The second episode of this season made much of its unifying title – ‘Home’ – in establishing a sense of hope and belief in the future for many of the characters, where just about everyone was busy making tracks toward some sort of future version of themselves that they believed will be for the better. This episode does likewise with its title, but takes the all-encompassing theme to almost preposterous levels. It’s a wonderfully dark and brooding episode, even if it is full of a bit of housekeeping after the revelations of last week, but the unity seems somewhat forced with certain characters in ‘Oathbreaker’, when I feel it could have done with a bit more messiness.
The obvious starting point is Jon Snow’s return to life. Again serving as a chilly bookend to the rest of the characters and the action, Game of Thrones is clearly making a case for Jon’s story becoming the keystone for all other events. With the exception of Daenerys’ dragon-birthing fire revelation, nothing else in the series has been treated with so much reverence, and heavy symbolic overtones for the show’s mythology. And where Daenerys’ story has tapered to the point of two minor scenes in three episodes, Jon’s only seems to grow in significance with every episode.
Consider how many characters seem to be circling around him. Davos and Melisandre, as previous keepers of the old guard, are now in a position to join the real cause by following Jon, whatever that cause may be. Davos, for his part, doesn’t seem to care, but he knows this is a damn sight better than what he got with Stannis and is keen to follow where Jon leads. Sansa, Brienne and Pod are nearing on Jon – though they may just miss him – and their unified reclamation of Winterfell is increasingly on the cards. Ramsay Bolton, the Karstarks and the Umbers are all aware of Jon’s threat and already are planning to anticipate his return, and Sam and Gilly are making their way either to Oldtown or to Horn Hill on Jon’s orders. That’s four distinct storylines that all relate directly to Jon, an almost unprecedented level of cohesion for Game of Thrones.
However, the question that remains is: what is Jon’s plan? He walks out, abandoning the Watch (not altogether unexpectedly, considering his watch had ended with Olly’s dagger) and leaving with nought but Longclaw. Winterfell seems the likely trajectory, but why? The place was absent from his thoughts all of last season despite Stannis’ requests, and unless Davos has wheeled some secret dealings (though why this is important to Davos is also debatable). More than likely is he has no plan, he certainly didn’t seem keen to fail again, but I can’t imagine it will be long until he finds a story or a story finds him.
Other questions remain as well. Why Jon? Other than descending into chosen-one mumbo jumbo, the show needs to work hard to justify his return. There have been hints to his significance, Maester Aemon gave a fair dollop of hints before his death last season, and the Tower of Joy glimpse in this episode only furthered that, but his role – and Longclaw’s – in the war to come needs to be justified as more than keeping the favourites around. There needs to be a reason.
His return is clearly a sign of course-correcting. And this is perhaps an important if not obvious motif of Game of Thrones. The show itself has operated on a principle of course-correcting: adjusting expectations about the fantasy genre for audiences by initially presenting a story where the fantasy appeared to have died off. Then correcting our views on who was right and who was wrong. Good characters died off with alarming regularity while bad characters stayed to challenge our sympathies with unforeseen complexities and motivations. The Tower of Joy scene in this episode paid service to this course-correcting in a distinctly overt way: having Bran realise the fallibility of his father’s stories about the previous war, about heroism, and what surviving to become a victor means.
Many of the characters that are still living are regularly painted as types – good, bad, hero, villain, wife, daughter – and have regularly upset those types by challenging expectations, or even defying them. Bran’s role seems to be one where he will become a translator for the series, a character who cuts through the lies and the stories and the nonsense and presents the truth. Why that is important is as yet unknown, though clearly he is zeroing in on one of the largest mysteries of the series, and one which plays directly into the largest plot line of the series.
Which is not to say Game of Thrones is indulging in a meta-commentary on genre storytelling, despite its earlier subversions of the fantasy genre in Season One. Don’t get me wrong, this is not The Sopranos, holding a mirror up to the audience and getting them to realise the folly of their indulgences. The show indulges, often. And it seems to be gearing up for rather large indulgences if the war to come finally does come. We still revel in the bloodshed of young Ned’s sword fight, and watch on unperturbed as the blood spills. Bran’s role as a revisionary truth-teller is decidedly in-show, he is not talking to us about the truth of these stories, he is talking to himself and other characters. This hits home in his moment where he seemingly talks to his father, across time and memory, and so the show is directing us to realise that when we get to the great big war to come, we come to it with open eyes. We see who all the character types are and we judge them fairly, resisting the urge to categorise anyone into good or bad, right or wrong.
Remember: Jon didn’t save the Watch, or unite them with the Wildlings. Ned didn’t kill Arthur Dayne. Drogo didn’t conquer the world with Daenerys at his side. Arya didn’t kill everyone on her list, and doesn’t even want to anymore. Forget the stories, Game of Thrones is telling us. See clearly.
So we’re all oathbreakers. Jon most of all, but so too are Ramsay, Daenerys, the Lannisters, Qyburn, Sam, pretty much everyone in Meereen, and Arya. For some, it’s a good thing. For others, it’s catching up with them. But it’s here I feel the show is striving too hard to connect the disparate storylines. King’s Landing and its characters are at risk of becoming truly irrelevant. We’re clearly building up to a conflict over Margaery’s imprisonment, but it’s really not getting there quickly. The Lannisters have burned too many bridges with the audience to generate sympathy, or tolerance, and High Sparrow is no more a character than a plot device – he seemingly has no character at all. So why should we care?
The only point of interest, still, is Gregor Clegane’s reanimation. This is frowned on by the show in a way that Jon isn’t, and Beric Dondarrion wasn’t. So why? It has to be more than just because he’s with the bad guys. That kind of hand-wavy plotting is dull and trite, and for these characters to work in a way that the others are, they need to connect them to the burgeoning mythology. Why is Ser Gregor’s undeath wrong? He’s not a wight, so where do these characters sit? At this stage, I don’t know.
For me, the show has drawn a line. Everything that tied the old stories together, everything that the characters had sworn on and vowed solemn oaths to, is gone. Or meaningless. Bran sees it, Jon sees it, and even now Arya does. So those still clinging to the oaths are cast off, and the rest of us find new meaning in what’s to come next.