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These Game Of Thrones reviews are written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. They will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the reviews. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”)


Episode 1, “The Red Woman”

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Game Of Thrones sets its eyes on the finish line

“Now what?”

This is a question that many television series want the audience to be asking at the end of a season, but it’s one that Game Of Thrones had never prioritized in a finale up until its fifth season. Although the show has a number of memorable finales, the show’s “Now what?” moments—Ned’s death, Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the assault on The Wall—typically came in the penultimate episode, with the finale’s denouement effectively the beginning of the show’s answer to the question in earnest. And while there are lots of storytelling reasons for this, one of the most practical is that a vocal minority of the show’s audience already knew the answer. What happens after Ned dies? What happens after the Red Wedding? These were questions that were already asked and answered for readers of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and so the typical season structure sought to put the readers and non-readers on as similar a page as possible: with the pieces moved into place for the next season, both groups are asking “How” as opposed to “What,” even if one group has more information to go on.

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Although Jon Snow may have known nothing, his death changed everything. With the narrative approaching George R.R. Martin’s final Jon chapter in A Dance With Dragons, Game Of Thrones was finally in a position to create a cliffhanger where no one knew the answer, and it’s hard to fault the writers for taking advantage of it. As much as the trolling about the fate of Jon Snow became a little much over a lengthy hiatus (only exaggerating the fact it was a troll job from Martin to begin with), their joy at playing with semantics is only natural when they were denied the opportunity to leverage this type of storytelling for so long. They were making a television show where their ability to create uncertainty was always compromised, even in situations where they deviated from the books significantly, and that image of Jon lying dead in a pool of his own blood had to have been cathartic.

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However, “The Red Woman” reveals that Game Of Thrones is not particularly concerned about the fate of Jon Snow, at least for the time being. Whereas some cliffhangers—The Walking Dead’s recent one comes to mind—demand to be resolved immediately, it’s logical given the show’s pacing that this this one would have a longer tail. We confirm that the writers spoke the truth: Jon Snow did, in fact, die at the end of the fifth season of Game Of Thrones. And throughout this premiere, he stays dead, even after Melisandre—the person most likely to resolve the cliffhanger—knocks at the door to share with Davos that she had seen Jon in the flames. And then the characters just move on: Edd wants revenge, Davos knows the wildlings are the only ones who can help them overthrow Thorne, and a standoff begins with the payoff to come in the weeks ahead.

Melisandre still earns the episode’s title, though, and for good reason. The haunting final scene is the episode’s premise laid bare, notably coming directly after a blind Arya struggles to adapt to her affliction. Melisandre was a woman who saw the future in the flames, but the flames betrayed her, and tapped into a very basic insecurity: without her necklace, she is an old and broken woman, withered and frail, with none of the power she conveys and demands from others. It’s a shortcut to vulnerability for a character that has undoubtedly become more vulnerable than ever before: ever since Melisandre was introduced, she was singularly focused on Stannis’ rise, and has never wavered from that cause because she has been given no reason to. Now, that cause is gone, and she stares in the mirror wondering what her purpose is, and strips away the veneer of power in favor of something the world would only see as broken (but which we can see as ancient and mystical [and immortal?]). And she asks herself the question, if not directly: “Now what?”

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The textual dynamics of this question are in no way new. Game Of Thrones began with a stable sense of order, and has subsequently systematically destroyed any semblance of it. Jon Arryn’s off-screen death began the sequence of events that led us here, as strange as that sounds, and none of what has happened since has followed any kind of reasonable pattern. Brienne is perhaps the best example of this, a character who leapt from purpose to purpose in search of an understanding of what she was supposed to accomplish. She is someone who requires order living in a world with none, but that’s what has made her character arc so satisfying. The quixotic qualities of Brienne are a perfect fit for this world, constantly driving her forward, sending her barreling into groups of soldiers with Podrick in the search of purpose, that flame that lights a fire under her ass. And when it pays off here, riding in to save Sansa and Theon from Ramsay’s men and finally becoming the sworn sword to one of Catelyn’s daughters as she has long hoped to be, it’s a rare victory for long-term planning. And it is to be cherished, because it’s unlikely we’ll see many such victories in the immediate future.

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A Song Of Ice And Fire is full of failures of long-term planning. Quentyn’s story inA Dance With Dragons is easily the best example of this, as Martin was clearly interested in the idea that Dorne—more than any other of the seven kingdoms—is gifted at seeing the entire chess board, and understanding the importance of thinking ahead. But Prince Doran’s plan ultimately failed because it was a plan built without any sense of how to execute it. It sounded like a great idea to link the Martells with the Targaryens, but Quentyn was never the person to do it, and too much happened with Daenerys between then and now for it to be a realistic proposition. Quentyn’s brutal failure is echoed here in a less poetic way, as Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes murder Doran, Trystane, and Areo for their failure to act swiftly in the face of injustices to Dorne. It’s abrupt to the point of comedy, and an example of the show potentially learning its own lesson about long term planning and cutting its losses on a Dorne storyline that never worked last season (and which has only slightly more promise in its newly thinned-out version).

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The swift action in Dorne is absent elsewhere, as we’ve come to expect in Game Of Thrones premieres. In general, Benioff and Weiss—perhaps because they don’t want to move too quickly past the books—portray the characters at a collective crossroads, most trapped in situations that they can’t yet act upon. The situation at King’s Landing still finds the Queen and her brother in custody, and Cersei is free from captivity but unexpectedly mourns yet another child. Roose and Ramsay Bolton have big plans for the future, but Sansa’s absence complicates them significantly, leaving them largely stuck holding their own dicks as opposed to the severed dicks of their enemies. Arya is blind and panhandling on the streets of Braavos, her lack of eyesight crippling her training and pushing her back to her early days of training with Syrio. And in a similar case of coming full circle, Daenerys is once again among the Dothraki, first as a slave and then as a revered widow who discovers her place is apparently in Vaes Dothrak with her fellow widows instead of on the front lines of a war against Westeros.

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Consistent across these stories is the most basic of conflicts: characters wanting one thing and finding that there’s something standing in their way. But “The Red Woman” reminds us that this is an individual struggle, and there is a larger social struggle unfolding in Meereen: while the Sons of the Harpy represented an example of the victims of Daenerys’ rule lashing out in opposition, Tyrion rightfully observes the free folk represent a threat in a different way. They were given what they wanted (their freedom), but then their leader abandoned them on the back of a dragon, and they are once more in search of a purpose. And it is the Red Priest guiding them to R’hllor who is gathering a crowd, and what is religion if not an answer to “Now what?”

Although we do not venture beyond The Wall, it is important to acknowledge that the rise of the Night’s King last season brought to the surface the broader conflict between ice and fire that ultimately gives the book series its title. And while we can point to characters that represent these sides—including, if we want to get presumptive, a resurrected Jon Snow fighting ice with R’hllor’s fire—we’re also conditioned to understand this as a starkly individualistic story (pun about how the Starks have been separate so long unintended, but embraced). With so many of these characters, their conflicts arise from their disinterest in following a path set before them, breaking out of their social shackles to follow their own path. The core of nearly every remaining central character is someone who was told to fill one role and refused in some way or another, and yet to some degree the larger story depends on them working together in the interest of those common people. There will need to be a point where this collection of disparate individuals realizes that Winter is upon them, and an army is rising from the dead in the North, and yet the idea of these individuals all realizing they’re on the same side is difficult when so few of them are even in the same continent.

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And so “The Red Woman” becomes the start, I feel, of the characters gaining perspective. Jorah is currently the most clear-eyed of any of the characters, because he is no longer thinking beyond the short-term. A cursory expositional glance at his greyscale reminds us that he has a finite lifespan, and he is focused on what he’s always been focused on: protecting Daenerys, in much the same single-minded way as Brienne is living up to her oaths. His look down at his greyscale is the equivalent to Melisandre’s look in the mirror, a visual reminder of what motivates him or, in Melisandre’s case, a reminder of a search for motivation. And that’s a productive way of anchoring a season premiere, as characters largely focus on taking stock of their surroundings and preparing for how to mentally move forward—just look at Cersei and Jaime, the former going on about the witch’s prophecy and the latter presenting a clear opinion on that matter: “fuck prophecy.”

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We also have more perspective on the plans for this season, and it’s off to a typically solid start. As book readers, this season is obviously something of a test, but the show’s approach to moving forward—at least for now—focuses on simplifying characters’ stories and returning to their basic character traits and motivations. At least for this collection of characters—many, including a returning Bran, a new crop of Greyjoys, and others scattered about Westeros, are unrepresented—the show has done the work necessary to develop meaningful character arcs, and here mostly asserts that those arcs are getting set to evolve in the seasons to come. We are now well past the halfway point of this story, and “The Red Woman” is one of the first times that it’s felt like it. Even without a major battle, and without what one would consider significant forward momentum, the show presents an answer to “Now What” that feels climactic: the end is nigh.

Stray observations

  • Nothing new in the opening credits this week, although this was one instance where I wish they had skipped them in favor of a cold open, cutting directly from the end of the “Previously On” clip of Jon’s dead body to the eerie shot of The Wall that flies into the courtyard to discover his body once more.
  • That shot was a nice moment for director Jeremy Podeswa, although my favorite directing bit was the cut to a wide shot as Sansa and Theon are hiding, tricking you into thinking the scene is ending before the barking dogs bring them back to life. Given how similar that “check-in” would have been to what Arya gets in the episode, I bought that the scene could end there, and it helped create excitement around Brienne’s inevitable but satisfying arrival.
  • There’s a point where the misogyny of the Dothraki—or, as they shall now be known, the Doucheraki—who captured Dany started to feel too modern, but it was nice to see the show condemning (and then shutting down entirely) that type of sexism.
  • “Do you feel like a victor?”—I am still not sure that Roose and Ramsay can sustain a story of their own, if I’m being fully honest, but this bit from Roose is a nice reminder of how fleeting victory can feel when nothing but small battles are being fought and won.
  • Burning Meereen’s entire fleet is an interesting choice, and I have to presume a practical one—it seems a little early, however, to be forcing the issue when it comes to flying across the Narrow Sea instead.
  • Chekhov’s Embittered Orphan doesn’t speak here, but he does stand by Thorne like a tough guy, which is helped by the actor’s growth between seasons. Olly’s really aged into his betrayal nicely.
  • I am interested in how they choose to move forward with Thorne, who continues to be a villain only insofar as he is unable to see the big picture, and thus foregrounds tradition and his immediate priorities over any other type of conflict. Is that what defines a character as a villain, even if he’s not entirely wrong about the extremism Jon displayed in his actions? Is he maybe just misguided? I’m curious how they choose to put a grace note on that character before Ghost and/or Lord Stoneheart takes his head off.

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The Night Is Dark And Full of…Spoilers?

So this section was typically used for explicit ways that each episode connected with future events in the books, but…well, that’s maybe not as productive now (at least not here). So I’m going to mix it up in this section, using it as a spot to reflect on either theories from the books that are brought up by the episodes (I saw some chatter on Twitter about Melisandre’s identity related to this bit of history), or in some cases a consideration of how the show’s path forward ties into where the books are likely headed.

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This week, I was struck by the way Dany’s brief time as a Dothraki slave reminded me of Tyrion’s time as a slave in A Dance With Dragons. I don’t think anyone was shocked when the show skipped over Penny and Tyrion’s time in captivity to elevate Tyrion into a more central role in Meereen—it would have made no sense to isolate Tyrion in the show, where convergence is more valued and where Dinklage has been such an asset. But Dany’s brief game of wits with Khal Moro hit on similar beats, of going from someone of significant title to nothing, except that Dany’s claim to the title of khaleesi elevates her out of that position immediately.

It remains unclear how much this is going to line up with Martin’s plans for the story (I guess we can presume he’d have dragged it out more, if nothing else), but the similarities remind us how often Martin likes to isolate his characters, and how similar those stories can feel at times.

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Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear more from you about what you’d want this section to be—these reviews will still be from the perspective of a book reader, and create a comment community of similar mind, but I’d like to explore the relationship between the show and the book in some new ways, so I’m open to suggestions.


Episode 2, “Home”

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Game Of Thrones invites Kingsmoot fever to sweep the globe

“It is beautiful beneath the sea; but if you stay too long, you’ll drown.”

I imagine many reviews will pull this line out from “Home,” and with good reason: Max Von Sydow’s debut as the Three-Eyed Raven brings flashbacks that both connect Bran to his family’s past and help the show connect with the deep history behind this story. The opening scene is also the first place where the idea of “home” emerges in an episode that is never particularly subtle about its interest in the topic, with Theon later echoing Bran in emphasizing the value in the episode’s title by saying it directly.

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The Three-Eyed Raven is talking about the dangers of Warging into the past, yes, but when I read this line I think about George R.R. Martin, and one of his storylines in particular. The “Meereenese Knot” was a self-named problem that Martin experienced when writing A Song Of Ice And Fire (specifically delaying A Dance With Dragons’ publication), and also a self-created one. Martin loved the idea of characters being on journeys to a single location, in this case to treaty with Daenerys, and I agree: I love a good quest narrative. However, Martin objectively miscalculated just how many of such quests his story could balance. With so many story threads, a knot was inevitable, and so it wasn’t shocking to see the show avoid this by removing all but one: in Game Of Thrones, Tyrion was the only character who was actively heading to Meereen, as opposed to one among many.

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This is not to say that Game Of Thrones doesn’t have a Meereen problem, because it does: the political situation in Meereen still remains murky, talked about more than seen, and I don’t know if the show has really given us enough reasons to care about the city or its people (which is why Tyrion and Varys are both there to flesh out the cast of recognizable characters). But the truth of the matter is that no one is ever going to care about Meereen; heck, George R.R. Martin didn’t really care about Meereen. The story was always about Daenerys, and Meereen just happened to be where she was, and otherwise carries no importance. There is no one in the show who calls Meereen their home: it is not Winterfell, or King’s Landing, or even Pyke. And thus it is not a place where people journey to, but rather a place that we want the characters we care about to journey from, and I think the streamlining of the Meereen storyline has put the writers in a position to accomplish this.

