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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Game Of Thrones (experts): “Oathkeeper”

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones (experts): “Oathkeeper”
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This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

Some of our oldest stories are hospitality tales. Because we like to encode our stories with lessons and morals, it would follow that we would give over many of our earliest myths to narratives about how to treat guests, the ways that you weren’t to, y’know, kill them all in their sleep while they rested beneath your roof. This might seem a bit odd to us in a modern civilization that has been built upon the bones of those tales, where you can rest assured that when you rent a room at the Motel 6, the proprietor is not plotting your doom, but this was a big deal to our ancient ancestors. Stories like The Odyssey and the Bible’s tale of Sodom and Gomorrah are properly understood as these sorts of legends. When you have guests over, don’t turn them into pigs or threaten to eat them. And for God’s sake, even if they’re beautiful angels, don’t think about turning them over to the local populace to have their way with them.

Now, the era in which Game Of Thrones is set—roughly middle ages-ish—isn’t the era from which these sorts of hospitality tales emerged, but there are still elements of those works inherent in what’s happening here. Think, for instance, of how the Red Wedding episode made such a big deal out of the bread and salt that Walder Frey broke with Robb and his host. That was intended as a promise that Robb would remain safe while under that roof, a promise that was hideously broken. (You’ll note that even people who aren’t particularly concerned about the death of Robb have remarked a few times in subsequent episodes that it only marks Walder as someone who can’t be trusted as far as you can throw him.) More broadly, Game Of Thrones extends those hospitality tales into an examination of what it means to swear an oath to someone—a ruler or someone you’ve sworn to protect or just a friend or family member. The characters get into trouble because of their oaths, but the surest way to know that someone is marked for something awful on this show is that they break those oaths. Which is perhaps why this episode is called “Oathkeeper.”

It bears that name thanks to the sword that Jaime gives to Brienne. He either doesn’t want it (since it was from his father) or does not believe himself worthy of it. Either way, he thinks that she should have it as she embarks upon a journey to find Sansa Stark before Cersei’s forces can round up the girl and have her tried for murder. Putting aside all of the problems with how this episode seems to truly want us to think that what happened last week wasn’t, in any way, rape (and we’ll get to that), this is a heartbreaking scene. The connection that formed between Brienne and Jaime last season was one of the better things the show had done up until that point, and severing that connection—even if we all knew it would have to happen eventually—palpably affects both characters. That last long look Brienne takes back at Jaime could be the last time either ever see each other, but both have oaths to keep. Jaime’s is to a King’s Guard in turmoil and a woman who obviously doesn’t love him anymore. And Brienne’s is to a dead woman. Yet the oath is what propels them forward, the constant that gives their lives meaning, even when what drove that oath in the first place is robbed of what it once was.

“Oathkeeper” is a beautifully directed—by Michelle MacLaren—episode and an intelligently scripted—by Bryan Cogman—hour, but it’s also one of those episodes that tend to plague the midsections of seasons of this show, where everybody just kind of stands around and nothing much happens because the producers realize they advanced events far too quickly in previous episodes and need to save something for later episodes. It’s not a bad episode by any means, but after the headlong rush that was those first three hours, this one feels a bit more like a wait-and-see approach, wanting to make sure we’re reminded of a bunch of characters and potential conflicts before we move on to other stuff. In particular, it seems keen to remind us that the White Walkers exist, just in case we had forgotten, and it drops us into the midst of the mutineers at Craster’s Keep for a thoroughly unpleasant evening of baby sacrifice, men fucking women to death, and wolf taunting. It’s enough to make you root for the White Walkers.

One of the things I’m finding interesting about this season is how it’s using Jon and Dany, often as juxtaposed points along a line. Both increasingly operate like insurrectionists aiming to turn the power of whatever organizations they encounter against itself so that justice will be served. Both are increasingly having trouble understanding how to stop those balls from rolling. And the show is always placing their scenes right next to each other or about as far apart as it can. They’re the characters with the most geographic separation from each other right now—depending on wherever Bran is in that week’s episode—but they’re also the characters pursuing the most similar story arcs. And yet they’re doing so in different ways. Jon is aiming to change the organization he’s within for the better, because he knows what’s coming as soon as the Wildlings make their assault. Dany, meanwhile, keeps adding to an army that already seems fairly overwhelming (plus three dragons) by turning the populations of cities against themselves. In her own way, Dany is breaking hospitality oaths, but they’re oaths about slaves and masters and, therefore, oaths make to be broken in the first place due to injustice. And yet when Barristan tells her that sometimes it’s best to fight injustice with mercy, she swears there will be more justice. And anybody who’s seen how one of these sorts of things turns out knows that there will always be injustice to be punished, until the snake eats its own tail. At some point, forgiveness needs to begin, maybe not for the most heinous of crimes but definitely for some of them.


