Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Game of Thrones 6.03: Oathbreaker

Hello everyone, and welcome to week 3 of our season six recap of Game of Thrones. The lateness of this week's post is entirely my fault; my work/life balance has been grossly out of whack for the past few weeks and until I figure out a way to slow it down, these posts take a back seat. But here's to managing my time better next week. Without any further ado, let us begin!! 

Nikki: After the one-two-three punch of last week’s episode, it stood to reason that this week’s would be a bit slower, and it definitely was. With the exception of a couple of gasps, it was pretty much a bridge episode, but it still had some great stuff. In an episode called “Oathbreaker,” I thought Brienne would play a larger role, but she didn’t even appear.

We’ve been waiting all week to see what the reaction will be at Castle Black to the Christ-like resurrection of Jon Snow. And it was one of my favourite moments of the episode. First we see the awakening of Jon, as he gasps for air before sitting up, and then gaping with shock and horror at his Saint Sebastian–like wounds. 

He doesn’t know why he’s alive, and while the Red Woman has brought him back to life, she clearly hasn’t taken the pain of the wounds away. Davos’s eyes are saucer-like as he slowly, carefully, makes his way back over to Jon Snow’s side, unsure of what rough beast has just awakened on the table. Even Ghost isn’t so sure about things, as he whimpers in the corner and stares at the person who should be Jon Snow, but couldn’t possibly be Jon Snow.

And yet, it is Jon Snow. This isn’t some creation of Victor Frankenstein, cobbled together with pieces of flesh and organs, this is the same man who was stabbed to death by his traitorous men, and the first thing he says to Davos is, “Ollie, he put a knife in my heart.” It’s the boy who’s hurt him the most, the boy he thought he was helping, the boy he wasn’t noticing seething in the corner at every turn. And the fact that Jon pinpoints this as the worst part of the incident told me that that, without doubt, was still Jon.

Melisandre comes rushing back into the room and, like a light switch, her faith instantly reignites. She wants to know what he saw, and you can see her eyes shining with hope. Moments ago, she was staring despondently into a fire, mourning the loss of her faith and coming to terms with a world in which the Lord of Light does not exist. But now that Jon is sitting there, impossibly back from the dead through the power of the Lord of Light, she has her proof. And she asks him what he saw. You can tell she wants to hear that he saw the Lord’s face, or a beautiful world shining where it was no longer dark and full of terror. But he disappoints her. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” he says. But she’s undaunted. “The Lord let you come back for a reason,” she says, her resolve strengthening by the second. She declares she was wrong about Stannis, that he wasn’t the prince: it was Jon.

But Jon doesn’t have time for this. To him, no time has passed: moments ago he was being stabbed to death and now he’s sitting here. “I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. Now I’m back. Why?” While Davos still isn’t clinging to any Lord of Light crap — he knows a miracle has happened, but he’s not about to attribute it to some unseen god — he does agree with Melisandre that perhaps Jon is some sort of Chosen One who is destined to save them all. Davos sits with him and tells Jon, “Fight for as long as you can. Clean up as much shit as you can.” But Jon says he’s failed.

Davos: “Good. Now go fail again.”

I love the idea of Davos teaming up with Jon Snow, and I hope, despite the end of this episode, that that will be the case. Davos has always been one of my favourite characters, marred only by the fact that he aligned himself with someone like Stannis Baratheon. Now that both he and Melisandre have switched gears and are backing Jon instead, it promises to be a much more interesting group.

But now Jon has to show his face to everyone else, and he steps out onto the wooden staircase in front of the courtyard of wildlings, who stare at him in utter silence and disbelief. As Jon slowly and painfully walks through the group, they part, staring at him as if he’s a ghost, until he reaches Thormund, who had been in the room when Melisandre was working her mojo. Thormund tells him that they all think he’s some kind of god now. “I’m not a god,” says Jon bluntly. “I know,” Thormund reassures him. “I saw your pecker. What kind of god would have a pecker that small?”

He then moves to Eddison, who stares at Jon with apprehension and awe, and asks if it’s really him. Jon reassures him that it is, and jokes, “Hold off on burning my body for now.” “That’s funny,” Edd retorts. “Are you sure that’s still you in there?” And then he gives him a bear hug, one that clearly hurts a LOT by the look on Jon’s face.

It’s a great opening, where all signs point to the man before us as Jon Snow. Of course, the end of the episode will take away that certainty.

