Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. 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. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
In lieu of parsing all those interviews in which everyone swore up and down that Jon Snow was deader than dead—you have to admit he was actually somewhat less dead than dead—I’ll start with the Previously On: Seeing Robb and Cat discuss the Karstarks was a blast from the past. What initially hooked me about Game Of Thrones was the expansion. For a while it kept growing, getting outwardly bigger and inwardly intricate, and then it stopped. The Iron Islands were abandoned, Dorne was put on hold. Once the writers started abandoning active characters left and right, the spell was broken.
Season three was the last big push. That’s how long it’s been since the writers followed several lost characters reintroduced or referenced in “Home.” Balon Greyjoy hasn’t been seen since that season’s finale, “Mhysa,” when he receives a gift in the mail from Ramsay. Gendry’s been rowing since that same episode, but his magic pubic leeches finally come through with Balon’s murder. Thoros Of Myr and Beric Dondarrion were cut loose even sooner, but they pave the way for Melisandre to bring Jon Snow back to life. And in the North, there are two notable lords from season three who have betrayed the Starks for House Bolton. The first is House Karstark, whose new lord holds an understandable grudge against Robb and a less understandable grudge against what remains of his decimated family. You won, dude. Let it go. The second is House Umber, to whose stronghold Osha is trying to shepherd Rickon “Oh, yeah” Stark once they split up with Bran, also in season three. No word on the Blackfish’s singlehanded resistance of the Frey forces, but at least we got to check in with Hot Pie in season four.
Given how little Game Of Thrones has cared about the Iron Islands rebellion, the, um, overthrow of Balon is a masterpiece next to the Dornish coup. Now, I’ve been waiting for that man to drop dead since the leech sacrifice, and it’s clearly time once he steps out onto one of the long rope bridges between towers of Pyke, swaying in the wind during a storm in the dark. At first he looks like he might be having a heart attack. Then that he’s just trying to steady himself. Either way, he’s going overboard. So Doran’s death is played for surprise and Balon’s suspense, but there’s a specificity, a strangeness to Balon’s murder that its counterpart lacks. Nature doesn’t take him, nor does accident. His wayward brother appears shadowed in a cloak at the opposite end of the bridge. Since we haven’t kept up with the Greyjoys, we have to get through some exposition about this guy, but it’s weird, spooky exposition befitting the costume and the setting. “I am the storm, brother.” Who is this guy? What’s his deal? Might he actually be a better ruler than Balon? He boasts of his fearsome reputation. Balon counters with his reputation for madness. Before you can say, “Who is he to talk?” Brother Greyjoy has thrown Balon off the bridge. The destinations are the same—a king (lord, prince, whatever) killed by his family in an attempted coup—but the journeys are notably different. In Pyke they’re trying to tell a story with atmosphere and ambiguity. In Dorne they’re just checking boxes.
For some reason Yara concludes that somebody killed Balon. Never mind that Balon is the 37th drunken Ironborn to fall off those ridiculous bridges this year. No, she means to investigate. But before Balon’s corpse is even out of earshot, the Drowned God priest usurps her. He demands a kingsmoot, which if The Two Towers is any indication ought to be a rollicking conference. And we were seconds away from a woman essentially ruling the kingdom and two women ruling regions in rebellion.
Here’s the thing about this being the season of girl power: That’s been the idea every year. The first season toppled the ruling patriarchs across two continents—Jon Arryn, Viserys, Robert, Ned, and Drogo—leaving wives and mothers to pick up the pieces. The season ends with Dany becoming the Mother Of Dragons. The dominoes fell, and the design spelled out, “Slay kween.” The cast was replenished by a witch who could survive poison, Margaery “I don’t want to be a queen, I want to be the queen” Tyrell, and two warrior women in Brienne and Yara who distinguish themselves from their cartoon Dornish cousins by showing signs of conflict, personality, and general inner life. All four of them have managed to survive every authorial ambush since. We meet powerful men like Renly and Stannis and watch them die so the women they introduce can achieve their own agency.
