Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers below.
So just who is the Oathbreaker?
I was convinced it was going to be Sam. It just seemed to make sense. With he and Gilly both missing from the first two episodes – one of them called “Home” no less – I figured it would have been perfect for his story-line to skip over the travelogue and move straight to Horn Hill. That way the show could dodge the risk of the show stalling with his comparatively late introduction, and underline the fact that the Tarly lands were never again going to be home for Sam. Particularly not now he’s heading back with lover in tow. Randyll Tarly was ready to murder his first-born son back when he failed to live up to Westerosi gender norms. What will he be prepared to do now Sam is an oathbreaker?
And let’s be clear, that is what he is. Sam the Slayer can moonlight as Sam the Rules Lawyer all he wants, but the intent of the Night’s Watch oath is clear. “Love is the death of duty”, as Maester Aemon put it. That doesn’t change just because there’s no ring on the finger or bun in the oven. Plus of course Gilly flat-out states that Sam is now a father, biology be damned. There’s no wheedling himself out of this one.
(Besides, Sam freely admits that he lied to Gilly about her getting to go wherever he did from now on. And what is an oath but a promise made to someone more important to you than you are?)
All of which could have led us to Sam’s most powerful opening scene since stumbling across a zombie in a snowstorm back in season three. Instead, it’s the show that stumbles, interrupting its frankly already languid flow with yet another intro scene – a hair under a quarter of the way through the season, remember – that merely nods at what’s to come.
This is a theme that continues elsewhere. Sam isn’t the only oathbreaker here. Back home at the Wall, Jon is playing a similar game of textualism with his own vows. With a rather stronger case, admittedly. When your job can only end with death, I’ve got to think that your second, third, and fourth-in-command along with your own steward stabbing you in the chest must basically count as a P45. “I can’t quit, you fired me! And then knifed me in the heart!”. But whilst Jon’s scenes contain some lovely beats – his brief exchanges with Edd and Tormund are a delight, and Thorne gets to go out on exactly the right note – his final line is the only moment here that wasn’t essentially inevitable. After three episodes we’ve finally dipped a toe into uncharted waters, but even so Jon’s abdication is interesting for what it might lead to, rather than what it is.
Much of the episode can summed up along similar lines: there’s little interest in forward momentum here, so scenes stand or fall on snatches of dialogue or strong character beats. Some scenes do better than others by this metric. Meereen offers both the best and worst. Tyrion’s scene with Missandei and Grey Worm falls utterly flat, doing nothing but remind us how much more interesting Bronn and Shae are/were as sparring partners for everyone’s favourite alcoholic trivia-master. Indeed this seems to be what the script is aiming for, suggesting Tyrion is struggling in Meereen because his companions are just so boring. Which kind of feels like the show lamp-shading its own poor writing, to be honest, and being kind of unfair on Emmanuel and Anderson. I wouldn’t put either of them on a list of actors who have impressed me most on this show, but then don’t really get an awful lot of material to work with. It feels kinda cheap to blame them for that.
(There is, I should note, a fabulous redemptive reading of this scene out on the internets, which is that all the low-key boredom is a cover for the fact that Grey Worm is giving details of military movements to Missandei. If she turns out to be working with the Harpies – an idea that admittedly would make more sense in the books than the show – this scene might end up playing much better on a re-watch. Certainly it’s a more interesting idea than the Harpies being funded by exactly who you’d think they’d be, which is all we get here. Time will tell on this, of course.)
On the other end of the scale, we have Varys’ interrogation of last season’s pro-Harpy prostitute. Which, now I think about it, is the third time the Spider has given himself the job of trying to persuade a whore to help him out. I’m not sure that says anything great about the show, really, but good on him for choosing a trade and working at it, I guess. And obviously, Conleth Hill just slays it here. His reference to perspectives underlines just how terrifying a figure he really is. It’s easy to forget, what with Varys being both one of the show’s more sympathetic characters and someone who at least broadly seems to be working towards positive ends, or what count as positive ends on Planetos. But he’s utterly ruthless in getting there. Eddard Stark found that out when Varys left him to lose his head. And the difference between threatening a woman’s son directly and threatening him with starvation or slavery once she’s gone is one you’d struggle to post mail through. Vala is absolutely right. You can observe the current rulers of Meereen at angles from which they stand in darkness. It’s never as simple as just being a liberator. And it’s always easier to believe yourself the good guy when those you dictate to are in your corner to begin with.
Which brings us to Dany herself. A surface reading of her scene in Vaes Dothrak might suggest little to recommend it. Once again, we’re learning how things will develop, rather than seeing actual progression. The Dosh Khaleen reveal the stakes for Dany – imprisonment or death, depending on how the Khal’s vote, which must be a fascinating process to watch from a safe distance. But that’s in the future. All we get here is the Khaleen being inflexible and Dany being inflexible right back, something that makes much more sense for the women who actually have all the power in this scenario. Seeing Dany sniff at her captors makes me genuinely nervous. It’s as though she doesn’t really understand just how little power she commands right now. How easily and freely the Dosh Khaleen could damage her. You can be regal without being dismissive. You can radiate defiance without being pissy about it.
The fact Dany seems in danger of forgetting this is interesting. Encountering Dothraki cultural norms and trying to run right over them? We’ve seen this before, not from Dany, but from Viserys. That’s not a parallel that does our heroine any favours, but you can understand how it has happened. References to hereditary insanity notwithstanding, what drove Viserys to become what he was was that unlike his younger sister, he remembered what it was like to have power. He remembered, and when it was taken from him, his response was to salve his ego by essentially pretending not to notice. Or rather, he noticed the fact, indeed he obsessed over it, but he blinded himself completely to the realities that sprung from it. He died in agony because it never occurred to him that people would not automatically give him the respect he demanded. And Dany has gotten very used to getting the respect she demands. It would be all too easy to overplay what is, after all, a shockingly weak hand, and for events to get very ugly indeed. I continue to not have a clear sense of where this plot thread is heading – though later episode titles have potentially given us a clue – but my fear isn’t for Dany’s life, rather what her sojourn in powerlessness will mean for how she exercises her power once she gets it back.