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That having been said, though, “Home” is most notable from an adaptation perspective—yes, we’re going to get to the most notable thing in general in a second—for the way in which it reintroduces one of the threads in the Meereenese Knot that the show had presumably excised. Through casting, we knew that the Iron Islands would be returning to the narrative, despite the fact that Yara Greyjoy last appeared back in season four. But here we see them kick off the Kingsmoot storyline that some thought was lost forever, introducing Euron Greyjoy (although they never clearly identify him by name in his confrontation with Balon) by having him toss his brother off a bridge and kick off the power struggle over the future of Pyke.

It’s a great example of the show’s ability to adapt the books in a non-linear fashion, here wholesale moving a storyline where it serves a clearer purpose. Ultimately, as predicted by many in the comments last week, it would appear that this storyline is still heading toward Meereen—Yara and Balon’s “Hey, Remember Pyke?!” scene, complete with a “Cut to: Pike” out of Theon’s discussion of home, spends a lot of time focusing on the futility for the Greyjoys to battle on land, and thus puts their fleet into the conversation about Meereen’s transportation problem. Although I would doubt that anyone but book readers are actively excited about the Kingsmoot—or even comprehended what word they were hearing when it was spoken during Balon’s funeral—the show has done a good job of establishing why it’s here. With the War of the Five Kings over, other individuals with sources of power are seeing an opportunity to seize control of Westeros for themselves, whether it’s an estranged brother returning to take what he believes he’s entitled to or a legitimated bastard who believes that ruthless disregard for people’s lives and a lack of morals can overcome any and all diplomatic hurdles.

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Or, a resurrected commander of the Night’s Watch. Although it’s hard to know exactly at what point the writers chose to hold off on adapting the Kingsmoot, it creates a cause-and-effect model of storytelling when it comes to Melisandre using magic to bring Jon Snow back to life as we’ve all predicted for years now, and which the show itself heavily foreshadowed at the end of last season. For all of Melisandre’s feats, her “Leech Gendry and Use His Blood To Curse the False Kings” plan was the most far-reaching, and also the most surprisingly effective: one-by-one, they started dropping like flies, to the point where Stannis himself was killed. And yet it was Balon who remained, in part because the show forgot about him, but also maybe—if we’re being generous—they were waiting for the right moment to remember him. By returning to the character at this stage, and seeing Melisandre’s curse be fulfilled right before she is asked to revive Jon Snow by Davos, it pulls the audience into her sense of self-doubt. She no longer believes in her own power, and yet we have just seen evidence of either a cosmic coincidence or the potential that she could do as Thoros did and bring a man back from the dead.

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Of course she can. Jon Snow is too important to the mythology of this story for him to actually disappear from the narrative, which is why Martin’s own cliffhanger was never something that fans of the books took seriously. That having been said, I would argue the show’s cliffhanger felt more uncertain because the R + L = J theory is less commonly-discussed, and because the relatively fast pace of consumption compared to the books has emphasized the rapid succession of major character deaths. Just in this episode, the show casually removes Roose Bolton, played by a credited series regular, and it barely registers as an event. It just feels procedural, the show acknowledging that Ramsay’s belief an absence of morality can overcome any and all obstacles represents a more evocative antagonism in the North than Roose’s more level-headed opportunism. The show has conditioned its viewers to see death as a point of transition, and so the idea of Sam suddenly returning to be Lord Commander in Jon’s absence wasn’t entirely absurd, even when as a book reader I never once entertained the idea (even after about fifteen shots of his corpse, held for longer than comfortable, all of which ended without him opening his eyes).

Jon’s death is still a point of transition, although a different kind. The High Sparrow discusses the notion of crossing over into death in his speech to Jaime, and the act of crossing back represents its own philosophical and spiritual question. It also helps explain why the show resisted Lady Stoneheart earlier, as it focuses all attention on this question onto one major character. Much as with Meereen, you could argue Martin went so deep into the topic that he created a narrative logjam when it came to telling that story over a more condensed period. While I imagine readers will see interesting parallels when it comes to the differences between Catelyn and Lady Stoneheart and the differences between Jon Snow and “Jon Stoneheart,” there is thematic clarity to having Jon Snow’s journey stand alone, without considerable foreshadowing. The show also has Qyburn’s experiment as a living embodiment of this potential, and laid enough groundwork with Beric and Thoros to be able to justify its return here. The “singular” power of this moment stems from the fact that it represents the culmination of a series of side stories interested in the topic, rather than a previous reveal of a similar scale.

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At first blush, the rest of the episode doesn’t really seem to speak to Jon’s resurrection as much as you might expect. However, central to the theme of “home” in “Home” is the fact that so few characters actually have something approaching one. Only the Lannisters are arguably “home” in this episode, and also the only ones who remain connected to any type of family (an idea we strongly associate with home): Sansa and Brienne chat about the latter’s run-in with Arya, and are heading toward Jon, but the Boltons were the closest thing to a family we had before Ramsay murdered them, and Pyke didn’t exactly foreshadow a cordial relationship between niece and uncle in the weeks ahead. And perhaps most important of all, the Mother of Dragons began her downfall by separating herself from her children, a mistake Tyrion “fixes” by risking his life to set them free. And so it seems crucial that an episode about complicated relationships with families would be the same where Jon Snow returns to life, perhaps now heading toward his own knowledge about his family, and about his true home.

Whereas last week’s episode felt like the show acknowledging that the end was arriving, this week’s felt like the show’s characters had come to the same realization. Ramsay’s ruthless seizing of power and Euron’s sudden power play are both actions that signal a degree of desperation, and even Tyrion’s willingness to attempt to befriend Dany’s dragons suggests a certain recklessness that comes as the conflict—or the narrative—grows longer. “Home” gets its primary news from its final scene, yes, but it gets its energy from its willingness to shake up the status quo. While adapting the Kingsmoot storyline in some ways helps them slow down the narrative to keep from moving too far past A Dance With Dragons this season, the way it has been reframed speeds up and simplifies its purpose within the story, and creates momentum where Martin only ever managed to create a knot that needed untying.

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Stray observations

  • The sheer number of shots of Jon’s body that director Jeremy Podeswa holds on is excruciating, and I imagine it will be well-covered by the second installment of our video series Polite Fight, where John and Gus break down the stylistic elements of the series. In addition to the editing stretching out those moments, the coloring is also crucial, with Melisandre’s red and Jon’s post-production-colored corpse embodying Fire and Ice even more than usual.
  • Extending the topic of men without homes, that’s basically the reason the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant hold such power (which, at least in my brain, echoes the idea that many of the participants in the Crusades were men without any claim to power or land).
  • I was watching on HBO Now for the first time tonight, and I was all “Hey, I could save more time and skip the credits!” But then, of course, I remembered that you can never skip the credits, for then you would miss that Pyke was returning, and could get some foreshadowing for their incredibly unsafe bridge design. I feel like they should have been prioritizing architecture in their education system earlier, no? Maybe that can be part of Yara’s platform at the Kingsmoot.
  • I don’t have a whole lot to say about Arya’s two minute check-in this week, but I was deathly afraid it was going to just repeat last week’s exercise with slight variation, so I was satisfied at least that there was some signal of progress, even though Jaqen remains too cryptic for these check-ins to ever feel narratively satisfying.
  • King’s Landing also felt mostly like a check-in this week, with Tommen making his first appearance to reconcile with his mother, but it was mostly just establishing Qyburn’s monster as an enforcer, which was suitably vicious.
  • I noted I thought it was weird the show was trying to almost humanize Ramsay last week, and I can safely say that was not their ultimately goal given what he does to Walda and his half-brother here. But I think the brief glimpse of empathy for Myranda speaks to the fact that he is choosing to ignore a sense of morality that could exist because he believes it to be the path to power, which seems central to the character. It will also help when he eventually gets his comeuppance.
  • Pilou Asbæk (or as he is known on Twitter, “Danish Pacey”) makes his first appearance as Euron, but with the accent and his liberal use of “brother,” you’d swear Desmond Hume was laying claim to Pyke.
  • Related to this, I appreciate that Balon didn’t actually call Euron by his name explicitly: it’s weird when a TV character gives exposition of names like that, and so “brother” more or less worked to get the important information across. “Which brother” is only really relevant to book readers, truth told.

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The Night Is Dark and Full of “Spoilers” (or, this week, Kingsmoot Korner)

So this section will now be reserved for a variety of different book-specific discussions that delve more into potential spoilers, and in this case I want to pose a specific question related to the Kingsmoot. Whether or not the show chose the right Greyjoy brother is an open question that we’ll debate in the weeks to come, but I get the point of simplifying to Asha facing off with one of the uncles, especially given that they would appear to be moving forward Theon’s involvement.

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And so my question is this: do you think the actual result of the Kingsmoot will change from the books, or do you think that whatever changes are afoot will come after? For me, the show could either treat the Kingsmoot as a procedural move toward a bigger event (like sailing on Meereen), or it could frame it as a climax in itself, and that choice for me dictates their interest in changing the actual outcome.


Episode 3, “Oathbreaker”

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Game Of Thrones teases book readers with “enough for one day”

Across the internet, the Game Of Thrones viewership has been divided into two broad categories: readers and non-readers, or the range of terms—sullied and unsullied, experts and newbies—that we’ve developed to label said groups.

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This season is obviously complicating these categories, what with the show “passing” the books in a number of storylines (but not others), but the truth is the “reader” category has always been complicated. With a series as dense as A Song Of Ice And Fire, there are various levels of readership: someone who came across the books somewhat randomly and enjoyed them in isolation is going to feel very differently than someone who has pored over them multiple times, and engaged in intense theorizing with fellow fans.

As someone who falls more in the former category—you can read more about my experience with the books here—it’s been interesting to see the show through the eyes of more “hardcore” fans. Last week’s episode, for example, generated discussion online and in the comments related to a longstanding theory that Tyrion may be a Targaryen, which some felt was supported when the show had Tyrion survive his encounter with Dany’s dragons. I hadn’t read the scene in that way, but it makes sense that others would: for some, the show has become a treasure trove of evidence that could support fan theories, as the show spending its limited time exploring particular characters or storylines suggests they might be important in ways fans have predicted.

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But as someone who doesn’t have a mind for “theories,” I’ve never really seen the show in this way, with one important exception. One didn’t need to dig far into the A Song Of Ice And Fire fandom to discover “R + L = J,” a theory that is as close to being canon as a “fan theory” could possibly be. I have no recollection of the “Tower of Joy” from reading A Game Of Thrones for the first time as a teenager, but interactions with the fan community have since made its importance abundantly clear. It’s the perfect example of a fan theory that ceases to become “just a theory” the second you hear it explained: it’s both logical and poetic, and creates a clear path to uniting two of the show’s central characters, and so it’s never been something I’ve questioned once hearing about it. And it’s also become so mainstream that after tonight’s episode, my mother—I’m visiting with family—explained that she had Googled it, and was able to recount the theory in its entirety.

“Oathbreaker” was one of the most anticipated book reader episodes in a long time because of “R + L = J.” Those paying attention to the show’s production knew the writers were using flashbacks to show us the Tower of Joy, and the preview for last week featured brief glimpses of the scene. This was, potentially, the moment that fans have been waiting for, and which the show itself foreshadowed last season with reminders about Lyanna Stark that served no other purpose. And yet “Oathbreaker” turns into a troll job on that front: just as Ned is about to enter the tower to investigate his sister’s screams, the Three-Eyed Raven forcibly pulls Bran from the memory, claiming that it was “enough for one day.”

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The writers need to be careful with how long they tease out this reveal, and I will admit to finding the execution here a bit too cheeky for its own good, but the decision to continue to withhold absolute confirmation is a smart one. As much as it would be efficient to use Bran to let the audience know that Jon Snow is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, that information ultimately means nothing to Bran, and the show has not yet made the connections it needs to make between Bran and the rest of the story for his visions to contribute to the main narrative. It would be a reveal that would mean something to those who have read the books, and those who have engaged with the theory, but the information will be more powerful for all viewers if the reveal is connected to the specific journeys of the characters who are most affected: Jon, whose destiny is forever changed, and Dany, who is suddenly not as alone as she thought she was.

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“Oathbreaker” is beginning that work, drawing parallels between Jon and Dany’s respective situations. In Jon’s case, we finally get to see what type of meaningMartin intended to draw from in Jon’s fake death, which no one believed would ever stick. What Benioff and Weiss deliver here is effectively a moment of reckoning: how do you move on after you’ve died, when your death was evidence of your failure to complete the task you were given? Jon died failing to unite the Night’s Watch and convince his brothers that the threat beyond the wall was more important than their conflict with the Wildlings, and spends much of “Oathbreaker” reckoning with that failure. He puts on the furs, and he carries the sword, and he eventually doles out justice to the men who broke their oaths and murdered him, but his gradual realization is that he cannot just repeat the same mistakes again. His choice to walk away—either becoming the eponymous oathbreaker or, arguably, leveraging the technicality that his watch ended when he died—opens the door for the identity crisis that will make the eventual “R+L=J” reveal that much more significant.

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Daenerys, meanwhile, is reckoning with a different type of identity crisis, as she is suddenly being treated as though her life is defined by having been married off to Khal Drogo. Her confrontation with the other former khaleesis in Vaes Dothrak, where she became one of them eating the horse’s heart back in season one, is the second time this season Dany has failed in an attempt to leverage her other titles into some form of status. Among the Dothraki, her ties to Westeros or Meereen are fundamentally insignificant, and she is being forced to reckon with the consequence of the plan that intended to bring her to power. Dany has grown significantly—and largely independently—since Khal Drogo’s death, but in doing so she has been jumping from problem to problem, and never without a clear look back into her past. The coming self-reflection seems a crucial jumping-off point for Dany’s return to Westeros, and thus her return to her lost relative to create the harmony that the conclusion of A Song Of Ice And Fire will require.

