Game of Thrones: What Is Dead May Never Die
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
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.
Christopher Orr: And thus ends the most emphatic, if never particularly persuasive, effort to deny a widely foreseen plot development in television history. Forgive me if I sound judgmental. But I find the never-ending claims by the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss that Jon Snow was definitively dead—and their clear mandate that everyone else involved comply with said claims—more than a touch obnoxious now that those claims have been revealed to be untrue.
There’s maintaining appropriate suspense, and then there’s flat-out dishonesty, and I think that this falls on the wrong side of that line. Maybe there’s some as-yet-unknown narrative trapdoor—he’s not really Jon Snow, but a reincarnation of Ned Stark!—but even if so, it will likely be a depends on what the meaning of is is level distinction.
In my preview of the season, I expressed concern that Benioff and Weiss might struggle now that they’ve (mostly) passed George R. R. Martin’s novels and are thus working without a narrative safety net. And while I don’t want to read too much into just two episodes, the evidence to date has not reassured me.
Begin with Jon’s resurrection. All signs pointed to its failure: Melisandre had never performed this magic before; her faith is at an all-time low ebb; last episode’s Big Reveal suggested her hard-earned frailty and exhaustion. Perhaps this effort might fail but a future one would succeed? (A rebirth by fire, maybe?) Instead we got the annoying bait and switch of oh, no it didn’t work followed by gasping life-breaths. I got enough of that for the year in Batman v Superman.
Not that we didn’t already have yet more reason to assume that Jon would be coming back. The episode opened with Bran Stark dreaming in tree roots with the Three-Eyed Raven, now played by the always magnificent Max von Sydow. Bran saw his father Ned as a child, practice-fighting in Winterfell with his younger brother Benjen (whatever became of him?). And then he saw his long-dead, ever-enigmatic aunt, Lyanna. (The “scenes from next week” suggested we’ll see more of Ned and Lyanna both.) Suffice it to say that it would be a little silly to resolve the mystery of Jon’s parentage if he were going to remain a corpse. Moreover, now we get the mini-mystery of how Hodor—a.k.a., “Wyllis”—lost the ability to speak anything other than his own name.
Moving somewhat south, we picked up where we left off at Castle Black, with Ser Alliser and his fellow Night’s Watch rebels about to break down the door to claim Jon Snow’s body. (Of course, they could have had it all along if they hadn’t abandoned it to freeze in the courtyard.) Ser Davos’s “I’ve never been much of a fighter, apologies for what you’re about to see”—you’ll recall, he’s a smuggler by inclination—is among the most endearing lines yet uttered by one of the show’s most endearing characters.
As took place last week, however (see: Brienne & Sansa), we had an conveniently well-timed intervention by Edd and the wildlings. It’s not a bad development by any means, but the transition from a Night’s Watch run by Ser Alliser and, um, the rest of the Night’s Watch, to one run by Davos and the wildlings was a touch abrupt.
Then it was down to King’s Landing, where Ser Robert Strong was wasting time crushing a drunken idiot who flashed Cersei during her Walk of Shame. The capital is always home to many of the show’s best plots, and we’re beginning to get a sense of the direction for the season: Cersei and Jaime are aligned against the High Sparrow, and their son, young King Tommen, is seeking amends for not standing up to the latter earlier. (Only time will tell where Margaery and the Tyrells wind up.)
The source of power of the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant continues to be a bit vague, thanks in part to their ridiculously hurried introduction last season. The Lannisters do, after all, have tens of thousands of armed and armored soldiers at their command, right? Oh well. The High Sparrow’s line “Every one of us is poor and powerless, and yet together we can overthrow an empire” sounded a tad less absurd in a campaign season that’s seen the political establishment upended by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
My two favorite scenes tonight were one-offs. (I don’t know what you guys thought, but this episode seemed to me more choppy than usual.) Tyrion going deep into the crypt with the dragons offered a wonderful opportunity for Peter Dinklage to play a note other than the typical one (“I drink, and I know things”) that he’d played instants before. And the dragons themselves have never been so evocative. The moment in which the second dragon—I lost track whether it was Viserion or Rhaegal—turned its head to be unshackled was, well, modestly magical. I was, however, a tad disappointed by Tyrion’s closing line to Varys (wisely waiting at the top of the stairs): “Next time I have an idea like that, punch me in the face.” I suspect George R. R. Martin winced at that one.
I also really liked the (brief) scene with Brienne and Sansa talking about Arya. The Stark children have been scattered so far for so long that it’s nice to be reminded that most of them are, against all odds, still alive. I’m not so sure about Theon’s decision to head “home,” however, which was the most explicit use of this episode’s title. Events in the Iron Isles had moved forward more quickly in the books, and tonight’s catching up seemed a little awkward. To cite just one example, in Martin’s telling, Balon Greyjoy (Theon and Yara’s dad) fell off a rope-bridge in a storm long ago, as an apparent consequence of Melisandre’s penile-blood-leech barbecue. (Remember that?) Introducing an unnamed brother-murderer tonight (Euron?), plus another presumed brother (Aeron?), who wasn’t even described as such at the watery funeral, smacks of some narrative confusion.
