I worry that we’re entering the “flashback to the reason Jack has tattoos” phase of Game of Thrones.
So, for context, the last geeky, extremely serial adventure series that I watched obsessively every week and got really into was Lost. I loved Lost. The first podcast I ever listened to was the official Lost podcast. I was active on forums, I scoured wiki pages, I tried to suss out the mysteries. Lost was my jam.
But Lost, after two pretty solid first seasons, was starting to lose its way in Season 3, you could feel it. The single-character-centric flashback conceit that had defined the show was clearly running out of new and meaningful stories to tell about these by now well-defined characters. A bunch of new story threads and characters were being introduced. It became hard not to ask: “where is this all going?”
All of this was going down against a backdrop of the showrunners, Carson Cuse and Damon Lindelof, making no secret of the fact that they were lobbying ABC to put a not-distant end date on the incredibly popular series (the show was still pulling near-series-best ratings every week). They wanted to tell their whole story over the course of 100 episodes. ABC was printing money with the show and didn’t want to put an end date on it at all.
Then came “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The ninth episode of Season 3. The network plugged the hell out of the episode, promising it would reveal big “answers” to the show’s central mysteries.
The big answer we got was… the reason Jack has bicep tattoos. And the reason was basically that he was moody and drunk once in Thailand.
The episode, rightfully, was panned by critics and is viewed as a weak point in the series overall – the sign of a show straining to stretch its narrative with no end in sight. The creators admitted the episode amounted to “tap dancing,” and its reception basically proved to ABC that without an end in sight to work toward, their hit show was listless.
ABC and the showrunners eventually agreed to a broadcast schedule for a total of 120 (not 100) episodes of Lost, and the writers were able to plan out the beats of the remaining seasons accordingly*.
So that brings us to where I worry we are with Game of Thrones. This whole current season is in the can, minus maybe some post-production work in the later episodes. It was all scripted and shot without knowing for sure when the show is actually going to end. Benioff and Weiss are saying they want to do two abbreviated season after this, totaling 13 more episodes of the show. HBO execs at the same time are publicly saying that they’re “still in conversations” and only half-jokingly arguing the show should run for another six seasons.
We still have seven hours of TV to go before this season is over, but after its first 3, I’m getting that old “Stranger in a Strange Land” feeling about what we’ve seen so far. The shape of the series endgame is starting to come into focus, but not with any sense of urgency. There’s already a ton of narrative strands and a bunch of characters to keep track of, but we keep splitting more of them off – Gilly and Sam no longer at Castle Black, the Meereen story split in three – further fragmenting the narrative. Not only that, but we’ve added (or, more accurately, picked up long-forgotten) storylines this season.
I’ve been invested in this show for long enough now that I want to feel like we’re heading toward the end. Without an end in sight, I’m worried that we’re spinning our wheels.
I’m still tuning in. I’m still a fan. I’m still writing these recaps. But a nagging question is starting to have me shifting in my seat watching every new episode.
Where is this all going?
- That Went Better than Expected
We start right where we left off. I think the choice to start the episode on Davos’s reaction shot is a great one – even though this was his idea, he is still kind of shocked that it actually worked. After a while, Jon sits up, gasping for air, gradually realizing what happened. Kit Harrington does an impressive job of selling the gradual realization, first that he isn’t dead, then that he should be dead, then finally that, holy crap, it is cold and he is naked on a table.
Also impressive is Jon sitting up with all those stab wounds in his torso. I had minor surgery last year to repair an abdominal hernia, and for months couldn’t use my abs at all without my body reminding me that someone cut holes through these muscles, you know.
Melisandre, who seems to have brushed back some of the bright red flyaways metaphorically representing her crisis of faith last week is very happy to see that her spell has worked.
Melisandre: “The Lord let you come back for a reason. Stannis was not the prince who was promised, but someone has to be.”
Prince, you say? Hmmmm.
I also kind of like the exchange between Jon and Davos after Melisandre leaves, with Davos telling Jon to “go fail again.” Davos is a good guy. I hope he continues to not be dead.
Jon goes and greets his men, getting two hugs and a penis joke out of it, which, even without the resuscitation, makes today the best day Jon Snow has had at Castle Black.
- The Love (and Also Vomit) Boat
I like Gilly and Sam and Little Sam, but I didn’t love watching Sam vomit. This is entirely my fault for watching Game of Thrones while eating dinner.
I also liked Gilly being a little smugly proud of knowing the difference between “see” and “sea.”