And from here it’s off to Sam and Gilly, sailing for the Citadel. It’s lovely to see them again, and clearly the sea air is good for Gilly, since she looked brighter and happier than I think I’ve ever seen her. Sam, on the other hand, is not handling the waves well, and hangs his face over a bucket (I know I’ve said it before, but my #1 pet peeve of TVs and movies is showing someone vomiting. I cannot handle it AT ALL. Blergh.) 

It’s a brief scene, where he tells her she can’t go into the Citadel so instead he’s taking her to his mother and sister, who will take care of her. And she, in turn, refers to him as the father of her son. It’s a lovely little moment before we move back to the past once again.

Christopher, did your jaw equally hit the ground when you saw the actor playing a young Ned Stark? WOW! I feel like I had gone back in time!

Christopher: Unfortunately, no, given that that scene has had the life promo-ed out of it, and has further been painstakingly dissected by fandom … one of the unfortunate results of which is that it was something of a disappointment.

Let me back up: one of the key mysteries of A Song of Ice and Fire, as we know, is that of Jon Snow’s parentage. Was he really Ned Stark’s bastard, or the product of some other union? I don’t think it’s a spoiler any more to say that the good money for a long while now has been on Jon being the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark—the latter of whom’s ostensible abduction and rape by the former was the spark that lit the powderkeg of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion. There are innumerable clues scattered throughout the novels suggesting that Rhaegar did not abduct Lyanna, but that she was in love with him and went willingly.

By the same token, Ned Stark has a number of dreams and flashbacks in A Game of Thrones, in which he remembers holding a dying Lyanna in his arms as she pleads “Promise me, Ned …” He further has memories of facing down Ser Arthur Dayne and another member of the Kingsguard; he has six men with him against their two, but in the end only Howland Reed (Jojen and Meera’s father) survives with him. These memories are fragmentary and unspecific, but hint powerfully that the “official” narrative of Robert’s Rebellion, in which Rhaegar is a monstrous figure and Lyanna a tragic victim, is not entirely—or even remotely—true.

All this is by way of saying that, five seasons and five novels into this series, fans have arrived at the firm belief that “R+L=J,” and so the snippets of this scene shown in the trailers have evoked more than a little excitement … and the speculation was that this episode was going to reveal Jon Snow’s true parentage.

I admit to hoping as much myself, but really we all should have known better. Of course the show is going to tease this out over several episodes, if not in fact the entire season. I just wish this scene hadn’t been so prominent in the trailers—it would have been amazing to watch it unfold without having been forewarned.

All that being said, the scene was well done: tense and kinetic, with some nice fight choreography. And the actor playing young Ned (Robert Aramayo) is a great bit of casting—not only does he look like Sean Bean, but he gets the inflections of Bean’s Yorkshire accent precisely right. If I have a quibble, it’s that while Ser Arthur Dayne, the “Sword of the Morning,” was famous for being the greatest swordsman of his age, he was just as famous for his Valyrian steel greatsword Dawn. He would not have fought with two swords, but with his single, two-handed sword. Lack of fidelity to the books notwithstanding, watching Dayne dispatch Ned’s men in quick succession, it’s easy to believe his (dead) comrade’s boast that if they had been at the Battle of the Trident, where Rhaegar met his doom, it would have been Robert Baratheon pushing up the daisies. There’s a nice moment as young Ned finds himself facing Dayne alone, and his expression is a fine little bit of face-acting: a mingling of determination and the recognition that he will not survive this fight.

Though of course he does, but only through the dishonourable action of Howland Reed, who stabs Dayne in the back, much to Bran’s shock and confusion. “I’ve heard the story a hundred times,” he had said just moments before, and the expression on his face calls to mind so many of Sansa’s in seasons one and two, as she repeatedly learned the hard lesson that stories and reality often bear little resemblance. Ned then deals the finishing blow, an action whose motivation is ambiguous at best: was he dealing Arthur Dayne a merciful end? Was it a moment of vengeful rage, as his expression might suggest? Did he do it so when he claims in the future that he killed Arthur Dayne, there will be a germ of truth in the tale?