These types of individual journeys are never individual forever in the context ofGame Of Thrones. Jon might be walking away from his watch, but he is walking toward a larger role in the central conflict, much as we know Daenerys is not going to end up isolated away in Vaes Dothrak for the remainder of the series. Bran’s story, more than serving as an engine for flashbacks, also mirrors Arya’s as far as training montages are concerned: we are watching the show’s characters gain perspective and experience that is eventually leading them to a central conflict, and that work is not quite done (even if this week’s Arya arc hit the fast-forward button and delivered as an effective a training montage as they’ve managed thus far). These stories, which mirror the close point-of-view of the book chapters, are central to the overall storyline in the long term, but can at times lack the same scale of internal momentum as more plot-driven stories set in different locales and invested in multiple characters.

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“Oathbreaker” has less to offer as far as those stories are concerned, although the path forward is clearer. In King’s Landing, a power struggle between Cersei and the High Sparrow for Tommen’s soul is established, the promise of seeing the resurrected Mountain serve as Cersei’s champion is foreshadowed heavily, and we return to the Small Council to explore the ongoing political conflict brewing between the Lannister siblings, their uncle, and the Tyrells. In Meereen, we get a glimpse of Varys in action as he learns where the Sons of the Harpy are getting their support, and that city’s version of a small council sets out a plan to parlay. And in Winterfell, Ramsay is delivered the gift of the youngest Stark sibling, and a pawn to play as the war for the North heats up.

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These stories are not Game Of Thrones’ most thematically compelling at the moment, but I would argue the show is doing a better job than the books of allowing them to stand independent up until the point they begin to converge with more significant story arcs. The increased agency for Tommen adds a new layer to the politics of King’s Landing and the conflict between church and state, while having Varys and Tyrion in control in Meereen frames this as an extension of their past roles in King’s Landing, and their own form of reckoning for their ability to handle a conflict of this scale. And while the idea of seeing Osha and Rickon as Ramsay’s prisoners gives me no great pleasure, it’s a smart move that creates specific stakes that would logically draw other members of the Stark family into the conflict to come. Whereas the Meereen of the books always felt tangential, and there came a point where the story in King’s Landing became problematically isolated in Cersei’s point-of-view, the choices made here are giving them more life, even if we are undoubtedly still in the early stages of developing toward their respective climaxes.

The question of pacing is going to be crucial this season. While pacing has always been a challenge on a show balancing this many narratives, as a reader I always felt like I could at least translate why the show was being paced that way, because I knew what the different stories were building to. This is the first season where that knowledge is absent, and where I’m filling in gaps with either theories I’ve read or presumptions I had following the end of A Dance With Dragons, and it’s a tough adjustment. I wanted the show to resolve “R+L=J” because I want a clearer sense of where this story is heading, but in context I would agree that it wasn’t the right time for that information to be revealed as far as the larger concerns of the story are concerned. If we take Bran as an audience surrogate, desperate to rush to the end of the story, the Three-Eyed Raven is the showrunners, insisting that there’s more we need to see play out before we get the answer we’re seeking.

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And although I believe the stakes are now higher for whatever this theory is headed, and there is a strict limit on how many times the show can pull a trick like they do in “Oathbreaker,” I find myself only more excited to see how the theory plays out in context. The scene delivered a visceral battle, created meaningful questions about how history is remembered versus how it actually transpired, and only reaffirmed the theory’s importance to the future of the show. While it’s difficult not to leave the scene disappointed with the way it teases us, it functions exactly as a teaser should: it, combined with the context around it, creates conditions where the meaning of that which is being teased will only increase. And “Oathbreaker,” bringing the first act of the season to a close, ultimately does its job in suggesting that season has the potential to come together as something revelatory as far as the larger story arc is concerned, even if we’re not ready for it just yet.

Stray observations

  • Rapid-Aging Syndrome: You might have thought that baby Sam was going to be the worst offender in this regard, but then the show continued its trend of ignoring puberty and allowed Art Parkinson to remain as Rickon. It’s a choice I respect, albeit one that caused some confusion in my parents’ living room.
  • Shaggydog’s death is sad, and another unfortunate victim of Ramsay and his bannermen’s reign of terror, but realistically the only Direwolf I care deeply about is Nymeria. Still waiting on that reunion.
  • Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: Nice to get a bit of Qyburn adopting Varys’ “little birds” before we went into more exposition about Cersei and Zombie Gregor (who the show is calling by his name, versus the books’ “Ser Robert Strong,” which is probably for the best clarity-wise).
  • I almost wish that Olenna had responded to the questions about her presence with “the writers love writing for my character.” (I am not complaining about more Olenna Tyrell, but she’s definitely there more for the quips than for any type of plot function).
  • I know we’re all cheering for Olly’s death (they lingered on that frozen strangled corpse face for a long time), and I am never going to argue that Thorne was a decent man, but Thorne’s explanation to Jon is more rational than I think he’ll get credit for. He’s an asshole, and an opportunistic one, but he’s not entirely wrong to question Jon’s path for the Night’s Watch.
  • Between Tormund’s talk of Jon’s pecker and the Umber’s strident approach to negotiating with Ramsay, I felt this was another week where the dialogue felt a tad bit more modern than it has in past seasons. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it seemed marked nonetheless.
  • I do sort of wish the show would give Tyrion a clearer story arc of his own, but I do appreciate the levity of his inability to make any kind of small talk, and his struggle of playing drinking games with people who don’t drink. Silly, slight, and a nice respite from the doom and gloom. I think this is sort of how Martin thought Tyrion’s time with Penny might function (insofar as it gives Tyrion a source of levity amidst his depression, pulling out that side of the character), but we all know how that went.
  • Smart to use Arya’s deprogramming as a way to remind us both that Jon is Arya’s half-brother and that Rickon exists—a nice way to work in some reminders for those who aren’t paying close attention.
  • Kingsmoot Korner: We’re left only to imagine what thrilling power moves were taking place on Pyke as this took place, but I’m sure they were rivetingand I deeply resent not seeing them.

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (and Speculation)…

We got our first check-in with Sam and Gilly this week, and the show’s approach to this story seems like a big question mark. We know they’re headed to Horn Hill (Gilly agrees to go live with his family in this brief scene on the boat), but the books have not gotten to this point, despite having made significant strides into Oldtown and its importance in the larger conflict. What’s confusing to me right now, and which I’d like to hear from others on, is how the pacing works on Sam’s “training” as a Maester, which the show is still framing as his ostensible goal.

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Basically, the timing can’t work: Sam cannot “become a Maester to help Jon” in the amount of time he’ll have. All he can realistically do is find some piece of information that will assist the larger conflict, and that doesn’t strike me as particularly time-consuming or, necessarily, dramatic. In the books, Oldtown and the Maesters carry more significant meaning, and you can see the show trying to sketch some in (we’re reminded Qyburn was kicked out of the Citadel here), but how much time can the show realistically spend there? Can Sam’s storyline realistically function independently in the same way as Jon’s or Dany’s or Arya’s can? And if so, for how long?


Episode 4, “Book Of The Stranger”

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Reunions and returns dominate as Game Of Thrones marches on

One of the distinctive qualities of reading A Song Of Ice And Fire is the stretches you can go without checking in with certain characters. Even if you discount the wait between books, and the absence of certain characters in A Feast For Crowsand the early chapters of A Dance With Dragons, you often go considerable lengths within a given book without seeing certain characters thanks to the POV chapter structure. And so while we could focus on Bran’s absence from A Feast For Crows—mirrored by his absence in season five—we could also focus on his absence for a 21-chapter stretch in A Dance With Dragons.

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Reading the books, though, I got used to these absences. While I would sometimes get impatient if I went too long between certain characters’ chapters—although this was not the case with those ADWD Bran chapters—I didn’t find myself spending each chapter wondering what those characters were up to. The singular focus of the chapters is incredibly immersive, reconnecting you to a location, a set of characters, and a situation, and then spending a decent amount of time there.

By comparison, though, the show can’t necessarily do the same. Although episodes like “Blackwater,” “The Watchers On The Wall,” and “Hardhome”—among others—have replicated this tight focus on a single scenario, most episodes jump between stories often, rarely creating the same sense of immersion. Accordingly, however, it becomes less viable for the show to ignore a character for extended periods without the audience starting to ask questions. Those questions are not necessarily a problem—it gives the show a point of dramatic interest, provided that their return explains the missing time and reactivates our interest in the character. But for me, absences are more notable on the show than they were in the books, where the disappearances could be explained away as a byproduct of Martin’s chosen structure.

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Littlefinger’s absence in the first part of this season was somewhat odd. More than any other character, Game Of Thrones has famed Petyr Baelish as someone who is always making moves, which makes his absences more notable than when Yara Greyjoy disappeared for over a season, or when we don’t check into Dorne for three consecutive weeks. It was entirely reasonable to presume that the show was just going to write out the Greyjoy storyline, for example, but we knew there was no chance that Littlefinger wasn’t going to involve himself in the coming conflict. And given how quickly the character has teleported around Westeros in the past, it didn’t make sense that he would have spent so long in transit, and thus knowing he would be appearing in this week’s episode I wondered what he might have been up to offscreen.

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The answer was very little. Littlefinger drops in to visit Lord Robin, delivering him a name day gift of a falcon and using his mind games to convince Lord Royce and the Knights of the Vale to ride north to assist Sansa in her fight against Ramsay. And that’s it. What has Littlefinger been doing in the time that has passed in the season so far, as other characters have made crucial steps forward in their respective journeys? He’s been in his cart, accomplishing nothing more than a falcon purchase along the way, apparently. After hoping that his absence would lead to the start of a meaningful new storyline, the brief scene we get from Littlefinger more or less justifies the decision to ignore the character: whatever long game he’s playing with the Vale, it remains almost remarkably insignificant as far as the central narrative is concerned. And therein lies the danger in keeping someone off-screen for too long: when you bring them back just to remind us they’re alive, it only serves to remind us they’re not being utilized.

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We will see in the weeks to come how the show manages the similar return of the Ironborn, but Theon’s reunion with Yara helps anchor the story in the character we’ve spent the most time with (and which the show resisted sidelining as the books did, albeit mainly to begin the seemingly unending parade of evidence to make absolute certain we know that Ramsay is a terrible person which—we get it already). Yara may not register as a major character, but the show made good use of their tragic last meeting where he refused her rescue, and the Kingsmoot now feels like something tied into the ongoing narrative rather than something more tangential, something that is likely to continue should the ships be heading east in the weeks to come.

Obviously, though, “Book Of The Stranger” is most powerful for its other sibling reunion, as two of the Starks finally reunite. It’s a great choice for a first reunion precisely because it’s not the reunion we would have wanted. Jon was closest to Arya out of his remaining siblings, and arguably it is also Arya who would have the more emotionally complicated reunion with Sansa as well. But Jon and Sansa were not close: he was sullen and removed, she was judgmental, and they never really bonded. And yet war has done things to them that make their reunion just as emotional as if they had been best friends, and perspective that helps them look back on the kids they were and wonder how things might have been different. They’re also two people who have complex relationships with the concept of leadership, and who are each at key turning points that temporarily take them in the opposite directions: Jon is tired of being a leader, and Sansa is tired of following orders.

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There is not a great deal of elegance in the show’s introduction of the Pink Letter, or some variation of it. While some speculated the show was playing some type of game with Rickon and Osha being held captive, Ramsay quickly murders Osha to remove any chance of this having been a cunning plan on behalf of Rickon’s protector. The scene sells Osha short, and seems an ignoble end, but it creates the impulse for Sansa, Jon, and the Wildlings to get on the same page regarding marching on Winterfell. But the way that happens is subtle and smart: Jon doubts the veracity of Ramsay’s claims, and balks at reading the more hateful and grotesque threats it contains, but it’s Sansa who knows it’s true, and it’s Sansa who reads the rape threat and everything after it. While I’m delighted by this group regardless of how they came together—Melisandre and Brienne on the same side? Tormund smitten with Brienne? Podrick and Davos along for the ride?—the scene makes the bald setup of Littlefinger’s entrée into the affair all the more bald.

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It’s also a reminder that as much as these characters have gone through, no one truly understands the other. After Missandei raises an eyebrow at Tyrion claiming that he was a slave for “long enough to know” how bad it was, she correctly notes it was “not long enough to understand.” And the same goes for Jon and Sansa: she can’t know the depths of his experiences at and beyond the Wall (I presume he skipped over the resurrection, although we can debate that in the comments), but he also can’t pretend to understand what happened to her at Winterfell (like the fact that the threat of rape has already been carried out before). The more characters reunite as the series draws to a close—and I expect many more reunions like this one—the more we will see characters articulating the distinction between “knowing” and “understanding” what has happened to them.

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We could view the events in King’s Landing through this lens, as the threat of Margaery’s walk of shame pushes the Tyrells and Kevan into an alliance with Cersei and Jaime, or as Margaery consoles a damaged Loras who may be too far gone at the hands of the Faith Militant to move forward. But this story, more than the others in the episode, is being left fairly opaque. I feel like we know little and understand even less, as we’re seeing such selective moments in each character’s journey. The High Sparrow is a master wordsmith, demonstrating a clear understanding of how to break down privilege and tap into more basic human decency, but his agenda remains incredibly cryptic even as he’s made some pretty decent sense with both Tommen and Margaery in recent weeks. And while we see Tommen tell Cersei a secret, we don’t [definitively] learn what it is, or how it inspires her to parlay with the Queen of Thorns and Kevan. [Note: based on the comments, it’s clear that I wasn’t clear when I wrote this sentence. We know what the show implies the secret was: that Margaery was going to make a walk of atonement. I just read the scene in ambiguous ways, believing—and perhaps overthinking—that Cersei was being dishonest when she spoke with Kevan. We’ll see next week if my concerns is warranted, but that’s the nature of this comment.] It is here where the “knowing” and “understanding” run into problems as a book reader, where the story seems to be veering away from the presumed path (more on that below).