But this is one of the stories that has me worried about where it is going. Yes, Sam is going to learn from the Maesters how to kill White Walkers, but the drama of Gilly-won’t-be-welcome-here/will-the-baby-be-safe sort of feels like they just milked all the dramatic situations they could out of that scenario at Castle Black and are just relocating it to Oldtown.
Also, it is completely unbelievable that Sam would have boarded the ship with Gilly without first telling her that she wouldn’t be welcome at the Citadel.
But then, I did like that Gilly called Sam the “father of her son.”
Basically, I’m conflicted, is my point.
- Technically Not a Flashback, Part 2
Impressive bit of casting, finding a dude who looks enough like Sean Bean that if you dress him up in the same outfit and hairdo from Season One and both you and the actor squint a little bit, he could believably be young Ned Stark.
And we get a good old fashioned Game of Thrones swordfight, which this season has been pretty light on so far.
The showdown at the Tower of Joy is an important moment in the lore of this world if you’re a reader of the books (I am not) or a hardcore fan of the show, so it is introduced here with fairly little in the way of reintroduction.
Which kind of makes me wonder: does HBO anticipate that this show even has anything but “hardcore” fans? Game of Thrones isn’t a show you just put on in the background while you’re folding laundry, and I think the show knows that if you are watching it, it means you’re paying attention and possibly even doing a little extra-textual reading.
Outside of the “Previously On,” there isn’t a whole lot to help you place this moment or understand why it is important. It’s a tough balance on a mythology-rich show like this between trusting the audience to have kept up and making sure that the audience isn’t disoriented.
More than maybe any other show like this that I’ve watched, Game of Thrones errs on the side of assuming you are keeping up. And if you do happen to be a little more steeped in the fandom, it teases the reveal of what Ned finds in the tower, putting you in the impatient shoes of Bran, and stretching it out to at least another episode**.
It is also interesting that Bran seemed to make Ned hear him – if it wasn’t just, as the Raven insisted, the wind that made Ned turn. I’m a sucker for some good time paradox/thing-in-the-future-caused-thing-in-the-past stories. Even though the Raven tells us that when it comes to the past “the ink is dry,” here’s hoping it turns out that Bran Scrooge-wargs his way into causing some important past moment in the show.
- I Was Wondering When They’d Take that Dragon Choker
Not much to say about the Daenerys storyline this week. She’s in Vaes Dothrak. The khals might let something bad happen to her, so now we have a ticking clock for her knight in shining psoriasis to try to reach her by.
I loved the scene where we finally got to see Varys being Varys.
“My job is to find the right answers. Do you know how I do that? I do it by making people happy.”
We’ve always heard what a great spymaster Varys is, but that’s always been offscreen. Now, we finally get to see him doing what we’ve been told to believe he does best – getting information.
I wanted to like the scene with Tyrion being awkward with Grey Worm and Missandei too, and it did make me chuckle a bit – Dinklage sells the comedy very well. But the whole scene feels weirdly out of order. Just last week, Tyrion was comfortable enough drinking and cajoling with the absent queen’s lieutenants that he talked himself into visiting the dragons. Now all of a sudden the show’s second most confident character is painfully awkward just trying to spend time in a room with them?
In any case, it looks like we’re sending spies to the other cities of Slavers’ Bay. More narrative fragmenting to keep track of. Fun.
- My Favorite Monster
And they’re scared of Robert Strong***, which, having children staring in terrified silence and then running away from him as soon as they can just adds to his delightful campiness.
Everything with him is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the show, but I love it. He’s a purple-faced enormously muscular giant in silly gold armor and a sillier helmet – a Westerosi Jack Kirby character.
In his first scene in this episode, in which Jaime and Cersei bringing him down to Qyburn’s lab and scare off the children, we learn two things from Cersei about what she wants to do with him. First, she wants to use Varys’s network of spies to find anyone trash-talking her and have them face the Mountain (maybe this is how he found the open mic guy last week). Second, she wants to turn her looming sept trial over her “sins” into a trial by combat and have him stand for her.
We get one more, even campier, scene with him when Jamie and Cersei march with him into the Small Council meeting, now being headed by Kevan Lannister. I’m not sure whether their arrival elicits a fear-toot out of Pycelle or Mace Tyrell, but my money is on Pycelle and that it is a subtle reference to Medieval Land Fun-Time World.
