‘You want to fight pretty or you want to win?’
This question, posed by Bronn to Jaime during their sparring session, is one Game of Thrones offers many times, and a variation on a line spoken by Cersei to Ned in Season 1. In this particular episode, it is refined to an even simpler question: what is it to keep an oath?
In the series, keeping an oath is becoming a rare thing. So rare, they are rendered meaningless. Names, titles, significant deeds are all worth nothing, unless they’re everything.
In the season opener ‘Two Swords’, we were treated to Tywin Lannister forging two new swords. One was given to Jaime, who cared none for it, the other to the departed Joffrey, who proceeded to use the sword to demolish a book of kings and kings’ deeds that was a present to him. Joffrey cared none for those that came before, nor the lineage that he participated in, but finds more satisfaction in naming his new sword, even if it falsely prescribes significance to the acts he takes credit for. The fact that these two swords were forged out of the molten ruins of the Stark ceremonial sword is testament to how these characters interact with their past, and with honour. In short, they destroy it, and move on. They want the title, but not the meaning.
In direct contrast, Arya reclaims her sword – named Needle before she was even able to wield it – and is suitably chastened by The Hound, in his affable dismissal of the nature of those who name their swords.
The Freys abandoned oaths when they killed Robb, Catelyn and the rest last season. Joffrey did long ago when he beheaded Ned. Jaime did when he killed the Mad King, leaving Robert Baratheon to take the throne. Honour is gone, so too have oaths. Ned’s fate was a way of showing the lack of relevance and power in oaths – remember our first sighting of Ned was taking an oath before he executed a deserter? – and the series is quickly establishing that the characters either give in to this world without honour, or seek to restore it.
That search, and that hope of restoration, is increasingly in the hands of two characters, Daenerys and Jon Snow, with a little help from some others along the way.
In the opening scene in Meereen, we witness two minor characters – Missandei and Grey Worm – discuss how for the first time there may be hope that justice will be restored. They have known only dishonour and cruelty in their lifetimes, yet spy a way out of the darkness with Daenerys. The method for Grey Worm is simple: kill the masters. The masters have lost their way, so they must go. Every example of authority the series has offered us has been corrupt in some way. From Robert to Joffrey, Stannis to those that ruled Yunkai and Astapor – their way has led to ruin.
Daenerys’ victory in overthrowing Meereen is portrayed as a glorious one, bathed in sunlight as she climbs the steps to the city to the growing cheers and discarded chains, but it is a victory won through Grey Worm’s journey in the mud and muck of the sewers. Given that the show showrunners are now telling stories with an understanding of the endgame, we can start to anticipate how these threads are going to play out in the end. The hope here is that Daenerys’ journey to reclaiming the throne is one where she can hold fast and maintain her just cause, or whether she too will give in to the corruption that blackens authority.
The looming threat of the white walkers is the manifestation of this, the terror that recognises no crown concerns itself with the division of people. And again, we must ask ourselves, as we took glee in Joffrey’s demise, do we see justice in the crucifixion of the Meereenese nobility?
There’s a brief scene in the jail of King’s Landing, with Tyrion explaining how unlikely the truth is to hold sway in a court of justice. Truth doesn’t matter, nor do any of the old codes. Cersei wants him dead, and Tyrion knows he has no option but escape.
Later, Jaime meets with Cersei and she challenges him to find Sansa, while similarly trying to turn him against Tyrion. Given that this is the first moment the two are interacting since the scene in the sept last episode, it again raises questions over the handling of these characters. This particular moment is presented to show Cersei’s irrational grasp on the truth and desire for chaotic vengeance, while illustrating Jaime’s loyalty to his brother, and possibly to his oath to Catelyn back in Season 2. Had last week’s scene not occurred, this would make sense. But now these character notes are all awry, and I find it difficult to understand what they’re trying to present in both Jaime and Cersei.
