We’re in uncharted territory on Game of Thrones. There are no books to work from — even George R.R. Martin might be surprised with what’s happening on the HBO series — and things could get confusing. To help you out, after every new episode, our Thrones experts will answer your six most pressing questions.
1. Where does the reanimated corpse of Benjen Stark fit in the ever growing pantheon of semi-dead character types?
Ryan: So, to begin our corpse crash course, we’ve got the hyper-intelligent White Walkers. They were created by the Children of the Forest, who didn’t waste much time before turning against their masters and hijacking the ability to raise the dead for themselves. The wights they raise and control seem to be less “there” than many of the other undead wandering Westeros.
Benjen, as depicted on the show and not in the books, seems to be a newer recipe formulated by the Children. Perhaps less powerful, not as likely to revolt. He’s all there in the head, and seems to mostly be the same guy he was before being killed by White Walkers. He’s got the black hands and grey face of a newly turned wight, but is clearly more than that. It sounds like he’s working with the Children and the Three-Eyed Raven of his own free will rather than being magically controlled by them. That would make him the fifth type of undead we’ve met on the show. Of the most immediate concern are the White Walkers and wights. Then there’s Beric Dondarrion, who was brought back to life by the red priest Thoros of Myr in the same manner as Jon Snow, and Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, who also exists somewhere between alive and dead thanks to the dark arts of former maester Qyburn. He leans closer to the wights, following orders mindlessly, but still showing to have a glimmer of his former self hidden somewhere deep inside.
None of it makes much sense yet, but I have faith that a unified theory of the undead hierarchy will form as Game of Thrones gets closer to its conclusion. What do you think? Has the show watered down death, or are you still intrigued by the mysteries presented by the undead?
Josh: I’m still intrigued. The White Walkers and wights represent the show’s biggest (and most spectacular) threats — all the battling over a symbolic throne won’t matter if everyone becomes a skeleton straight out of a Ray Harryhausen movie. Beric, who once told Arya that pieces of him get “chipped away” every time he returns from death, is what Jon Snow could become, and doesn’t want to be. And the Mountain, well, the Mountain is terrifying, and I’m afraid to say anything negative about him. (He gets a shout-out from Cersei, who isn’t worried about her trial by combat with him in her corner.)
Game of Thrones can keep drinking from the undead well so long as the person or persons being brought back serve a purpose. So far, they’re five-for-five. We should probably talk about the “Benjen is Coldhands” theory, which, to George R.R. Martin’s dismay, was all but confirmed in this episode. Why does he matter so much to Bran, outside of sharing a last name?
Ryan: Benjen doesn’t just represent a familiar face to Brandon Stark, he’s a familiar face to show viewers, as well. With the Three-Eyed Raven gone, he’s taken the role of the knowledgeable elder that may not have all the answers, but at least knows where Bran’s supposed to go next and the broad strokes of what he ought to do when he gets there. That role requires a little bit of trust and authority, which you just don’t get if Coldhands is some random dead guy who shows up, deus ex machina style.
I don’t blame the showrunners for being resistant to introducing more new characters when they could tie things back to Benjen instead. For years, book readers have debated over whether Coldhands was Benjen in disguise. Just because he isn’t in the books doesn’t mean he can’t be in the show. It was a nice bit of fan-service and another reminder that we’re way off George R.R. Martin’s beaten path at this point.
2. How terrible of an idea was it for Samwell to steal his father’s sword?
Josh: Sometimes you can read a book by its cover.
Samwell’s father Randyll wouldn’t appreciate this expression — reading is a “womanly” interest, after all — but it certainly applies to him. The steely Lord of Horn Hill looks like he’s allergic to joy, let alone smiling, and his personality isn’t much rosier. The only thing he loves more than his precious sword Heartsbane is criticizing his one son (Samwell, whom he once said he’d kill if he didn’t join the Night’s Watch), and praising the other (Dickon). It’s no wonder Sam refuses to leave Gilly with his family, even though his mother and sister are pleasant people — his cruel dad would stage an “accident” for Gilly within minutes of his own flesh and blood leaving to become a maester. As a parting gesture, Sam steals Randyll’s precious Valyrian steel sword, perched on the mantle like an autographed baseball. This might come back to haunt him.