Whatever his motive, his brief reverie is broken by the sound of a woman’s agonized cry, whom we assume to be Lyanna. Bran of course wants to follow and see what is in the tower, ignoring at first the Three-Eyed Raven’s admonitions. He calls out to Ned, and for a moment it seems as though he is heard: Ned pauses, and turns to look at nothing. Back under the tree, Bran insists that his father heard him, and the Raven appears to grant the possibility, though he insists that “The past is already written. The ink is dry.” But is it? His warning to Bran that “Stay too long where you don’t belong, and you will never return,” suggests that their astral voyaging into the past is rather more involved than merely screening scenes from some magical archive, that Bran is more than a passive observer when he travels to these remotes times and places.

What is Bran? He is a warg, able to inhabit Summer’s body (and sometimes Hodor’s); he has apparently sorcerous abilities, and seems to be turning into that ubiquitous fantasy trope, the Chosen One: one thousand years the Raven has endured his solitary, static existence, because he’s been waiting for Bran. Not because Bran is the heir apparent, his replacement to operate the Tree of Seeing Things—no, Bran will ultimately leave and return to the world, though for what purpose we do not know. And heavens forbid the crusty old mentor should ever speak in anything other than stern and cryptic riddles.

Speaking of Chosen Ones, we’re now up to three of them in one episode: Jon Snow, Bran, and of course Daenerys, though her status as a former Khaleesi apparently earns her no respect. She is not granted the dignity of a horse, and is kicked and told to move her ass. Here we are again in Vaes Dothrak, which we saw in season one, when she came here with Khal Drogo to consecrate her marriage by eating a raw horse’s heart, and Drogo finally gave Viserys a golden crown—though one that sat somewhat more uncomfortably on his head than he’d hoped.

(There’s a lot of full-circle moments so far this season, by which I mean there’s been two—last week’s echo of the opening scenes in Winterfell, and now Daenerys’ own déjà vu at being back in the Dothraki “city.” I don’t having anything insightful to say about this, just that it will be interesting, going forward, to see whether we continue getting echoes of season one).

Her humiliations continue at the hands of the other Khals’ widows, stripping her of her queenly garb and dressing her in simple leathers. She is sternly reminded of the fact that she broke Dothraki custom in going out into the world rather than immediately returning to the Dosh Khaleen, and that for this transgression her fate might be more dire than living our her days with the other widows.

I admit that, when this episode ended, I was momentarily at a loss as to why it was titled “Oathbreaker.” Like you, I thought it might have something to do with Brienne and her sword, but I think it’s a more general descriptor: in this case to Daenerys’ failure to conform to Dothraki law (for which we can hardly blame her), but also to her apparent abandonment of Meereen. What did you think of the Meereen scenes in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: Just to jump back a bit, yes, I’ve been in the R+L=J camp for quite some time, which is why Jon Snow’s death at the end of last season felt like such a kick in the head. Everything I believed, the direction I thought the story had been going the whole time, had just been destroyed and now I had to start over. (I guess I understand a bit how Melisandre felt...) However, I’m a spoilerphobe of such epic proportions I’m only realizing now that I am apparently a complete master of it, because I knew nothing about what was happening this season. I didn’t know about the casting of young Ned, didn’t know about this scene in particular, and I don’t even watch the “Next Week On” previews at the end of the episodes, so I guess I shall happily sit alone as the single Unsullied Game of Thrones fan. Publicity is great, but man, surprise can be SO much better.

Meanwhile, in Meereen, Varys wonders how the guards can stand all that leather while he waits for Vala to arrive. This is the prostitute who lured White Rat into her chambers before he was massacred by the Sons of the Harpy in the last season. Vala is clever, refusing to speak: she tells Varys that Daenerys has come in to Meereen and is destroying their history, and ruining everything. But Varys is cleverer, and he knows her weak spot: her son, Dom. He tells her that her perspective is a valid one, and he will try to see things her way, but then he mentions her son... “Dom, is it?” And the smug look on her face suddenly disappears. Her eyes widen, and Varys knows he’s once again caught a poor fly in his web. He explains that he’s not exactly threatening her son, but she conspired against Daenerys’s soldiers, and there’s really only one way that can play out. How will poor Dom get on without his mother, he wonders aloud, “especially with that breathing problem.” Suddenly she’s begging him, explaining that she can’t talk or they’ll kill her, and Varys once again arranges for a ship to take her away with some silver. And suddenly, she’s singing like one of Varys’s favourite birds.