See also: Craster and Gilly from one end of the patriarchy spectrum and Oberyn and Ellaria from the other. Tywin’s dead, Joffrey’s dead, Tommen’s got a prophecy hanging over his head. All the while, the women are learning from the best (Sansa, Arya) and taking matters into their own hands (Cersei). Now every Lysa has her Littlefinger (and every Shireen her Melisandre), but them’s the breaks in such a harsh world depicted by such adolescents. The point is that the story has made severe underdogs of a whole gender from the start. For the entire run of the show, it’s been triumphant to watch the women take over. But at least since Cat took Tyrion hostage, that triumph has been bittersweet. The women either have to lose and struggle and endure to achieve agency, or they wield it with the same selfishness and short-sightedness as the men. However impressive it is for Cersei and Ellaria to attain their respective thrones, they’re not great leaps forward. They’re steps back. Yara might not be.
Meera—you remember, hunter girl, dead brother, skeleton grenadiers—is another warrior woman introduced to the story by a man she outlived (Jojen’s the one with the connection to Bran). She’s been despondent about her time at the Three-Eyed Raven’s treehouse. Bran gets to warg and play virtual-reality history and grow into a pop star, but she just gets to sit there with Hodor, né Willas. What I take to be one of the children tells her she won’t be inactive for long. Bran can’t stay at the tree forever, and he’ll need her to protect him. For another subplot Game Of Thrones tabled, this scene is a welcome reintroduction. We skipped over all of Bran’s boring superpower lessons, although I have no doubt Max Von Sydow makes a better teacher than Jaqen and the Waif, and we’ve had to sit through every one of their lessons. In any event, we’re apparently near the end of Bran’s education. It seemed like only yesterday, etc.
Other subplots are more obviously racing—Arya’s already back with Jaqen after passing the world’s most obvious test, and Theon’s already leaving Sansa’s side—but this one is racing in another way. On the surface, there’s no plot momentum. Bran just witnesses a scene from his father’s youth. But every other moment feels like a clue to something or other. Not just whatever Bran’s powers are in general, but this vision in specific. Young Ned is training young Benjen, a reminder that Benjen might still be out there. Or is this like the time in season four when they kept mentioning Renly for no other reason than, to them, he existed? What’s really trippy: Ned and Benjen reenact a scene of Jon and Olly word for word, head cradle for head cradle. “Keep your shield up, or I’ll ring your head like a bell.” What the hell is going on here? Suddenly Lyanna races in on a horse. The show keeps reminding us of Ned’s sister, and the story usually entails her being swept up on a wayward horse (by Rhaegar Targaryen). Finally, Bran discovers that Hodor isn’t named Hodor. He’s Willas, and he could speak. What happened to him? Does it matter? It’s like the Greyjoy sequence, in which we learn not only of Balon’s brother but the fate of the Iron Islands rebellion. Even though the plot isn’t moving too fast, there’s so much information it almost feels like it is. It’s like Bran, physically staying put but mentally flying through story.
The Bolton coup is more of the usual. The news that Walda gives birth to a boy is Ramsay’s signal to consolidate power. Roose tells Ramsay that he’ll always be the firstborn, and Ramsay replies, “Thank you for saying that. It means a great deal to me.” Then right there in front of the new Lord Karstark and the maester messenger, father and son embrace, and one of them stabs the other in the gut. For one beautiful moment it could have been Roose taking care of a problem, but unfortunately, it’s the other way around. Ramsay continues his clean-up by summoning Walda. One thing the producers have learned since crucifying Theon in season three is they don’t have to show us so much to make our skin crawl. Every moment Ramsay spends with Walda and her baby is excruciating. He holds it in his arms, and your worst fears come out. The episode has already shown us two full-grown men smashed against a wall by giants (one biological giant and one…unnatural giant). By the time he’s lured his victims into the kennel and opened the doors of several cages it’s not even scary anymore, but the producers don’t let that stop them. Walda is made to beg for her life, the baby’s screaming, and the dogs are barking. Just another day at Ramsay’s house. The sadism is boring, but the plot is momentous. That’s three great lords overthrown in two episodes, and Littlefinger is nowhere to be seen. What are the odds Mace Tyrell makes it back from Braavos?
