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 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 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 just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) 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. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.