Lots of people have armies, on Game of Thrones. Stannis has an army. Roose Bolton has an army. Daenerys has an army. So do the Lannisters. But there’s only one army that really matters, and we finally heard about it last night: The Army of the Dead. Spoilers ahead...

Game of Thrones has been doing this balancing act since the beginning, where it pulls back occasionally and shows you the big picture — which involves a horde of ice zombies led by the White Walkers, swarming into Westeros. It’s sort of tantalizing, because the stakes are so huge — and meanwhile we see almost all of the show’s characters squabbling over petty scraps, by comparison.

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And the tiny handful of characters who actually see the real stakes include Stannis Baratheon, who’s a nasty piece of work that you wouldn’t really want to have on the Iron Throne. And yet, he’s at least fully bought into the reality of the White Walkers and their wights, and his crazy priestess Melisandre preaches that they’re in the middle of a war of “life against death.”

The trouble with seeing the big picture is, you’ll be up against people who don’t, or won’t, see it — and they’ll hold any divergence from pettiness against you.

The Really Big Picture

The really big picture, of course, is that societies always collapse — and this episode ends with a pretty vivid picture of a fallen empire, Valyria. Once, Valyria was a huge empire, built on blood and fire — basically, it was the Roman Empire in this world. We always hear about how about how Valyrian steel (like Ned Stark’s sword) is the best there is, and it’s a lost art, along with so much else. Daenerys’ ancestors fled Valyria to conquer Westeros.

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But now, nothing remains of Valyria but the Smoking Sea, and a bunch of ruins, that are said to be cursed to this day, thanks to the Doom of Valyria. It’s unclear what, exactly that was, but it sounds like a massive volcanic eruption, among other things. Possibly involving some nasty magic, a blowback from all the spells they were doing there.

Tyrion and his captor, Jorah Mormont, sail right through Valyria, on their way to Meereen — Jorah hopes the Doom will scare off pirates — and they get a pretty great look at the devastation, even reciting a spooky poem about a couple holding each other with their backs to the carnage. It’s moody and intense.

And then the mood is enhanced, by seeing Drogon, Daenerys’ runaway dragon, flying overhead. And right after that, the mood is wrecked, because they’re attacked by Stone Men, victims of grayscale, the disease that also afflicts Princess Shireen, which has turned them into beasts. Tyrion and Jorah escape unscathed, but they’ve lost their boat and Jorah’s gotten himself infected with the nasty disease. Urk.

In any case, the image of Valryia is a terrifying reminder that a thriving civilization can be crushed in a single day.

What does Roose Bolton have up his sleeve?

Speaking of seeing the big picture, Ramsay Bolton is worried about his position as heir to House Bolton — when he really ought to be worried about the superior forces of Stannis, which are about to come down on Winterfell like a hammer.

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But Ramsay Bolton is a quintessential sadist, which means he’s unable to be anything but petty. He’ll take any opportunity to inflict pain, even if it winds up costing him in the long run. This whole episode is laced through with Ramsay’s self-defeating sadism, and his father’s impatience with it.

At the start of this episode, Ramsay is in a pretty good position — he’s going to marry Sansa, which would make him the undisputed heir to Winterfell. And Sansa still thinks that Ramsay is a sweet naïve boy that she can probably control once they’re married — even Littlefinger seemed to believe that, and he’s usually more clued-in than anyone.

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But Ramsay’s mistress Myranda, who’s been looking daggers at Sansa since she arrived, is jealous, because Ramsay was going to marry Myranda back when he was a bastard. Instead of trying to soothe her hurt feelings, Ramsay does everything he can to exacerbate them, telling Myranda that he’s got the hots for Sansa — but Myranda still belongs to Ramsay, too.

So Myranda strikes out the only way she can: By showing Sansa what’s happened to her adoptive brother, Theon Greyjoy. Theon’s in the kennels with the dogs, as befits his new status as the broken servant, Reek. I’m pretty sure Ramsay didn’t want Myranda to share this with Sansa, but once the secret’s out, he runs with it. He forgives Theon for letting Sansa see him, and for not telling Ramsay immediately.

And then Ramsay stages a scene, at dinner, that torments both Reek and Sansa — he gets Reek to “apologize” for Sansa for “killing” her brothers Bran and Rickon (even though they’re actually alive.) And then he tells Sansa that Reek is her nearest living relative, so Reek will give her away at the wedding. Jolly!

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This is when Ramsay’s father, Roose, brings up some news of his own: His new wife, Walda (daughter of Walder Frey) is pregnant. And it seems like it could be a boy! So Roose might soon have a legit heir, and no more need for Ramsay after all. Ramsay throws a hissy fit, and Roose tells him the charming story of his parentage: a miller on Roose’s lands married without Roose’s permission, so Roose hanged the miller and raped the miller’s new wife on the spot. Later, the miller’s wife showed up with a baby, and Roose almost killed them both — but he looked at the baby and could tell this was really his son.

It’s then that Roose brings up Stannis and his ginormous army, coming right toward them. Roose asks Ramsay to help defeat Stannis, and Ramsay agrees — in a mirror of a scene we’ve seen between the two men a few times at this point. Roose keeps being exasperated with Ramsay’s self-defeating small-mindedness, and pointing out the challenges they’re facing in holding the North, and each time Ramsay seems ready to tow the line... until the next time Ramsay can’t help being a petty sadist.

Roose is a sadist too, but he’s a sadist with a much better sense of strategy and self-preservation. And he keeps saying that he sees something in Ramsay, the potential to become someone who can help House Bolton prosper in these turbulent times. Is he right?

