This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 3
After three hours into the sixth season of Game of Thrones, a gnawing sensation that we are witnessing something truly perverse and unnatural has finally taken hold of me. At first, I think it is because in a room filled with “A Song of Ice and Fire” fans, I was witnessing the true rise and return of Jon Snow this week, a character whose death had plagued some of us since 2011 (when George R.R. Martin’s most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, was published). But no, in spite of whatever evil black magic and bad juju Melisandre called down to bring Jon Snow back from the dead, I knew I was as giddy as season 1 Tyrion in a tavern to witness Kit Harington exhale onscreen again.
The sense of midnight shadow creeping through the episode wasn’t that Jon Snow was back…. but that the show has finally entered uncharted territory Beyond George R.R. Martin’s Wall. Everyone and their unsullied mother could have told you Jon Snow was coming back from the dead by the time Game of Thrones season 6 premiered last month. Seven Hells, most probably knew that it’d be the Red Witch who’d conjure that miracle. Only now that we’re past Jon Snow’s resurrection—and for that matter, Roose Bolton’s barely attended funeral in the Winterfell kennels—does it feel like the show has truly entered into the unknown quadrants on Martin’s map. Historically, we’re at the stage in the series’ run where medieval geographers would pencil in “here be dragons.” But we’ve already met those cuddly little fire-breathers on HBO. So, in actuality, what remains in the fog of all future episodes is far more cryptic than any flying beastie.
Thus the first moments of such rarified air were well taken tonight, as the episode let us long take in the fact that Jon Snow lives. Whereas much of the rest of the episode honestly felt a bit like padding after two fast moving inaugural hours this year, tonight took a much more deliberate approach. And at the Wall, it made the new events far more insidiously captivating.
With his return from the dead, Jon Snow is treated as both a god and a demon by all that he sees. Melisandre is as incredulous as Ser Davos Seaworth that their chanting actually worked; Tormund Giantsbane explains that Jon’s breathing visage has frightened the Free Folk; and Ser Alliser Thorne and company look genuinely aghast—but not because Jon Snow is risen; more they’re irritated that he didn’t have the politeness to stay dead. Jon had always been such a kind-hearted (read: gullible) Lord Commander that it was a break in etiquette for him to so rudely return and foil their plans at Castle Black.
Melisandre curiously asks the question that all living beings harbor have for the dead: what’s on the other side? Jon Snow answers with the bummer revelation of “nothing,” yet his mere presence infers that there is certainly a red god of some kind that heard Melisandre’s prayer. Ergo, perfectly in keeping with George R.R. Martin cynicism, the world of Game of Thrones realizes the worst fears of both atheists and true believers alike: there is a god but that doesn’t mean anything, because there will still be nothing waiting for you on the other side. Nobody gets a happy ending!
Yet, many fans like myself probably took far too much pleasure in watching Thorne, Olly, and at least two other betrayers dance the traitor’s waltz. And they toe-tapped it oh so well with their legs kicking. Similar to Joffrey’s demise, one senses that David Benioff and Dan Weiss are asking us to mildly regret our bloodlust for a child as he dangles from the end of a rope. And I did certainly appreciate how during Thorne’s “Brutus addresses the mob” moment in the premiere, Olly showed still tangible anger at the memory of wildlings slaughtering his folks. But sorry kid, if you’re old enough to stab your mentor in the heart, you’re old enough to enjoy some Westerosi justice. Personally, I think they might have gotten off easy since Snow could have had an all-you-can-decapitate buffet over their bodies, yet he obliged them all with a joint venture into apparently perpetual darkness.
These bookended moments with Jon Snow were the highlight of the night, and Harington was sublimely deadened during all of it. Shrewdly choosing to underplay the bewilderment of resurrection, Jon takes far less enjoyment out of serving his justice than the audience did. He apparently has learned something in tasting oblivion since he now knew better than to show the kind of leniency on his enemies that he had in his first life (much like Ned Stark did for Cersei Lannister). But he also has learned a truth that would explain his cold stares toward his Brothers in Black…. the Night’s Watch kind of sucks.
Far from the noble brotherhood Jedi levels of badassery that Ned sold to his bastard son when he wanted to send him far from the king’s reach at the Wall, this band of lowly educated criminals never quite fit Jon Snow’s heroic aspirations. But he gave his life to their cause, preparing for a war against the Long Night and the dying of the light. But these schmucks still snuffed out his own flame before a single White Walker even descended upon Castle Black. Aye, he’s done with these treacherous blokes, and unlike when Stannis Baratheon offered him the chance to become Jon Stark, he can actually leave Castle Black with his head held high now.
