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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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 meaning Martin 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.
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 of Game 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.
“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.
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.
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.
- 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 riveting and I deeply resent not seeing them.
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.
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?