Jon Snow is angry. Cersei is angry. Daenerys is furious, although she’s being regal as hell about it. In fact, it seems like most of the characters on “Oathbreaker” are angry, because they’re fed up with the rules they’re forced to live within. Add to that another immensely satisfying peek into Game of Thrones’ past, courtesy of Bran, and you have another fantastic episode in a season that promises to be full of them.
And not just fantastic, but fast, just like last week’s episode. This season seems to belong to an entirely different version of Game of Thrones, where all five of George R.R. Martin’s books were squeezed into two or three preposterously jam-packed seasons. As we discussed last week, it’s as if the show were rebelling against the stately pace of its source material; it’s as if the show itself was angry, and has decided to vent its anger by running full tilt toward its endgame. By the gods is it entertaining to watch.
Let’s start with the Wall, where the newly resurrected and exceedingly naked Jon Snow starts out more freaked out at his sudden return than anything. Jon gapes at the wounds still covering his torso, and almost goes into shock when he remembers Olly’s killing blow. As usual, only Davos can handle the situation, clothing Jon (boo) and comforting him (yay). Meanwhile, Melisandre stares at Jon likes he’s a miracle she had nothing to do with; you can see her religious fervor flood back into her eyes as she realizes (or chooses to believe) that Jon was her Azor Ahai all along. The rest of the Night’s Watch has no idea what to think… well, all except Dolorous Edd, who greets Jon with what is possibly his first smile on the series.
The only thing better than seeing Jon Snow back on his feet is another of Bran’s visions, which I look forward to as if people were handing me winning lottery tickets. This time it’s the Tower of Joy. There’s a few details about this scene that book readers know that show watchers don’t, so this will be book-spoiler free. (I’m still going to call the location the Tower of Joy, though, because 1. That’s what the location is called, and 2. The name has no significance that book readers know of, so it doesn’t spoil anything.) Bran watches as his father Ned, as a younger man, approaches the Tower with Howland Reed (Meera’s dad) and four other men. They are met by two members of the Targaryens’ Kings Guard, but one of them is Ser Arthur Dayne, ordered by Prince Rhaegar himself to guard the tower—even beyond Rhaegar’s death by Robert Baratheon’s hammer. Ned demands to know where his sister Lyanna is, and in response the Kingsguard draw their swords.
Ser Arthur Dayne has been mentioned as basically the greatest swordsman and truest knight of his time on the show a couple of times; Ser Barristan Selmy, who was also called the greatest swordsman and truest knight of his time, has said he was basically a bag of crap next to Dayne. So the man comes with a reputation, and one that I wasn’t sure the show could properly present. After all, the swordwork on GoT is good, but it’s mostly functional and practical. This suits the show well, as it reinforces the realism of men trying to fight in suits of armor, but there has not even been a sword duel on the show that I can remember as really standing out.
Well, that’s no longer the case. Because when Arthur Dayne pulls out two swords—something that happens almost constantly in cheesy medieval fantasy shows and movies, but is something we have literally never seen in Game of Thrones’ first five seasons—it’s like Darth Maul pulling out his double-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace. Dayne instantly proclaims himself on another level from every single swordsman in Westeros.
And here’s what’s crazy: When Darth Maul has his “epic” dual, he’s basically dancing and gadding about with Liam Neeson and Ewan MacGregor for five minutes. Arthur Dayne fights. This battle still feels just as gritty, just as substantial, just as real as GoT’s other battles. Let me put it this way—there are almost zero flourishes in Dayne’s sword work, virtually no wasted motions, no “here’s something just because it looks cool!” He is so amazingly effective that when the fight becomes him against four, the fact that he’s winning isn’t because his foes are all taking their turns to fight like in practically every other group swordfight in entertainment history, it’s because he’s so obviously better than four good swordsmen even when they all attack him at once.
Dayne kills the others until it’s just him and Ned, and Bran is baffled. He’s always heard the story that his dad beat Dayne in a duel, but there is literally no way Ned can beat this guy—and he doesn’t. Howland Reed, not quite dead, sneaks up behind Dayne and stabs him through the throat. Bran is upset at this dishonorable attack, until a woman screams from the top of the tower, and Ned rushes up. All Bran has time to do is tell “Father!”—which, incredibly, Ned seems to hear, or sense, because he looks around for the voice before continuing up the tower—before the Three-Eyed Raven decides it’s time to go. Bran is furious he’s pulled away right before he (and we) get to learn what’s in the Tower, which is presumably an answer to a question even bigger than “Is Jon Snow dead?”