This is a feeling not helped by the scenes in King’s Landing. Here we see another queen who has found her power snatched from her by an uprising of the people, and she’s just as awful as ever. The sheer amount of eye-rolling weariness Olenna Tyrell manages to squeeze into informing Cersei that no, she actually really isn’t queen anymore and shut the hell up about it, is simply magnificent. It’s just such a stupid damn point for Cersei to be getting hung up on. As is physical presence on the Small Council, for that matter, since there’s precisely zero chance she and Jaime couldn’t persuade Pycelle to spill the beans after every meeting (side note: watching the Grand Maester soil himself after badmouthing Mountain of the Zombie Head-Poppers leads to MAXIMUM GIGGLES). Instead, though, Cersei is sweating the small stuff, to the point where she’s using the gigantic Frankenknight she had built to murder smallfolk who are mean to her. What happens if the next threat to King Tommen bursts into the Red Keep whilst Ser Melonburst is stalking some tanner who dissed her? This is the road I fear Dany might one day find herself going down; making the most obvious tactical blunders in the name of securing sufficient royal props.
And as Cersei’s unkindly uncle and Westerosi 2011 Richard Briers Lookalike Contest winner Kevan Lannister points out, the fact no-one can remove Cersei from where the Small Council usually gathers couldn’t possibly matter any less – Small Council Chamber is just a title, nothing more. The real business can be done elsewhere. I’ve seen it argued that Kevan and Olenna decamping rather than put up with the Lannister twins is an act of pettiness, but that seems completely wrong to me. Cersei is being petty. Kevan is making a point: his niece’s new pet makes her impossible to physically compel, but that’s all he does. He doesn’t offer sage council or help put out brush fires or afford her additional intelligence – in either sense. He just offers the capacity for brutal murder. After burning almost every bridge, Cersei’s solution is to rely on a man who can carry a bigger torch. The problem here is obvious; when violence is the only exercise of power you can or are prepared to use, sooner or later it will backfire. You know the old line; when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, nails can cut you pretty deep if you sleep (plus give you tetanus, though that’s less useful for the metaphor). The Mad King learned that lesson at the end of Jaime’s blade, and one day Dany may need to learn that lesson too. Cersei as well, obviously, but it’s hard at this point to see her as any less a lost cause than Aerys himself. About the best she can hope for is that she finally reaches revelation at the moment of her own death, rather than that of her last child’s. Odds aren’t great, obviously. Prophecies can be a real pain.
(Plus, I’d lay good odds on the reason Kevan and Olenna don’t want Cersei in the room is precisely because they’re busy discussing how to neutralise her, one way or another. It may be too late for Cersei to rebuild her relationship with her uncle, but even so, deciding to not even try is still likely to prove a catastrophic mistake.)
From the Lannisters with their problem-solving through violence approach to some of the very first victims of that approach: we’ll finish with the Starks. I’ve little to say about Arya, whose training montage simply does the same job every training montage does, though I guess by ending it with her gaining the power of sight makes it a little more on the nose than such things are in general. Rickon’s return wins points for shock value – poor Shaggydog! – but I can’t pretend to be enthused about a couple episodes of him being subjected to Ramsay Bolton’s Northern Spa Treatment. I guess there must always be a Stark getting treated like crap in Winterfell. Let’s just hope Osha gets to unleash some Wildling violence on her captors sooner rather than later. Things didn’t go well for the last sex-pest to keep her imprisoned, after all.
Then there’s the Tower of Joy, our action sequence for the episode. Which looks pretty good, actually, though Robert Aramayo doesn’t so much convince as a young Eddard Stark as demonstrate just how much harder what Sean Bean does is than people tend to realise. It’s also a neat inversion of the last two episodes’ “sudden surprise stabbing” model, with Ser Arthur Dayne suddenly and surprisingly stabbed by the guy who looked dead but we knew had to survive so as to save the guy who looked about to die but we also knew had to survive. Clever though that is, however, it can’t completely counter the fact this is the ultimate expression of the problem I’ve had with the season to date: things keep turning out just the way you expect them to. In part my issue here is that that was a long scene to sit through entirely aware of who would live and who would die, but it’s more than that. I have to admit my bias here; as a book reader I’ve been waiting literally decades to learn what Ned found in that tower (he thinks about that day in A Game Of Thrones not long before his execution, but somehow manages to keep his own thoughts spoiler-free). I realise that for TV viewers this is probably the first they knew about there even being a mystery around the tower to even solve. My impatience isn’t and shouldn’t be their problem. But if you know what’s going on, the abortive vision is frustrating, and if you don’t, then… what are you supposed to be getting from this scene? An extended cosplay session for a dude who looks a bit like Sharpe? Even if you have no idea what the payoff here might be, I presume you realise pay-off is something you should be looking for.
In summary then, a few nice moments, nice lines, and nice parallels go some way toward justifying another slow week. Still, if this show is a yearly roller-coaster, then season six hasn’t even started climbing toward the plunge. Last week I pretended the episode name was actually a reference to the show itself, rather than anything in its story. If I can drink from that well once more this week, I might be tempted to point out that if Game of Thrones itself is an oathbreaker, it’s because it swore this year was going to be interesting.