After he died at the end of season 5, his oath to the Night’s Watch has been fulfilled. The title is “Oathbreaker” but really, “Oathkeeper” (like Brienne’s sword) would be appropos. He kept his oath until is death, and he is now free to lead the wildlings south just like the Umbers fear (more on that in a moment).
Some fans might be upset to see Jon forsake what has defined him since the end of season 1. Dolorous Edd certainly should be since his one last friend pretty much abandoned him there. But the key point is that Jon Snow did not desert them. He is finally free to be his own man, and that includes soon becoming Jon Stark, instead of Jon Snow. And for that to happen, the fake out preview for next week, which shows Sansa Stark and Brienne of Tarth arriving at Castle Black just after Jon Snow left, should be treated as misleading for the time being. Even if they are not reunited the moment she steps foot in Castle Black, this brother and sister will see each other again, not least of all because she will have to be the one who pardons him and makes him a full fledged Stark—after all, she is about to be Queen in the North (you can read more about those theories on what is likely to come here).
In the meantime, it is great to see Jon back… and it’s even better to see him get out of the color black.
What was more of a mixed blessing was finally getting our first glimpse of the Tower of Joy. For it was at that very tower where Eddard Stark famously slew Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. It is also where Ned attended the dying moments of his sweet sister, Lyanna Stark. Alas then that the show teases that long, long, long awaited secret without delivering on it. To be fair, the fight choreography was spectacular with Ser Arthur Dayne slaughtering almost all of Ned’s men single-handedly while Ned failed to so much as graze Arthur with his own blade. There is some poppycock reasoning about why the Three-Eyed Raven chose to show Bran Stark this, and only this, in his visions. The obvious lesson is that history is written by the victors, and even Lord Eddard Stark is not above embellishment for the sake of honor—which is all the more disheartening since he was willing to die for on the Steps of Baelor for his pride but did not mind sacrificing it when Meera Reed’s father stabbed Arthur Dayne in the back.
However, this grand bit of irony was primarily a bit of teasing with Bran moments away from confirming just what “R+L=J” really means. Bran Stark ran up the steps after his father when the Three-Eyed Raven smacked him back to reality, claiming that Bran would be lost to the past if he stayed any longer. But such proclamations of time travel being like a drug are disingenuous at best. Either, the Raven is covering up that Bran can affect the past since it seems Ned Stark heard his yet-to-be-born son’s cries in the wind—in which case, Bran theoretically could one day alter this nightmare Days of Future Past style by warping to Ned’s time in King’s Landing and slaughtering Joffrey Baratheon before he could ignite the War of the Five Kings—or the show simply wanted to tease the secret of the Tower of Joy without delivering on its promise tonight.
I am all for withholding the gratification in serialized storytelling, but then why bother showing the death of Ser Arthur Dayne tonight at all? If the series thinks it is still too early to reveal Jon Snow’s true parentage and thus his destiny—which I have detailed here—then this scene of (spectacular action) filler shouldn’t have been in the episode.
The only reason I can fathom that it is here, besides tormenting book fans who have thought about this for far too man years, is because otherwise “Oathbreaker” would have been a fairly dull episode besides everything happening at the Wall.
And for the most part it was with a few exceptions. The first exemption is the reveal that Rickon Stark has indeed fallen into the clutches of Ramsay Bolton via the Umbers. This was hinted at last week when the new Lord Karstark said the Umbers had fallen behind Ramsay. And there is certainly an amusing Devil May Care perversity to these “lords” Bolton, Karstark, and Umber being all in their 20s with far too much power, and no supervision, since their fathers died in the War of the Five Kings… or because of “poison by our enemies.” Still, it is strange that Ramsay would take such open disrespect from an Umber, and stranger still that the son of Great Jon Umber—who died at the Red Wedding alongside King Robb—would join forces with Ramsay Bolton, the son of a man who helped arrange his own father’s death. My one hope though is that Ramsay, ever a lover of the canine animals, will not let slide Umber’s blatant cruelty and disrespect at murdering Shaggydog… because I. Cannot. Deal. With. Another. Dead. Direwolf!
