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.
Jon Snow was never very light-hearted, so I don’t know if his time in nothingness changed him, but Castle Black has an awfully emo week. Sure, Jon died, experienced nothingness, and was forced to come back to hell, so he gets some license to mope. But it’s not just him. The first sight of “Oathbreaker” is Davos’ teary face. He’s awed to witness resurrection, but there’s no joy in him. It’s a purely solemn awe, like he’s at a war memorial, which I guess he kind of is. The final sight of “Oathbreaker” is Jon Snow suddenly quitting the Night’s Watch. You’d think he might have made preparations or consulted with his allies or maybe chatted up Davos and Melisandre (and Tormund, for that matter) to see what their plans were. Otherwise they might all be going the same way. Won’t that be awkward? But, no. As soon as he’s done overseeing the execution of the (first wave of?) traitors, he removes his crow cape and walks off trying to look cool.
And look at the attempts at comedy. Except for a Pycelle toot, it’s all long, slow, dragged-out unfunny scenes of miscommunication. I’m thinking of the small council taking their ball and going home. One by one. Having to walk past the Mountain. Forever. Or Tyrion trying to get Missandei and Grey Worm to lighten the fuck up for once in their goddamn lives. I was hooting and hollering like a monkey all through “Home.” But that TV writer thing when a character is plainly making an attempt to be jovial and is met with stone faces is never funny, except sometimes on Gilmore Girls.
Now, technically Jon’s abandonment doesn’t qualify as a broken oath. You take the black until you die. The real oathbreakers at Castle Black are Alliser, Olly, and the extras. Actually, they did get a couple names, which is more than I can say for either Greyjoy uncle or the crone queen of Vaes Dothrak, who will actually be sticking around. Apparently the Greyjoys are Aeron (priest) and Euron (pirate). Not to be absolutist, but I really think a good story ought to name its characters within the text instead of treating one’s basic identifier as insider knowledge. The Wire is more forthcoming than this. The basic lack of diligence speaks to the rush. Game Of Thrones is far more interested in meeting its deadlines than telling its story. I can see why some fans are willing to wait forever to get the story told more carefully from George R.R. Martin.
Don’t get me wrong. Things slow down all across the board in “Oathbreaker.” No word on the Greyjoy succession, no visit to Ellaria’s reign in Dorne, no check-in with Sansa’s flight to Castle Black. Those frenzies are now calm enough to be off the table. Instead we get another history lesson with Bran, more governance and politics in King’s Landing and Meereen, a boat ride with Sam and Gilly, and a prelude in Vaes Dothrak. Dany broke her oath to return to Vaes Dothrak to live out her widowhood with the dosh khaleen, and now her fate will be decided on by the khalasar convention (or KhalaCon). Sam broke his oath to stay with Gilly always, and now their fates will be decided by…each other I guess?
See, the slower pace doesn’t alone solve the storytelling. It doesn’t force the scenes to tell a story instead of hitting exposition or trying for filler jokes. Several subplots end with suggestions so ambiguous they might not even have ended. As we leave Sam and Gilly, it certainly doesn’t play like Gilly’s going to go stay with Sam’s folks for a while. It plays like they’re having a fight, and that fight is not over. That kind of ending happens a lot, raising the question, what’s the point? What are the producers saying with this? For instance, Tyrion and Missandei talk about responding to the masters in the only language they understand, and everyone in the room knows exactly what they’re talking about and everyone in the audience (okay, me) wonders what it is. Or Team Cersei (Qyburn and his new assembly of little birds, Ser Gregor the Frankenmountain, and Jaime) coming into conflict with the King’s Council (Kevan Lannister, Maester Pycelle, Mace, and Olenna) to no apparent purpose. Like Bran yanked out of history, these sequences are just truncated enough to frustrate. All appetizer and no entree.
Well, there are some entrees, but let’s stop with the eating metaphors before we get to Ramsay. The producers take their time shaping some of the bigger scenes and still manage to reach momentous stopping points, as in the Arya subplot. The thing is, we’ve seen this one already. Arya gets beaten every time she lies. Last time she actually manages to lie convincingly. This time she manages to tell the truth without lying? In any event, we get a montage of people beating a blinded Arya with sticks, which is a lot more painful than the producers seem to get. Eventually she manages to defend herself even though she’s blind, and Jaqen offers her the lead-based fountain water. It comes with an ultimatum: If she’s truly no one, she has nothing to fear. But he has to be pretty sure she’ll pass this test, or it’s even crueler than the blinding. And as a viewer, I’m not confident she’d pass yet. Not three episodes ago she was very much Arya Stark. But she passes nonetheless, and her vision is restored. Does that mean she’s truly no one? Who’s administering this test?
Another biggie is the great Lord Umber scene. The new Lord Umber, like the new Lord Karstark an heir to a man we met in seasons past, refuses to adhere to tradition, becoming the second person to say, “Fuck oaths,” this season. This new generation, I swear. He also refuses to maintain the pretense that Roose Bolton was poisoned by “enemies,” and given his level of detail, word is clearly getting around. But he does want to unite with Bolton and Karstark. To prove it, he offers a gift: Osha, Rickon, and the head of Shaggydog. Those first two are still alive, at least long enough for Ramsay to say, “Welcome home, Lord Stark.” It’s a nice twist and it’s well built to. But can we go two weeks without someone we care about in Ramsay’s grasp? Okay, three?