This is further confounded in Jaime’s new desire to restore pride to his name by holding Brienne to her task in serving Catelyn Stark. He gives her his sword, and a new suit of armour to boot, and Brienne takes up Jaime’s noble cause. There’s no doubt this scene would hold more impact were we not clouded by his actions last week. Regardless, Jaime’s hollow cause is given meaning in Brienne’s code of honour, and she sets off with Podrick in search of Sansa, reminding the audience of how scarce oath-keeping characters like her are in Game of Thrones.
Sansa realises this as she questions Littlefinger and his motives in abandoning loyalty to the Lannisters by conspiring to poison Joffrey, in partnership with Lady Olenna. As they flit back and forth below deck, at times cast in light, other times in darkness, Littlefinger is suddenly revealed to the audience as the new major player in the game, someone who is prepared to ‘risk everything for what he wants’, which just happens to be everything. Joffrey with a brain, it would appear.
But what’s this? Locke has snuck into Castle Black. Cue terror. Here we have the show once again tracking differently to the book, and nobody has any idea what is happening. Locke, invented for the show so as to provide a smoother amputation for Jaime last season, isn’t supposed to be in the story, let alone in this part of the story. One can assume they’re mining the threat and malevolence of the character for benefit in another aspect of the story, to further strengthen the idea that while Jon Snow is the emerging leader of the Night’s Watch, he is also a remaining heir to Winterfell (and perhaps to something else as well), and therefore any risk to his life is a risk to a major part of the overall plot.
Ser Alliser Thorne subsequently gives Jon Snow a fool’s errand to head off and catch some mutineers, in a scene that works well to not only establish Jon’s leadership credentials, but also give further depth to the shaky ground his honour stands on in the Night’s Watch.
The mutineers haven’t been seen for a while, and while they’re well dug in at Craster’s Keep, the whole scene is quite awful, showing just how much Game of Thrones seems to relish in the hideous. It’s almost as if a Martin Scorcese film wandered onto the set of an Eli Roth film, such is the extent of the verbal and visual depravity. This is the opposite to Daenerys’ sun-filled glory, and the end of the spectrum for those who abandon their oaths, such are the mutineers of the Night’s Watch.
Based on this trajectory, one can assume Jon and Daenerys are fighting the same fight – provided here at polar opposites of the episode – and will one day connect in their struggles. One can assume.
But it is here that once again the show takes a significant departure from the books, a departure that already seems to be putting the cat among the pigeons. Firstly, Bran and his team are caught loitering near Craster’s Keep, and forced to give up their identities. This in itself isn’t a huge departure, and one can anticipate that an element of danger added to what is essentially a walking tour will bring some dynamism to Bran’s storyline. Also given that Jon is on his way to Craster’s Keep, there’s the possibility of a reunion, or (more likely) another near-miss of the Stark children.
Then it gets even weirder. A baby left as a sacrifice in the snow by one of the traitors is fetched by a white walker, taken to a group of standing stones, and rather ceremonially turned by what looks to be a white walker in a position of authority. Given that we’ve already seen more of these creatures in the show than we have in the books – coined ‘Others’ on the page, a title already taken on TV screens – this is a huge invention of the show, but one that requires reflection. Again, these people know more than us, more than the books have covered, and clearly this is playing in to some later development. Or it’s just pure invention for the sake of threat and drama and padding out.
Either way, this episode largely affirmed what is at stake in Game of Thrones – what these few noble characters are fighting for – and what they’re up against, in a world fast set for death and destruction.
- Valar Morghulis: a bunch of Meereenese nobility, crucified (for justice, remember), and a baby belong to one of Craster’s midwives.
- Still nothing from the Dreadfort, despite Locke’s appearance.
- Nothing as well from Dragonstone, so we are yet to see if Davos is able to actively participate in the story yet.
- There was a rather creepy scene with Margaery and Tommen that I didn’t get time to cover, but in short there’s more manoeuvering to keep Margaery (and Lady Olenna) close to the throne.
- As predicted, more and more scenes are popping up that are inventions of the show, and lacking any counterpart in the books. This will get interesting.
- The attack on the wall still seems a couple of episodes off now, despite last week signalling it could happen anytime soon. Oh well, we’ll get back to the wildlings soon enough.