This season’s lack of a single dominant character—as we had with Ned in Season 1 and Tyrion last year—has left room for some of the lesser characters to command our attention, and we’re all luckier for it. Brienne of Tarth. Sam and Gilly. And, though he’s been in but a handful of scenes, Sandor Clegane, the Hound.
Clegane is an intriguing character in his own right. He can be a vicious killer, but he has a limit to the cruelty he will tolerate in other people, be it his own brother or Joffrey or random mobs. He’s crude—witness him asking Thoros why he’s traveling with the “Stark bitch”—but he’s not stupid.
But he knows what he is, and he is entirely honest with himself about it (and Rory McCann plays him with great depth and complexity). He’s largely unchanging, and so his greatest value to viewers is in showing us the evolution (or devolution) of the characters with whom he's paired.
In Season 1, Clegane earned the wrath of Arya when he killed a friend of hers on Joffrey’s orders, all because Arya embarrassed Prince Bratface and threw his sword in the river. Happening as it did shortly after the Starks had left for King’s Landing, it was young Arya’s first lesson that life could be dangerous and cruelly unfair outside the protective walls of Winterfell.
Clegane was merely acting on Joffrey’s orders, he always claimed. But as Joffrey takes his father’s place on the Iron Throne in Season 2 and becomes more despicable, we see Clegane's loyalties shift. Joffrey has been unlikable since day one, but when even the Hound can’t stand him, we see just how dangerous and delusional the crown has made him.
Clegane also becomes a tad smitten with Sansa, and we learn a great deal about Sansa from their interactions. Having protected her first from Joffrey, then from a mob of would-be rapists in King’s Landing, he rightfully sees her as a scared child in need of pity and protection. He tries to make her less naive, to make her see that the world is full of nastiness and that people like him are necessary.
And yet, in their final scene together—when he quit the Kingsguard right in the middle of the Battle of the Blackwater and deserted, offering to take her to Winterfell—she clutches a doll and demurs. For all that she’s seen and learned, she remains assured that a real knight will come along and save her.
Arya, however, proves to be more adaptable. We don’t see Clegane again until Season 3, when he happens into the same inn as the Brotherhood Without Banners and outs her as a Stark. Arya tells the Brotherhood about Mycah’s murder. When Beric orders trial by combat and the Hound survives, she is angry and spiteful and tries to finish him herself.
Another spate of anger leads her to run away from Thoros, but instead she finds herself captured by the Hound, who apparently hadn’t gone far after being let go. In “Second Sons,” they are riding a horse together and she petulantly says, “There is no one worse than you.”
“You never knew my brother. … There are men who are worse than me. There are men who like to beat little girls. Men who like to rape them. I saved your sister from some of them.”
“Ask her, if you ever see her again. Ask her who came back for her when the mob had her on her back. They would have taken her every which way and left her there with her throat cut open.”
The Hound goes on to explain that he’s taking her to her family, and that if she would just “stop trying to bash my skull in, we might just make it there in time for the wedding.”
Arya has not forgiven the Hound. But she does manage a half-smile as they ride on. Life is even more dangerous and cruel than it was when she met Clegane, but now she understands what she has to do to survive.