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But the central philosophical conflict in the episode comes between Daenerys and the dwarf left behind to run her city. While aided at times by stealth and strategy, Daenerys has largely taken her power by force, and sees leadership through the lens of absolutes. But as Tyrion takes over Meereen, a city beset with problems created by Daenerys’ inability to keep slavery at bay outside of Meereen and the rise of the Sons of the Harpy, he is choosing to adopt a diplomatic approach more common in Westeros. In the process, as Missandei’s objection notes, he is complicating the rhetoric of freedom Daenerys stressed when she took power, and compromising the place of Grey Worm and Missandei as they are forced to support Tyrion’s plan to other former slaves. The moral compromise they’re making is central to leadership, but that compromise is somewhat lost on Tyrion, the outsider looking in. Meereen needed an outsider’s perspective in order to solve its problems, but that does not mean that the solution will come at no cost, as Tyrion has no doubt discovered before in his diplomatic efforts.

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But even as “Book Of The Stranger”—so-named for the one of the seven that people rarely pray to—demonstrates the value of diplomacy, it also ends with Daenerys going back to her old bag of tricks. Much as with the Starks’ reunion, Daenerys’ return to Vaes Dothrak is about coming full circle, and reflecting on the show’s past. And in a microcosm of the character’s journey thus far, she asserts her authority over those who wish to control her, uses fire to eliminate her enemies, and then stages a theatrical moment amidst the flames that only adds to her growing legacy. There is no diplomacy here, replaced with theatricality and a belief in the power of shock and awe.

It’s an impressive scene, and manages to give Daenerys control over the entirety of the Dothraki (which is likely where Martin was heading in the books as well), but it’s not enough to rule Westeros. In pairing Tyrion and Dany in one of the show’s first major character convergences last season, the writers drew an important contrast: the statesman who knows how to rule, and the queen who knows how to conquer. Much as Jon and Sansa need one another to conquer the North, Tyrion and Dany need one another if they ever intend to lead Westeros. In fact, more than ever before, it’s becoming clear that all of our “heroes”—here defined as characters in Westeros who have any shred of decency—need one another in one way or another for the coming war with the threat that has remained offscreen since the season began: the White Walkers and their undead army, who remain at large waiting to reemerge at the least opportune time.

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And something tells me we won’t be forgetting about them anytime soon.

Stray observations

  • So speaking of things happening off-screen: Davos had never asked Melisandre what happened to Stannis and Shireen? That seems incredibly unlikely to me, but it gives Brienne a chance to break the news she murdered him, and create some productive tension. But I know many wondered why Davos would be willing to work with Melisandre given Shireen’s fate, so here’s your answer: he never got the full story.
  • Along similar lines: do we think Jon told Sansa about being resurrected? How would you even tell that story to Sansa, who has been witness to no magic or zombies or anything like it? I have questions.
  • I’ll miss Dolorous Edd when we move away from Castle Black, as his eyebrow raise at Tormund eyeing Brienne was a nice reminder of the levity that could exist on the Wall at a time.
  • Kingsmoot Korner: I was interested to see no major setup for Euron here—it’s possible the Kingsmoot is further away than I thought (I didn’t get the preview for next week in Canada), but I expected a bit more time with the character before we dive right into Theon and Yara’s partnership.
  • I wonder if they killed Shaggydog just so they would only have to CGI three direwolves in the epic final battle of the entire series—they’ve got to be thinking ahead at this point. (And yes, Nymeria is going to be there. I WILL NOT BELIEVE OTHERWISE.)
  • Although Emilia Clarke has stepped away from providing recurring nudity in the way she did in the first season, she confirmed to EW that it’s her in the final scene, which helps justify her choice to step away from it: the show can use nudity very effectively (and has with Dany often), and the more sparingly it appears the more impactful it is. Note also that they avoided nudity in the rest of the episode, with a Dothraki arm hiding a woman’s chest during Dothraki reverie earlier in the episode.

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (Or Informed Speculation, At Least)

So do we think this is the end of the CleganeBowl dreams?

It’s an interesting question. The show appears to be ramping up the King’s Landing storyline to some type of conflict ahead of Cersei’s trial, there has been no mention of trial by combat necessarily being a key climax for the storyline, and there has been zero groundwork laid for Sandor’s surprise return. All of this would seem to steer away from CleganeBowl as a viable option.

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However, the show has very much resisted making the Faith Militant overly villainous, with the High Sparrow’s points about class quite reasonable even if his tactics are not. And it would be an interesting comeuppance for the Lannisters if the Hound emerged having cleansed himself of his sin, having walked away from his life of privilege and knighthood to embrace a simpler existence much as the High Sparrow did. And they did go through the hassle of introducing Zombie Gregor. And so we see a case where, similar to Lady Stoneheart, the thematic groundwork is there but the narrative structure remains missing. I’m curious to know where book readers stand on the odds with this one—are there odds? Do people wager on this? I have to think someone, somewhere, is doing Game Of Thrones prop bets.


Episode 5, “Hold The Door”

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Game Of Thrones finally gets an iconic TV-exclusive tragedy

There have been moments in the life of Game Of Thrones where book readers have been “surprised.” Between small changes from the trajectory of the books—a slightly different character arc here, a premature character death there—and some key mythology reveals regarding the White Walkers, it would be wrong to say that those who have read the books have only seen the show through the lens of moments they remember from the books come to life.

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However, because of having read the books (and because I was writing about the show), I never felt like I was experiencing these small moments like those who hadn’t read the books were experiencing the big moments, which have come to define the show. When the show delivered huge emotional, series-defining moments, I knew too much about the series they were defining to tap into the emotions in the same way. I was rendered more of an observer, not unlike Bran watching his father’s battle at the Tower Of Joy—I might be surprised by some small details, but I know how the fight ends, and it’s hard to not feel like you’re missing out on something.

The show catching up to the books has obviously created the conditions for this to change (beginning with Shireen’s death last season), and we saw this continue last week with the reunion of Jon and Sansa. However, satisfying as it was to finally see a proper Stark reunion for the first time since season one, and as much as it tapped into the emotions I felt reading the books for the first time as major events occurred, I’m greedy. Jon and Sansa meeting was a small moment, one that we knew was coming: It was only surprising insofar as the show allowed it to happen, given how often they’ve kept us from such moments in the past. Going into this season, I wanted to experience a shocking moment with tragic consequences in real time with the rest of the show’s viewers, something that made me feel the way they might have felt during “Baelor” or “The Rains Of Castamere,” the episode of The Red Wedding.

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“The Door” delivers such a moment. The setup for the final sequence is not particularly elegant: Bran’s journeys into the past are moving too slowly for him, with the exposition—like the fact the Children Of The Forest were the ones who created the White Walkers—failing to be as revealing as he wants it to be, and so he breaks protocol and journeys solo instead. The reason he travels to the present and a gathering of wights is unclear, and the logic by which him being touched by the Night’s King and then allowing the White Walkers to find out his location is never really explained. But it gets the job done by creating an assault on the tree, resulting in a chaotic battle wherein the White Walkers murder the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children Of The Forest and Summer sacrifice themselves to allow Hodor, Meera, and Bran to escape, and then the indefatigability of the wights forces Bran and Meera to make a tragic decision to leave Hodor behind.

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Given the show’s body count of late, the very fact of Hodor’s death is not itself remarkable. While it is more significant than Osha (offscreen for too long) and the direwolves (who the show was never able to afford to show enough to fully capture their relationship with their respective Starks), Hodor’s speech condition hindered his ability to become a narrative in his own right. The internet’s love of Hodor played a huge part in expanding the character’s profile beyond what I recalled from the books, but the fact is that Hodor’s death in and of itself represents an easy decision. Sacrifices will always need to be made, and Hodor dying holding the wights back so that Bran and Meera could escape is the type of tragiheroic ending you would expect from a character whose loyalty never wavered, even when his courage couldn’t live up to it.

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However, in a timey-wimey twist worthy of Doctor Who or Lost (fitting in an episode directed by Jack Bender), “The Door” puts the emphasis on the tragic in Hodor’s tragiheroic final moments. The mechanics, as with other parts of the scene, remain opaque—all we know is what we see, as Bran is warging into Hodor while simultaneously observing Ned’s childhood journey to the Vale as witnessed by Wylis. And then it all starts happening: Wylis starts seizing in the past as Hodor is being controlled in the future, and then a portal between two times opens as Meera’s cries of “hold the door” are screamed by Wylis in abject terror, eventually morphing into “Hodor.” And as a book reader, it was that moment I’d been waiting for—the show finally claiming its own moment of carefully constructed, emotionally devastating poetry as “Hodor” is born and dies in the very same moment.

As is so often the case, we couldn’t initially say for certain if this is something that Martin plans to have play out in The Winds Of Winter, and so designating authorship takes time: the “inside the episode” feature has since confirmed this is straight from Martin himself. But even though this is something that Martin intended to explore in the books in the future, Hodor’s death plays out visually in a way that the books could never fully replicate—the simultaneity that the “flashback world” gives the show access to is what makes the scene so powerful, beyond the simple facts of Hodor’s death and its relationship to his condition could have offered if revealed in the books. While I know there are many who worry about what impact the show “spoiling” certain broad strokes of the books will have on their experience with the larger narrative, on the surface this feels like a moment that I’m glad played out on the show first. I have invested enough in this show that it feels right for them to bring this character’s arc to its end in the medium that best enables them to explore the tragedy in his last, life-saving moments.

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With King’s Landing on the bench, “The Door” is primarily focused on the remaining Stark children, with only brief forays into Meereen (Tyrion reaches out to the Red Priests for public outreach on behalf of Daenerys), Vaes Dothrak (Jorah revealing his greyscale and Dany ordering him to find a cure), and Pyke (Euron wins the Salt Throne in the kingsmoot, leading Yara and Theon to run off with his best ships) as potential distractions. The centrality of the Stark children is not a mistake: they are where the show began, and the characters who have been most changed by the broader narrative strokes of the series. While Bran is literally journeying into his family’s past, Arya witnesses a farcical reconstruction of the events of the first three seasons in a Braavosi play, and Sansa reconnects with her stitching days by reconstructing Ned’s finery from memory for Jon (along with a new dress for herself). With each of the three Starks at turning points in their respective journeys, reconnecting with who they were tests the paths they’re about to embark on.

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Bran didn’t really have a choice: Once the White Walkers had his location, it didn’t matter that the Three-Eyed Raven said he wasn’t ready—Bran is now the new Three-Eyed Raven, being dragged out into the snow by Meera. For Arya, meanwhile, the test is literal: after being distracted by her quest for revenge on Meryn Trant last season, Arya being asked to kill the woman playing Cersei in a play that features her father’s tragic death is no coincidence. Jaqen is testing whether or not she is capable of committing to the Faceless cause and serve the Many-Faced God instead of herself. He says “a servant does not ask questions,” but Arya has always seemed ill-suited to any type of service. The show has consistently placed her in servant roles—as Tywin’s cup boy at Harrenhal, as The Hound’s “squire,” and now as a servant of the House Of Black And White—but she has always failed because she was built to be her own boss. The Waif tells Arya that she should “go home before it’s too late,” and while it’s intended—and received—as a taunt about Arya’s inadequacy, it’s also how I feel about the character. It’s created a productively frustrating scenario where I want the character to achieve her goals, and yet the path I want the character to take—back to Westeros—would mean abandoning them. The play seems constructed in order to pull this scenario to the surface, so I’m curious how this target plays out in the weeks to come.

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For Sansa, meanwhile, “The Door” is a crucial turning point in achieving a degree of independence from those who seek to use her. The confrontation with Littlefinger serves two functions. First and foremost, it represents welcome follow-through on Sansa’s treatment by Ramsay, allowing her to actively frame herself as a survivor of rape and abuse in ways that acknowledge its long-term impact. When the show initiated that storyline last season, I expressed my concern that the show’s breathless pacing might not leave room for this type of reflection, and so I am heartened that Benioff and Weiss took the time to let Sansa articulate the effect it had on her to the man who knowingly put her in that position to begin with. Sansa’s confidence in her Mole’s Town rendezvous with Littlefinger does a lot to make what happened to Sansa at Winterfell a meaningful and resonant engine for her present and future growth.

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What it also does, however, is stress how much Sansa wants to dictate her life on her own terms. It’s not surprising that she would turn down Littlefinger’s offer of support from the knights of the Vale: In a time where she is trying to reclaim her identity as a Stark, why would she accept help from the man who stripped her of it in the Vale, and who knowingly used her for her name in his own quest for power? However, it’s more surprising that she chooses not to tell Jon and Davos about his offer, believing they might pressure her to do the pragmatic thing and give up her principles in the interest of securing forces in the coming war against Ramsay. Sansa may trust her brother, and to a lesser extent Davos and the wildlings, but she has learned from past experience that it is only too easy for her to be stripped of her agency in this and any other future situation.

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I know there’s a vocal contingent of commenters who are convinced that TV reviewers discuss agency too often, but it’s only becoming more integral to Game Of Thrones as the series continues. Arya, Sansa, and Bran were all young when this show started, and they have for a variety of reasons been forced to rely on the help of others in order to move forward. But Arya and Bran have now reached the end of their training, and Sansa has pulled herself from under Littlefinger’s control in the interest of taking a more active role in her future. The Stark children are living up to the example set by their father, brother, and mother, which is both intensely satisfying and worrying given what happened when those three committed to their respective paths.

