday that I don’t like Cleganebowl, but I didn’t really have an argument against it. Since then, I’ve given it some thought, and now I have an argument against it. I don’t think this is going to happen. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but I think it’s an extremely unlikely scenario, in both books and show. Let me tell you why. The arguments against Cleganebowl are, from least to most important, as follows:
1. Logistical. Sandor was badly injured last we saw him. The gravedigger we see in AFFC appears “lame,” meaning physically disabled, with impaired mobility. He’s not in fighting shape. The Faith may be fanatics, but they are not delusional. They want a champion who’s likely to win. If the gravedigger on the Quiet Isle is Sandor Clegane (and I’m fairly sure he is), then he is not a good candidate for single combat with the Mountain.
That’s just in the books, though, right? What else do I have for my case against?
2. Emotional. From what we see of the gravedigger, and the way the Elder Brother talks about the Hound, it sounds like he doesn’t want any more of that shit. He wants a quiet life where no one orders him to kill anyone. The Elder Brother seems not to want to put Sandor into another life of violence. It would be unfulfilling to have Sandor finally escape his life of being the Lannisters’ trained attack dog, and then have the Faith send him back to King’s Landing to enact more violence. What was the point of Sandor saying “fuck the city” if he has to go back to be a pawn in the game of thrones?
3. Narrative. The religious order that has apparently taken Sandor into their care is not the same as the Faith Militant which has put Cersei on trial. In order for Sandor to be chosen as the Faith’s champion, he would first need to be under the control of the Faith Militant. He’s not with the Faith Militant, he’s not traveling with the Sparrows, he’s with the brothers on the Quiet Isle, and they are not involved in Cersei’s trial by combat.
That’s another argument that centers on the books, though. The show is a separate issue, yes? The show could have Sandor fully recover from his injuries, and end up with the Faith Militant, and they could send him to King’s Landing to do battle with his brother. What’s wrong with that?
4. Thematic. Cleganebowl expresses a revenge fantasy. The mutilated little brother comes back out of the blue and puts a righteous smackdown on the evil big brother who tortured him long ago. Through the trial by combat, the abused little brother finally gets a chance to deal out the justice his evil big brother deserves. Even if Sandor doesn’t know until he gets there that he’ll be fighting Gregor, the appeal of this idea is revenge.
The problem is that Game of Thrones doesn’t like revenge.
The Mountain has already won a trial by combat in which his opponent was more interested in getting revenge than in winning the fight. Oberyn Martell probably would’ve won if he’d simply focused on killing the Mountain as quickly and cleanly as possible, but he had a point to make, and his own agenda to advance, and that agenda cost him his life and Tyrion his freedom.
Even better, a major theme of the S5 finale was that, put crudely, revenge is bullshit. There can be good reasons to kill someone, but revenge is not one of them. Ellaria Sand wanted revenge for Oberyn, so she killed an innocent girl and possibly started a new war in which thousands of blameless people will be killed. Arya wanted revenge, and it was fun to watch her poke Meryn Trant’s eyes out, but that was not what her mentors at HoBaW wanted her to do. She was supposed to do a job, and she neglected that job in favor of crossing a name off her list. She’s now being punished for making the wrong choice.
The most obvious case of Revenge is Bullshit is my dear Brienne. I think we can all agree that she went in the wrong direction in the finale, yes? She wanted revenge for Renly (and, I must also point out, for the upheaval that his death wrought on her own life), and in her determination to avenge her chosen king, she accomplished nothing except to make herself unavailable when Sansa finally lit her candle. Nobody benefitted from Brienne’s vow to avenge Renly except, ironically, for Stannis getting the relief of a quick death. His claim to the throne was already fucked by that point. He probably wouldn’t have lived to see the end of that day if he’d been left alone. Nothing was accomplished except for an end to his suffering. Nothing was made better for Brienne or anyone she cared about. Sansa and Theon had to escape their captivity through a suicide attempt. If you look at the way Brienne’s actions are shot during the finale, you just know she’s going to regret this. When she finds out that Sansa jumped off the wall, you know that Brienne will see that killing Stannis was the shittiest decision she ever made. It was a shitty decision because her sole argument for killing Stannis was to punish him for killing Renly. There was no good reason to go after him.
After seeing how Oberyn Martell lost his fight to the Mountain, and how Brienne missed Sansa’s candle, the message is very strong that Game of Thrones does not reward characters for making decisions based on a desire for vengeance. Both books and show: not interested in indulging our revenge fantasies. Revenge is bullshit. If Sandor does show up in King’s Landing to beat up his undead brother to advance the Faith’s case against Cersei, his undead brother will probably kill him for real, and what a waste that would be.
There’s one argument against Cleganebowl that I don’t buy, and that’s the idea that it would be resurrecting a dead character, which would be shitty storytelling. I don’t think Sandor Clegane’s reappearance would be a resurrection. We were allowed to assume he was dead, but his death was never really confirmed. If he didn’t really die, then it’s not a resurrection. Jon Snow will be a resurrection. Sandor Clegane was never really dead.
I don’t rule out the possibility that Sandor will be chosen to battle Ser Robert Strong in Cersei’s trial by combat. Anything could happen. In order for him to win the fight, though, the writers would have to find a way to sell the reappearance to us in a way that doesn’t feed our revenge fantasies. They’d need to make it work while making it clear that revenge is not the victory of this fight. It’s not out of the question, but it’s a tough sell.
I just wrote a lot of words about why a certain idea probably won’t happen. What, then, is my idea for what Sandor Clegane will do, once it’s established that he’s still alive? Well, that’s what I haven’t yet figured out. I needed to get these thoughts off my chest first. I think that when we see Sandor Clegane alive, he’ll be living quietly, and non-violently. His near-death experience will have given him a new set of priorities. What might his place in the story be, when we see him again? Give me a while to think about that. With the show’s divergence from the books, there are a number of possibilities. I simply think Cleganebowl is among the least plausible of those possibilities.