Which brings me, at last, to Ramsay. Regular readers will know that I think he has been from the start, and continues to be, the single biggest failure of Benioff and Weiss’s adaptation. Always in the background in the books—and vastly more subtle—he’s taken center stage on the show, to the extent that he’s occasioned the invention of more than one implausible new character: his lackey, Locke; his mistress, Myranda.
I had a brief moment of hope tonight when his father, the only moderately psychotic Roose, told him “If you acquire a reputation as a mad dog, you’ll be treated as a mad dog.” Yes! Finally, a rational take on the character. And then Ramsay, in front of witnesses whom we’ve been given no reason to believe have particular loyalty to him—a random Karstark heir, a maester—stabbed his father, the lord of the castle, proving himself yet again the maddest of mad dogs. But everyone continued to go along with this latest act of violent lunacy.
It seems to be a trend. Last week, the concubine of a former prince of Dorne and her illegitimate children murdered its ruler—and his son and heir. Tonight the Bolton bastard killed his father and fed his legitimate mother-in-law and infant-heir to the hounds. Is it just me, or has the show entered a phase in which the whole concept of noble/royal succession—or, to borrow a phrase, the game of thrones—has been forgotten?
Lenika Cruz: I agree, Chris—there’s been a surprising amount of blood spilled by kin on Game of Thrones recently, even by Game of Thrones standards. So far, we’ve seen grisly endings for Balon Greyjoy, Roose Bolton and his family, Prince Doran and his son, and, at the very end of last season, Jon Snow at the hands of metaphorical relatives. I can’t tell if there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here—that loyalty should never be taken for granted, that power can be seized by anyone at any moment—but if there is, I’m not sure it’s one the show hasn’t already taught with the likes of the Red Wedding or Tywin’s toilet-murder.
I was less upset than you were about Benioff and Weiss’s increasingly strident (and decreasingly believable) declarations of how Jon was for-real dead and not coming back. From the moment Jon crumpled onto the snow last June, I was one of the viewers who was 100 percent convinced he’d be returning with the help of Melisandre’s magic, and no one, not even the Game of Thrones showrunners, was going to convince me otherwise. The Red Woman may have lost her faith, but I had enough for both of us.
On that note, I’m certain that if you’d asked 50 Game of Thrones fans to sit down and write a hypothetical Jon Snow resurrection scene, the vast majority would’ve come up with something along the lines of what we saw at the end of “Home.” (From how many miles away did you see those life-gasps coming?) I liked the way Davos served as the audience surrogate, prompting a deflated (or, re-inflated, if you prefer) Melisandre to rummage in her bag of ghastly tricks and pull out something that could bring Jon Snow back. Poor Melisandre could be the poster girl for imposter syndrome: She birthed a demon baby, foresaw the death of three kings in the aforementioned leech barbecue, survived poison, can conceal her octogenarian status, and still she doesn’t believe her resume qualifies her to take a stab at Jon—bringing him back, I mean.
In seriousness, Melisandre losing her faith served a broader narrative purpose. When the Red Priest Thoros of Myr told the story of bringing Beric Dondarrion back from the dead a few seasons ago, he mentioned how the Lord of Light only acted through him once he’d lost his faith entirely: “I knelt beside his cold body, and said the old words. Not because I believed in them, but ... he was my friend. And he was dead. And they were the only words I knew.” Jon Snow’s resurrection may help illuminate some of the internal logic of R’hllorian magic, but at the very least, it’ll give Alliser Thorne and Olly one less thing to smile about next week.
Speaking of which, remember that time Jon was training Olly, and said to him, “Keep your shield up. Or I’ll ring your head like a bell”? Who knew that decades before that scene at the Wall, Ned Stark spoke these exact words to his younger brother Benjen? Now we do, thanks to the Three-Eyed Raven (Albus Dumbledore) taking Bran (Harry Potter) on his vision journey (into the Pensieve). This callback line was, in retrospect, a nice hint that Jon Snow would say “not today” to the God of Death by the end of the episode. It was also a lovely way to give deeper meaning to this bittersweet flashback to Winterfell, which looked almost exactly as it did in the show’s pilot, right down to Bran and the Raven standing in the exact spot where Catelyn and Ned once did. Sadly, only one person in that scene (Hagrid—I mean, Hodor) is still confirmed alive, and there haven’t been two Starks in the same place for what feels like years now. Who could blame Bran for wanting to linger awhile and drink in the past again? Beyond stoking more nostalgia, it seems this vision-journey narrative device will prove more useful this season: The next-week preview clip suggests that the history behind a long-suspected theory will finally get some screen time.