Speaking of Mace Tyrell, is nobody at all concerned about the fact that the other half of his delegation to the Iron Bank turned up blinded and murdered in a Braavosi brothel? Seems like something that they would have noticed when he came back across the Narrow Sea without Meryn Trant.
And speaking of the Tyrells generally, I’m happy for any scene that gives Diana Rigg a chance to make “you’re-banging-your-brother” jokes at Cersei’s expense, though I’m not exactly sure what she’s doing back at King’s Landing in this scene.
In any case, the Small Council pulling a Gretchen Weiners suggests to me that besides the various jockeying for power amongst the inhabitants of the Red Keep, there’s going to be a need for them to all come together before season’s end. The Tyrells, Maester Pycell, and the various Lannisters may have their own motives and uses for the crown’s power, but they are all united by a need for a powerful crown. There are plenty of external threats brewing that could challenge the that power, and the man who currently wears the crown is, well…
- Tommen Baratheon, Chumpiest of His Name
King Tommen has one move, and that move is “Getting Played.”
He marches into the sept with armed guards and interrupts the Sparrow in prayer, charged with Cersei-inspired purpose, insisting “I am the King!”
He ends up sitting next to him on a bench, agreeing that, yes, Cersei needed to be punished and that the Sparrow is actually a good guy and Tommen should listen to him. The Sparrow doesn’t even have to try very hard: he monologues to Tommen about the Mother’s love – timely, since this episode aired on Mothers’ Day – then reminds him of something Twyin said to him the first time we ever saw Tommen get completely played.
Anyway, Tommen is a chump. He’s a nice kid, but he’s a chump. There were only so many positive outcomes possible with Cersei and Jaime rolling those particular genetic dice. This time, the dice came up chump.
- The Waif’s Progress
Remember how much I didn’t like the last two Arya scenes? Remember how I said that this stuff is compressed into a montage in kung fu movies for a reason?
Guess what: I liked the Arya scene this week! It was a kung-fu movie training montage!
I liked the scene cutting back and forth between her getting rapped across the hands whenever she obviously lied during the game of faces and her taking a blow in the blind sparring. Unlike in the previous scenes, it connects the experience of the sparring to her growth.
There’s a lot to examine about this simple scene (The AV Club has a great analysis of everything from the editing to the lighting), but for me the key thing about it is that over the course of the scene, we see growth and change in the character. This is something that this season has so far been seriously lacking – character development and significant situational change over the course of a single scene.
There are some big counter-examples of course (Jon Snow not being dead, for one), but for the most part, every scene starts and ends with our principal characters in basically the same situation, but with slightly more information.
Compare the Arya montage with Daenerys’s scene in this episode – Daenerys is still at the mercy of the Dothraki, she’s still unable to escape, she isn’t being treated like a queen, the only difference is where he is and how much information she has. In terms of what is fun to watch, that is worlds away from a simple thing like showing someone getting better at something over the course of time.
Also, at the climax of the montage, the Waif seems to be goading Arya into saying she wants to kill her, which I also think is a great little way of accomplishing a couple of things at once. I also wonder whether this adds to or undermines my theory that the Waif is a “face” used by multiple Faceless to antagonize Arya.
On the one hand, she seems to remember everything she’s done to Arya, so unless they get together and talk it out, it seems unlikely to be multiple people. On the other, since such a big part of becoming Faceless seems to be the obliteration of the ego, it seems unlikely that one person would fixate on this one girl.
In any case, Arya’s no longer blind, she’s probably done getting hit in the face with poles, and has audited away enough of her body thetans to proceed to OT level III, or however this freaky assassin cult operates, I dunno.
- Can All Likeable Characters Please Stay Away from Winterfell
For all the talk of various people wanting to “unite the North,” the last couple of seasons have been pretty light on seeing the former bannermen of Ned Stark. But here’s Mr. Umber (didn’t catch his first name, if it was ever said – this show should have Pop-Up Video style labels for basically everything) talking to Ramsay and Karstark.
His refusal to kneel and swear an oath to Ramsay is interesting, because it shows how much the last few years of warring and murdering have done to deteriorate the traditions and institutions that held together this ugly feudal world. His unimpressed “hmm” when Ramsay insists that Roose Bolton was poisoned by his enemies is hilarious, because honestly, when was the last time on this show that a noble man or woman was actually killed by their enemy and not betrayed by someone close to them.
Ramsay: “Why would I trust a man who won’t honor tradition?”
Umber: “Your father honored tradition. He knelt for Robb Stark. Called him King in the North. Was Robb Stark right to trust your father?”