“The Door” also creates complex questions about Hodor’s agency in its final scene. What we see unfold is a heroic moment, but it’s one that is undoubtedly framed by tragedy, and complicated by the fact that Hodor didn’t actually want to participate in it at all. I believe that Hodor would have wanted to protect Bran, but I also know that he was a scared pacifist, who would never fight of his own volition. And I also know that—however exactly the time travel situation worked—he lived a life of ridicule because of this sacrifice, and because of a situation that Bran created when he brought the White Walkers to their doorstep. It’s messy, no doubt, but it reinforces that what’s unfolding at this moment is not going to be without consequences. Whatever these characters decide is going to ripple through the storytelling, and we are past the point where things could theoretically course correct down the line. The end is nigh, and Hodor’s tragic end is unlikely to be the last time the show surprises us in the weeks to come.

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Stray observations

  • Obviously, the reveal that the Children Of The Forest created the White Walkers in order to fight off men is significant, but also something that doesn’t really change the conflict in any meaningful way (especially since I don’t know if the show has really done much to establish who the Children Of The Forest are to non-readers, although maybe I’m wrong). It’s one of those reveals that’s more satisfying in the sense that it’s been said, versus actually offering dramatic significance.
  • The Braavosi performance of the narrative so far was all sorts of fun—yes, it’s there mainly to watch Arya’s reactions change as Ned becomes involved (she’s loving it so much before that, but boy does she turn sour after), but the production design is lovely, and it’s a nice bit of levity.
  • RIP Summer. While the show’s budget may have expanded, it was too late for the direwolves to be a significant presence early on, and so it’s only too easy for the writers to pick them off one-by-one as the show nears the end. However, let it be known that if they kill Nymeria I will not be so understanding.
  • Lots of nice work from director Jack Bender, although his most memorable shot might end up being a cut to a close-up of a dude’s penis. The shot doesn’t serve any particular function outside of responding to ongoing commentary, but I like it: turnabout is fair play, and I take great comfort when showrunners actively troll segments of their viewership. It lets me know they’re human.
  • Kingsmoot Korner: That went about how we expected, although Euron doesn’t have his fancy dragon horn. That said, though, Victarion’s absence makes it superfluous: Theon can’t marry Daenerys and give her heirs, and thus if the plan is to find and marry Dany, Euron is the best option regardless of whether or not he has a horn. (More on this below.)
  • It doesn’t really make sense for Tormund to go with Brienne to Riverrun, but I’d bet on it given how much fun all are having with lovestruck Tormund and disgusted Brienne.
  • We’ve talked about whether or not Littlefinger might be someone who could push “R+L=J,” but he pretty pointedly calls Jon Sansa’s half-brother here, and I didn’t read any weird undertones.
  • Dolorous Edd’s first act as lord commander: forgetting he was lord commander. Bless you, Edd. I’m curious if and when we’ll return to Castle Black—he’s the only character left that we realistically care about, and even then he’s a minor one at best.
  • I appreciate Kinvara’s sparring match with Varys—religion kind of ebbs and flows as a central thread in the show, but it’s always been more prominent than I found it to be in the books, and this scene with the Red Priestess reiterates that.
  • “A bit brooding, perhaps. I suppose it’s understandable, considering”—we discussed this in the comments last week, but while I continue to contest that we deserved to see Sansa work through the insanity that Jon’s been through rather than just hearing and accepting it off-screen, this joke does absolutely confirm that they are all aware Jon died and was resurrected. Case closed.

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The Night Is Dark And Full of “Spoilers” (Explicit Book Spoilers)

Lots of space for conversation this week, so let’s take them one by one.

  • The return of the Blackfish and Riverrun confirms the show’s interest in returning to that story, although so far only Brienne is on her way there. I’m interested in the specific utility, and reading others’ speculation suggested that Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner might deserve to be reactivated. I am not yet willing to raise such hopes.
  • I’m wondering if they might be giving Quentyn’s story to Euron—the show chose not to give Victarion’s story to Yara and Theon, making them fugitives instead, which for me makes it possible that Euron will just steamroll ahead and end up dragon food. But we’ll see.
  • It makes sense for Brienne to head off on her own, given that we know characters where she’s going, and it’s likely that other characters will converge there. But Jorah’s solitary journey into the East to find the cure for greyscale seems more problematic—is there anything else he could find there? And what exactly does the show want to say about greyscale, and its relationship to the larger conflict? Whatever’s worth sending a character on a tangent has to be relevant in a bigger way. (I speculated last year that dragon fire could cure greyscale, but not sure that’s likely.)
  • “Boy, how are Meera and Bran ever going to survive on their own when she can’t realistically pull that sled like Hodor could,” we asked. And a man with very cold hands answers?

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Episode 6, “Blood Of My Blood”

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An inconclusive Thrones prioritizes perspective at season’s turning point

Earlier this week, Laura Bogart published an essay here at The A.V. Club focused on the character of Margaery Tyrell, arguing she “is Westeros’ biggest badass—and the show can’t handle her.” It’s a persuasive argument, although it was difficult not to read Laura’s argument through a different lens as a book reader. The essay never directly poses the question of why Margaery has been marginalized in the larger narrative this season, but if posed the answer is simple: because the writers have never quite solved where to slot the more well-rounded version of Margaery they’ve created into Martin’s larger story.

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Margaery’s expansion into a more significant character than in the books is only logical: while Martin’s choice not to make Margaery a point-of-view character limited how fleshed out she could become, the show has no such issues, and Margaery is connected to too many stories for her to be as passive as she seems in the first three books in particular. And so in preparing for when she begins to take on more importance in A Feast For Crows, the writers used that characterization to build Margaery early on: From her introduction in season two, Natalie Dormer has been given a version of Margaery that would never be mistaken for a pawn that the Tyrells use to marry into positions of power within Westeros, which is to the show’s credit.

But Laura’s observation points to the challenges in fleshing out minor characters in an adaptation. The writers have turned Margaery into a more complex and active character in this story, yes, but there are still limits to how active she can be, and how much the show can explore her complexity. And thus while the writers have created someone that fans could see as their favorite character, and want to see become a bigger part of the story, there’s a point at which the canon—which, despite all of the changes made for the TV show, remains a crucial part of the adaptation—will keep Margaery from becoming a central focus of this story.

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I raise these points because “Blood Of My Blood” is absolutely focused on Margaery, although in ways that I’m not entirely convinced by, and which speak to her somewhat awkward place in the adaptation. On the one hand, the episode finds a way to take the writers’ more active version of Margaery and place her into a more central role in the ongoing conflict in King’s Landing between the Lannister establishment and the Faith. Having her convince Tommen to create an alliance between the Crown and the Faith refreshes her feud with Cersei, while also speaking to her ability to control Tommen and advance her own agenda. These developments raise the stakes of the battle for control in King’s Landing, create the circumstances to push Jaime off to the Riverlands, and solidify Margaery’s centrality relative to the books (where Margaery, at around the same point, has been shuffled out of sight into the ward of Randyll Tarly).

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On the other hand, however, “Blood Of My Blood” also makes a huge leap in Margaery’s characterization with regards to her relationship with the High Sparrow, and I don’t entirely know how to read it. When Margaery first began speaking to Tommen, I thought it was a feint. The last we saw Margaery, she was being lectured to by the High Sparrow, and then watching as her brother began to fade under the pressure of his torture at the hands of the Faith; nothing I had seen in those moments had convinced me she was close to converting, and fully accepting the gospel of the High Sparrow. What she tells Tommen here makes basic sense—that her efforts to appear as a good person in order to gain the moral high ground were false and hollow—but the fact that she would turn herself over to the Faith and so closely align with the High Sparrow strikes me as hasty. The strength of Margaery in this adaptation has been the way she has thought strategically and intelligently (like her pragmatism in her marriage to Renly), and so to see her give that away for blind allegiance is a difficult pill for me to swallow (and it remains possible that she’s still strategizing, although I’d need to rewatch for clearer clues than what I saw at first glance).

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The entire situation at King’s Landing remains a bit of a mystery to me, in terms of how we’re supposed to be reading it. In the books, this story was told almost exclusively through Cersei’s perspective: there was no Tommen or Margaery points-of-view to explore, and thus the story served primarily as a way to explore Cersei’s psyche in the wake of all she’d been through. But onscreen, the story has spread much more widely, and become a much larger war between Cersei and Jaime and the High Sparrow for control of King’s Landing. The show has accomplished this by rewriting the books’ schism between Jaime and Cersei (who are given a romantic final moment before he’s dispatched to the Riverlands), and drawing clear battle lines between the Lannister and Tyrell families and their children, a new generation who have embraced faith as their path forward (whether earnestly or as part of some type of plan). And while this might in fact be by design, I have zero idea who or what exactly I’m supposed to be rooting for—the High Sparrow may be right about privilege, but he’s also deeply judgmental, and an extremist, which makes Margaery’s decision reckless and short-sighted if she is in fact genuinely convinced by his doctrine (or even if she’s temporarily siding with him). But then it’s hard to root for the Lannisters when their motivations seem so far removed from any larger good (the future of Westeros, the stability of King’s Landing) and more just personal vengeance and retribution. I may not need someone to root for, but the show has made rooting for anyone compromising in ways that have King’s Landing floating off in its own bubble at a time when the rest of the story is starting to reconvene around more important issues.

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There will soon be no more bubbles left in Westeros. Sam’s brief detour to Horn Hill serves a function for the character: embarrassed by his father and inspired by Gilly’s willingness to stand up for him, Sam decides they should stick together, and takes Heartsbane (Chekhov’s Valyrian Steel Sword) on his way out for good measure. It’s a good moment for the character, but the time at Horn Hill mainly serves to give us a rare glimpse into the halls of Westeros that have been more or less untouched by the conflicts of the series. Horn Hill is not braced for combat, nor is it forced into preparations for winter: the summer leaves have yet to turn autumnal, and their news is of their latest hunt rather than the hunt for a cure to Greyscale. Sam and Gilly burst that bubble: she is a wildling, Sam saved her from a White Walker, and the Wildlings and the people of Westeros are now very much on the same side of a larger war. We don’t stay long enough to know exactly how Horn Hill will or will not be changed by the knowledge gained from Sam and Gilly’s presence at dinner, but the sequence serves as a precursor to the challenge any of our heroes will face in angling the entirety of Westeros toward the larger conflict at hand.

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We can see a similar conflict playing out in Arya’s storyline, which appears to finally be approaching its climax after a very slow build over two seasons. Arya is being asked to place herself into a bubble and forget about Westeros and what she left behind, and so having her final “test” involve the play detailing the political events of the series in King’s Landing is a really deft story choice. Here, we get the wonderfully poetic moment where an actress portraying a woman who Arya has vowed to kill makes Arya realize that she and Cersei have something in common: that they are not the type of people who are willing to do nothing after something has been taken away from them. I like the line it draws between Arya and Cersei—and the show’s female characters in general—and how the play seeks to constrain the role women played in those conflicts. Cersei is left largely to grieve over those she’s lost, Margaery doesn’t even speak, and it’s Tyrion who gets credit for Joffrey’s death even though it was the Queen of Thorns who arranged it. But while it may make for a dramatically satisfying moment of awakening for Arya as she abandons her mission, saves Lady Crane’s life, and then rescues Needle from its stone hiding place, it can’t help but feel a bit unfinished when we’re left hanging with regards to the promised showdown between Arya and the Waif that is necessary to bring the arc to a complete close.

“Blood Of My Blood” is the most inconclusive episode of the season to date, with only the King’s Landing story having a clear structure of rising action, climax, and denouement. Writer Bryan Cogman is tasked with a great deal of exposition in the Riverlands, smartly killing two birds with one stone by having Walder Frey remind us how much we hate him while also recounting the events and aftermath of the Red Wedding as he chews out his sons. But Cogman can’t hide the fact that nothing can actually happen in the Riverlands in this episode: until your average viewer is reminded that Edmure exists, and the role the Freys now play in the region, they can’t just jump into that story. The show chose to allow that story to remain dormant while other priorities took over in the subsequent seasons, and “Blood Of My Blood” unavoidably feels hampered by the amount of time it takes to restart this particular narrative engine after two seasons out in the cold in the garage out back.

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Bran’s story is no more conclusive than the rest of the episode, but it feels designed as a way to make up for the lack of resolution elsewhere by both delivering a pivotal reveal for book readers and by creating ample space for speculation. From the moment a rider appears to rescue Meera and Bran, I did what most book readers would do: I scanned his face for any resemblance to Benjen Stark. The reveal of Coldhands’ identity is not a surprise: it has been the prevailing theory, and was supported by the fact the show bothered to place Benjen in Bran’s flashbacks this season. But it anchors a story that builds from last week’s reveal with Hodor to place Bran—as the new Three-Eyed Raven—at the heart of Westeros’ past and the mythology of the series more broadly. Benjen’s reveal is satisfying in its way, but it’s the perspective gained from Bran’s flashes—especially his glimpses of Aerys’ final days—that offers a better guide to what the show wants Bran’s story to be. While Sam struggles to get his father to understand his role in a greater struggle, Bran is the one character who can readily access the history of Westeros and understand how everything and everyone connect to one another. There will be collateral damage—like Hodor—that comes with this power, but it is the tool Westeros needs in order for the larger war to become the focus instead of small struggles of limited significance, and one the show will put to use as it starts narrowing its focus in preparation for its final act.