Meanwhile, waiting in the next room is Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm, having the world’s most boring conversation, if one could even call it a conversation. As Tyrion realizes that every icebreaker he’s ever tried involves heavy drinking or sex games, and he’s looking at two non-drinkers who aren’t interested in the latter, he has nothing to talk about. So he asks Grey Worm to spark a conversation, and he says he could talk about his patrol, what he sees on patrol, people on patrol, what he learned on patrol, and one thinks wow... he and Missandei need a television. “A wise man once said a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms,” Tyrion tells them. “Who said this?” they ask. “Me, just now,” he answers, pouring himself another drink.

It’s a very funny moment in the episode, and a chance for the writers to give Tyrion a witty throwaway line, but it also shows just how different they all are. Tyrion comes from a world so far removed from that of Missandei and Grey Worm that he can’t even talk to them for 10 seconds without getting bored. There’s no common ground here, and their conversation is simply a microcosm of the much bigger problem in Meereen: that Daenerys has come in to give the people what she thinks is best for them, without really knowing them at all.

And then Varys enters and tells them that the Sons of the Harpy have been bankrolled by the masters of Astapor, Yunkai, and Volantis — Astapor was the city of the Unsullied; Yunkai was the city Daenerys conquered where all of the slaves called her Mhysa, and Volantis is a city with Valyrian ties: Aegon Targaryen invaded the city with his dragons. All three of these cities rely heavily on slave labour and the divide between haves and have-nots, and as such, they see Daenerys as a major threat. Knowing where the threat is, the group can now figure out a way to fight against it. “Men can be fickle, but birds I always trust,” Varys says, and with that we’re back over in King’s Landing with the creepy Victor Frankenstein guy himself.

What did you think of Cersei adopting one of Varys’s best methods of spywork, Chris?

Christopher:  Ha! In Cersei’s hands it becomes rather more dystopian than when Varys was the spymaster … Varys, while always more or less inscrutable in the early seasons, at least communicated a sense of balance, and loyalty to something greater than himself—especially in contrast to Littlefinger, beside whom Varys was a model of civic responsibility. On one hand, Cersei’s use of Varys’ former network (by way of Qyburn) marks an evolution in her character, an acknowledgement that subtlety can be preferable to blunt force; but then, her checklist of information she wants makes clear that she’s more interested in punishing slights against her and her family than in building a genuinely useful intelligence dossier. If Varys was always a charming but vaguely creepy snooper, Cersei makes it clear she wants to be the NSA.

I do have to say, I think my favourite little moment in this scene is where Jaime tries to goad the Mountain—in the process making it clear that he never had much esteem or respect for the hulking thug even before he was a reanimated Frankenstein’s monster.

We move from Cersei’s audience with Qyburn to the Small Council, and the welcome reappearance of the Queen of Thorns. Grand Maester Pycelle is in the process of holding forth (at length) about the iniquities of Qyburn and the monstrosity he has created (interesting to note that they’re just calling him Ser Gregor now, as opposed to his AKA “Ser Robert Strong”—I guess reanimating a man whose moniker “the Mountain” was an understatement doesn’t leave much room for disguises), which of course dictates that the object of his scorn will enter while he blathers on obliviously.

Here is a rare moment of Cersei and Jaime being the most reasonable people in the room: the most pressing matter at hand is the declaration of war by Dorne in the form of Myrcella’s murder. “Do you consider the murder of your own blood a ‘troublesome issue’?” Cersei asks her uncle, and Jaime points out that Dorne has essentially undergone a coup d’etat by a cabal that would cheerfully murder all Lannisters. But Ser Kevan is having none of it, and walks out with the rest of the Council, leaving Jaime and Cersei alone with the Mountain.

The person to watch in this scene—which should surprise no one—is Lady Olenna. She has little to say beyond the barbs she trades with Cersei, and yet is the most dominant presence in the room. The camera cuts to her reaction shots at a few key moments, and the expression she wears is one of interested evaluation—however much she might loathe Cersei, we get the distinct sense she sees more in her assertions than in anything Kevan or Pycelle have to say (and has a few lovely eye-rolls when her son speaks). She departs with the Council when they go, but I suspect there will be an uneasy truce between her and Cersei soon (and I’d think that even if I hadn’t watched the trailer for next week’s episode).