The title of the episode, “Oathbreaker,” mostly applies to Jon’s big decision at the end, but a lot of things throughout this episode show the countless ways that a value system propped up by oaths and honor has been chipped away at over time by men and women who go against their vows. This even goes all the way back to honorable Ned Stark taking the credit for killing Arthur Dayne, when in fact he was stabbed in the back by Howland Reed.
But if lordly honor has been on the decline since at least Robert’s Rebellion (which I guess was itself a pretty big breach of decorum), Lord Umber sees Ramsay’s awfulness as the last straw.
You heard it here folks: Ramsay Bolton is destroying traditional values.
Oh, and he has Osha and Rickon now. Great. I wonder if we’ll get more scenes of Ramsay abusing characters we care about.
Also, assuming that really was Shaggydog (looked a little smallish for a direwolf to me), we’re now down to three: Ghost, Summer, and presumably Nymeria is still running around out there.
With his sister off-screen this episode, I have to get this in: Poor Rickon.
- So Long, Stinktown
I guess it isn’t that surprising that Jon left Castle Black. First of all, he’s never had a particularly great time up there. Plus, services in the Night’s Watch is until death. He died. As he says: his watch is ended.
God, can you blame the guy?
But also, the number of named characters in the Night’s Watch besides Jon Snow has been dwindling considerably since the show started. Benjen Stark, Jeor Mormont, Janos Slynt, Maester Aemon, Sam, Gilly and several others have been dispatched (peacefully or otherwise) over the last few years. With Alliser Thorne and Olly getting it this week, that basically leaves Edd, and I forgot his name at least once before.
Let’s talk about Thorne and Olly. Thorne has always been annoying to me, because as much as he talks about how much he cares about the Night’s Watch and keeping people safe, his motivation has always seemed mostly to be “antagonize Jon Snow.” That’s part of why I was annoyed by his “but I never disobeyed an order” speech in the first episode of the season****.
He basically makes the same point to Jon’s face this week, but it is somehow more believable.
Thorne: If I had to do it all over knowing where I’d end up, I pray I’d make the right choice again.
Jon: I’m sure you would, Ser Alliser.
Thorne: I fought. I lost. Now I rest. But you, Lord Snow, you’ll be fighting their battles forever.
The best antagonists are ones who truly believe they are doing the right thing. Not many people get to tell someone to their face that killing them was “the right choice,” but that’s Ser Alliser. An asshole to the very end, but one at least with a personal sense of honor.
And Olly. Ugh. It seems I am alone in the world in wanting to rehabilitate Olly instead of killing him. Everyone hates Olly. But to me, Olly has been a stand-in for many of the innocent people on this show. He’s angry at the violence that has taken his family, and he’s lashed out, because he is a child.
I really wanted Jon and Olly to have a conversation, either here at the gallows, or sometime before, to give Olly a chance to redeem himself. He could have just as well still been unrepentant after Jon tried to reach him – hell, that would have been even more powerful– but Jon executing him without exchanging a word seems uncharacteristic of him, even if in the very first episode of the show we see Jon learning the importance of being the one to swing the sword, no matter who is on the receiving end of his justice.
I can’t help but wonder if the decision to keep Olly silent in this entire season (save one primal scream as he tries to attack the Wildlings) wasn’t at least in part because the actor who played Olly clearly grew up significantly in the hiatus. It would be a little distracting to have his voice be two octaves lower than the one that two on-screen days earlier said “for the watch.”
In any case, Edd has Castle Black, and Jon walks away.
Hopefully, he’s on his way to get another coat. Winter, after all, is coming.
* – Did having a clear ending point help Lost stick the ending? Eh. ^
** – Speaking of what texts expects of their audiences, as I said in my write up of “The Red Woman,” I assume readers of this blog are at least familiar with some of the major Game of Thrones fan theories, but I will try to avoid explicitly referring to those theories within these write ups. ^
*** – Qyburn calls him “Ser Gregor,” I guess in case there was any lingering doubt that he was in fact a Frankenstein-ified Mountain. ^
**** – Edd’s first order of business should be to declare to everyone there: “Okay, standing order: don’t murder me.” Because apparently you have to be explicit about these things. ^
Game of Thrones and all images property of HBO. Tower of Joy GIF via MoviePilot, Olenna and Jon GIFs via Tumblr, Arya and Robert Strong GIFs via The Big Lead, screencaps via HBO Go, promo stills via HBO.