Major Game of Thrones episode spoilers throughout. Also for Buffy Season Six, weirdly. Don’t read on unless you know the link between the two, is what I’m saying.
You can never go home again. Unless you have a magical tree. Or, for the viewer, if you have previous seasons on DVD.
The theme within this episode is utterly obvious, naturally; they stuck it in the title. Almost everyone here is trying to return home, feeling bad that they can’t, or trying to make their new home work. This is clear from the very first scenes. Bran’s trip back to Winterfell courtesy of Ming the Merciless’ Mystical Time-Tree is rather touching, but it also underlines the point. Bran’s nip home is all the more precious because no-one else gets to do it. Meera doesn’t have a magical tree. She can’t go home. It’s across half a continent, as far south as the north goes. And even then, home meant her brother, and he is gone.
So no, not much digging to get to the truth this time. What’s more interesting is how the theme within the episode extends to the show itself. As has been widely reported and discussed, this season is the gateway between the past and the (possible) future of the franchise. This is the show’s story leaving the nest. If we think of Martin’s published work as being the home in which the show grew, developed, and even kicked against with typical teenage hyperbole (“The Red Wedding should have a pregnant woman stabbed to make it more GRITTY!”; “This consensual sex scene would be better if a RAPE!”), then this is the season when Game of Thrones hands the keys back.
So how well is the show doing now it has to do its own laundry and work out how to defrost a freezer? At present, the results are rather mixed. Let’s start with the scene that generated the most internet chatter – Jon’s resurrection. In a lot of ways this week’s Castle Black story-line went off pretty well. Davos’ speech about not really giving a crap about what the gods want impressed me, and Van Houten continues to somehow make refusing to actually do anything look compelling. The downfall of Ser Alliser Thorne is pitched just right; it’s not underwhelming but neither does it overshadow the final scene. It also underlines just how screwed Thorne was from the get-go, staging a coup over the very same immigration policy that would guarantee that coup’s failure. But then what choice could a man like him have? He loved his home, and Lord Commander Snow twisted it into something he couldn’t recognise. Thorne could never go home again either, but some things you simply don’t let slide.
So it all slots together, right up until the final scene. And there’s nothing really wrong there either, as it’s filmed. The pacing is expertly done, with Jon’s eyes opening a split-second before the scene over-extended itself into frustration, and the air of hopelessness that surrounds Melisandre as she bathes Jon’s shredded torso is pretty powerful, considering just how unlikely this bid for reopening Castle Black’s access to smouldering brood-sulks is to actually fail.
That’s where the problem comes in, though. Putting the resurrection scene at the end of the episode removes what tiny possibility remained that Jon might stay dead. The chance of a fake-out was never very high, obviously, but a fake-out resurrection that’s also a fake-out cliffhanger? That’s just too far outside of how this show operates. Which also isn’t a problem, in itself. When just about everyone has guessed where a story-line is going, there’s no point in red herrings or sudden twists. Just get to the point as quickly as you can and move on. Which, yes, is more or less exactly what’s done here. The problem here is that this episode’s treatment of Jon’s return as an inevitability to get out of the way so that more interesting things can follow, clashes completely with the blanket denials and paranoid information control of the ten months between “Mother’s Mercy” and “The Red Woman”. The constant earnest insistence that Harrington was gone for good, or at least this season, seems strange in light of the show doing exactly the most obvious thing it could have done.
“OMG YOU GUYS we just KILLED JON SNOW! DARING and EDGY and MATURE!”
“You’ll just bring him back next year.”
“LOL but he’s DEAD!”
“Sure, for a bit. This is a fantasy show. He’ll be back.”
“NED didn’t come back! ROBB didn’t come back! GRIMDARK! GAME OF THRONES! DUR DUR DUR-DUR-DUR DUR-”
“Sure, but they didn’t know a magic priestess from a religion that can literally resurrect people. One who came back to the castle the same episode you stabbed Jon to death.”
“… That might not be what happens.”
“Please. The narrative mechanics here are obvious. Aside from anything else, he’s the only Stark you’ve killed without chopping his head off.”
“… Still, maybe he will stay dead. You can’t know he won’t stay dead.”
“OK. I grant that I cannot say with literally one hundred percent certainty that Jon will return, but-”
“PSYCHE! He’s back. WE RULE TELLY!”
Compare, as Abigail Nussbaum suggested on Twitter, the Game of Thrones approach over the last ten months with Joss Whedon’s comments just after Buffy’s fifth season came to a close. There was never any question of him being coy about Buffy Summers’ fate: she’d obviously be back if Gellar still wanted the job. Whedon had no interest in trying to fool people into thinking he wasn’t going to do what he was clearly going to do. Because the “how” of it all was obvious, and also never the point. That Beniof and Weiss might not have worked that out is a worry.
But that can happen, can’t it? When you leave home to make a go of it on your own, you can find yourself doing things not because you know why they need doing, but because that’s just always how you did them. Hiding the narrative twists was what this show did for five years. But that requires that your narrative actually, you know, twists. Right now, there’s little surprising enough to be worth the word. Everything unfolds in the most obvious way possible. Well, not quite everything. The two big exceptions here are Balon Greyjoy finally succumbing to the dread promise of Red Mel’s Leech and Curses BBQ Pit – a long-delayed lift from the books – and Roose Bolton getting a taste of his own unique approach to offering congratulations.