And more to the point, what can Roose have up his sleeve to beat the odds? He’s a cunning bastard, and Ramsay is pretty good at play-acting. This could be interesting. Stannis and his army are already marching on Winterfell — bringing along Melisandre, but also Stannis’ wife and daughter.

Catelyn Stark’s legacy

Sansa’s mom is dead, murdered by Roose Bolton and his father-in-law Walder, but her influence remains. In one of the episode’s creepy-fake-touching moments, Myranda tells Sansa that because Cat taught Sansa how to sew, every time Sansa makes herself a beautiful dress like the one she’s wearing right now, Sansa can think of her brutally slain mother. Yay?

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(The notion of skills being a way of preserving the memory comes up a couple times in this episode — Samwell Tarly tells Gilly that her ability to make a fire with wet wood and sew up wounds is valuable knowledge, as much as all Samwell’s book knowledge.)

And meanwhile, Brienne of Tarth insists that she still serves Cat, even after Cat’s death. Brienne swore a vow to protect Sansa, and a vow outlives the person you swore it to.

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Brienne and Podrick are close to Winterfell now, and Brienne is determined to rescue from Sansa, even if Sansa doesn’t realize how much danger she’s in. So Brienne asks an old servant man to carry a message to Sansa. Soon afterwards, the nice servant woman who told Sansa “The North Remembers” passes on a message: if Sansa needs rescue, she should go to the top of the ruined tower and light a candle in the highest window.

Did the servant woman deliver Brienne’s message, or is this some kind of trick from the Boltons? (Or are both things true?)

Daenerys’ Compromise

Speaking of trying to honor someone’s wishes after their death, Daenerys is left wondering what Barristan would do — now that Ser Barristan, her most trusted adviser, has been murdered by the terrorist Sons of the Harpy. Daenerys is pissed about this ambush, which also severely wounded Grey Worm, the leader of the Unsullied.

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The mercenary Daario Naharis suggests pulling back to the Pyramid District and making a base of operations, then cleaning out the city neighborhood by neighborhood. Instead, Daenerys decides to prove she’s the Mother of Dragons — by rounding up the leaders of Meereen’s “great families” and dragging them down to meet Rhaegal and Viserion. They get to watch as one of their number gets barbecued alive and then eaten.

But a few days later, Daenerys has a change of heart, inspired by a conversation with the ex-slave translator, Missandei. Instead of more brutal reprisals, Daenerys tells the aristocrat Hizdahr zo Loraq that she’ll take his original advice and reopen the fighting pits — with only free men fighting. And she’ll marry one of the leaders of the great families, to cement her ties with Meereen. And Hizdahr himself seems to be handy.

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(Remember that when we first met Hizdahr, he was upset because Daenerys crucified his father, in reprisal for a mass slave crucifixion that Hizdahr’s father had actually argued against. Hizdahr has plenty of reason to loathe Daenerys, even as he grovels at her feet.)

Missandei seems to be gently coaxing Daenerys towards finding another solution to the crisis, in part because of a conversation Missandei has just had with Grey Worm, who confesses that when he was stabbed he was filled with fear — not of death, but of not seeing Missandei again. No army could weaken Grey Worm, but relative peace and the hope of real love seem to have done the trick.

In any case, without Barristan, Daenerys is alone with nobody to advise her — and she’s pitied by the elderly relative she doesn’t even know she has, her great uncle Aemon Targaryen, who’s a Maester with the Night’s Watch. Aemon says that “a Targaryen alone in the world” is “a terrible thing.”

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But if Aemon were there to advise Daenerys, his advice would apparently consist of “make the hard choices, and don’t expect to be loved for it.” That’s more or less the advice he gives Jon Snow, in any case.

Jon Snow’s Gambit

So, back to seeing the big picture and recognizing that the true threat comes from the White Walkers rather than the Wildlings... Jon Snow led the defense against the Wildlings when they attacked Castle Black last season, but now he recognizes that the real problem is the Army of the Dead on their heels.

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So Jon Snow wants to do what Stannis tried with Mance Rayder — convince the Wildling leader, this time Tormund Giantsbane, to join his forces to Jon’s. There are two key differences: Stannis wanted the Wildlings to kneel to him, and Jon doesn’t care if they kneel or not. And Jon wants the Wildlings to fight the wights, not Roose Bolton.

But it’s still a hard sell, because Tormund shares Mance’s view that the Wildlings will see any kind of compromise as a betrayal. Jon finally convinces Tormund that making peace is the only chance his people have for surviving, and even then Tormund insists that Jon come along to convince them in person — and provide Stannis’ fleet to transport them.

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Even once Jon has convinced Tormund, he has to break the news to his own men — and his estimate that half the crows will hate him once they learn of his plan turns out to be on the low side. Nobody is willing to let go of thousands of years of hostility between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, and they start dwelling on all of the past atrocities — including murdering Olly’s entire village. Later, Olly comes to tell Jon Snow in private that he’s horrified by the idea of making peace with the people who killed his father in front of him.

Maester Aemon tells Jon that because “Winter is coming” — the first time we’ve heard this catch phrase in a while — there’s no time for Jon to dither around and be a boy. He has to “kill the boy” (the episode’s title) and “let the man be born.”

But no matter how much Jon points out the obvious — that a zombie army is on its way, and they need to put grievances against other humans aside — nobody’s willing to listen to him. Much like Daenerys trying to find another way and bring ex-slaves and their former masters together, Jon’s going to have his work cut out for him forging a peace between Wildlings and Crows.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.