You know who else is mad, though? Danaerys. She’s been brought to Vaes Dothrak, which is the nomadic Dothraki’s giant tent city. As Khal Brogo mentioned last week (I know that’s not his name, but given he has a khal of bros, I do not care), as a khaleesi of a dead khal, she will be forced to spend the rest of her days in their tent temple as one of the dosh khaleen. Let me try to tell you how scared Dany is of these women and her imprisonment: Not even slightly. Despite her affinity for fire, Dany’s anger is ice-cold—she looks at her new roommates as if wondering how long they’re going to get to live before her dragons arrive, or her knights arrive, or she decides to burn their giant tent down with them in it herself.
Elsewhere in Essos, Varys has used his little birds to discover who’s funding the Sons of the Harpy, which are still raising hell in Meereen. You may be shocked to learn it’s the newly reinstated slavemasters/city rulers of Yunkai, Astapor, and Volantis, but probably not. After all, they’re probably still angry at Dany for conquering their cities, kicking them out, and destroying their slave trade. And while Tyrion may not be able to have a conversation with Grey Worm and Missandei (one of Game of Thrones’ weirdest, most frivolous, and funniest scenes), he has formulated a plan that requires Varys’ birds travel to all three cities, but we’ll have to wait before we discover what that plan is.
If the rulers of three Major cities in Essos are mad, they have nothing on King’s Landing, where all the Lannisters are furious at the High Sparrow, who is quite content being the smuggest holy man in Westeros. When an angry Tommen storms into the Sept to demand that his mother be allowed to visit Princess Myrcella’s grave, the High Sparrow says she’ll have to do some more atoning first—namely some sort of trial before seven Septons. When Tommen (quite justifiably) demands how the hell his mother could need more atonement than being forced to walk naked through the city while being pelted with shit, the High Sparrow easily distracts him with compliments and platitudes. Poor Tommen. He really just wants someone to tell him he’s doing a good job, especially after he’s messed so much stuff up.
As prophesied last week, by regaining primary control of Tommen, Cersei and Jaime are ready to get to the business of killing the bejeezus out of the Faith Militant in general and the High Sparrow in particular. They burst into the small council meeting with Ser Gregor in tow, where they discover that Olenna Tyrell has joined Grand Maester Pycelle, Mace Tyrell, and her uncle Kevan, the Hand of the King and noted non-Cersei fan from when she basically seized power when Tommen first became king. When they tell her the Queen Mother and the Captain of the Kingsguard are not part of this council, the Lannister twins angrily grab chairs and sit down; when they sit down, Kevan stands up and leaves, because that’s how much he refuses to put up with Cersei’s shit. (Actually, all the Small Council members leave: Olenna with a smirk, Pycelle apologetically, and Mace confusedly, because Mace is a doofus.) Cersei seethes.
Meanwhile, Ramsey Bolton, the new Lord of Winterfell, is having a much better day. Both the major Northern families the Karstarks and the Umbers have thrown in with him and his decision to go kill the hell out of Jon Snow. Sure, the Umbers won’t bend the knee to him and have a bad habit of calling his late father Roose Bolton the c-bomb (“And that’s why you killed him”). But before Ramsey can chide them for their impertinence in a disgustingly Ramsay sort of way, the Umbers offer him a present: Osha the Wilding… and Rickon Stark. And as proof, they offer the severed head of Rickon’s direwolf Shaggydog.
This is a short scene, but its importance can’t be overstated. It’s yet another major development that we haven’t seen in the books, and in a series where the eldest, legitimate, and not-missing-or-presumed-dead sons rule everything, the fact that Ramsay now holds the true heir of Winterfell captive is huge. If Ramsay had any sense, he would have Rickon murdered immediately so that Sansa’s children—by him, assuming he catches her—are both Starks and Boltons, cementing his family’s claim on Winterfell. But was Rickon really missing all that time just to be immediately murdered by Ramsay? I’m not saying it’s impossible for Game of Thrones, but it does seem… unlikely.