Stray observations

  • A reminder that while this does indeed fit the bill of a “table-setting” episode, that is not nor will it ever be a pejorative. Tables need to be set—such episodes are only problematic if they do a bad job at setting the table, which we won’t know until we see how the meal plays out. Cogman wrote both this week’s and next week’s episodes, and so it’s hard to judge the episode fully knowing that the “second half” (or something approximate to it, with some stories) is forthcoming. This makes “grading” it hard, so consider that B+ capable of changing depending on how this plays out.
  • I honestly have nothing to say about Daenerys’ story here, which wasn’t even a story: it was just the latest in a series of power moves by Dany, here aided by being on Drogon’s back. There’s just not enough meat there to say anything new, and so other than reaffirming the conqueror/leader conflict the character will continue to face, it mostly just helped explain why Dany will be able to get back to Meereen a bit faster? That scene kind of felt left hanging here.
  • Nice that Tobias Menzies was able to return, after having since moved onto another prestige drama in Outlander. Edmure is a character that the show had even less time for than the books did, so what they intend to do with him is anyone’s guess.
  • “He’s beaten us, that’s what’s happening”—not sure how I feel about the Queen of Thorns, who orchestrated Joffrey’s murder, being completely caught unawares by the High Sparrow’s power trip here. I get Jaime being blind to it, and Mace is an imbecile (I loved Jaime’s incredulity at his pomposity), but Olenna? Olenna should’ve known better.
  • Yes, that was UnREAL’s Freddie Stroma as Dickon Tarly, which makes me wonder if he’ll be the one sent to retrieve Heartsbane from Sam at Oldtown. Because why else do you cast someone I would recognize?
  • That having been said: lots of people recognized Richard E. Grant as the lead actor—and, it turns out, control freak—of the traveling theater troupe, but that role doesn’t ultimately seem overly consequential. So maybe casting notoriety isn’t a fair indicator with Game Of Thrones.
  • Using Little Sam as a way to gauge how much time has passed in the show is dangerous, I know, but dude seemed to age pretty rapidly during that boat journey, no?

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of “Spoilers”

  • First and foremost, one of the dominant fan theories that emerged from last week’s reveal with Bran was whether or not he had anything to do with Aerys going mad, and so the fact that our first glimpse of the Mad King was part of Bran’s vision is a meaningful question. I had actually forgotten on some level that the events of Aerys’ final days had never been clearly established on the show, so we’ll see how much more we get of that story as the series wears on. I was talking to a critic who hasn’t read the books, and they didn’t even realize why Jaime might have been on the Iron Throne, so we’ll see how that story resurfaces in his Riverlands journey as well.
  • Speaking of which, however, I am about to do something I swore not to do, but I can’t ignore cold hard evidence. Thus, it’s time for the return of…
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: Okay, I am still skeptical, but the evidence is here. First, you have Brienne heading to the Riverlands, and it seems a little pointless to send her just to reunite with Jaime. Second, you have the show doubling back to Coldhands, demonstrating a willingness to return to characters the show “skipped” in adapting the books. And third, you have Walder Frey mentioning the Brotherhood Without Banners in his exposition rant. Am I wholly convinced? No. Does it seem more possible now than it did when the season began? Yes.
  • CleganeBowl Watch: As for our other ongoing concern, the show has absolutely set up trial by combat now, so we’re getting one Clegane at least. But if we are indeed getting the second, I have many questions. If the Hound is truly fighting for the Faith in this battle, are we supposed to root for him to win? Because while I am deeply ambivalent about who between the Lannisters and the High Sparrow I want to “win” in this conflict, I absolutely have an opinion on the Hound and the Mountain, and thus the two conflicts don’t seem well matched to me. However, given that Arya’s awakening could theoretically be linked back to the Hound as well, I do think that the seeds are there for this to go down.

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Episode 7, “The Broken Man”

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A pastoral elegy gives Thrones a thematically rich “reveal”

When I filled in here at The A.V. Club to review “Mockingbird,” the seventh episode of Game Of Thrones’ fourth season, I had absolutely no idea that Sandor Clegane might still be alive.

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Perhaps this makes me an inattentive book reader (the commenters certainly thought so), but more accurately it makes me among the millions who read the books without necessarily attending to the fan theories surrounding it. Writing about the show has made me undoubtedly more aware of these theories, and readers quickly informed me that Sandor Clegane was alive and well as a gravedigger, a detail gleaned exclusively from character description in Brienne’s chapters of A Feast For Crows.

The theory is well-substantiated, and upon learning of it I was easily convinced—not only do the clues track logically, but there is a certain poetry to Sandor joining the ranks of characters in the books who have “died” and been reborn. The show’s decision to leave Sandor’s “death” an off-screen uncertainty further fueled the speculation, although his absence for the entirety of season five and most of season six created room for doubt. But as “The Broken Man” begins with a pre-credits scene in an unfamiliar locale, it removes all doubt: Sandor Clegane is alive and well (or, alive, at the very least, given the psychological turmoil on display throughout).

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This reveal is the latest in a line of careful balancing acts where the show—here under the guide of writer Bryan Cogman—seems very much aware of the different audiences engaging with this story. This is a shocking reveal to anyone unfamiliar with the theory: There was no effort to layer any type of foreshadowing into the show beyond leaving his death ambiguous, and even that was undercut when Stannis’ similarly—if not equally—ambiguous end was made so unambiguous early this season. However, it’s the precise opposite of shocking to anyone who has read the theory, or seen the theorizing about Sandor’s potential showdown with his reanimated brother—dubbed CleganeBowl—in Cersei’s forthcoming trial by combat.

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Not every big reveal in the sixth season has been the same—Jon’s resurrection had enough textual evidence that readers and non-readers alike could presume he was far from dead, while neither readers nor non-readers could have realistically predicted the context of Hodor’s demise. The only similar scenario is perhaps Coldhands, but that hardly feels like a significant shock, given that many viewers had likely forgotten about Benjen entirely before his return (which, as discussed after last week’s episode, may not even be something the books adhere to). Every time the show reveals something that neither audience knew for certain, there are still varied perspectives shaped by speculation that make these sequences doubly complicated from a writing perspective.

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What makes Sandor’s story in “The Broken Man” work is how it feels at home in the episode around it. Yes, Ian McShane’s presence as Ray—a reformed criminal turned septon who found and rescued a near-dead Sandor—helps to give the story some additional weight, but at its core it is a part of a larger interest in the inescapability of war and conflict in this world. Through distinctive music and unusually bright and vivid cinematography, Sandor’s sanctuary of sorts is almost disarmingly pastoral. This is, in part, to help contribute to the shock of the cold open, which is exceedingly rare for the show. It also serves to contrast the tragic ending, creating a sort of “pastoral elegy” in the poetic tradition. However, on a thematic level it reinforces that this is somewhere that has been untouched by what we’ve come to understand as the series’ status quo: As with last week’s visit to Horn Hill and the episode’s trip to Bear Island, Sandor’s exile serves to show us a corner of Westeros that has lived—but cannot continue to live—outside of this story.

For a show that already has too many characters, the decision to give time to characters like Ray the septon and Lyanna Mormont could be disadvantageous, but “The Broken Man” handles the task extremely well. Both characters have roughly the same importance to this story: they are people who have been on the sidelines, whose existence serves primarily to motivate other characters to take action, but each nonetheless offers something of substance to the larger tale.

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Ray mostly exists so that he can offer Sandor guidance on virtuous paths and die in a manner that turns Sandor into something of a crusader, but he equally frames the High Sparrow’s basic tenets into something far more palatable. Whereas I find the High Sparrow’s prosecutorial nature odious, Ray’s transformation from “criminal” into septon reconnects the idea of religion with something other than questions of war and power. McShane brings gravity to a role that—while perhaps not deeply significant—attains a level of thematic richness, which will carry out in both Sandor’s path forward and in the show’s larger interest in the role of the faith. It also serves to give the storyline weight even to those whom knew Sandor was likely to return, a crucial point when considering the more hardcore book-reading audience.

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Similarly, Lyanna Mormont exists on a basic level to demonstrate the scars of war on the North—she has, as a pre-teen, been tasked with guiding House Mormont thanks to her mother’s death fighting for Robb, and there’s no better way to remind us why the Northern houses aren’t champing at the bit to fight another war on behalf of the Stark family. But the choice to use the character in this way has further value, as she has something in common with each of the three individuals who parley with her on Bear Island. She is a woman in power, which one would expect would give Sansa an advantage, and she is a Mormont, which Jon certainly thinks gives him an edge as her uncle’s chosen steward on The Wall. The very fact of Lyanna Mormont would have been enough to achieve these connections, but Davos sees something that isn’t just about facts. It’s about having lived through some version of what happened to Lyanna, finding himself in positions he never expected to be in. When it’s Davos that is able to appeal to her and win the Stark cause the support of Bear Island, it’s a reminder that such parleys are challenging affairs, and also fairly insignificant ones when the force in question numbers only 62 men.

In both cases, we have two characters that are never explicitly positioned as anything more than a catalyst (although I concur with critic Alan Sepinwall’s callfor a spin-off for Lyanna when the series comes to a close), but yet feel rich and meaningful nonetheless. Lyanna may primarily exist to embody the ragtag nature of the Stark forces and inspire Sansa to write for assistance (presumably to Littlefinger), but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t carry similar weight for the audience beyond that function. And while Ray is last seen hanging from the rafters, the episode takes the time to give his life meaning for Sandor and the show as a whole, with the “stunt casting” of McShane only reinforcing the value of the character as opposed to creating it out of whole cloth. It’s deftly done in both cases, making a procedural beat—Jon and Sansa visit the houses—into something more, and resisting coasting on a shocking reveal.

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You will notice I have not referred to Sandor as “The Hound” here, which has been purposeful. That name was not his own, of course, and we never hear it used in his interactions with his new community, and one senses he might in fact be trying to move past it throughout. It’s also notable in an episode where the “Kingslayer” and the “Blackfish” parley at Riverrun, with both skipping formal titles in favor of monikers bestowed upon them by history. That parley is one of many in the episode: Jon and Sansa’s successful negotiation with the wildlings and House Mormont is contrasted with their failure at House Glover, while Margaery works to protect her grandmother under the watchful eyes of the Faith before the “Queen Of Thorns” (there’s another informal title) has one last parting war of words with Cersei. You could even throw in Arya’s quick negotiation with a Westerosi captain, knowing just how to secure passage on her own terms—while it’s true that outright war may be “over,” depending on who you ask, the war of words continues to be an ongoing concern even with major players like Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Varys on the bench this week.

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The King’s Landing storyline takes clearer shape here, after last week’s uncertainty. Margaery’s conversation with her grandmother makes clearer the level of supervision she’s had while being “converted” to the Faith, and thus offers reasoning for why her plan would have been a surprise to her family. While last week showed us Margaery’s actions through the perspective of Tommen—who Margaery needed ignorant for her plan to succeed—and then Jaime and the other architects of the plan to rescue her, here we see Margaery’s own point-of-view, carefully navigating the High Sparrow’s interest in her sex life (a test of her commitment to the whole charade) and sneaking Olenna a sketched rose to signify her true allegiance. It’s the right moment to confirm suspicions she is playing a longer game, but the scenes also reinforce that it is a dangerous one, and thus firmly creates a rooting interest in a story that has at times lacked one. Even if the Tyrells as a whole seem like strange “heroes,” Olenna’s takedown of Cersei is the type of heroism I can respect, and it’s clear Margaery is taking after her grandmother in these efforts to undo what Cersei knows she created.

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That being said, “The Broken Man” leaves plenty of uncertainty, despite clarifying Margaery’s intentions. There’s the obvious in Arya’s bleeding in the streets following a predictable attack by the Waif, sure, but there’s also whatever the heck the show is trying to accomplish with Cersei and Jaime. Olenna’s attack on Cersei is satisfying, but it also creates the question of what precisely Cersei takes from it: she keeps falling back on her love for family, but can love realistically justify all she’s done? And didn’t love blind her to Joffrey’s cruelty, and wasn’t this love really just a way for her to justify her own ambition in more culturally acceptable terms? I’m fascinated by how little the show is guiding us on how to feel about Cersei, and mostly onboard, except for the fact that Jaime—the twin who has been more significantly redeemed over the course of the story, despite starting out trying to murder Bran—remains so devoted to her. My confusion stems in part from the books’ choice to separate the characters emotionally during these same events, I admit, but I also feel the show is going to have significant work on its hands to clarify and articulate the morality of the Lannisters as they move forward.

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Put in simpler terms: “The Broken Man” doesn’t offer a quick fix, on any account, which is to be expected seven episodes into the season. With only three episodes remaining, “broken” things are an increasingly valuable commodity, as we sit and speculate ways that they can be fixed in the season’s final act. And it is here where “The Broken Man” makes its most direct pitch to book readers, in that very little of its “pastoral elegy” choreographs where Sandor’s story is headed from here. While the episode confirmed readers’ suspicions that Sandor was alive, and you could certainly read some of Ray’s dialogue in relation to his still-unresolved feud with his brother, the episode is coy about whether the much-speculated CleganeBowl will come to pass. Whereas other areas of the episode—like Theon and Yara’s stopover on their way to Meereen—take pains to announce intentions, Sandor’s story remains open-ended, bringing readers and non-readers on relatively equal footing regarding the path ahead. It contributes to an episode that wrings strong thematic work out of what might have otherwise appeared as stepping stones, an effective way to bridge the middle of the season with its conclusion.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back, Bronn—it’s a bit surprising that they would have him show up with Jaime without a more formal reintroduction, but he made himself known quickly enough, I suppose.
  • Related: Someone write Jaime a love ballad entitled “My Right Hand Man,” which can contain the lyric “That was the right hand I lost / You are the right hand I found.” I’m imagining a sort of country ballad.
  • The Freys are really the perfect punching bag in this show: Walder Frey is deplorable and evil, and his family is incompetent. With Ramsay remaining off-screen, it’s nice to have another family to despise universally, without reservation.
  • “You’ve lost, Cersei—it’s the only joy I can find in all this misery”—I am hopeful this is not the last we’ve seen of the Queen Of Thorns, but it’s quite the exit if it is.
  • I bet Bernie Sanders would have dropped out of the race by now if the Democratic Party counted Wun Wun as a superdelegate.
  • Some show-typical brothel nudity in what I presume to be Volantis—the show’s established stopping point on journeys to Meereen—but it was used in productive ways: both to casually explore Yara’s sexuality, and to maximize Theon’s discomfort with the “traditional” life of seafaring that he once enjoyed but now can’t in the wake of what’s happened to him.
  • I imagine that the Faceless Men keep dossiers on all their trainees in case they go rogue—I have to think Arya’s said “incapable of keeping her guard up for old ladies,” because she really should have been more careful.
  • While those who saw Me Before You this weekend didn’t get any Daenerys to test out the intertextual bleed between the series and the actors’ increasingly active film careers, I did see X-Men: Apocalypse this afternoon, so I had some moments of bleed-through with Sansa’s scenes tonight.
  • Every time the show returns to locations we’ve seen previously with a heftier budget for CGI, it really reinforces how sparing they were earlier—I never felt like I had a clear sense of Riverrun’s architecture before, but it felt much more significant here.
  • So a few weeks ago I was all “we never saw what Tommen’s secret was, maybe Cersei was lying,” and then it turns out that not seeing Tommen explain it was just to save time, not to create space for speculation. So I’m tentative to even say this, but did anyone else find it weird that we didn’t see confirmation Sansa was sending a letter to Littlefinger? I don’t even know who else she could be writing to, but I still had a moment of doubt.