As for Rickon and Osha, I dread what Ramsay will do to them as well. Yet, the truth is that we have never spent enough time with Rickon either onscreen or on the page to ever fully root for him. Do not misunderstand me; I want him to live and do not want to even imagine what Ramsay will do to the son of a Stark after seeing what he did to the son of a Greyjoy. However, the Starks that audiences really care about (Jon and Sansa) will have a lot more leeway in the narrative if a properly born, male heir to Winterfell is not around to claim the seat of power in the North…
The Starks were also dealt a grim blow in the other interesting non-Jon subplot of the night that saw Arya Stark complete her Daredevil training in a montage that effectively communicated her brainwashing is complete. When she murdered Meryn Trant, she did it how all fans wanted her time in Braavos to play out: offer lip-service to the Many-Faced God of Death and his Faceless disciples while secretly sharpening her Needle, waiting for the day she can plunge it into Cersei Lannister and Walder Frey’s necks. But tonight confirmed where I dreaded this was headed.
Arya got her eyesight back but only after she drank—quite literally, as it turned out—the kool aid, and thus became no one. But as one of the many viewers who counts Arya Stark among my absolute favorite characters (the other being Tyrion Lannister), this almost feels like the pang of losing a dear friend. For at least the time being, Arya has truly become a Faceless Girl. If she had not, the poisoned water would have killed her. But without her face, the charmingly bloodthirsty and wise-beyond-her-years tomboy has been supplanted with a monotone weapon that is neither traumatized nor sweetly diligent in her nightly prayers for murder.
At least tonight, it is a relief to have Arya’s countenance back, just as I am sure it is a blessing for Maisie Williams to no longer have to wear those whitened contacts. Nonetheless, just as the show sped through Arya’s days as a blind girl, so too do I hope the scenes where she is but a sharpened dagger in the Faceless Men’s arsenal will soon be behind us. Because as intoxicatingly trippy as these House of Black and White scenes are, the mere thought that this could be Arya’s destiny for the remaining episodes of Game of Thrones is every bit as nightmarish as the idea that the season 5 finale really would be the last we’d see of Jon Snow.
The rest of the episode was serviceable as pawns were moved, and story points were doubled down upon. I appreciated that we finally got to see one of Varys’ recruitment speeches as he turned that Sons of the Harpy partisan into one of his little birds in the matter of minutes. It’s a delicious scene for Conleth Hill to hiss menace and dignified snobbery as he wrapped her around his finger. Undoubtedly, after she sang about the Harpys, she had it explained to her that if she wished to receive more bags of silver, she’d have to learn some new tunes in Volantis. And thus another little bird went out into the world.
Yet otherwise, the episode served to remind us that Tyrion is still drinking and worried about what a newly restored Astapor and Yunkai will do (and how the slavers in such cities are unsurprisingly helping to fund the Sons of the Harpy, who undoubtedly still keep a leader in Meereen, as well). We also were reminded that Ser Kevan Lannister is the Hand of the King, and that he and the rest of the Small Council are not fans of Cersei Lannister’s ineptitude, even if she does get her brother-lover to let her sit in the corner.
Also, just to crystallize what is already known, Franken-Mountain is killing Cersei’s medieval Twitter Trolls in King’s Landing at the Queen Mother’s behest (Qyburn is apparently supplying the names by borrowing Varys’ spies). There’s even a nice reminder that Sam and Gilly are still en route to Oldtown, albeit Sam wants to first drop Gilly off with his family at Horn Hill—which means Ian McShane’s Game of Thrones scenes are nigh.
Oh and weak King Tommen is weak. Still. At least this time we got to see the High Sparrow bobble his head instead of Cersei doing the deed.
But overall, about half the episode felt like padding while the wheels slowed for a week. Other than Arya’s storyline, it would seem all the events happening far away from the North, including developments in Meereen and King’s Landing, are reaching a crawl’s pace. It’s a curious indicator since King’s Landing was the pinnacle of intrigue and drama for the first five seasons, but the action is clearly drifting toward what is occurring between Castle Black and Winterfell. And since the White Walkers haven’t even reached the Wall yet, presumably we are still in the preamble to the best stuff yet.
Consequently, the momentum on the show is shifting, and as Benioff and Weiss wander further into the unknown, it is strange for once to desire the path with heavier snow, as opposed to the sunny one lined with the bodies of so many missing, deceased characters from the past.
With any luck, Cersei and the Sparrows’ war of quiet attrition will boil over into a full fledged bloodbath just as crazily satisfying as the moving pieces of a bastard brawl in the North between Jon and Ramsay. Because at the moment, that is what I want to see most.
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