This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events 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 review. 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 from the fourth and fifth books.
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
“Kill The Boy” earns its title through the wisdom of Maester Aemon. As Jon comes to him for guidance on his plan to partner with the Wildlings at Castle Black to ride north of the Wall to rescue the rest of the free folk, Aemon stops him before he can even say tell him the details. He tells him that as long as he has thought through his plan, then it is the right path. “Kill The Boy” is not about murdering a small child (although that becomes relevant at one point), but rather about owning responsibility and maturing in ways that your younger self might not have imagined.
It’s a narrative that is different in the show than it was in the books. Jon has always been an adult or close to it in the context of the show, whereas this same basic storyline played out in the books with a teenaged Jon that was closer to boyhood than adulthood. However, it still resonates in the way Jon must come to terms with the fact that he is no longer answering to anyone else. It’s a position that comes with both power and responsibility, as the episode articulates through Olly’s disbelief in Jon’s plan. We saw Olly’s village massacred by the Wildlings following their ascent of the Wall, and such raiding parties have likely been a part of his people’s lives for centuries. While Jon’s friendship with Delorous Edd is complicated by the memories of Grenn and Pyp, it is his relationship with his steward that represents his “transformation” into a man—he has betrayed someone who looks up to him, and for whom he has always been in a position of authority. By “killing the boy,” Jon also damages key relationships, and throws the Night’s Watch into a new and uncertain alliance.
At the heart of Jon’s decision to free Tormund and work to bring the Wildlings south of the Wall is the tension between the past and the future. The present is caught in between them, and in Jon’s conflict with Olly we see the weight of that tension: as much as Olly might feel the weight of the Wildlings’ crimes in light of what happened to his village, and as much as Jon understands that, Jon has seen what is marching on the Wall, and he is choosing to prioritize that over anything else. While Sam sits in the library looking to the past to help protect for the future, most others turn to the past as a barrier to moving forward. It would take the end of the world for some of the men of the Night’s Watch to join with the Wildlings, and vice versa, but the end of the world is coming, and someone has to take responsibility for that.
“Kill The Boy’ spends most of its time in the North, with King’s Landing taking a break along with Jaime and Bronn’s trip through Dorne. In doing so, the episode focuses its attention on where the show started, and where it has built its own history. The “previously on” sequence dug out a few choice moments from the past, where it’s Jon discovering Aemon’s identity (which sets up the scene where Sam reads a message from Slaver’s Bay about Dany’s goings-on), or Theon intimidating the people of Winterfell with the bodies of two young boys burnt beyond recognition. It’s the latter case that ends up playing a larger role, as the show pays the piper as it comes to the increased convergence compared to the book: if Sansa and Theon are going to meet again, then their history in the North must be dealt with.
Bryan Cogman’s script does a nice job of using this history as a point of development for both Theon/Reek and Ramsay, who is inarguably being positioned as the season’s chief villain. Whereas King’s Landing plays out the anti-heroic tales of Cersei’s grasp at power, and Meereen pits Dany against the faceless Sons of the Harpy, the tale at Winterfell is undoubtedly positioned as Ramsay and Roose against Theon and Sansa, with each side rallying others to their cause. We first see Winterfell in the episode from afar, as Brienne and Pod plot with an innkeeper to bring messages to Sansa should she be in trouble, while the next scene sees Ramsay with his mistress Myranda, who becomes a wild card in her jealousy over Sansa’s arrival and her betrothal to Ramsay. After one thing leads to another, Sansa is discovering “Reek” in the dog kennels, and then Ramsay is forcing Reek to apologize to Sansa for murdering her brothers in a show of power over all involved.
Iwan Rheon is having a lot of run with Ramsay, building a character I love to loathe. Here he is at his most pathological, building out his psychological grip on Reek whilst simultaneously extending this to Sansa. “Kill The Boy” does some interesting work fleshing out this pathology, through, and points to the insecurity at the heart of it. If once he was insecure because he was a bastard, now he is insecure because he knows no other way to live. When he is threatened by the thought of a new heir to the Bolton name, he goes to his father and discovers that he’s been fighting since the beginning: he was the product of rape, and Roose very nearly had him thrown into the river until he saw himself in him (likely the capacity to flay other human beings, which I hear you can really see in Bolton infants). And whether consciously or not, Ramsay has carried that with him, up to the point where he’ll psychologically and physically torture those in his orbit to have control over his future.
