A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I think the sea is called “the see”…
“I shouldn't be here.” -Jon Snow
“Oathbreaker” doesn't feature a single plot development as momentous as Jon Snow's resurrection at the end of “Home.” But given how many of us assumed that Jon Snow would return from the dead in the exact fashion the series used, momentous isn't always all it's cracked up to be. “Oathbreaker” instead winds up the most satisfying installment of season 6 so far not because of any big shocks (though there are some little ones, like Rickon emerging from story limbo in the worst possible way as Ramsay's prisoner), but because it told its respective stories well, largely avoided most of the current narrative dead spots (no Dorne, no Pyke), was efficient in others (Dany's return to Vaes Dothrak came and went briskly, and was as much about showing off the impressive CGI of the dueling horse statues as it was further detailing her new circumstances), and leaning on its liveliest characters whenever possible. (I still don't give a good Hodor about the geopolitics of Slaver's Bay, but so long as Varys and Tyrion are in charge of Meereen, those scenes are fun.)
The episode's title most obviously points to Jon Snow's decision at the end to give up his position in the Night's Watch, lord commander or no. But that theme of abandoning traditions and promises went well beyond the action up at Castle Black.
Dany's situation, for instance, is worse than even it appeared last week, since her decision to travel Essos in her role as Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Knitter of Scarves violates Dothraki law of what khaleesi widows are meant to do upon the deaths of their khals. If a life spent scowling around the other widows is the best Dany can hope for, what's the worst? Death? Torture? Having to watch season 5 Dorne scenes that got left on the cutting room floor?
Down in King's Landing, Cersei and Jaime's revenge tour is off to an uneven start. They've got the Mountain and Qyburn's spy network (more on the latter below), but the Sparrow still has Tommen's ear, and the members of the small council want little to do with them, despite attempts to suggest one or both of them has a right to attend meetings (Cersei as queen-mother, Jaime as captain of the Kingsguard). Over in Braavos, Arya has to complete her penance for violating the will of the Many-Faced God and taking revenge that wasn't hers to take, though she comes out of it committed enough to being no one that she gets her sight back. And up in Winterfell, Ramsay and Smalljon Umber seem at an impasse over the latter's refusal to kneel before the former, until Umber presents something Ramsay wants even more: another Stark to be his plaything(*).
(*) I'm dreading Ramsay having another long-term prisoner, but we'll torture that bridge when we come to it.
And then there's whatever the Three-Eyed Raven is trying to teach Bran about Ned, Aunt Lyanna, and Rhaegar Targaryen. We've heard one version of the story, which Bran was raised on, but as we see in the true outcome of the duel with Ser Arthur Dayne, the past isn't exactly like the stories we've been told. There's clearly much more to the event that inspired Robert's Rebellion, even if the show is taking its sweet, sweet time in giving us all the details. (The Raven telling Bran “That's enough for one day” is as close as GoT gets to congratulating itself for taking the long game with its plotting.)
But Jon leaving the Rangers behind is only somewhat a break of his vows. After all, the oath includes the phrase, “It shall not end until my death.” He has fulfilled that requirement, even if the ones who originally drafted that oath surely didn't count on Red Priestess-enabled resurrection shenanigans when they wrote it. Upon Jon's emergence from his room, Edd asks if it's still him in there, and though his memory and personality seem the same (give or take the ability to crack a small joke), he's not exactly the same man. In that opening scene, he's as lost and unhappy with his new circumstance as Melisandre is to learn that he experienced nothing after death. He's able to fake his way through a day or two in his old job, long enough to execute the sentence on the four surviving traitors, but he's no longer tied to this place. Story-wise, it might make sense for him to remain in command of the Rangers and the wildling army as they prepare for the White Walker invasion. Revenge-wise, for that matter, it would be useful for him to have an army or three at his side should he want to attack Winterfell and punish the Boltons. But for the moment, Jon's not bound by his oath, not bound by the needs of the larger story the series is telling, not bound by even death itself. He may feel that he's failed, but he now has the freedom to go fail wherever and however he wants, and that creates all kinds of possibilities for the series going forward. The fact and nature of Jon's resurrection may have been predictable, but whatever's coming next is not.