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The Night Is Dark and Full of “Spoilers” (And Speculation)

  • CleganeBowl Watch: So what do we think? On the one hand, here we have Sandor clearly linked to a religious group with similar beliefs, and the show undoubtedly alludes to Gregor at times. But on the other hand, how does he get from chasing down the men who killed his fellow church-builders to serving as a champion in so few episodes? I’m open to any and all theories.
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: Where do we even start here? You have some obvious signs, like the Blackfish bringing up Jaime’s promise to Catelyn, as well as a surprisingly vicious group of roving warriors without allegiance “protecting” the people. I’ve seen some associate them with the Brotherhood given their allegiance to the Lord Of Light and the lack of banners, although there’s always the possibility that they just happen to be independent rovers, or traveling under the guise of the Brotherhood to justify their actions. Nonetheless, it creates an angle into the fact that Lady Stoneheart does not act heroically, and gives the show another angle into the question of morality, revenge, and a bunch of other themes and ideas that are resonating this season. If Lady Stoneheart doesn’t materialize, the show is certainly borrowing from the arc’s ideas in mapping out the storytelling here.

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Episode 8, “No One”

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Game Of Thrones explores the paradox of “No One”

“No One” ends where you would expect. After having been nursed back to health by the actress whose life she saved, Arya wakes up to the Waif having murdered the actress, and she’s coming for her next. The logic is the same Faceless Men nonsense that Jaqen has been peddling all along: a life was promised, first to the girl who tried to kill the actress, and then to the Waif when Jaqen gave her permission to go after Arya. And so Arya runs, eventually luring the Waif into the trap she set with Needle.

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It’s frankly a bit embarrassing that the show drags out whether or not Arya survived her dance in the dark with her nemesis. There is no universe where Arya loses that battle, and so the slow pan reveal of the Waif’s face in the House Of Black And White struck me as profoundly odd. As with the books, the basic thematics of Arya’s time with the Faceless Men makes sense to me: Arya is stripped of key parts of herself in an exploration of who she really is, having been living numerous other identities since she ran from King’s Landing. But the actual mechanics of it have been muddled in the show, such that when Jaqen claims that killing the Waif has somehow made her “no one” I have legitimately no bloody clue what he’s going on about. This was the moment the story was building toward—Arya reclaiming her name and deciding to return home—but the procedure of it ended up feeling lost in the opaque logic that governs the Faceless Men and Arya’s training. “No One” should not mean nothing, and yet it does in the context the show has presented it in, and that strikes me as a missed opportunity.

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It’s a missed opportunity because the idea of “No One” strikes me as a productive paradox for the show to explore. On the one hand, it is admittedly always something of a dead end: No one is actually “no one,” and that’s never going to change. However, if approached with a bit more clarity than what went down in Braavos, the exploration of what it means to be “no one” has value in the same way that being “someone” is an ongoing struggle. While on the surface the greatest setback for Cersei here is the fact that Tommen bans trial by combat (more on that a bit later, obviously), the fact that Kevan forces her to join the gallery with the other “ladies of the court” is a greater indignity. As someone who was once queen of Westeros, and then Queen Regent, and even then Queen Mother, she has now been reduced to “no one,” at least as compared to her previous position. And as someone who has been fighting her whole life for the respect owed her father and brothers, being dismissed as “a lady of the court” is a particular humiliation, and one that features Cersei at her most sympathetic as she’s definitively positioned as the underdog.

The idea of “No One” equally resonates with Sandor Clegane, who taps into his violent past in order to avenge Septon Ray and the villagers slaughtered by who we eventually learn were traitors to the Brotherhood. But while the violence is satisfying in its own right, the real point here is for Beric and Thoros to ask Sandor Clegane to think about a higher purpose. Right now, Sandor Clegane is no one: he is not The Hound, and he has fulfilled his short-term life goal of seeing that the men who slaughtered Ray are dealt with. Beric and Thoros argue, though, that he has a higher purpose: The Lord Of Light would not have allowed him to defeat Beric if it did not have a larger plan, and the Brotherhood is pointing their banners northward (the first group outside of Jon and the wildlings to move their attention to the White Walkers and wights as opposed to the wars of men). The Brotherhood Without Banners are themselves “no one,” insofar as allegiance, but their cause gives them identity, and they are asking Sandor to join them in their journey north.

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It would seem unlikely that he wouldn’t accept. There is really nowhere else for Sandor to go: Although it’s still a little unclear where he is, exactly (After The Thrones put him at Harrenhal on their map last week, for what it’s worth), the show has not given him any motivation to go after his brother, and the idea of taking his violence and putting it to a larger service is the closest thing to motivation he has found. And given that the episode literally bans CleganeBowl from taking place, and passes by what seemed like a logical opportunity to introduce Lady Stoneheart, the idea of Sandor just roaming this world as “no one” would strike me as a waste of a character return. Sending him north to Sansa—in addition to bringing SanSan folks immense joy—would begin the migration that is necessary for the show to reach a conclusion.

It was a bit jarring—although consistent with the season so far—to see the show so actively thumb its nose at both CleganeBowl and Lady Stoneheart in a single episode. The iconography of the hanging men was not the only piece of the latter puzzle present here: We also learned that Cersei would be facing trial at the beginning of the “festival of the Mother,” and Jaime spent much of his talk with Edmure comparing Catelyn and Cersei as mothers for good measure. It would have even fit thematically: Unlike Jon, Lady Stoneheart was trapped between the woman she was and the zombie she became, and so “no one” as a concept seems useful when considering what motivates her. But while it technically remains possible they’ll pull back the veil on Lady Stoneheart, I wouldn’t hold it against them for feeling that thematic weight is better spent on the living, and that Catelyn’s ongoing value to the story is better served as a memory people hold onto.

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It’s a memory that Jaime, Brienne, and the Blackfish all evoke at numerous stages in the siege of Riverrun, which is almost as perplexing as the Faceless Men. Jaime’s trip to the Riverlands in the book serves two functions, as I recall: It both keeps Jaime out of King’s Landing to further isolate Cersei (her isolation being crucial to the psychology of those chapters) and creates distance between the characters to further Jaime’s disconnect from his sister and lover. Jaime becomes more and more disillusioned of Cersei, and in doing so sets out on an independent path that seems crucial to the redemptive character arc present in the books, and which the show embarked upon by fleshing out his time with Brienne into one of the key stories of early seasons.

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But even speaking as someone who is rarely overly concerned by changes from the books, the utility of the siege of Riverrun here is a bit perplexing. As much as it was fun to see Pod and Bronn—or Brodd, as we could call them—pal around, and as important as it felt for Brienne and Jaime to share a moment after she has successfully completed her mission, there is a hollowness to this story when Jaime uses it as a way to proclaim his absolute devotion to Cersei. For a moment, it seemed like the story was going to set up a moral quandary for Jaime, with Cersei in one ear and Brienne’s talk of honor in the other, but his speech to Edmure all but erases that possibility, and we rush through the siege so that he can return to King’s Landing. And so on paper it would appear that the show resurrected an entire storyline exclusively so that Jaime and Brienne had a reason to be heading to the same location, and yet neither character seemed particularly changed by the experience, and the short-term value of the story is frustratingly unclear.

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It’s possible that this is all part of a longer game: Perhaps this moment was important for Brienne and Jaime for when they might meet again in the future, when perhaps they will be fighting on the same side for a change. And perhaps there is some particular importance attached to the Freys and the Tullys that is not immediately apparent. But as it stands, from a book reader’s perspective, the conviction Jaime displays in his love for Cersei seems naïve in ways that indict the character. I don’t think Jaime is wrong that Cersei and Catelyn are quite similar—his interrogation of Edmure was an effective piece of work from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, my frustrations with his logic aside. But it seemed bizarre to organize a whole storyline around Jaime where we leave him exactly where we expected: inextricably in love with his sister, and yet with a soft spot for Brienne, who he lets row off into the night. While the middle section of the season picked up momentum, the Riverlands sequence has gone back to the stalling for time that marked the end of last season, as the show seems to be wary of moving too far past Martin’s cutoff point.

“No One” is a weird episode in this way, as its climaxes are inherently anti-climactic. Arya defeating the Waif was predictable, Riverrun was undone by a quiet betrayal (with the Blackfish’s death off-screen), the Masters’ attack on Meereen felt both inevitable and oddly motivated (given we have only seen the Masters the once, and they don’t even appear on the ships to tie the attack to any specific characters), and anyone who didn’t expect Daenerys to come flying back to her city’s rescue has never watched a television show before. The lack of momentum driving these stories is surprising to me given that the season has largely been doing a fine job with internal momentum—something just wasn’t clicking here, and unlike with the CleganeBowl cancellation, I don’t know if that type of letdown was intended.

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However, the clearing of the deck could be an important service to the larger narrative. Tyrion spends the episode struggling with being among people he doesn’t know: He eventually gets Grey Worm to crack some jokes and Missandei to enjoy some wine, but his own jokes are Westeros jokes, and his diplomacy is best served back at home. His failure with the Masters may have been an anti-climax, but the implicit realization is that he should have never been there making it to begin with. The Meereen experiment failed, but we always knew that it was just a means to an end, a stopping point on a larger journey. Similarly, we knew that if CleganeBowl had happened, it was not going to be the end of Cersei’s story, and the same goes for Arya and the Faceless Men, and even Jaime in the Riverlands. The show may have run into an unfortunate convergence of so many anti-climactic storylines in a single episode, but their very existence is a necessary byproduct of a narrative that is preparing to shed its skin and move forward with a new lease on life.

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This does not necessarily excuse the muddled nature of these stories, but it helps explain why I don’t necessarily see the show as being “off the rails” or some such. With Varys off on a secret mission, and Qyburn confirming some type of rumors he was investigating on behalf of Cersei, the episode seeds the type of unexpected storytelling that the season has delivered, even for book readers. It’s just unfortunate that “No One” had to be quite so committed to some predictable, confusing, and seemingly inert developments for us to make that transition.

Stray observations

  • The Mountain’s little show of force reminds me of boxers who screw up fights at the weigh-in—if Cersei had just agreed to visit with the High Sparrow, they might not have understood the Mountain’s strength, and Cersei would have gone scot-free. But no, The Mountain had to rip off a dude’s head. No discipline, these zombie protectors. (I have to believe that word of The Mountain’s murder of the flasher could have reached the High Sparrow as well, but he still needed to keep it on the DL in front of the Faith Militant.)
  • A particularly bloody episode, between The Mountain and Sandor, and Mark Mylod’s direction calls attention to it—not only do we get the blood dripping down the grate after the former’s attack, but we also get a blood orange seeping out after Arya’s fall down the stairs.
  • I particularly liked the way Mylod kept shooting subjects in the background: in both The Hound’s approach on his first victims and in the Waif’s Terminator-esque chasing of Arya, he often kept the focus in the foreground and let the viewer identify the threat long before the character was aware they were there.
  • Note that The Hound’s first victim was YouTube impersonator Steve Love, who appeared on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live with Kit Harington—also note that I would have never known this if HBO hadn’t sent me a picture of him. What an honor it must be to be asked to do a cameo and then told you’re going to have some dude stick his finger up your ass.
  • “Lesson number one: assume everyone wants to hit you”—I don’t know if this actually applies to people who aren’t assholes, Bronn, but I admit it’s probably sound advice regardless.

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The Night Is Dark And Full of Spoilers (Of A Sort)…

  • Given that Arya’s sample chapter from The Winds Of Winter has her with a theater troupe, it seems probable that she could still rejoin them to travel to Pentos, from which she could then travel to King’s Landing a bit easier. The idea of her testing whether the planet is round, meanwhile, seems a bit far-fetched, but I have to presume she brought it up for some reason or another. Perhaps that’s where Jorah is headed?
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: While I imagine there are still people who believe that the pig is just a little wet, and it’s still good, it seems less and less likely that this is plausible. Yes, Brienne will be heading past Harrenhal on her way north to meet up with Sansa, and the talk of motherhood means that there is always the potential for Catelyn to reemerge. But the fact that the Brotherhood would be reintroduced with absolutely no mention of or even allusion to Lady Stoneheart raises a lot of procedural questions for me, and the refocusing of the Brotherhood on the White Walkers doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else. The door is not fully shut until the writers say it’s fully shut, but after seven episodes of the Truthers starting to look more sane, the show has put y’all back on the fringe.
  • R.I.P., CleganeBowl. I’ll never forget you, or the people who believed in you, who I imagine will not hold onto hope that Martin has different plans.

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Episode 9, “Battle Of The Bastards”

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Thrones stages an epic battle, but to what end?

“There’s no need for a battle.”