Strange as it is to see superconfident Melisandre so lost, it’s even stranger to see Davos as her biggest ally. That hasn’t happened since season three either, back when they both agreed the true war lies to the north. “I assume you know why I’m here,” he says. She doesn’t even look at him. “I will after you tell me.”
She’s so shaken that she sits out the battle. Just as Alliser is about to bust down the door on Davos’ room, Edd arrives with a wildling army and a fucking giant who busts down the door to the courtyard. All the giant has to do is smash one pipsqueak archer (alas, not Olly) and the men lay down their weapons. Edd has Alliser’s mutineers thrown in the dungeons, leaving only Team Jon to man Castle Black. For the entire series characters have been discovering that getting command is a lot easier than maintaining the loyalty of their people. That’s why the Boltons are having trouble with the North, and the former Slaver’s Bay is in the midst of a grand reopening. For the first time, a conquering leader might actually have the full loyalty of his people.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but everyone knew where this was going. Melisandre insists, “The Lord never spoke to me.” Leave it to Davos to come up with a pithy response: “Fuck him then…I’m not asking the Lord of Light for help. I’m asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist.” He’s talking about how she survived poison and birthed a shadow demon. What he doesn’t know is her visions of Winterfell could yet come to pass, and that the final leech has worked its magic. It’s strange. Melisandre’s zealotry knows no limits, but she genuinely believes she’s serving the will of her god. All this time it could have been a purely selfish endeavor to manipulate and isolate a king. And clearly she was arrogant. Somehow I don’t foresee a lot of humility after she finds out what happens at the end of “Home.” Which is, just when everyone thinks Melisandre failed to resurrect Jon, the room deserted, Jon gasps for air. It’s like he was drowning.
Which brings me back to Bran: “I wasn’t drowning. I was home.”
- “Home” is written by Dave Hill and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
- The Westeros Department Of Corrections: Sorry, that was Tyene, not Obara, who stabs Areo Hotah. Tyene and Obara are completely different people with completely different personality traits. For instance, their hairstyles and weapons.
- According to the “Inside The Show” featurette last week, Melisandre is not just old. She’s “several centuries old.” You’d think she might have accrued more wisdom over the years.
- Theon says he’s going home, too, but what home? I hope he means Pyke, where he might be able to help his sister or something. But he clearly thinks his only redemption comes in toil, so I fear he’s headed for Winterfell to sacrifice himself in the name of killing or crippling Ramsay.
- Cersei is going to teach poor, sweet Tommen about violent vengeance. Bloodthirstiness is what separates the Karstarks from the Starks, the Ellarias from the Dorans. The show consistently pits a hot temper against a cool one, and the hot tends to come out looking foolish, if momentarily victorious. It’s the Tyrions, the Tywins, the Varyses and the Littlefingers—the patient plotters, the calculators—who are best at playing the game. Robb made a smart military strategist, but a terrible teen in love. Now, Tommen’s no calculator, but his sweetness has always been a relief. The boy could use some strength. I just hope he knows restraint.
- The other dude smashed against a wall—after the archer killed by the giant—is some peasant who brags about waving his cock at Cersei on her walk of shame. One day he’s taking a piss and the new Mountain walks up behind him and just slams him against the wall like Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers.
- Jaime almost takes out the High Sparrow! But then the other sparrows show up in their chains with their maces. In his infinite humility the High Sparrow boasts/threatens, “Every one of us is poor and powerless, and yet together, we can overthrow an empire.” He’s another zealot in need of a severe setback if you ask me. Not that Cersei’s any better, but from what we’ve seen, peaceful King Tommen and generous Queen Margaery sure offer the people a lot more than these brutal fundamentalists.
- RIP: Lord Balon Greyjoy, Lord Roose Bolton, Lady Walda Frey Bolton, and Baby Bolton. But welcome back, Jon!
- Seriously, where is Littlefinger?
- Tyrion: “I drink, and I know things.” Now he can add “making friends with dragons” to his skills.
- Melisandre: “It shouldn’t have been possible.”