And in the interim, this was just a lively, briskly moving episode. It advanced various plots forward while avoiding the feeling that this was all that was happening. It was a bit funnier than your average Game of Thrones episode, not just in Tyrion's exasperation with his non-drinking companions, but in smaller moments like Tormund's joke about how he knows Jon isn't a god, or the timing of Sam's latest round of vomiting only seconds after Gilly sweetly refers to him as “the father of my son.”
There are Game of Thrones episodes where the weight of all these stories and characters can feel as burdensome to the viewer as it must sometimes feel to the TV writers who have to squeeze as much as they can into a single hour of TV. Then there are others like “Oathbreaker” where the shift from one story to the next to the next feels light and seamless and natural. At times, the show frustrates me with how much time I'm forced to spend in a particular setting with a particular group of people for weeks or even years on end. With the possible exception of Ramsay – and even that scene was much less of a wallow than Bolton interludes tend to be, even with the threat hanging over Rickon's head – the only frustration tonight was that every scene couldn't last longer.
Nothing fancy; just a solid early in the season installment of Game of Thrones.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode's title is a mirror of season 4's “Oathkeeper,” which had me wondering if Brienne and her sword might be significantly involved. Instead, she and Sansa and Podrick get the week off, along with the gangs at Dorne and the Pyke, Daario and Jorah, and a handful of other major players. (Littlefinger has yet to appear through these three episodes. Ditto Bronn, sadly.)
* No new locations on the map, but Vaes Dothrak makes its first appearance in the opening credits since the third episode of season 2. When Dany was last there (for the horse heart-eating scene referenced by the head widow), the place was mostly presented as interiors, where here the VFX team has grown skilled enough (or has a high enough budget) to finally make the horse statues part of the action.
* Perhaps we'll get a map location for the Citadel, or Sam's hometown? If nothing else, I'm trying to get a sense of where in Westeros he, Gilly, and baby Sam might be traveling by ship over such stomach-churning waters.
* Sometimes, it can be annoying when the previously clips (on this or other serialized dramas) give away that a character will be appearing in the new episode. At other times, like the return of the Karstark family last week, or the Meereen woman who helped the Sons of the Harpy murder Dany's men, it's useful in reminding me of characters I had otherwise forgotten existed. At the same time, credit the editors with restraint in not featuring Rickon and Osha so that their presence at Winterfell would be a genuine surprise.
* Speaking of Rickon, a few people asked me on Twitter what proof Umber showed Ramsay to convince him of Rickon's identity, since the scene was so dark. It was the severed head of Rickon's direwolf, whom the Internet tells me was named Shaggydog. RIP, Shaggydog. Much like the Stark children themselves, the direwolves have suffered greatly, with only Jon Snow's (Ghost) and Bran's (Summer) definitely alive, and Arya's (Nymeria) missing since early in season 1.
* Once again, some stories seem to be moving at a very different pace from others. The action at Castle Black picks up moments after “Home” ended, where enough time has passed at Winterfell for news of Roose's death – and gossip about the true nature of it – to have spread, while Arya's training montage would seem to require weeks at a minimum to pass for her to get good enough to outduel the Waif.
* After years of hearing Varys allude to his “little birds,” we finally get a look at them – impoverished children eager for sweets and whatever help the Master of Whispers can provide – when the action cuts from a discussion of the birds in Meereen to Qyburn meeting up with Varys' old crew back in King's Landing.
* Often, the show gets great comic mileage out of putting Tyrion in scenes with other characters who are gifted orators in their own right. Here, we get the delightful opposite, with Tyrion desperately trying to entertain himself in the company of Grey Worm, who only barely speaks the same language and has no interest in fun, and Missandei, who speaks many languages but seems too intimidated to converse much with the imp. Fortunately, Tyrion's enough to carry the discussion for all three of them, as he coins a phrase by suggesting, “A wise man once said a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms.”
Finally, though the show has mostly gone past the plot of the published books, and though our goal is to talk about the TV show and not constantly reference the novels, there is a fan theory about what the Raven is teaching Bran that started among the book readers and has become widespread enough that at least some non-readers like me know about it. Since it's mainly theory rather than explicit evidence drawn from an outside text, I'm not going to say you're not allowed to discuss it here, but maybe step a little lightly for the sake of those who maybe haven't been interrogating the idea for years and years? (And if you're a non-reader who would rather not have a plot twist ruined by educated guessing, read the comments at your own peril.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org