It’s sort of hilarious that Jon Snow says this in “Battle Of The Bastards.” He’s in the midst of a parley with Ramsay Bolton, his first time ever interacting with him, and he tries to goad him into one-on-one combat. It’s a dumb move on a strategic level: Ramsay Bolton may be prideful and vain, but he is not going to risk losing his hard-won power and status in a fight with one man. He’s got the plan and the power: Winterfell is his, his army is over twice as large, and no amount of mind games from Jon could disrupt him.

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However, it’s also kind of silly on a meta level. The fact is that Game Of Thronesdoes sort of need a battle: The stakes are continually being raised in terms of the show’s scale, with the producers feeling the need to create (and promote) larger sequences each season. It’s not enough that Game Of Thrones comes back and delivers the same type of thrills as the previous season (which is often how I felt about the books, which I never expected to necessarily escalate so much as move forward narratively)—the show’s raison d’être has become one-upping itself, enabling the actors, directors, and writers to do interviews discussing how they’ve once again topped the previous year’s spectacle. And so there is a need for a battle, and “Battle Of The Bastards” exists to satisfy that need.

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But is that enough? There are stunning visuals from director Miguel Sapochnik in this episode, and some of the moments in the midst of the battle are the most visceral the show has put onscreen to date. Following in the footsteps of “Blackwater,” “The Watchers On The Wall,” and “Hardhome,” we see epic tracking shots of Jon fighting his way through blinding chaos, and wide shots that sell scale on a level that seemed impossible in early seasons (even if there are still some dodgy moments here and there). There are moments of intense quiet alongside moments of noise and terror, and moments where Jon’s inability to breathe is echoed with claustrophobic camera work that uses “shakycam” with stylistic purpose. As was intended, it becomes easy to lose yourself in the lengthy battle that is waged in the fields outside Winterfell, catching your breath and realizing that they truly are upping the bar as far as production scale is concerned.

But, as the title of the review suggests, to what end? If we think about “Battle Of The Bastards” in context of its three predecessors, I’m not convinced that this battle—as in the procedural events that make up the conflict—ends up accomplishing much of anything beyond sound and fury. Now, to be clear, many things are accomplished in the episode as a whole, and sound and fury is not a useless end in and of itself. However, whereas the three previous battles have all felt in some way transformative or generative as far as storytelling is concerned, “Battle Of The Bastards” played as a cocktail of inevitability, without the type of uncertainty, fear, and moral ambiguity that defined those previous conflicts. It was a war between absolute heroes and diabolical villains in a show that has often avoided such conflicts, and that binary led to a battle that was as inert as it was impressive.

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“Blackwater” was not a battle between heroes and villains: We may root for Tyrion, or empathize with Davos (particularly as book readers in both cases, I’d argue), but it’s the corrupt Lannisters against the religious fanatic Baratheons, with the opportunistic Tyrells riding in to save the day. When the wildlings stormed the Wall, the Night’s Watch were ostensibly heroes, but the wildling forces included characters we knew, and a leader whose goals were noble if in opposition to the goals of the heroic character; Mance was no villain, even if he was indeed a flawed man who threatened the security of Westeros. And while the White Walkers and the wights are undoubtedly villainous, that battle was really the origin of the Night’s King as a “big bad,” with the battle itself built around the fact that it was their own dead that they were fighting. It was a story of fear and survival, and therefore resonated in the larger narrative accordingly.

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But by comparison, “Battle Of The Bastards” seems to exist exclusively to give Ramsay Bolton what he deserves, concluding his villain arc. A Song Of Ice And Fire has villains, perhaps, but I would argue that the books never dwell on Ramsay or any other character as a “villain” in more traditional terms. Game Of Thrones has fleshed out several characters into more significant villains in the narrative sense: Tywin’s expanded presence further reinforced his role in the Red Wedding into a meaningful villain arc, and the choice to show Theon’s captivity meant Ramsay was introduced earlier and with the increased power of seeing—and not just reading about—his sadistic worldview. Whereas the books’ close POV focus meant the villains were always framed through the eyes of other characters, the show has gone out of its way to show us Ramsay torturing a wider range of our “heroes,” reveling in his evilness and creating someone that we absolutely want to see get ripped apart by dogs because he deserves it.

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But the ways that “Battle Of The Bastards” builds to this moment seemed disconnected from that central goal. While the show emphasized Jon’s motivation in both rescuing his brother and avenging his sister’s mistreatment, I don’t know if those were emphasized enough for Jon and Ramsay to be a particularly meaningful showdown. The Rickon sequence that opens the battle is an elaborate bit of staging, but Rickon’s long absence robbed the character of any particular meaning to the larger narrative, and I felt the season was missing a scene or two where Rickon could be reaffirmed as a character and not just a tool in this particular conflict. I never questioned whether Rickon would be felled by one of Ramsay’s arrows because Rickon dying was the only way the show could reasonably sell Jon’s motivation. Rickon never had a place in the larger narrative, and so his place here feels arbitrary, and yet also functionally necessary in ways that speak to the emptiness of the battle itself. The storyline doesn’t work without Rickon, and yet Rickon’s presence adds nothing, creating a justification for a battle to mark the climax to Ramsay’s villain arc and yet doing nothing to make that battle more compelling. Ramsay’s evil is not escalated by his killing of Rickon: I’ve long been desensitized to Ramsay’s acts of torture and murder, and this just felt like more of the same.

And that’s where “Battle Of The Bastards” let me down. Given how impressive elements of the sequence are, it shouldn’t feel as perfunctory as it does. Rickon’s death shouldn’t have felt so choreographed, Littlefinger’s triumphant arrival shouldn’t have been so easy to see coming, and I’m not sure that the “leave” of the sequence, if you will, should have been so muddled. I sense that Benioff and Weiss were aiming for something similar to the ambiguity of the Tyrell and Baratheon arrivals in previous conflicts, but I remain wholly confused by the nature of Sansa’s communication with Littlefinger: We saw her write him a letter, but was he always planning to ride in? Why was he late? Why was she with him? Did she know when talking strategy with Jon that Littlefinger might be coming? Why wouldn’t she tell Jon to wait? Why is she hiding this from Jon other than—and here’s where the meta comes back—ensuring that there’s an epic underdog battle that lets the show one-up itself?

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It’s deeply satisfying to see Jon punching the shit out of Ramsay Bolton. I was disconcertedly happy to see Ramsay get his face eaten off by dogs. The show successfully built up Ramsay into someone that I wanted to watch suffer, a true villain, and then allowed two of the show’s most long-standing heroes to punish and eventually kill him. But that satisfaction has nothing to do with the battle that came before it, which I’d argue is in stark contrast to the previous battle episodes where I didn’t need the direction to invest me in what was playing out in front of me. I care about Jon, and Tormund, and Davos, and Wun Wun (especially Wun Wun), and so on a basic life-and-death level I was invested in “Battle Of The Bastards.” But whereas the other episodes ended with the sense that the battle that just took place would change these characters’ fate, here it just felt like the show was pushing Ramsay out of the way, intending to just keep telling the same stories it was telling before: Jon and Sansa’s mistrust, Littlefinger’s unclear motivations, Melisandre’s prophecies, etc. They’ve just moved from Castle Black to Winterfell, pushing the story ostensibly forward but without the battle contributing to that beyond a few (thousand) dead bodies.

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There are similar issues in the previously unannounced Meereen component to the episode, which relies heavily on symbolic power and efficiency to put a bow on whatever George R.R. Martin wanted—or what the show writers chose—to accomplish in the city. The efficiency is part strategy and part the show’s love for pageantry. It seems grossly inhumane for Dany to allow her city to be attacked for hours before unleashing the dragons on the Masters’ ships—she arrives at night, on Drogon, and yet it’s daylight by the time she parleys with the Masters and hatches her scheme. But I’m willing to accept that she needed a formal space of surrender in order to make an effort to claim the remainder of the Masters’ ships, even if the show shuttling Dany’s plan-making with Tyrion off-screen still portrays as a fairly neglectful ruler of these people that the Sons Of The Harpy are straight-up murdering under her watch.

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But I find it difficult to judge “Battle Of The Bastards” for glossing over Meereen and rushing ahead to Dany’s turn toward Westeros. The arrival of Theon and Yara lacks any and all fanfare: We just cut to Tyrion speaking to someone he last met at Winterfell, and we’re left to realize that their journey from Volantis was wholly uneventful. Yara and Theon present their feminist plan for independence—No forced marriage! Female ruler! At least a significant drop in raping and pillaging!—and Dany accepts on the spot, with no muss or fuss. And while that seems too easy, the scene underlines a clear and important generational dynamic to the emerging forces. They are all sons and daughters of the previous generation of rulers in Westeros, all having inherited the war that their crazy, evil, or brutish parents created. Dany’s image of a new world order has typically been framed through a broad altruistic lens—she just wants a better life for the people of Slaver’s Bay on principle, really—but here Dany is actively thinking in terms of legacy, and we’re starting to see those legacies converge. As much as the Meereen story was awkwardly fast-forwarded here, the place where the show chose to press play goes beyond bringing characters together in new and exciting ways and actually articulates why that’s important and what type of thematic work they see that convergence building to in the future.

And that’s what was lacking at Winterfell. While Ramsay’s death felt like the end of a narrative tracking across four seasons and tapped into the value of that seriality, the actual battle in “Battle Of The Bastards” never managed to articulate that same type of climactic energy. This is the Starks reclaiming their ancestral home, but the switching of the banners felt perfunctory instead of powerful, muddled by the fact that none of the characters seemed to be feeling it as any type of climax. Rickon’s death is not meaningless, but his long absence means that it pays off only weeks of storytelling, where Rickon never actually—to my recollection—spoke a single word. Really, the only part of the battle that resonated for me was the death of Wun Wun, which was also so choreographed that I had written him a eulogy of sorts in my notes long before he became a pincushion (and the final symbol of Ramsay’s villainy).

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Perhaps the ultimate test for “Battle Of The Bastards” is this: If this were a chapter in Martin’s books instead of a visually stunning episode of television, would any of this work? The spectacle has value, do not get me wrong, and I appreciate an adrenaline rush as much as the next person, but if we were to imagine a written version of this battle would there be any depth to Jon’s inner monologue? Would Sansa’s motivations make any sense? This battle works as a climactic moment forGame Of Thrones as a cultural event, selling us on the scale and ambition of the producers and their production teams, and all should be commended for their accomplishments from a technical perspective. But I’m not convinced that it does enough for the actual narrative of the show to make this as meaningful as the battles that came before it, making for a surprisingly hollow spectacle to lead into the finale.

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Stray observations

  • I don’t know what precisely happened, but this season in no way explained why Davos would have never once considered what happened to Shireen before now. I don’t understand: Did he think she was killed with Stannis’ army? Did he wonder if she might still be alive? The “Previously On” sequence was left to do any and all lifting on that sudden return to Shireen’s story, and it seems like something that just fell through the narrative cracks, which is disappointing.
  • Beyond the predictability of Littlefinger showing up, it was disappointing to see them go to the exact Helm’s Deep well I expected them to.
  • In contrast, Tormund going full Mike Tyson on Umber was immensely satisfying—Tormund doesn’t exactly have an “arc” at this stage, but I liked his repartee with Davos, and it’s good to have a warrior we care about to keep the flow of fights like this working even when the stakes aren’t as strong as they could be (and the flow was fine, overall, to the episode’s credit).
  • While I won’t spoil Warcraft directly in case any of you intend to catch it after it leaves theaters—it’s clear no one else is seeing it in theaters in the U.S., at least—Rickon’s death reminded me of the way that film choreographs one of its narrative “twists,” failing to do any of the work to make it meaningful on anything more than a symbolic level. Game Of Thrones has the benefit of seriality, so it’s not as egregious, but it still came to mind.
  • If Bran’s visions weren’t enough—and surely the writers knew people would be breaking down those flashes online in intense detail—Tyrion recounts the Mad King’s stashes of wildfire he intended to use to burn the city, which could certainly matter when we return to the King’s Landing storyline.
  • I already gave my condolences on the loss of Shaggydog, but my heart goes out to the truthers who were convinced he wasn’t really dead—I hope the hope you created didn’t only bring you greater pain when the head was reproduced.
  • I know why they looked at the scale of this battle and said, “Do we really want to add a CGI direwolf to the mix when we’ve got a face-eating hound to animate?” But real talk: Where is Ghost?
  • Seeing Rickon die didn’t really impact me, given how predictable it was, but seeing the arrows flying into his corpse did kind of alarm me, I’ll admit.
  • Also: As I’ve seen others saying on Twitter, I was also yelling “Serpentine” at my TV as Rickon ran.
  • Lots of great shots from Sapochnik (especially the featured image above with Davos on his walk), but I particularly loved the aerial shot of the courtyard after Jon beat down Ramsay, as Sansa’s pristine, clean white face—while subtle—stands out as the only bit of lightness amidst the mud and bloodied warriors. It’s incredibly striking, and one of many such painterly compositions (like Sansa riding away from the parley).

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The Night Is Dark and Full of Spoilers (Of A Sort)

  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: The generational theme, from my perspective, both supports and works against Lady Stoneheart. On the one hand, she could emerge as a check on the younger generation, enacting the vengeance of the old and serving as a “test” to Brienne and those who intend on extending Catelyn’s legacy in their own ways. However, the efficiency of the generational shift makes me feel that having Stoneheart fighting Stark battles muddles and delays their assuming of a major role in the larger conflict, and that seems counter to the show’s broader pace.
  • Presuming that Euron did indeed chase after Theon and Yara, I’m wondering if we’re heading toward the Dragon Horn after all—it would disrupt the seemingly perfect plan (creating the possibility Euron could in some way control the dragons and force Dany’s hand), and create conflict/tension where there seems to be none following the swift dismantling of the Masters.
  • There are currently two lone wolves unaccounted for in addition to Euron: Varys, who left Meereen under mysterious circumstances, and Jorah, who remains on his quest for a cure to greyscale. Could they end up in the same place? Are they both potentially headed toward Varys’ last spot in the books? We’ll see if we get an answer next week.

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