I’ll end on a slightly more random note about the show’s approach to scale and power. In the first three locations of the episode, viewers saw three inhumanly large men: the gentle Hodor, the fierce giant Wun Wun, and the bloated Qyburn automaton Ser Robert, with the latter two serving up the best wall-slamming deaths of the series in the span of a few minutes. Following this triptych of gigantism came the Meereen storyline and its considerably smaller star, Tyrion. In what was arguably the episode’s best scene, he told Viserion and Rhaegal a childhood story about asking an uncle for a dragon as a name-day gift (“‘It wouldn’t even have to be a big dragon,’ I told him. ‘It could be little, like me.’”)
While there’s always been plenty of room in the world of Game of Thrones for the mighty—icons like the Titan of Braavos, or the Wall, or the Iron Throne, or people like the Hound or Brienne—it’s also a show invested in revealing the subversive power of its seemingly smaller or weaker players. (Arya and the first-season Daenerys come to mind.) Tyrion’s tale was sweet and sad in the most perfect ways, but it also anchored this powerful image of a physically diminutive man finding something close to harmony with creatures as massive and mythical and chaotic as dragons.
Spencer, what did you make of the goings-on in King’s Landing and Winterfell? And were you similarly intrigued by the ways in which Bran’s and Theon’s storylines touched on the themes of drowning and home? And lastly, given that we got a mention of Hodor’s “giant’s blood” and an offhand remark about how “if he ever learned to fight, he’d be unstoppable”—will Hodor also be playing a crucial role in the war to come against the dead?
Spencer Kornhaber: Who knows what powers Hodor, or anyone else on this show, might turn out to have? When Game of Thrones began, Westeros was a land of disenchantment. Most of its citizens were in the same metaphorical boat as Ser Davos Seaworth who tonight recounted that he didn’t believe miracles existed until it became untenable for him not to. By now, though, this universe’s version of the Force has awakened: In between a mystical vision and a resurrection, this latest episode featured giants, a telepathic dog, a Frankenstein creature, and dragons who turn out to be pretty reasonable if you just level with them.
The supernaturalification makes for exciting viewing because it allows for moments of awe, not to mention a new and strange feeling of optimism that everything will work out in the end (even if the gods who might ensure such an outcome, as Jaime pointed out tonight, love bloodshed). But amping up the high fantasy elements would seem, ideally, to require Benioff and Weiss to become more fastidious about grounding the rest of the show. Even when spells are being cast, viewers should have a sense—as they have had in previous seasons—that this is a world where cause is sturdily related to effect and people make most decisions out of self interest.
In a few significant instances lately, Thrones has failed to meet this crucial standard. Why is Davos so fiercely committed to Jon when he’d only recently met him and has little stake in the happenings at Castle Black? I think we’re meant to believe that Davos is a good loyal dude and he recognized Jon was a good loyal dude who Stannis wanted around. But it’s hard to believe that he would have found Jon to be such a good loyal dude that he’d invite near-certain death at the hands of Alliser Thorne’s men to defend Jon’s rotting body—especially before having inquired about resurrection opportunities with Melisandre.
The show doesn’t want you to think about these issues. It wants you to get caught up in cheering as a fan-favorite character works to bring back another fan-favorite character. It wants you to (rightly) marvel at Carice van Houten giving her best Thrones performance yet, and it wants you to leer along with the camera as she washboards Kit Harington’s abs. But I think Benioff, Weiss, and the episode’s writer, Dave Hill, nevertheless telegraphed some anxiety about having failed to nail Davos’s motivations. “I assume you know why I’m here,” the Onion Knight said to Melisandre. Her cunning reply: “I will after you tell me.”
At least viewers were provided with a creepy nymph girl way up North to vocalize the reasons why Meera might stick around with daydreaming tree roots despite the fact that it must be very boring to do so. We could have used such a figure in King’s Landing, where Tommen appears to have had his long-awaited boy-becomes-a-king moment in deciding to do something about the Sparrows. As has been the case with so many things in the Faith Militant storyline, this was a sudden change communicated more through telling than showing, with the “why” and “why now” of the situation not even meriting either treatment.
I only complain because the show’s potential this season is very high. All the lord-slaying that’s been going on might be a sign of deteriorating norms around the kingdom: People would indeed feel freer to break human laws once they saw that nature has begun breaking its own. In a time of chaos, figures like Ramsay can rise, but to what end? I wouldn’t be surprised if he flayed his way across Westeros and arrived on the Iron Throne only to have dragons or White Walkers then treat him like an infant in a kennel.
Until then, we have the risen Jon to root for. But Melisandre may have spoken another all-too-fitting line when she told Davos that the best way to help Jon would be to leave him be. Indeed, the Lord Commander shall now face a drag of a chore list if he’s interested in doing anything other than brooding and writing poetry about everything that’s happened to him lately. Not only must he reconcile the various Night’s Watch factions and the Wildlings; soon, Sansa may arrive, followed by a Bolton army, followed by an army of the dead. No rest for the newly living.