Next up is Tommen accosting the High Sparrow at his prayers, and demanding that Cersei be allowed to see Mycella’s resting place. After rewatching this scene several times, I have decided that it is my favourite of the episode. It makes me want to know what the dynamic of the GoT writers’ room is like: is there someone, or a handful of someones, who consistently write the High Sparrow scenes? Because while I have had much cause to praise Jonathan Pryce’s acting and the gravitas he brings to this character, he’s hardly had to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The lines they give him have a depth and subtlety that stand out in a show that so often distinguishes itself for its writing. And as so frequently happens with him, we are treated to a discourse that is simultaneously inspiring and deeply manipulative ... which I suppose is fair enough coming from an inspiring religious leader.

I also want to know if there was any consideration given to the timing: did someone, way back when this episode was being scripted, say “Hey! Do you think this might air on Mother’s Day?” Between the Sparrow’s disquisition on motherhood and the hint that Lyanna was in the Tower of Joy birthing Jon Snow, this was something of a mother-centric episode.

But back to Tommen and the Sparrow: last week we saw Tommen despairing of the fact that he wanted to be strong but wasn’t, and this week we see him desperately trying to present a tough visage to the High Sparrow. And, well, failing … he’s still a little kid, after all, and so his attempts to be commanding are by turns adorable and pathetic. His main problem, of course, is that he lacks a subtle enough mind to match the Sparrow’s preaching; one could easily imagine Tyrion at that age doing a much better job (and indeed, in my notes I wrote “Octavian from Rome would totally outclass this dude”).

There were two elements in this scene at war with each other for me as I watched it: the first was my growing irritation with the Sparrow’s arrogation of the gods’ will to himself, his blithe insistence that he knows their minds, which with the backup of his armed thugs trumps (apparently) any royal decree. The revolt of the poor should be a galvanizing and cathartic narrative for us the viewers; I can only speak for myself of course, but the fact that it is grounded in an explicitly patriarchal and misogynist (and fundamentalist) religious movement makes it decidedly dystopian, something emphasized by the High Sparrow’s sententious pronouncements.

The second element, however, is the fact that the Sparrow’s faith is rooted in a conception of humanity’s good nature, even as he deploys it in manipulative fashion. He deflects Tommen’s anger about his treatment of Cersei with a powerful disquisition on mother’s love. “There’s a great deal of falsehood in Cersei,” he says, “but when she speaks of you, the mother’s love outshines it all. Her love for you is more real than anything in this world, because it doesn’t come from this world. But you know that. You’ve felt it.” Tommen agrees, and the Sparrow notes that he did not himself ever know  a comparable mother’s love. “Envy,” he says, wistfully. “One more sin to atone for.” At which point, citing the pain in his knees, he begs the king’s leave to sit. One can well imagine Tywin Lannister or Daenerys denying him, forcing him to acknowledge their authority, but Tommen of course grants his wish … and at the Sparrow’s behest, also sits, and cedes whatever last vestige of kingly presence he’d brought.

What did you think of Tommen’s attempt to cow the Sparrow, Nikki?

Nikki: I agree with you 100%. In my notes for this scene, I wrote, “If conquest of King’s Landing fails, High Sparrow has future writing Mother’s Day cards for Hallmark.” As you say, this is a brilliantly written scene, crackling with energy and power plays, where Tommen has arrived to wield his kingly power, but the High Sparrow knows dealing with a young and inexperienced king is basically swatting away a pesky fly. When he sat on the bench and patted the seat beside him, I was mumbling, “Don’t sit... don’t sit...” and... he sat. In doing so, he not only acquiesced that they were equal, but that the High Sparrow now had the upper hand, in that the king obeyed his request. Poor Tommen. His brother was a sadistic little shit, his sister has been murdered, his uncle has murdered his grandfather and chief advisor and is now on the run, and his other uncle is actually his father, and deep down he knows it. His wife is being tortured and he can’t stop it and knows that should he ever get her back, she will neither love nor respect him, and his mother is the one who brought this evil into his city in the first place. How can this kid possibly win?

From our brave but ineffective little king we return to Arya, where the waif is slowly turning her into Daredevil. Blind but now able to anticipate the next blow, Arya has proven herself to be a willing fighter, but has also consistently refers to “Arya” in the third person, in the past, as someone who perhaps was once her, but is no longer. We hear her speak dispassionately about the very people who had enraged her before. We see her speaking to the waif, answering each of her questions, and she lists off the people on her list: Cersei Lannister, the Hound, Ser Gregor, Walder Frey. We know that list is much longer than that, although names like Joffrey and Meryn Trant have disappeared because they are dead. But Melisandre is not there, nor is Ilyn Payne. The waif notices the list seems short now, and asks her about the missing names. “Which name would you like a girl to speak?” she replies, rather than simply telling the waif what she wants to know. And the waif looks slightly taken aback, as if knowing Arya has figured out the game, mastered it, and is beginning to regain control. In the fighting ring she stands up again where before she’d fallen quickly. And by the end of the training, she’s smelling the various powders and mixing them properly; she’s able to anticipate the waif’s blows and return them in kind... and she seems to have removed all of Arya Stark from her person. Then, and only then, does Jaqen restore her sight.