Speaking of fucking oaths, is tradition the latest governing structure to disintegrate in the face of all that’s happened? In Westeros you can’t count on the climate, history, science, family, marriage, or the government most days anymore. Miracles are getting more frequent. And look at the narrative entropy: two houses at war, then five, then scattered bands of people, now all kinds of political confusion and rulers who can barely maintain their capitals, the rest of their territory be damned. The violation of guest rites used to be a shock. Now we have multiple examples of people killing their own family, by blood or law: Lysa, Tyrion, Stannis, Ramsay, Ellaria, Euron, and the new Lord Umber in his fantasies. As Rowan Kaiser writes in this great piece (tread lightly, spoilerphobes), Game Of Thrones is partly designed as a subversion of historical fantasy values like chivalry. At this point we’re all the way back around to being surprised when honor and loyalty succeed.
The greater question is whether it might not be better for the people at large to overthrow the governing structure of tradition. For Dany to reject widowhood in a nation she was sold to, to reform Dothraki pillaging practices in whatever small part she could manage, to liberate the slave coast. Hard to argue with her rejection of tradition in concept. Only the execution has been frustrating. Should a new lord then be free to overturn an eon of Northerner loyalty to the Starks and throw in with the new power? It sounds awfully Lannister of him, but theoretically self-determination expands freedom. Everyone talks about the Northerners like they’re a particular species of hard-headed warriors loyal to their own, but that’s not genetics. It’s tradition. If there’s a problem with the new Lords Karstark and Umber choosing a different path for their people, and suspect there is, it isn’t the choice. It’s the short-sightedness.
Castle Black is a place run on tradition, some enshrined in law (no sex), others frattishly passed on from one generation to the next (no wildlings). Nowadays everything about it feels vestigial, including the wall, which has been climbed over on-screen…twice. Crows were already running low before the battle, and between the casualties and the mutineers, they’re down to Edd and some extras. To add insult to injury, those casualties were made by the crows’ new allies. Speaking of the wildlings, a hell of a lot of them died in the battle as well, Mance Rayder was later executed, and a great deal more were massacred during the immigration expedition to Hardhome. The castle has no lord commander, no ruling council, no first ranger, no maester, and a woman. It’s nothing like it once was. But what it once was is a culture that led to Sam’s bullying and Gilly’s attempted rape and Alliser’s mutiny. Now Edd has a chance to remake it better than it was, in structure if not in manpower.
King’s Landing isn’t even run by the small council anymore. Or maybe it is. Like I said, we don’t actually get a sense of the governing here. But the cumulative sense over the past season is the sparrows could put up a decent resistance, and they have hostages. Excuse me, penitents, or impenitents as the case may be. The queen mother can’t even leave her own castle, and I realize that sounds like first-world problems, but it still goes to show how precarious the situation is outside. And while the High Sparrow is an infuriating demagogue, it is somewhat enjoyable to see this religious check on the power of the throne. They’re the twin pillars of the world, Cersei tells Tommen via the High Sparrow. Except they’re not twins. The crown has no check on faith. Or does it? The crown has the money and the weapons and the soldiers. This reminds me of Varys’ riddle to Tyrion about the king, the priest, the rich man, and the sellsword.
But once again King Tommen squares off with the sparrows, and once again Tommen is easily defused. In fact, such a good-natured boy might actually be buying what the High Sparrow’s selling. Not to the extent that he’ll cut a wheel in his head any time soon, but he’s been brought up to appreciate the words of the gods. And here’s this holy man telling him, “There’s so much good in all of us. The best we can do is help each other bring it out.” What would Joffrey do? He’d have the Hound kill the High Sparrow well before he got to that line, come what may. But Tommen tries talking and listening, and he finds wisdom in the High Sparrow’s words. He doesn’t seem to realize he’s playing the game. Overthrowing the monarchy of King’s Landing, or at least resisting it, might be better in the long run for the citizens of the city. But religion is another governing structure, and one that appears to be just as arbitrarily despotic. They haven’t broken with tradition. They’ve just traded one for another.
- “Oathbreaker” is written by David Benioff and DB Weiss and directed by Daniel Sackheim.
- Melisandre: “Stannis is not the prince who was promised, but someone has to be.” Listen, I’m all about standing up for those prophecies of hers that are still possible. But at some point, someone needs to tell her about confirmation bias. She burned a child because she was sure Stannis would win Winterfell…because she saw herself walking the castle. Christ, lady.
- Jon: “I’m not a god.” Tormund: “I know that. I saw your pecker.”
- Bran’s visions are as fun as they are total semantic loopholes to Benioff and Weiss’ “flashbacks are lazy” rule. They try to claim there’s a fundamental narrative difference because Bran is watching them. No. Anyway, this week Bran sees his and Meera’s fathers face off with Ser Arthur Dayne, the knight Rhaegar left to guard Lyanna in a tower somewhere. It’s a thrilling fight, but just seeing Ned (even non-Sean-Bean Ned) is a thrill. And Bran learns one of the central lessons of this show: Official history isn’t the same as objective truth. See also: Who poisoned Jon Arryn, and who the crown and the gods say poisoned Joffrey.
- At one point Bran calls out, “Father!” Shortly afterward, Ned stops and looks around. Did he hear him?
- Bran: “What’s in the tower?” The Three-Eyed Raven: “That’s enough for one day.” Tease.
- Tyrion tells Missandei and Grey Worm, “A wise man once said a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms.” “Who said this?” “Me, just now.”
- Varys: “Men can be fickle, but birds I always trust.” The little birds are the poor children of whatever town he’s in. He’s cultivating new ones—not in a creepy way—in Meereen, and Qyburn has taken over—again, nothing creepy about it—in King’s Landing. In one case Qyburn offed a boy’s abusive father. It’s always so unsettling when something relatively good happens.
- Lady Olenna is here to raise some hell. She tells Cersei, “You are not the queen, because you are not married to the king. I do appreciate these things can get a bit confusing in your family.” God, yes.
- R.I.P.: Ser Alliser, Shaggydog, some extras, and Olly, ranked in the order I’ll miss them.