Subversion of oaths is also tremendously important to the Sansa and Littlefinger story in this episode, which first hints around and then all but confirms the identity of the person who killed Joffrey. (Look, Newbies, if you don’t know yet, I just don’t know what to do with you.) Littlefinger is one of the show’s best characters (and has been deeply missed) precisely because he’s someone who’s willing to twist, bend, and break oaths that he’s ostensibly living under to further his own ends. (When Sansa asks him what it is he ultimately wants and he says “Everything,” it’s both awesome and completely chilling.) His return to the series—which involves him spiriting Sansa away to the Eyrie, where she’ll be safe and where he’ll marry Lysa—marks this as once again a place where courtly intrigue is just as important as outright murder, not that he’s against indulging in either. And the suggestion that he and Olenna at one point communicated enough to hatch a murderous plot desperately makes me want to see these two share screentime together. And the fact that both of them have taken a pupil of sorts is even more intriguing. Game Of Thrones has made a name for itself thanks to all of the shocking death surrounding who gets to sit on that throne. But to me, it’s at its best when it’s a series that focuses on the first word in that title—who gets to play the game and how they play it and which rules they break along the way toward the ultimate goal.

Episode director Michelle MacLaren enhances all of these ideas most wonderfully with her direction, which appears to have been done after watching Barry Lyndon for a couple of weeks, Clockwork Orange-style. Many of the scenes in this episode are shot with light sources that wash in and away from the frames, so that the characters are constantly captured via uncertain flickers and licks of the light across their faces. Hell, even the scene where Jaime and Bronn meet up to practice sword fighting is filmed with sunset across the bay, that the two might be better framed as silhouettes as the sun slowly marches down through the sky. It’s the oldest trick in the book if you want to highlight that characters are caught between conflicting impulses (as everybody is here), but MacLaren deploys it skillfully.


A few scenes and shots in particular stand out in this regard. First, return to that scene in the ship’s hold between Littlefinger and Sansa, the two of them having their discussion about her safety and his motives. Notice the way that the sunlight dances through the portholes to catch his face and her face at opportune moments, then washes away just as quickly, the waves pulling it back. It’s beautifully deployed throughout, but it’s very nearly matched by the scene where Margaery goes to visit Tommen in his bed at night, a scene that starts rather creepy but quickly turns around to something almost… sweet? (I guess you could call it that from Tommen’s perspective. Here’s his future wife being nice to him! Of course, we know her ulterior motives.) Here, the flicker of candlelight serves the same function as the sunlight did in the earlier scene, only MacLaren subtly uses it to draw Tommen and Margaery together, to suggest that he is somehow safer (and more well-lit) when he’s near her, rather than when he’s near his mother. Finally, there’s the approach of what appears to be the White Walker head honcho, who converts that baby into one of his own. Notice how MacLaren uses a tight focus on the baby in the foreground to keep the black figures who seemingly menace him—and will eventually “adopt” him—out of focus in the back. This is done to increase the mystery of what’s happening, but it has the added effect of suggesting the shadowy threats that all of Westeros is ignoring in favor of playing the game.

There are other oaths broken in the episode, but the one between Jaime and Cersei deserves some space, due to the way that last week’s episode played out their relationship. Though the show’s creative personnel went in both directions when answering the question of whether or not what happened between the two was rape last week, this episode suggests that in the midst of production of the season, they certainly didn’t intend that reading. Outside of the question of whether authorial intent matters one whit (and I would argue it doesn’t, outside of finding it interesting to examine what a show’s writers were aiming for), it’s still fascinating to wonder whether the show is going to acknowledge it at all. You get the slightest glint of something from Cersei’s anger at her brother in their one scene together, but this feels more like the anger of a relationship that’s slowly unraveling, not a woman’s anger at a rapist who gets away with whatever he wants. Throughout the rest of the episode, we’re right back into Jaime as redemptive hero, the guy who’s helping out his brother and giving Brienne his sword. It’s confounding to see just how thoroughly the show’s production team apparently missed the way a large portion of their audience would read that scene and how completely they didn’t grasp how it would rebound on our reading of Jaime. Depiction of rape is one thing and completely inevitable on a show set in the Middle Ages. Not knowing that something you’re depicting is rape is another thing altogether and hurts scenes that are otherwise meant to be innocuous.