I’ll gladly admit it; I didn’t see that one coming quite so quickly, and the fact it’s been dealt with in the second episode suggests that whatever else this season ends up being, it won’t be padded. But even here, the surprise is limited merely to the timing. Well, that and which direction the knife between them was pointing. They were never both going to make it past Baby Bolton’s first tooth, but the actual casualty remained uncertain even after the blade flashes. Two men, father and son, locked in an embrace, one of them bleeding to death. Schrodinger’s betrayal. Ramsay realises his home-life just evaporated with the arrival of Walda Bolton’s first child, and that it isn’t coming back. So he needs a new home, with him as the head of the household.
Which grabs the attention, most certainly. Still, I’m left with the feeling that, as with Dorne before it (which has now been quietly dropped from the opening globe-trot, I notice), murdering the lord paramount of one of the Seven Kingdoms closes down more promising material than it opens up. Roose Bolton’s mixture of ruthless pragmatism and weary, understated love for his wayward son made for interesting viewing. His increasing realisation that he’s named as heir, an inventive sadist with a taste for slaughter and none whatsoever for strategy, made it more involving still. And now he’s dead, so that Ramsay can continue being an unbearable pantomime villain. Yes, the scene where he meets his newborn half-brother for the first and last time is tremendously effective – a reminder, as with Melisandre, that the show really is capable of understanding the difference between unavoidable and uninteresting when it tries – or at least it is if you consider making the audience squirm with horror effective. But this is simply the sort of thing Ramsay does. This is just retreading the past. OK, maybe it’s worse this time around, depending on where you personally place the murder of a baby compared to the flaying of an old woman and the rape of a teenager, but that just drives the point home more fully. Either Ramsay got so unpleasant last year there’s no way to actually make him work any more, or Beniof and Weiss took the most notoriously unpleasant and ill-advised scene of the show’s entire history and decided to try and “top” it.
The end result is an opening two-shot that has accelerated faster than any previous season of Game of Thrones. But that’s only been made possible by seemingly believing this tale’s great strength is its willingness to kill off people whom the audience expected to make it to the end credits. And that’s just a total misunderstanding of Martin’s books. Ned Stark didn’t die because it would surprise people – though I’m sure that appealed to Martin – but because he was sick of stories in which the noble lord somehow manages to defeat the much smarter, more nuanced characters arrayed against him. Robb Stark didn’t meet his end at the Red Wedding for shock value – though again, I can quite believe Martin got a kick out of that – but because Martin is in the business of subverting tropes, so the noble lord’s equally principled son couldn’t succeed in his quest for vengeance either. By and large, people in A Song of Ice and Fire actually don’t die for no reason. Martin’s characters have plot-armour no less than those in other fantasy series, it’s just that the way in which a character earns that armour seems perverse from a classical standpoint.
In contrast, Game of Thrones seems to rest on the premise that the surprise deaths are the point. Like a family tradition you carry over into your new home without really remembering how it started, or what it meant, the show keeps doing what it used to do, without stopping to ask why it had meaning in the first place. This is a big problem considering just how unsurprising these surprises are, naturally. The new character no-one warmed to gets ganked in the premier. The inexplicably popular psychopath who lusts for power makes a bid for power. Meanwhile the charismatic sell-sword gets to live, despite being dosed with fatal poison because something something tits something “bad pussy” (sorry to harp on, but that stuff was just too dreadful to leave alone). The show has its plot armour too, it’s just fashioned from audience appreciation. This is Westeros’ Got Talent. But even if the show was as good as it thinks it is in hiding who will live and who will die, scything down ranks of supporting characters doesn’t actually work as a substitute for development, whether it be narrative, character, or thematic. I’ve trod this beat before, though, so I’ll stop there before I become as predictable the very plot beats I’m criticising.
Besides, there’s at least a partial counter to all this, which is that just two episodes into the new season, there’s plenty of time for development. We haven’t even had time to catch up with all the regulars yet (intriguing that Sam didn’t show up for the episode called “Home”, instead presumably showing up next time in an episode with a very interesting name). If the show wants to spice up its generally slow opening moves, then job done. Certainly the possibilities that are actually being set up here, rather than foreclosed, have me excited. Euron is already shaping up to be a fun villain, and it’s good to have Gemma Whelan back, even if the book material we’re about to get into has its share of problems. Cersei and Tommen making up just screams “incoming tragedy”, and who doesn’t secretly want an eight-foot zombie knight on hand to pop the heads of people who badmouth them? And it’s delightful that it’s taken all of about ten minutes of Tyrion and Varys playing life-size Sim City for them to decide to let some dragons loose, with doubtless hilarious consequences, then screams and burning flesh.
So there’s hope for the house-warming party over at the new place. Just make sure plumbing gets fixed first, please.
Reviewer: Ric Crossman