Of course, it all ends back at the wall, as Jon Snow has donned the cloak of the Lord Commander again and now gets ready to punish those who betrayed their oaths by, uh, murdering him. One dude is absurd enough to ask Jon to write his mother; Alliser Thorne is proud and secure in his convictions that he tried to save the Watch; and Olly… Olly is as angry as anyone on this episode, and Jon Snow looks at him with heartbreak in his eyes. But that doesn’t stop Jon from swinging his sword in anger, cutting the rope that secures their footing, causing all four to die horribly, even poor Olly.
Seeing as these four broke their oaths as members of the Night’s Watch, and Jon Snow swings the blade that takes their life, it immediately recalls the season one premiere where Ned Stark executes the original oathbreaker, the man who fled the Watch after seeing the first White Walkers. Then Ned said the man who passes the sentence must swing the sword, and that’s what Jon does. It’s a social construct, but it’s a rule, just as his Night’s Watch oath was a set of rules he swore to follow.
But these men—Alliser especially—thought they were keeping their oaths to the Night’s Watch, by killing the man they thought was destroying the Watch. To them, Jon is the Oathbreaker. The law said Jon must execute them, and he did. But once that was over, he had fulfilled the oath that he took—“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.” Ned Stark played by the rules and it got him murdered. Robb Stark thought the rules would keep him safe, and he got murdered. Jon obeyed his duty, to protect everyone south of the Wall, and it literally got him murdered, too.
So he hands the Lord Commander’s cloak to Dolorous Edd, and basically tells him to figure out the future of the Night’s Watch himself. Jon Snow leaves Castle Black, because “[his] watch has ended.”
Jon might have the best reason to be infuriated with the system that he tried to adhere to, but he’s hardly the only one. The rules of the Church and the Faith Militant dictate everything Cersei and Jaime and Tommen can and can’t do. Bran chafes at the rules imposed by the Three-Eyed Raven. In Essos, the old ways keep trying to reassert themselves, and Tyrion and Varys try their best to stop them. Daenerys has basically been forced into a Khaleesi retirement community because of one of the Dothraki’s very few (and often bad) customs. The King’s law basically allows someone as terrible as Ramsay Bolton control of the North. Only Arya, by obeying the ways of the Faceless Men and losing her own identity, seems to be embracing someone else’s structure and (presumably?) benefitting of it.
While Jon Snow never really played the real game of thrones, he was still playing his part in it, trying to keep the south safe so they could have their wars and murder each other and slowly destroy his family. He sacrificed everything to protect the madness of the Game, and it literally got him a dagger in the heart.
Now he’s back. If he killed Olly, he’s angry—angry enough to forgo the compassion that has carried him so far. He’s done worrying about those who don’t care about him. He’s seen what’s coming—the armies of the frozen dead—and he’s leaving the Night’s Watch to figure it out on its own. Or maybe he’s going to look for a different way. Or maybe he’s going to search for his brothers and sisters. Or maybe he’s going to kill the hell out of Ramsey Bolton. No matter what he chooses, he’ll be choosing for himself, and not for anyone else’s agenda.
Sometimes they say the only way to win the game is not to play it. If this holds true for Game of Thrones, Jon Snow may have just taken the lead.
Arya’s storyline is also blazing along. She gets Game of Thrones’ equivalent to one of Rocky’s training montages, learning how to blind-fight, mix… something by smelling the ingredients, and gets quizzed on who Arya Stark used to be. Again, Jaqen offers to give her sight back if she’ll admit her name is Arya. Again, Arya passes this very simple test, and then Jaqen has her drink from the pool of death water in the middle of the House of Black and White. It gives her sight back anyways. I don’t want to complain, since this little journey could have easily taken an entire season to complete, but boy it does seem pretty darn quick.
• Actually, what’s notable about these scenes is that we learn Arya’s list of people she’s going to kill has been shortened to just three people: Cersei, Ser Gregor, and Walder Frey. That’s quite manageable, although I’d be shocked if all three were still alive by the time she made it back to Westeros. For those playing at home, this means some names of living people on her list have been mysteriously dropped: Ilyn Payne, the executioner who cut Ned Stark’s head off, as well as Melisandre, Ser Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, all three for basically selling off her pal Gendry.