Even without that, though, “Oathkeeper” is a standard midseason episode of the show. It’s fairly entertaining, without quite achieving liftoff because it’s taking its time to make sure everybody’s pieces are in the right place for whatever’s coming next. There are moments and monologues that strike me as fundamentally important to the show’s overall message and themes, but they also seem to occur largely in isolation. Even if the theme of oaths taken, kept, and broken recurs throughout the hour, I’m not sure if the episode does enough with it to really maintain the thematic cohesion that the best hours of the show come up with. Still, it’s an episode of this show, so that means it starts with a war won in a handful of elegant camera angles and ends with an ice vampire claiming his own. And most weeks—as it is this week—that’s enough.

Stray observations:

  • Guess what, newbies! When it comes to that final scene, I’m just as flummoxed as you. And I couldn’t be happier.
  • All Experts can breathe a sigh of relief, because the show has now introduced its most important character in Tommen’s kitty cat, Ser Pounce. If the writers of the show are worried about what to do to stall for time while waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish the books, can I suggest a full season of adventures with Ser Pounce as he navigates the city, bringing mice to justice?
  • I’m really loving the Tyrion scenes in jail, but they also strike me as scenes that are really struggling with the fact that the show’s most vital character—and biggest draw, most likely—is stuck in a place where he can’t really scheme. Still, I liked the way that he and Jaime’s bond was stronger than accusations of murder, and I look forward to all future scenes of Podrick as Brienne’s bumbling squire.
  • That scene between Jaime and Bronn down by the beach made me think that the two of them were going to star in a shot-for-shot remake of Before Midnight.
  • One of the best ways to know if you’re watching a drama series worth its salt is to see how deep the bench is, and if nothing else, this week’s opening scene between Gray Worm and Missandei is a great reminder that this show has interesting characters pouring out of its ears.
  • Man, that scene at Craster’s Keep was repugnant. I get that this is the point, and it will make it all the more exciting when the mutineers are defeated somehow (hopefully by White Walkers who devour them whole, then play one-on-one basketball with Hodor), but sometimes, it feels like this show revels in the awfulness of people just to revel in it.
  • And to think for a second I thought that Hodor was going to get to adopt a baby! Somebody cook up a Miller-Boyett-style opening credits sequence for the lovable giant and his son, where they move to Philadelphia and take on the world together. You can just use the Perfect Strangers theme song, if you want, because Hodor is always standing tall on the wings of a dream.
  • I really like the warg effects on the show. Simple but effective.
  • Depicting the end of Meereen in just a couple of shots like that was the sort of thing this show does so well, but I think it’s getting even better at it. There’s a large difference between a bunch of slaves falling atop one of the masters used to stand in for the revolution and Tyrion getting conked in the head so he misses the battle.
  • If Margo Martindale had appeared as Great Aunt Violet to say that the poison was already in the necklace during that scene, I would have given this episode all of the A+’s. (Did I make this joke already? Yes. Will jokes about Mags Bennett somehow appearing on this show largely in character ever stop being funny? My money is on no, but you may disagree.)

Here be spoilers! (Stop reading if you haven’t read the books):

  • These sections are going to have to necessarily be much less in depth than they were before, because I have less time to research while writing live. I will say that I’m intrigued by the ways that the writers have mixed around various elements from Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen in their depictions of the fall of the three cities. And I still miss you, Strong Belwas.
  • I keep trying to find Coldhands in scenes up North, and all of the focus on the hands of the rider on that horse made me briefly excited, but, no, I think it’s just the same White Walker on the horse that we always see.
  • I love the way that they’re setting up Brienne’s eventual meeting with Lady Stoneheart in the foreshadowing and moving the pieces around. Assuming the show depicts Lady Stoneheart, but, c’mon, it’s going to.