The problem is that Ramsay’s understanding of the past is wrong.* Indeed, what works best about this story is that Ramsay’s plan to create tension between Sansa and Reek is predicated on a lie Theon told. He didn’t kill Bran and Rickon—the latter is roaming around with Osha somewhere, while the former is north of the Wall chilling out with the Children of the Forest. By drawing Theon’s past to the surface, and forcing Reek to face his actions, Ramsay is simultaneously drawing to the surface information that would threaten the Boltons’ hold on the North, and would likely strengthen Sansa’s resolve. Ramsay is wrong that Reek is the closest thing Sansa has to family left in this world, and not only because there’s a bunch of Tullys theoretically still alive somewhere—three of her siblings are alive, and the Stark name still holds power in the North, and Ramsay’s joy in others’ pain is going to come back to bite him sooner rather than later at this rate.
*So as noted in the comments, Ramsay actually knows that Theon lied about that (he told them when he was first being shown off to Roose), which means that he’s consciously pushing the lie to torture both Sansa and Reek in equal measure. This seems particularly reckless to me, so my point about him opening this wound still stands, but he’s aware of how reckless it is and he’s doing it anyway. My question then turns to why Roose doesn’t stop him, given that he’s more pragmatic as these things are concerned.
All of this works to set up where the episode ends: Ramsay and Roose prepare for Stannis’ likely arrival as Stannis chooses to pack up and march south, with Jon marching north with Tormund toward Hardhome. The episode successfully places the North in motion, but focuses less on the military maneuvers and more on the dynamics within the three forces. Expanding out Stannis’ character has been the season’s biggest success, and when they march out from Castle Black we have Shireen’s relationship with her parents, alongside the uncertainty of Melisandre’s role in the battle to come, much as we have Sansa and Theon vs. the Boltons on the Winterfell side of the conflict, or Jon and Tormund’s uneasy alliance north of the Wall. It’s good setup work, dynamic in its own right but functional as a foundation for future developments that, even as book readers, remain fairly up in the air.
Parts of “Kill This Boy” felt very reassuring as a book reader, at least in terms of merging the familiar and the unfamiliar. While there is still uncertainty in whether or not the show intends on following through with the books’ storyline for Sam, the details of that storyline were established here, either as an empty nod to the text or foreshadowing for the show following through on that particular story in the future. And although the death of Barristan the Bold represented a controversial departure form the books last week, the resolution of the cliffhanger—which acknowledged the ignominious nature of his death—pulls the show closer to familiar territory, with Dany ending the episode engaged to Hizdahr lo Loraq.
The terms of this engagement are unfamiliar, though. In the books, the engagement isn’t Dany’s idea, and there’s the sense that she is—to return to Aemon’s metaphor—the girl acting out of desperation to save the city. She is also offering up herself for marriage, in the process fitting into the same type of submissive position Sansa is being placed into by Littlefinger. But whereas the show emphasized that Sansa was given a choice by Littlefinger and is willingly taking the role of the betrothed in hostile territory, here Dany is the one orchestrating her own plan and “killing the girl” in the process. She is not doing what her advisors suggested, but rather makes her move after Missandei tells Dany to trust her own instincts. Having been aged up, Dany has greater confidence, and here handles the aftermath of Barristan’s death with dragon-feeding authority, drawing on the counsel she has received in the past in order to move forward for the future. It’s a familiar storyline, but it’s an unfamiliar characterization, and one that I prefer over the books’ more passive role for the character amidst the uprising.
Whatever familiarity one found in that story, though, was thrown into peril as Jorah and Tyrion were thrown into peril. At various points thus far this season I’ve remarked upon the show’s emphasis on Greyscale, but they notably cut the part of A Dance With Dragons that dealt with the affliction most directly. It seemed too prominent a narrative thread to be all for nothing, though, and so it wasn’t hugely shocking to see Jorah and Tyrion’s journey take them through Valyria, where Stannis’ story about Shireen’s contraction of the illness had established as a home base for the “Stone Men.” And so as Tyrion and Jorah sailed through the ruins of a lost civilization reminiscing on the past, and just after Drogon flies by to bring the season’s key art to life, the season’s own past came back to haunt them as the Stone Men gradually—and creepily—emerged from the ruins. And thus played out the scene that used to play out on the Shy Maid, except that at the end of this one Jorah Mormont has been struck with Greyscale.
