Game of Thrones Goes Off Script—for Better or for Worse?

Our roundtable on "Oathkeeper," the fourth episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Kornhaber: Finally, Game of Thrones has gotten around to answering the question that every little Westerosi boy and girl inevitably asks: Mommy, Daddy, where do White Walkers come from?

Or at least, I assume that was the upshot of tonight’s closing sequence, in which Snow Willie Nelson blessed a newborn Craster bastard with a fresh set of irises. Though it offered more CGI-driven style than substance, the scene nicely encapsulated the theme of the preceding 50 or so minutes: family not as an unbreakable bond but rather as one that can be forged and unforged.

Think about that infant’s squeals in relation to the episode-opening dialogue between the Khaleesi’s ex-slave confidantes. The baby in the North was inducted into a supernatural race within hours of taking his first breath; Gray Worm was conscripted into the artificial race of the Unsullied before he could form his first memory. Both events are horrific thefts of innocence, but in Gray Worm’s case we see that bondage at birth doesn’t necessarily mean bondage till death—well, as long as the nice dragon lady helps you unshackle yourself.

Once Meereen falls, Barristan Selmy points out that Daenerys’s growing family now includes the city’s immoral masters. Selmy sees that new affiliation as cause for mercy, but Dany—whose own brother, remember, sold her—believes that justice supersedes formal ties of clan and country. Her crucifixion of the aristocrats reminded me of Robb Stark’s beheading of a valuable but impertinent vassal last season; they’re both examples of a leader choosing principle over politics. Unlike in the Young Wolf's case, the bulk of Dany’s followers were antagonized by those she executed, but I nevertheless fret that Thrones has taught us to expect any ostentatious insistence on “justice” to come with consequences.

In King’s Landing, Jaime and Tyrion’s interactions offered a shockingly heartwarming portrait of fraternal loyalty. I wanted to aww when Bronn related whom the Imp selected as his first champion. But while Jaime’s “Are you really asking if I’d kill my brother?” is lovely as a rhetorical question, I’m not sure I buy that it’s merely rhetorical. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss’s stupid, offensive screw-up regarding the Kingslayer last week is having an effect: Yeah, I wanna like the guy, but he just raped his twin sister. Why wouldn’t he be willing to slice up his lil bro?

Oh, right: Because his lil bro is innocent. Cersei’s insistence otherwise baffles me; as Olenna says, the Queen Regent is vicious but not stupid. Cersei may be angry at Tyrion for sending her daughter to Dorne, but it always seemed like she was more angry at the Tyrells for threatening her influence. Why wouldn’t she consider that the “wicked little bitch” betrothed to her son had something to do with his murder? I’m hoping there’s some-yet-to-be-revealed ulterior motive for her fatwa against Tyrion. Otherwise, coming so soon after Jaime’s incongruously violent display of lust in the Great Sept, I fear the elder Lannister siblings’ inner workings are becoming incomprehensible.

Happily, though, I feel ever-better acquainted with the Tyrells. Here’s a family who knows how to exploit “family.” To their already-vast collection of Machiavellian marriage maneuvers, we can now add Joffrey’s nuptial assassination, Olenna’s seduction of her sister’s fiancé, and Margaery’s expert/creepy flirtation with the tweenage Tommen. Are the Highgardeners loyal to anyone? Yes, in fact. Olenna’s willing to poison her son-in-law, but it’s (in part, at least) out of concern for her blood kin: “You don’t think I’d let you marry that beast, did you?”

Up in the North, the most proudly artificial family of all—the Brothers of the Night’s Watch—features as much internal dissention as, say, the Allen-Farrows. But the rivalry between Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow may soon pale in comparison to the chaos caused by the infiltrator Locke. He’s the Bolton vassal that you, Chris, have publicly argued should not exist, so I’ll be interested to hear what you think of his growing role in the story. For now I’ll just note that his admittance to the Crows’ ranks seemed to come a little too easily. Didn’t Snow and Sam toil in training for at least a half season before they were able to take their vows?

Further north, I’d love to make some observation about how the Craster’s Keep mutineers fit into the familial theme of the episode. But then I’d have to rewatch those scenes of skull wine and rape and more motivation-free sadism a la Joffrey and Ramsay—no thanks. Poor Hodor!

Instead, I’ll say a word in praise of director Michelle MacLaren. I don’t recall her previous two Thrones episodes standing out much, but tonight she brought the assurance and panache that she so frequently bestowed upon Breaking Bad. In particular, her attention to facial features felt revelatory. We’ve lived with these characters for some time now, but I found myself noticing anew the scar over Brienne’s lip and the creases in Jaime’s cheeks. The scene between Tommen and Margaery riveted especially for its tense intimacy, with MacLaren’s lens pulling in close on these two sets of doe eyes: one containing guileless wonder and fear, the other concealing cold calculation.

Another visual note: It’s fun to see the show blow some of its FX budget in the North and in Meereen. But Daenerys looking down from the top of the ziggurat makes for the kind of moment where digital animation just distracts. We’re supposed to be marveling at Khaleesi’s might; instead, I’m thinking about Linkin Park videos. Just build a set, HBO.

Chris and Amy, give me your non-spoilery books trivia regarding what just transpired. And: Where are we on Littlefinger’s accent this week? 

Orr: First things first. It wasn’t Snow Willie Nelson who took that little Crastlet and, as Crystal Gayle would say, turned his brown eyes blue. (Hey, at least I restrained the impulse to make a Tobias-Funke, “I blue myself” joke.) No, Snow Willie Nelson only carried the baby on his zombie horse called music and placed him on the ceremonial slab at, umm, Snowhenge. It was Snow Mark Metcalf who did the actual bluing.

(Mark Metcalf? He played the Master in the first season of Buffy. Wrinkled, hairless, big-nostriled, wickedly manicured…. No? Fine, you do better.)


This is as good a point as any, however, at which to note that I have no more idea what’s going on above the Wall than you do, Spencer. Last week, I observed that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were providing more and more original scenes and dialogue, while generally remaining within the confines of the narrative laid down by George R.R. Martin’s novels. But tonight’s episode, written by longtime contributor Bryan Cogman, busts out of that narrative altogether, particularly up North. Indeed, there may have been more liberties taken with the source material in tonight’s episode than in all the previous episodes combined. That last bit with the White Walker King making a White Walker Baby was new, as were Jon Snow’s mission to kill the Craster’s mutineers, Bran’s capture by the same, Locke’s infiltration of the Night’s Watch—you name it.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club,, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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