One of our readers pointed out last week that it would be a shame if we ultimately DO get the reunion of the Starks, but Arya remains hidden and watches her remaining siblings pass her by. But we’ve already seen one person — Theon — be apparently stripped of everything he is, tested by Ramsay, and proven himself to be Reek, a physical shell of who he once was with no Theon Greyjoy left. And after months of proving that to both Ramsay and the viewers at home, Theon suddenly shifted and showed that no, he could not erase who he was, and that Theon Greyjoy will always reside in there. When it came to his “sister” Sansa, Theon returned and did what he could to save her. I believe Arya is in there, too, and always will be. She can trick the Faceless Men, but doesn’t need to become one of them.

Speaking of Ramsay, he begins looking for loyalists, and comes up against something he’s not used to: resistance. Times change, and the loyalties are beginning to change, and when Smalljon Umber shows up, he’s not willing to give in to the bullshit ceremonies that have proven useless in the past. As Ramsay waxes on about his “beloved father,” Jon cuts him off, saying, “Your father was a cunt, and that’s why you killed him. I might have done the same to my father if he had not done me the favor of dying on his own.” It’s a fantastic moment where the camera flips back to the WTF expression on Ramsay’s face. Smalljon refuses to bend his knee before Ramsay, and tells him straight up that he hates House Bolton and had sided with the Starks. But now, out of necessity, he needs to align with House Bolton to protect the North against the wildlings. His castle, Last Hearth, is the one closest to the Wall, and the first one attacked should the wildlings come south. He wants Ramsay’s help, but will not swear fealty to House Bolton, nor will he perform any of the other redundant rituals that would be traditional in this sense. No, he won’t give in to that, because it has proved meaningless, as other people have gone down on bended knees before houses and then turned traitor on them later.

No, instead he’ll give Ramsay what he really wants: Rickon Stark. And with that, he brings him in with Osha, and Ramsay just stares in shock (as did I: we haven’t seen this kid since season 3! He’s, uh... grown.) When we last saw Rickon, he had ben sent away by Bran for his own protection, with Osha leaving to help protect him. They said they were headed for Last Hearth, a place that, as Smalljon says in this meeting, had remained loyal to the Starks, and was therefore a safe haven. But Greatjon Umber is dead, and his son clearly doesn’t have the same fealty to the Starks, and so he simply offers these two refugees up as bait. It’s a shocking moment that suddenly turns heartbreaking when, to prove to Ramsay that this is indeed Rickon, they bring in the head of Rickon’s direwolf, Shaggydog, on a spike.

I swear the deaths of the direwolves is as upsetting to me as the deaths of the people. They were one of my favourite aspects of the early seasons, and we’ve seen so many of them die. Sansa’s wolf was killed first, by the orders of Robert Baratheon. Robb’s was killed at the Red Wedding. And now we see the head of Shaggydog. The only wolves left are Ghost, who accompanies Jon, Summer, who is with Bran Stark, and Nymeria, Arya’s wolf, whom she let go back in the first season after Nymeria bit Joffrey.

God help Rickon, is all I can say now.

And that brings us to the final scene of the episode, and I’ll let you handle that one, Chris.

Christopher:  For the past year, since we saw the life drain out of Jon Snow in the final seconds of last season’s final episode, there has been rampant speculation about how Jon Snow might be resurrected. Few people (understandably) seemed willing to accept his death, but the mechanics of him coming back were speculated upon endlessly. Would he live on in Ghost’s consciousness? Would he come back as a wight, or a White Walker? Would Melissandre revive him, as Thoros of Myr did with Beric Dondarrion? And now that he has been brought back, in perhaps the most predictable fashion, the question has become an echo of Edd Tollett’s: is that really Jon? What can we expect from someone who has looked into the abyss?

