‘What’s past is prologue.’
‘That was in the past.’
There’s a fundamental difference between how the characters in Game of Thrones are operating this season to how they have previously. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
To some extent, Davos’ statement about the past to Brienne confirms the state of the union. As the first three episodes this season had established, these characters are off the known map, out of material to adapt and now walk through their storylines uncertainly, unsure what’s expected of them and what it is they should be doing. The past no longer determines the present, or the future.
Jon’s death, Stannis’ downfall and Daenerys’ failure in Meereen all revealed – concurrently – that everyone’s long-held plans were doomed. Last week’s episode continued that theme, suggesting that they were all oath-breakers, having broken with their promises to the past, all characters were now lost and alone, typified in Jon’s revival. He shouldn’t be alive, but he is, and as he showed in the first scene of ‘Book of the Stranger’, he doesn’t really know what to do now.
Thankfully, others do.
Sansa’s arrival with Brienne and Pod is not a surprise, though one could easily have seen them stretching this moment out to the climax of the episode, rather than the opening. Instead, it’s mere minutes before she walks through the gates of Castle Black, and we get the first Stark reconciliation since the first season’s sundering.
Not to ruin things, but it is interesting how this plays out after Bran’s trip to the Tower of Joy last week, which alluded to without ever confirming the fact that Jon may be less of a sibling and more of a cousin. His bond to Sansa is one that emerges from the new rules of family, not the old. This is where the show has been driving us all along.
In Season One, we were like Ned. Expecting the best of people, and expecting old codes and old conventions would be followed. His beheading was our unseating. The Red Wedding and its defiance of custom should have been anticipated from that moment, because in all honesty, it was foreshadowed from then.
Bit by bit, the order of the old world has been eradicated. This is exemplified by Ramsay’s wanton destruction of anything in his path, but also in the alliances that are now forming in the North and the East. Families, houses, kingdoms. None of them remain. Tywin – who trumpeted family above all else – was killed by family. Stannis sacrificed his for a dream that never belonged to him. They are instead replaced by individuals, banding together to form alliances. In the old world, nobody could have foreseen Sansa leading a group of Jon, Brienne, Pod and Tormund, with the potential for alliances to Theon and Yara, and an uneasy understanding with Littlefinger, who now leads the Eyrie, the seat of her own mother’s House.
And really this is just an extension of Bran’s realisation last week that the truth is distinct from the story. Bran gave us this perspective, not to trust the story that we had been given, and Arya followed this through with her rejection of all names and obligations she once held. These two Starks, absent this week, have paved the way thematically for Jon and Sansa and the others to find their new paths forward.
In keeping with this movement of the series – that of the old giving way to the new – long-held suspicions about Game of Thrones are finally coming to fruition. While the show has been systematically shuffling the older generation off stage to make way for the young ones, there has also been a more gradual and subtle shift occurring.
Jon is reborn as the prince that was promised, according to Melisandre, and yet he’s the one without urgency or a plan. When forced to read through Ramsay’s taunting ‘come and see’ letter and its brutality toward Jon, Rickon and particularly Sansa, he falters. Sansa, who has lived through the horror of Ramsay, picks it up and continues. She is the one who pushes Jon along, not to lead the attack on Winterfell, but to join her. This has been incrementally building in Sansa, from her brief time with the Hound back in King’s Landing, to her manipulative turn in the Eyrie, to what she endured in Winterfell, and even to Brienne’s oath to her back in the season premiere.
Due to how this moment in her characterisation is positioned, we can’t help but feel she’s on a collision course to Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale. How she negotiates this obstacle will be her true test, but so far the show is positioning her with upward momentum, while Littlefinger has an army but no alliances.
Over at the Iron Islands, in a scene that was seemingly lifted from last week and placed more sensibly here, Theon returns to Pyke – the Greyjoy heir apparent – but quickly confides in his sister Yara that he only wants to help her lead. Her realisation is matched by ours: the time for men to lead, in the Iron Islands and elsewhere, is over. In Meereen, Tyrion all but confirms this. Constantly telling the masters, the former slaves and Missandei and Grey Worm that he is not in charge. He is happy to cede that to Daenerys and work for her. He doesn’t want to lead.
King’s Landing tries to continue this theme, just as it tries to do everything, and we get halfway there. Cersei is clinging on to what little power she has left, but it appears she was born too late. She once belonged to Robert Baratheon, and so she belongs to that passing generation, unable to recognise the new world she finds herself in. She’s left with little but the broken dreams of Tywin, and doesn’t seem to recognise that she’s driving Tommen toward destruction.
Cersei is certainly aware she will have to face another trial, and we’re clearly being prepared for the Mountain to be her champion in combat, but given they’re constantly setting up his impervious strength, we can only infer there’s a hidden flaw in Cersei’s corrupted claim to power.
Margaery, on the other hand, is the only hope. She’s not yet realised the state of affairs as clearly Sansa has, but she’s close. Three times the High Sparrow has met with a subject in the little chapel – first with Cersei, then Tommen, now Margaery – but it’s taken until this meeting for a subject of his to see through his machinations. Margaery quotes the Book of the Stranger at him, and underscores the episode’s thematic concerns:
‘And one day you walked through a graveyard and realized it was all for nothing, and set out on the path to righteousness.’
All of these characters have walked through the graveyard of the old Houses and the old laws, but their paths to righteousness may not be what the High Sparrow anticipates. Margaery clearly has a plan to work her way out of both a cell and Cersei’s wrath, but she’s recognised that path may be one she takes without her family. Loras and her parents may well be out of time and place to go with her.
And lastly, to Daenerys. Her scenes are the most we’ve seen of her all season, and while there’s a bit of re-tread from the conclusion to Season One, that ending left her isolated. This ending literally and symbolically destroys the patriarchy. Like Dorne, there’s some cleaning house going on with Essos this season, and Daenerys is rapidly moving westwards, having cleared many of the obstacles in her way.
Her scenes in Vaes Dothrak establish clearly how out of date the khals are, and instead of Game of Thrones expecting us to tolerate antiquated attitudes in a fantasy setting, the fantasy setting is contrasted with modern sensibilities. Daenerys has moved past this already, and so has the show, so they must be destroyed.
Structurally, the show is still privileging Jon over the rest, even though Daenerys’ scene rounds out the episode. It’s a natural fit, but given her ongoing tangential nature to the show, we can only connect her uprising (again) with Jon’s concerns, and speculate to their future union in the wars to come.
Alliances are forming all over the map and, despite Ramsay’s bloody efforts, the antagonists are struggling to find any relevance in this new world. The only reason this can happen is to clear the way for the Big Bad, whenever they decide to show up again. When they do, it’ll be facing a very different power-structure to what existed at the beginning of the series, or even the beginning of this season.
The past, not the future, is another country to the characters in Game of Thrones. Everyone did things differently there, and now they know better.