Randyll Tarly is one of the great military minds in the Seven Kingdoms (Kevan Lannister called him the “finest soldier in the realm” in the books) and, again, he clearly has no qualms with threatening to murder his child. But maybe it’s all an elaborate ruse? I mean, he can’t hate Samwell that much.
He’s not the one named “Dickon.”
Ryan: This is another case where we may have to separate book Randyll from show Randyll. Show Randyll thus far has only proven himself to be a terrible dinner companion and overly critical father. There wasn’t too much bite behind his bark, though. He let Gilly talk back to him and didn’t seem to have a handle on his wife, either. The guy comes across as a bully and a grump, but not a Tywin type that you want to avoid crossing at all costs.
Book Randyll was a different and more dangerous entity. He casually gave orders that all prostitutes spreading the pox among his men were to have their privates scrubbed with lye. He threatened to have Brienne of Tarth raped just to teach her a lesson about the proper role of noble women. The guy was several steps beyond Stannis in his application of the King’s Justice, and wasn’t the sort to blink before hanging soldiers or putting peasants to the sword for going against his wishes.
If Samwell had stolen Heartsbane from the Randyll we met in George R.R. Martin’s books, he’d be a dead man walking. Fortunately for him, he has a better chance of survival against this less impressive Randyll. There’s a chance he may not even come after the sword, and this is just a set up to get more magical blades where they’re needed for the final battles on the show.
3. After two seasons trying to become a Faceless Man, what do you think of Arya’s sudden change of heart?
Ryan: It was a beautiful thing seeing Arya regain her sense of morality after several seasons of violent murders. Up until she was tasked with offing Lady Crane, everyone who she had killed was either trying to kill her or a hated enemy. But Lady Crane wasn’t a villain. From what Arya saw, she was just a kind woman who had unknowingly crossed someone with a grudge.
There’s no doubt the Faceless Men gave Arya this particular mission on purpose: They wanted to see if she could kill whoever they demanded she kill, regardless of how innocent they might be. In episode five, Jaqen H’ghar asked, “Does death only come for the wicked and leave the innocent behind?” He’s clearly been grooming her to murder without concern for the sins or virtues of those who have been named. Alas, she rejected that mandate and the title of No One, and is now back to being Arya Stark.
Josh: Everything’s coming up Starks! Jon and Sansa have teamed up to kill Ramsay; Benjen saved Bran’s life and informed him he’s the new Three-Eyed Raven; Arya is back to being Arya; and Rickon… let’s skip Rickon for now. But things are going as well for the Starks as they have since Ned’s head hit the chopping block. It’s about damn time. This is Game of Thrones, though. The fun times never last for very long, and for Arya, a confrontation with the Waif, the Regina George to her Cady Heron, is inevitable. Let’s just say it’s a good thing she went back and dug out Needle. Side-note: I’m not sure if we’ll see Lady Crane and her traveling band of pissy, All About Eve actors again, but I really enjoyed watching five seasons of Game of Thrones condensed into a play. It was like C-3PO recapping Star Wars to the Ewoks, but with farts.
4. Why was Walder Frey so mad, outside of his always being mad?
Josh: The last time we saw Walder Frey was in season three, when he was eating and gloating with Roose Bolton mere feet from where Robb and Cat Stark were brutally murdered the night before. I’m pretty sure Walder hasn’t left the Great Hall since the Red Wedding. He just sits there, as his food and drink are brought to him by an endless supply of young girls. Occasionally his sons Lothar and Black also drop by with, in this case, bad news. Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully (Cat Stark’s uncle) has retaken the Riverlands, after narrowly escaping the Red Wedding massacre. No wonder Walder’s pissed: The Riverlands houses, together with the Brotherhood Without Banners, are fighting back, and although unbeknownst to him, Brienne is on her way to meet with Brynden to assist Jon and Sansa’s re-taking of the North. He has something up his sleeve, though: Edmure Tully, who, unlike the Blackfish, was captured that fateful night. Loras Tyrell thinks he’s had it rough being held captive by the Faith Militant? Imagine having Walder Frey as your prison warden.