It is worth looking back at season three, and Arya’s encounter with Ser Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr (unfortunately, the embedding on the clip has been disabled). Ser Beric lost his life six times, each time being revived by the dissolute red priest Thoros. But it was not something that happened without a cost. “Every time I come back,” Beric tells Arya, “I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” What aspects of Jon Snow have been “chipped away”? There has been speculation that perhaps Jon will become harsher, crueler; perhaps even that he will turn evil. The former seems more likely than the latter, and not necessarily as a by-product of soul erosion: his despairing words to Davos in this episode’s opening scene may come to seem like an epiphany in the days to come. One wonders if whether Ned Stark, if he could have been brought back (as Arya wistfully imagines in the Beric scene) would have continued to be the same bastion of honour, or whether he would have adopted a more cynical outlook. Jon may well be making that very sort of change, considering that for all his attempts to do right, he was murdered by his own people.

The scenes at Castle Black bookending this episode are about faith: not religious faith per se, but people’s beliefs in the world, in what is right and wrong, in what actions will be virtuous and beneficial. Alliser Thorne is given a moment of dignity before his death. “I had a choice, Lord Commander. Betray you, or betray the Night’s Watch,” he tells Jon. “If I had to do it all over, knowing where I’d end up, I pray I’d make the right choice again.” He is confident in his principles. Melissandre very nearly had her faith broken by Stannis’ defeat and death, and then Jon’s; his return breaths new, if desperate, hope back into her. But Jon’s own faith has been sorely shaken.

It is Davos who offers the most pragmatic way forward—Davos, whom we would not fault for saying “Fuck this shit” and taking the fastest horse south. His sons have been killed, his king shows himself to be as monstrous as those he fights before he himself gets killed, and the cause to which he committed himself is in tatters. His stoicism reaches existentialist levels:

DAVOS: You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.
JON: I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but … I failed.
DAVOS: Good. Now go fail again.

When Davos said this, my friend and I immediately quoted Samuel Beckett to each other. “Fail again! Fail better!” This line, which has (so, so very ironically) been adopted as a mantra by billionaires everywhere, comes from the novella Worstward Ho!, one of the very last works Beckett penned before his death: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I have no idea whether this was a deliberate allusion, but it is weirdly apposite. Leaving aside for the moment that Castle Black and the Wall would be ideal for staging a Samuel Beckett theatre festival, “Oathbreaker” is at least in part about its characters’ existential crises.

I said earlier in this post that I wasn’t certain what the episode’s title referred to, but that it possibly resided in Daenerys’ lack of fidelity to Dothraki tradition and her apparent abandoning of Meereen. I think that still holds, but that we can also read a more subtle allusion to the Castle Black scenes. In the final moments, Jon abdicates not only the position of Lord Commander, but also his role as a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch. Does this constitute the breaking of his oath? Considering that the second sentence of that oath is “It shall not end until my death,” perhaps we can assume Jon is on solid, if unprecedented, legal ground. But oaths are tenuous things anyway, grounded as they are in the character and honour of those swearing the oaths to begin with. In so much classic fantasy, individual honour stands in for such modern notions as jurisprudence (which, before my medievalist friends go all Alliser Thorne on me for saying so, I hasten to add is a conceit of fantasy that ignores the very real judicial systems of the Middle Ages); and honour is an absolute quality in the Aragorns of the fantasy world, but in GRRM’s retread of such tropes, honour is a more fickle beast—and the breaking of oaths is what drives so much of the action in Westeros. Robert Baratheon rising up against his liege lord, Jaime Lannister killing that same king, Roose Bolton and Walder Frey betraying Robb Stark. If Smalljon Umber’s refusal to bend the knee to Ramsay is an acknowledgement of this fact, is Jon Snow’s departure at the end a progression or regression for his character? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Well, that’s all for us this week—until next episode, my friends, stay warm and don’t let your direwolves talk to strangers.


Hunter Lowe said...

You're not alone, Nikki! I too am a spoilerphobe who avoids all trailers and next episode previews. I'm already a little annoyed that I know about R + L = J should it happen.

Ant Hawkins said...

Personally, I'm not 100% convinced Smalljon Umber has turned traitor. His refusal to bend the knee might point to a different reason for depositing Osha and Rickon at Winterfell. They are playing a very risky game perhaps but I think they may be there to infiltrate and attack Ramsey from within. Be honest, who better to stick one to Bolton than Osha? And that possibly wasn't Shaggydog's head but merely a large wolf as a decoy.