• Now you’re wondering about all the others, right? Yeah, me too. People on her listed she’s actually killed: The Hound, Ser Meryn Trant (who killed Syrio), Polliver (killed her pal Lommy way back in season 2), and Rorge (torturer and asshole). People on her list who died before she could get to ‘em: Joffrey and Tywin. Anyways, big congrats to Melisandre, Beric, Thoros and Ilyn Payne. (To be fair, Ilyn was just doing his job.)
• We also get a very quick check-in with Gilly and Sam—Sam’s still going to Oldtown, but since the Masters’ Citadel is one of the many places on Westeros women aren’t allowed, he’s dropping Gilly and Baby Sam off with his family at Horn Hill first. If you’ll recall, Sam’s dad is a giant asshole who fat-shamed his firstborn into joining the Night’s Watch, although Sam promises his mom and sister are nice. Suffice it to say I do not expect this reunion to go well for anybody, including Gilly and Sam.
•When Gilly called Sam “the father of my child” I teared up so hard.
• Honestly, the guy in the best mood in the series right now may be disgraced maester-medieval mad scientist-now-master of whispers Qyburn, who taking over Varys’ spy network of children by giving them candy. I said this earlier this week, but seeing Qyburn give a bunch of dirty peasant children candy is easily one of the most frightening things I have ever seen on Game of Thrones.
• Cersei seems to think she can have a trial-by-combat instead of a trial by Septons for her innocence, and obviously she has zero doubt that her champion Ser Gregor will take care of that business, presumably with less difficulty than his fight with Oberyn Martell.
• Speaking of, my apologies for calling Ser Zombie Gregor by his name in the books, which is Ser Robert Strong. It makes way more sense for the show to just keep calling him Ser Gregor (and I have an idea why in the Book Spoiler Section below).
• Who farted in terror when Ser Gregor entered the Small Council, Mace or Pycelle?
• No word on Dorne. I expect something will come out of Ellaria Sand and the murderous nitwits that are the Sand Snakes, but it would be sort of great if we just never saw or heard from Dorne ever again.
• When Jon stomps out of Winterfell, he gives his big Lord Commander cloak to Edd, he’s basically in his regular clothes while everyone else is dressed for winter. Was the show just trying to keep things simple and avoid a scene of him finding something warm to where, or does Jon Snow no longer feel the cold? If so, what might that mean? At least his eyes are still brown, as Edd happily points out.
• Davos has the line of the night, two weeks in a row: “You were dead. Now you’re not. That’s completely fucking mad.”
• Congrats to actor Art Parkinson, who played Rickon way back in seasons one through three, and managed to return to the role! Fellow child roles Myrcella and Tommen were recast a couple of times, especially when their parts suddenly got bigger, so the fact that Parkinson managed to keep it says to me that the showrunners think he’s grown into a solid actor.
Warning! Assorted Musings That Contain Spoilers From the Books:
• Three-Max von-Eyed Sydow-Raven says he’s been sitting in that tree, waiting for Bran for 1,000 years. In the books, The Three-Eyed Raven is Bloodraven, a.k.a. Brynden Rivers, a.k.a. a bastard Targaryen who is 123 years old. That’s old, but well short of 1,000. Either the TV show’s Bloodraven is prone to hyperbole or the show is not worried about setting up a Dunk and Egg companion series later.
• So in the GoT fandom there’s a popular theory that we’ll be getting a “Cleganebowl,” which is to say the Hound will return to fight his brother Ser Gregor, even though the Hound survived his wound, was taken in by a Sept, and has given up his former life and is secretly living as a monk while Ser Gregor is a zombie-knight. It only occurred to me when I realized the Mountain is still called Ser Gregor on the show, but say Cersei gets her trial by combat, picking Ser Gregor as her champion; this means the High Sparrow must find one of his own. It seems plausible to me—especially given the rumors that the Hound would reappear this season—that perhaps the High Sparrow has already heard from his network of priests that Sandor Clegane is now a man of faith, and… I think you see where I’m going with this. Cleganebowl 2016!