Ryan: Yeah, Walder Frey’s son-in-law didn’t look too hot after being drudged up from the dungeons. It’s the first time we’ve seen Edmure since the Red Wedding, and that entire scene felt like a sneaky refresher on what’s been going on in the Riverlands. They casually namedropped all the important factions in the region from the Mallisters and Blackwoods to the Brotherhood Without Banners. They outlined who the Blackfish was and where he was during earlier seasons. Oh, and they pinned the murders of Talisa and Catelyn on the two Frey sons leading the mission to retake Riverrun.
Let’s not forget you’ve also got Jaime on his way to the area with a Lannister army at his back and Brienne headed to Riverrun to meet with the Blackfish on Sansa’s behalf. It all sets up a good amount of chaos to come in the Riverlands, and hopefully we’ll get to witness a small (or a massive) amount of justice delivered to the Freys for what they did to the Starks.
5. Is Margaery suffering from the Westeros equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, or do you think there’s something else going on under the surface of their alliance with the High Sparrow?
Ryan: King Tommen was always going to be a puppet for whoever held power in King’s Landing. The Lannisters were perfectly happy having an easily led ruler when they were the ones pulling his strings, but Cersei realized early on that Tommen was too easily led — Margaery was already halfway towards stealing him from her before everything with the High Sparrow went down.
So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Tommen switch sides and team up with the Faith Militant. He couldn’t beat them, so he decided to join them. Much less bloodshed that way, and he may even see this as a pathway to some actual power of his own, derived not from his family’s armies, but from the Faith he now represents.
As for Margaery, I just can’t believe she’s turned on her family and gone full Faith Militant. They tortured her brother. They’ve kept her imprisoned for weeks. The Margaery we’ve seen in the past may not be vengeful like Cersei, but she’s also not the type to fold and give in. The moment she and her brother are safe in the Red Keep, I bet she’ll be hatching a plot to set the Faith and the Lannisters against each other, with the goal of consolidating Tyrell power in the capitol. It’s just going to involve a few more episodes of playing nice and bowing and scraping to accomplish.
Josh: It wasn’t a coincidence that Margaery spent so much time talking about appearances. She’s pretending to be on Team High Sparrow, while secretly working on something that not even her family or Tommen know about. At least that’s what I, like you, think she’s doing. It’s a really good plan, if so: Margaery didn’t have to take the Walk of Atonement, Jaime’s momentarily out of the picture, Cersei���s fuming, and Tommen’s in her pocket, doing whatever she says. (I hate using the term “whipped,” but it’s something approaching it.) She’s accomplishing two things at once: appealing to the commoners, and pissing off the Lannisters. Well played, Margaery.
6. Do you think Daenerys writes her speeches in advance?
Josh: Daenerys is a khaleesi, and the queen of the badass moment. She shut down her brother, ate a horse’s heart, burned a slave master and some sexist khals, and dropped the mic/whip. Oh yeah, and as she’s fond of telling anyone who will listen, she’s the Mother of Dragons. Badass. Daenerys is also enamored with giving speeches. Loud speeches, sometimes in the Common Tongue, other times in High Valyrian or Dothraki. She’s very good at them. Look at the way she riles up her followers at the end of this episode. Granted, she was on top of a giant, fire-breathing dragon — I’m pretty sure I’d vote for Trump if he rode around on a dragon (and don’t think he hasn’t asked his advisors if they could “Jurassic Park” him one) — but “I choose you all” is a pretty good line. It begs the question: Does Daenerys write her speeches in advance, or is she making them up as she goes? I’m going with the former. You don’t make an entrance like she did on Drogon without a lot of planning.
Ryan: In this case, she lifted half her lines from her husband Khal Drogo’s declaration of war against Westeros from season one. It was pretty powerful stuff then, and Dany’s retelling held up well, especially coming from the back of a giant dragon. From the perspective of the khalasar following Daenerys back to Meereen, it will go down in history as one of the greatest rallying cries in Dothraki ever. But as a show watcher, it seemed like a bit of a retread.
I get it, though. Dany needs to do something during this middle stretch of the season, so why not give her another firebrand of a speech promising her followers (both in the khalasar and those watching the television) that she’s really, really, really serious — no, really, she’s going to do it this time — about going back to Westeros? Just the possibility that she’s done trying to rule Slaver’s Bay and is ready to cross the Narrow Sea is enough to excite me.