Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Lenika Cruz: Jon Snow’s back ... and now he’s gone. “My watch is ended” may have had the delivery and feel of a mic drop, but it was a oddly triumph-free way to punctuate Jon’s departure from The Wall. There was a mixture of defeat, sadness, and disillusionment in Jon’s face as he strode out of Castle Black, leaving the wildlings and his remaining sworn brothers in his wake. I couldn’t help but think back to Maester Aemon’s words to him: “Kill the boy, and let the man be born.” At the time, “kill the boy” just seemed like a poetic way of saying “make the difficult, but right choice.” But, in a more prophetic sense, is “the boy” in Jon Snow officially dead? Could the newly reborn Jon, released from his vows and that fluffy fur cape, finally be the “man”—the prince that was promised, the one Melisandre saw in the flames fighting at Winterfell?
We don’t know—all we know now is that he’s visibly and profoundly traumatized by what he’s been through. (“I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it, and now I’m back. Why?”) It doesn’t help that he’s glimpsed the other side, only to see “nothing at all.” No surprise, then, that Ser Davos’s sincere but lackluster pep talk failed to jolt him out of his existential horror. The most immediate consequence of his departure is his impending missed connection with Sansa, but I also wonder how the wildling-friendly Night’s Watch will do under the presumed leadership of Edd. Winter’s still coming, after all.
With “Oathbreaker,” the show slouched ever so slowly toward confirming a theory that might as well be canon for many fans at this point. Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven’s greensight took them a couple decades back to Dorne and the so-called Tower of Joy, bringing to life an infamous fight that book readers only witnessed in the form of a fever dream in the first Song of Ice and Fire novel. It was perhaps too much to expect Game of Thrones to unravel the entire mystery of what happened in the tower that day (I’m willing to bet a collective groan resounded the moment it became clear Bran wouldn’t be following his father up the stairs this episode). It’s also hard to complain too much about getting a second Ned Stark appearance in two weeks, plus a look at the famed knight Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning and awesome wielder of double blades.
Next came Daenerys’s entry into Vaes Dothrak, which it appears will be far more complicated than her simply pottering about with the dosh khaleen until Jorah and Daario get around to rescuing her. If she’s lucky, she’ll join the crones and wear a dusty sack and glower knowingly in darkened tents for the rest of her life—but it’ll be up to a council of khals to decide her fate. (I don’t even want to think about the worst-case scenario. Again, here’s a society where drinking a horse-heart smoothie is considered a real treat.)
Back in Meereen, Varys has taken the reins, relegating Tyrion to suffer through small talk with an Unsullied and a reserved handmaiden. (I wanted the scene to land a little better, but all it did was make me wish Dany were around to fill the conversational vacuum.) Varys learned from a Sons of the Harpy conspirator that the masters of Astapor and Yunkai, along with some support from slavers in Volantis, are fueling unrest in the city—a problem whose only solution appears to be a great show of force by Meereen’s new leaders. With a weakened fighting force and no ships, I can only imagine (hope?) we’ll be seeing more of Viserion and Rhaegal, unless Daenerys and Drogon make it back very soon.
In King’s Landing, Maester Qyburn is repurposing Varys’s flock of little birds for his own (presumably) dastardly ends, while the sadly ineffectual trio of Jaime, Cersei, and Ser Robert Strong can’t even crash a small council meeting without clearing the entire room. Meanwhile, Tommen’s chat with the High Sparrow (weird Mother’s Day subtext aside) suggested he won’t be switching into full Lannister-revenge mode quite yet, though I find his conversion into a Lancel-like true believer unlikely.
Across the Narrow Sea, a girl finally got the training montage that allowed us to skip through several more weeks of scenes of her getting thwacked bloody—gods be good. The further she advances in her quest to serve the Many-Faced God, the greater the tension grows between what’s expected of her and her reasons for entering the House of Black and White in the first place. I think the common sentiment, which I share, is that as long as Needle remains hidden in the rocks outside, there’s still a chance Arya Stark will return.
The evening’s worst storyline turned out to be the one with quite a bit to say about the bigger picture thus far. Season one began with the apparent coronation of Ned Stark as the Good Guy at the heart of Game of Thrones, a man who cautioned his sons not to look away when doing their duty, however ugly—values that Jon Snow years later still clings to, even after they ushered along his death. Fast-forward five seasons, and now Winterfell is being run by a monster who murdered his father only to ask, “Why would I trust a man who won’t honor tradition?” of another man who carelessly spit, “Fuck kneeling and fuck oaths.” The Eddard Stark mythology—a narrative where courage and doing the right thing are what ultimately prevail—is an old and familiar one, echoed in Bran’s words to the Three-Eyed Raven: “I heard the story a thousand times.” This was, of course, before learning of his father’s dishonesty. Sadly, tradition and oaths and loyalty have not been the primary currency of Game of Thrones for some time now. It’s precisely why it was so nice to see Brienne and Sansa swear vows to each other in the season opener.