It’s an interesting development. On the one hand, it’s highly logical, as the show needs someone we know to be faced with the illness for the impact to mean much of anything. On the other, though, it raises another point of uncertainty surrounding a storyline that is already on a different and strange path. Will Jorah and Tyrion both make it to Meereen? How does one live with Greyscale, precisely? Is this part of a larger story, or an isolated one that focuses on Jorah’s personal journey? That uncertain future is new for book readers, but it’s deployed effectively here, creating a moment that changes a character arc considerably.
There are a lot of characters in Game Of Thrones, and not all of them have arcs. Many of them can feel like pieces being moved around a board, pulled into play when they’re necessary for the story to move forward. Characters gain meaning when they’re given a past, and when their actions are perceived as part of their growth—or lack of growth—as a person. “Kill The Boy” focuses this on Jon, as noted, but it places a hardship on Jorah to complicate his narrative, while also centering the Wildlings partnership on Tormund as a reluctant leader of his people, and using Stannis’ knowledge of Sam’s family ties to draw his own journey from Horn Hill to Castle Black into perspective. Although all episodes of any serial drama both reference the past and portray events that will become the past to be referenced in the future, “Kill The Boy” felt particularly interested in the tension involved in such seriality, and laid out a productive course for the show moving forward.
- You’ll note I use both Reek and Theon above, but my general logic is Reek to refer to the present, and Theon to refer to his remaining ties to his past. It’s not scientific, but I think it works.
- “Long, sullen silences and an occasional punch in the face: The Mormont Way.” I sure hope that we get a Mormont Crest t-shirt that has this on it.
- “Fewer”—I loved Stannis correcting grammar during the Night’s Watch meeting, both because I like grammar and because it’s a small little detail the show didn’t need to include but did anyway to humanize him.
- “He’s a new man…a new person, anyway”—I would call this a low blow from Ramsay, but given the context, that wouldn’t be as painful for Theon as it might for others.
- Speaking of humanizing, the show doubles down on the Grey Worm/Missandei relationship here, using the former’s near-death experience as a chance to explore how the Unsullied are growing more human as they live lives outside of slavery and battle. I don’t know if the show has had enough time to really make this land fully, but the theme works, and I’m interested to see if they go anywhere with it.
- Let’s (Tastefully) Talk Nudity!: A rare instance of both a male and female character being nude in a scene in which neither is a prostitute, Ramsay and Myranda’s conversation offers equal opportunity nudity. And if you would like to see more of naked Iwan Rheon, Misfits is on Hulu.
- The choice from director Jeremy Podeswa to shoot parts of Sansa and Myranda’s conversation by the Broken Tower from directly above them as a haunting callback to Bran’s fall, which the show smartly never mentions directly but obviously evokes in that scene (which I thought was going to be at the Heart Tree when we first saw Sansa).
- Podeswa also gets points for that final scene between Tyrion and Jorah—I don’t exactly know where that is geographically relative to Valyria, or how Jorah manages to swim there from where they were previously, but it was as gorgeous a golden hour scene as I can think of.
- Missing in Action: In addition to the entirety of King’s Landing, and the Dorne storyline, Arya also takes the week off. I’m curious in all cases how much time has passed—everything in this episode seemed to happen in a fairly short period, so I’m interested in where we land once we return to those locales.
- If you missed it last week, Alan Sepinwall talked to a producer about the logic of what shows up on the map—here, for instance, both Braavos and Dorne remain despite not appearing in the episode, so it’s interesting to hear more about the logic that drives that decision.
The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit book spoilers):
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: No real news on this front here, although the whole “Stone” thing is certainly still relevant.
- Mance Rayder Truther Watch: I’m not going to completely rule out the possibility of Mance being alive, because you never know, but the way they’re framing Tormund’s storyline as a reluctant decision to take over from Mance seems like it would be a waste if it turned out he was Mance all along (which was one possible theory being bandied about, given no other likely candidates were present at the burning).
- So do we think Sam is going to Oldtown to train as a Maester? Given he talked about his childhood dream to be a Maester, and given that he and Gilly talked about Oldtown, it seems like the door remains open. It just seems likely Aemon won’t come with them, and that there is unlikely to be a stop in Braavos.