Ant Hawkins said...

Personally, I'm not 100% convinced Smalljon Umber has turned traitor. His refusal to bend the knee might point to a different reason for depositing Osha and Rickon at Winterfell. They are playing a very risky game perhaps but I think they may be there to infiltrate and attack Ramsey from within. Be honest, who better to stick one to Bolton than Osha? And that possibly wasn't Shaggydog's head but merely a large wolf as a decoy.

Sally Sparrow said...

Appropriate that this episode aired on Mother's Day. From Tommen's discussion with the High Sparrow about mothers, Sam and Gilly discussing her safety, to Daenerys' revisiting her past, and dare I say it... Lyanna Stark in the tower... screaming in pain... hmmm??? Maybe there were more mothers in this episode than we think.

Anonymous said...

I think in his own way the High Sparrow is every bit as loathsome as Joffrey or Ramsay. I just wish we could've seen how Tywin would've dealt with him!

Thanks for the recap...

-Tim Alan

Flora said...

It might be a good thing that Tyrion and the Mother of Dragons have been separated...given the complete lack of conversation between him, Missendei and Grey Worm, prolonged exposure to Daenerys might cause him to become too bored to help her out!

Andreas Krueger said...

Spoilerphobe here as well. Love the depth of the recap. Thank you for that.

Am I alone in feeling that some of the plots are so slow, I lose interest in the character? I care about the "flashbacks", but neither for Bran nor his mentor. I would like to know what happens to the dragons, but Daenerys at this point is not a player.

As you said, it was a bridge episode, but I am looking for some resolution on some of the story-lines that have been meandering for too long (in my opinion, of course).

Nikki Stafford said...

Ant Hawkins: I so hope you're right! My first thought when I saw the dire wolf's head is that it wasn't real, and was just another wolf, but then I thought no, this is Game of Thrones, the place where all my hopes and dreams are thwarted. ;) But I do hope you're right, because that would be an excellent twist. And I kind of loved Smalljon.

And I'm glad to see I'm not the only spoilerphobe out there! :)

Marebabe said...

I didn’t really have much (anything) to add to your excellent discussion of the episode, until I watched it a second time. Then I noticed that, as soon as Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven were on the scene at the Tower of Joy, Bran was like a sports commentator, describing all that was going on for us at home. The thing that really stood out for me was his instant recognition of Ser Arthur Dayne. How did he know who that was? There were no Life Magazine photos that he would have ever seen. In thinking about this, I imagined that, in the absence of pictures, storytellers were obliged to paint far more detailed descriptions with words. I suppose that Bran knew very well how the Targaryen Kingsguard armor would have looked, and maybe Ser Arthur had a very distinctive look that was easy for Bran to recognize, having heard the story a hundred times. AND, maybe Ned described the Tower of Joy so well that Bran, having figured out that this younger version of his father was outside the Tower of Joy, deduced that the knight facing him MUST be Ser Arthur Dayne.

I noticed that very few people were commenting or discussing things under your blog post or on Facebook this week. I think it was mostly because there was hardly anything left to add after your thorough rundown. And you see what a microscopic thing I found to mention. Take it as a sign that you are doing a bang-up job!

Joan Crawford said...

@Marebabe - There were no Life Magazine photos that he would have ever seen

Haha! Stars -- they're just like us!!! And it's a photo spread of Ser Arthur Dayne buying groceries, tanning at the beach, eating an ice cream cone in a super-embarrassing fashion.

There was something that annoyed me in this episode but I can't recall exactly what it was... some wine was had, after all.

To go back a few episodes: I am indescribably disappointed by Tyrion's dialog this season. It's crass and obvious - the exact opposite of who Tyrion is.

Nice work, guys! Missed you tons!

Marebabe said...

To Miss Joan: I am indescribably tickled to once again be in a conversation with you, dearie! The phrase “missed you tons” comes to mind.

Blam said...

@Nikki: // You can tell she wants to hear that he saw the Lord’s face, or a beautiful world shining where it was no longer dark and full of terror. //

I took it as her wanting some proof, some hope at least, of an afterlife so that she could finally give in to mortality after these hundreds or thousands of years without it meaning an absolute end to her existence.

@Nikki: // Davos has always been one of my favourite characters … . Now that both he and Melisandre have switched gears and are backing Jon instead, it promises to be a much more interesting group. //

I’m right with you there.