When Lord Umber ripped the masks off the heads of Osha and Rickon and tossed the severed head of Shaggydog onto the table, I wondered how much further still Game of Thrones would be willing to go in the coming weeks to subvert tropes it has subverted several times before, often in brutal fashion. While I still find some kind of faint hope in the south-bound travels of Sam, Gilly, and little Sam to warmer and safer climes, I’m anxious about the fact that, this season, we’ve seen more of Ramsay Bolton than we have of Daenerys (who didn’t even appear in last week’s “Home”), or Sansa, or Margaery, or Theon. The story of unmitigated cruelty is also one that has been told a thousand times—I trust the show to know when viewers grow tired of hearing it.
Last week led to discussion of the show’s ever-growing fascination with excessive violence that serves no larger purpose—do you see Winterfell’s endless cycle of torture beginning once again now that Osha and Rickon are in Ramsay’s clutches? And did you all feel as underwhelmed as I did by the muted reaction of the wildlings and the Night’s Watch to the resurrected Jon Snow? (Seeing your good friend risen from the dead seems like a weird time to be making penis-size jokes, but maybe that’s just me.)
Spencer Kornhaber: Your last question involving Tormund’s anatomy quip raises a continuity concern: Didn’t it seem like Jon’s instantly famous loincloth from the previous episode disappeared in this one? I’ll leave it to others to do the necessary screenshot forensic analysis.
As to the larger questions about violence: I’m glad that the “Kill the Boy” adage has been brought up in this conversation already, because it shows that at the very least there are larger themes behind the show’s carnage. This latest episode in some ways felt like an elaboration on Megan’s piece last week about Thrones as an extended war on youth: Again and again, people broke with oaths similar to the one that Varys made to the Meereen mother by saying that children are to be kept off-limits from harm.
This is a world where kids are offered candied plums in exchange for becoming spies. Where they’re captured and handed to torturers for political leverage, like Rickon. Where they lose their freedom and identity in order to equip them for a larger battle, like Arya or Bran. Where they’re hung by the neck to die, like Olly. Where, as a consequence of all of these horrors, it’s impossible to look at the sweet face of baby Sam without feeling a pang of dread.
Another Thrones catchphrase related to innocence was made newly relevant tonight as well: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” It’s literally true, now; beyond the grave, Jon said, he found nothing at all—he had no recollection of heaven or hell. The most a person can hope for in this universe, the implication goes, is that which Alliser said he was looking forward to up on the gallows: rest.
The articulation of this grim worldview helps explain the rise of the Sparrows in King’s Landing, a storyline that the show fumbled last season perhaps because Benioff and Weiss assumed viewers would fundamentally understand the strong appeal of religion in Westeros. Now, there’s something poignant in the thought of Tommen, the decent-seeming heir of a sinful family, having a Constantine moment. The High Sparrow’s pitch to him felt powerful and believable, in part because it played on the larger anti-childhood trope by turning maternal love into a vulnerability.
But the prospect of Tommen converting is, on another level, groan-worthy because it hints that the Faith Militant will continue to tie up the progress of the few remaining characters that make this show worth watching—Cersei, Olenna, and Margaery, whom I’d pay money to see all fighting for the same team instead of refusing to be in the same room together. I’ll confess to feeling underwhelmed by this season out of a dearth of momentum, clear stakes, and people to root for. Figures like Dany and Tyrion can always be counted on to make each of their scenes electric, yet in the aggregate they’ve felt trapped in narrative murk created by lots of struggle but few true surprises.
Jon’s been a prime example, and not necessarily for the obvious reason that he's been dead. We all wanted him to come back, but the easy-peasy way his resurrection happened didn’t make for super-compelling viewing, and his first post-awakening episode was spent performing glum housekeeping before announcing he was heading off to … do what, exactly? The prospect of Jon as free agent after so many seasons with him bound to black garments and white landscapes is tantalizing; I just wish we’d had more of a taste tonight of what he might want to do with his independence, though we can assume it will involve trying to reunite with the surviving Starks.
I have similar feelings about Arya’s storyline. On one hand: Cool, yay, finally, her training seems complete and her eyesight is back. But didn’t it feel a little cheap for her to only have three episodes of blindness, resolved by a series of training montages? Where was any overcoming of obstacles through cleverness rather than brute perseverance?
On a scene-to-scene basis, Thrones remains impeccable—precisely written, elegantly acted—even when moving the plot along so slowly that SNL has to write a sketch about it. Now, hopefully, key characters have been maneuvered into positions that will allow for the kind of suspenseful storytelling that creates great Thrones moments. Maybe the show can lay off the kids for a while, too.
Christopher Orr: I spent much of last night’s episode wondering who the titular “Oathbreaker” would turn out to be. Would Jaime leave the King’s Guard? Would Tyrion abandon his pledge to “drink and know things” and join AA? It seemed we might have an answer when the Umber heir pledged allegiance to Ramsay with the notable line “fuck oaths.” (Like the nameless Karstark of the previous episode, this Umber seemed more plot device than actual character. If there were a pro-Stark Super PAC in Westeros, it would run a raven-delivered political ad along the lines of “I served with the Greatjon. The Greatjon was a friend of mine. Lord Umber, you are no Greatjon.”)
