Could ‘Game of Thrones’ have done what it did tonight any better?

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
05.01.16 206 Comments

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A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as you punch me in the face the next time I have an idea like that…

“We all fail sometimes.” -Jaime

You guys… Jon Snow is alive!

I know, I know… I'm as shocked as you are.

Which is to say, not particularly shocked, and slightly disappointed at how “Home” presented the resurrection we all knew was coming.

Look, George R.R. Martin did the show no favors with that particular cliffhanger. Even before the NSA started tracking Kit Harington's movements in and out of Belfast, GoT fandom at large had all come to the conclusion that Jon Snow's death wouldn't stick, since it would be awful storytelling to eliminate the only relevant character in what was increasingly turning out to be the most important locale in the entire show(*). And most of us assumed that Melisandre would probably be involved, given that we've seen another Lord of Light priest raise the dead in seasons past.

(*) The show has killed off plenty of major players before, obviously, but virtually always in moments when their character arcs had more or less concluded (Ned and Robb both suffering for their naivete and rigid adherence to an outdated moral code) and/or when there were other people in position to easily assume their role in the larger story (say, with both Cersei and the Sparrow each picking up some of the dramatic slack left by Tywin's death). Killing Jon Snow would have created too big a vacuum in the Castle Black/White Walker storyline and served the show very poorly – and I say that as someone who, by and large, finds Jon Snow to be among the duller of the show's main characters.  

A year later, the only surprising thing Benioff, Weiss, and company (represented here by writer Dave Hill and director Jeremy Podeswa) could have done would be to leave Jon Snow dead, but of course that was never going to happen. Given that, the show wasn't particularly well-served by drawing the resurrection out across two of a precious ten episodes, nor by the almost matter-of-fact presentation of it all. That it played out as part of Melisandre's crisis of faith helped a little bit, but the whole sequence played out with a sense of resignation, as if the creative team realized they had no choice but to do the exact thing, in the exact way, that everyone knew was coming, and not mess around with it. Even a small tweak like splitting the scene in two – so that Melisandre's apparent failure happened in the middle of the episode, and Jon Snow only opened his eyes after we had paid visits to Winterfell and the Pyke – might have given the whole thing more energy than this version had to offer.

Unlike a certain other gory Sunday night cable drama, Game of Thrones didn't cheat with how it presented Jon's death or his return to life. He really was murdered, and the means of his resurrection played by long-established rules of the show's fictional universe. But the whole thing still proved to be more trouble than it was worth, with the show's collective audience practically shrugging it off and predicting how it would be undone long before it actually happened. Maybe the show will get great value out of who and what Jon has become now that he's returned from the dead (though Beric Dondarrion seemed more or less the same man after each of his returns), but the show could have accomplished that without letting the viewers get so far ahead of the story. Just as “Home” would have benefited from timing out the resurrection scene differently, the show as a whole probably would have been better off relocating Ser Alliser's mutiny to the start of this season, so that the speculation would have happened over only a week or two at most, and then the show could have gone on with whatever Jon Snow's new role will be post-death.

On the whole, “Home” seemed torn on how much it wanted to wait before getting to the next stage of various plots. Often, waiting became the theme of certain plots, like Meera's frustration over Bran's lengthy apprenticeship with the Three-Eyed Raven or Jaime convincing Thommen to finally pay Cersei a visit. But some scenes lingered exquisitely, like Tyrion's nervous visit to unshackle Dany's dragons (Peter Dinklage: so great he doesn't even need human co-stars to make a scene work), where others seemed as rushed and lackadaisical as Jon Snow's resurrection, like Jaqen accepting Arya's renewed commitment to being no one after only a handful of questions.

Still, Arya's return to the fold of the Faceless Men fit the episode's larger themes about families being brought together, torn asunder, or both. The Three-Eyed Raven lets Bran visit Winterfell in happier times when Ned, Benjen, and Lyanna were kids. Cersei and Thommen get their moment together, and maybe Jaime, Zombie Mountain, and the rest of the Kingsguard may be enough to finally do something about the Sparrow and his people. Theon leaves Sansa in the care of Brienne and Podrick and makes plans to return to the Iron Islands, where another family reunion – between Balon and his brother Euron (played by Danish actor Pilou Asb?k) – ends with Balon being sacrificed to the Drowned God by his long-lost sibling. It's a bad episode to be a nasty old ruler, as Roose Bolton dies only moments after learning his wife has given birth to a son, suffering fatally for keeping Ramsay too close, and/or for keeping Ramsay so afraid of losing his place in the line of succession that he had to resort to such violent measures.

Balon's been gone so long, and was among the show's flatter villains when he was present, that I don't much mourn his death. (I also hope that this business of choosing his heir will have significant bearing on the main story, because the show doesn't need another Dorne-style diversion at the moment.) Roose Bolton, on the other hand, was a complicated and interesting heavy, and certainly moreso than his one-note sadist of a son. This episode is far from the first time something horrible has happened to a baby on this show (the massacre of all of Robert's bastards, the White Walkers taking in Craster's latest son), but whenever Ramsay's involved, both he and Game of Thrones seems to be taking perverse pleasure in it all, without in any way enhancing our understanding of him at this stage of things. (If the murder has to be presented and not alluded to, the scene can still cut away right after Ramsay has released the hounds, rather than letting us hear mother and crying baby be eaten by them.)

But the Lannister scenes on both continents were excellent, it was very satisfying to see Alliser and his other mutineers get their comeuppance thanks to Tormund, Wun Wun, and the rest of the wildlings, and I'm looking forward to much of what seems to be coming shortly, whether Sansa making it to Castle Black to reunite with her resurrected half-brother, Jaime and Cersei going to war with the faith militant, or Bran learning more about Hodor's past. (Hodor!)

Jon Snow's death and resurrection won't be remembered as creative high points for the series. Hopefully, though, what comes as a result of it all will add some retroactive value to all the word games of the last year.

Some other thoughts:

* This week, in Alan Wants a Web Series: Whatchu Talkin' 'Bout, Wyllis?, the story of Hodor as a young, verbal stablehand working for the Stark family. I don't even need to see the sad moment where he loses the ability to say anything but “Hodor.” More Wyllis will suffice. As it is, I thought Kristian Nairn did a nice job of modulating his “Hodor”s to be a bit more contemplative and sad during the scene where Bran tries to ask him about the situation.

* Isaac Hempstead-Wright looks like he's grown about three feet since last we saw Bran. We have some sense of how much time has passed, in that he crossed paths with Jon Snow and the Rangers near the end of season 4, but it still feels like much more time has passed for him than it has for everybody back at Castle Black.

* The Mountain isn't nearly as big as Wun Wun, but I appreciated the symmetry of the casual violence each large creature displayed tonight, with Wun Wun easily smashing the Ranger who fired a crossbow bolt at him, and whatever's left of Gregor Clegane doing similar to the King's Landing drunk boasting of his interaction with Cersei during her walk of shame.

* Max Von Sydow replaces Struan Rodger as the Three-Eyed Raven. It's not the first time the show has recast a role (we've been through two Berics, two Daarios, and three Mountains already). Von Sydow's a big enough deal that you would assume the show has major plans for the Raven besides leading Bran on a few vision quests.

* The season 6 trailer spoiled Tyrion's “That's what I do: I drink and I know things” line, but it was still wonderful in context. I also appreciated Tyrion recognizing that his eunuch humor is tougher to pull off when he has Grey Worm as well as Varys as an audience.

* Still no new locations on the credits map, but happy to see the Pyke animation for the first time in a few years.

What did everybody else think? And remember, don't talk about the books.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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