When Osha and Rickon were first revealed to Ramsay, I asked out loud, “Where’s Shaggydog?” Sigh. Yet another example of how one should not ask questions to which one may not want to hear the answers.
A brief, if customary, digression: Why, again, is everyone in the North pledging fealty to Ramsay, when they know that he is a) a maniac; b) a bastard; and c) the murderer of his father (and step-mother and legitimate infant half-brother)? Why aren’t the Karstarks claiming the North (their hereditary relation to the Starks is right there in the name!)? Or the Umbers, now that they have such a valuable hostage? I’ve said it may times before, but Benioff and Weiss are consistently at their worst when writing Ramsay’s character, whose over-the-top evil is second only to the shocking lack of logic and sophistication with which his character is plotted. I hate to think of how many more “wow, he’s really a bad guy” moments we will have to endure—he’s eating a baby! he’s raping a kitten! he’s the CEO of Comcast!—before his inevitable demise.
But back to the real oathbreaker, Jon Snow, who just quit the Night’s Watch. Or did he actually break his oath? I assumed that, contractually, one’s conscription to the Wall ended with death, which would put him in the clear. But perhaps I misread the small type. I confess that I’m a little disappointed that Jon seems to have come back essentially as himself. You noted that he was “traumatized” by the experience, Lenika—which is, of course, only natural. But for my part, I was surprised that he seemed so little changed by the experience, with no apparent post-life alterations apart from perhaps a tad more broodiness.
As you noted, Spencer, the most interesting question moving forward is why it is that he’s leaving the Night’s Watch. Does he belatedly want to reclaim the North from Ramsay? That would have been an interesting choice a season ago, when Stannis offered him precisely that option. But post-Hardhome this would seem amazingly short-sighted: As Jon Snow knows better than anyone, it really doesn’t matter who rules the North if it’s basically an amuse bouche for the White Walkers on their way down into Westeros proper. Here’s hoping he has something more unexpected planned.
As for the Tower of Joy, I too was disappointed that Bran’s vision had to end before we went upstairs to—finally!—learn the truth about … Well, avid Thronesiacs will know what, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else. But how about Ser Howland Reed? That’s quite a resume he’s acquired: sneaky neck-stabber of one of history’s greatest knights (Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, whose double-handed prowess was a highlight of the episode); and father of the late Jojen (I miss you, Ferb!) and Meera Reed (currently cooling her heels with Leaf, a Child of the Forest, while Bran root-visions his way through Westerosian history). Notably, the older Howland Reed is—as best I can tell—still alive in the Neck, the only living eyewitness to what happened at the Tower of Joy.
In any case, it is, as you say, Lenika, a pleasure to meet Ned Stark again after all these years—even if played by a younger actor. But I confess I’m curious about whatever vocal coach helped him lose so much of that early accent.
As much as I liked this episode, I felt that apart from Tower of Joy flashback and the doings in the North, not all that much happened apart from checking in on the show’s many operative storylines. It was a pleasure to see Sam again, but his scene with Gilly didn’t establish much beyond the facts that a) before he arrives in Oldtown he plans to drop her off with his (famously dickish) dad, Randyll Tarly; and b) he gets seasick—of course.
Similarly, it was nice to spend time with Varys. But neither the means of his interrogation (“I know you have a son”) nor the results were particularly interesting. I assumed that he was going to uncover a principal Sons of the Harpy conspirator inside Meereen. The fact that the insurgency is being supported externally by all the other slaver cities—the good masters of Astapoor, the wise masters of Yunkai, the benevolent enslavers of Volantis—has to count as one of the least surprising developments in the show’s history. It’s yet another case in which the profound cleverness of George R.R. Martin’s plotting seems absent now that we’ve moved beyond the novels.
The scene with Tommen and the High Sparrow was compelling, but I was disappointed at the Small Council’s walk-out when Cersei and Jaime arrived. There have been so, so many great Small Council scenes over the course of the show, and this one seemed to promise more than it delivered. (Also, the fellow leading the proceedings, Ser Kevan Lannister—Tywin’s brother and Cersei and Jaime’s uncle—could probably have used a reintroduction.)
Meanwhile, Dany is stuck with the dosh khaleen and has been informed that for now it’s the “best she can hope for.” (I confess that I cringed a little bit at the “scenes from next week” moment that suggested a rescue by Ser Jorah and Daario: I’m still scarred from last season’s similar subplot with Jaime and Bronn in Dorne.)
And, yes, while the “training” scenes with Blind Arya may have been a bit tedious, at least they had the proper outcome: By the end, she was using the force like Luke Skywalker in a blast helmet. And now that she has her eyes back, perhaps her storyline can go somewhere interesting.
Speaking of which, was anyone else’s curiosity piqued by the discussion of the Hound? The question of whether or not he is actually dead has been a live one in the books for some time now, and Arya’s decision, two seasons ago, to deny him the mercy of a quick death has left his onscreen fate somewhat up in the air as well. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be delighted if he were to return to the show. Just in case, someone make sure we have plenty of chickens on hand.