What a difference a year makes. The opening episodes of season five highlighted all the worst aspects of the story of Castle Black and Jon Snow-lots of hand-wringing over the Wildlings and the show’s dullest political machinations. I had never been a big fan of Jon Snow as a character, the obvious hero elect of the series, played in almost dopey fashion by Kit Harrington. Then Jon went to Hardhome. The stunning battle (okay, massacre) not only united the Wildlings behind Jon Snow against White Walkers, but finally delivered on his promise as the hero. I was finally interested, even whooping in my empty flat when he destroyed a White Walker. All of a sudden Jon Snow joined Cersei and Tyrion, as the reasons I tuned in every week. And then because Game of Thrones likes to traumatise me at least four times a year, a traitorous faction of the Nights Watch stab him, Caeser-style, to death. Even Olly-I knew that kid was trouble.
Which brings us to Oathbreaker. The first two episodes of season six audaciously prolonged the resolution of this brutal plot. The mania behind Jon Lives/Dies speculation grew to heights not seen in pop culture since The Simpsons had a baby shoot an evil millionaire. The first episode of the season just moved his body, that was all! Now, one red priestess later, Jon takes the first breath of the rest of his life.
Magic has been used sparingly in this show compared to the rest of the fantasy genre. So much so that to many of its characters it’s use still invites an incredulous response, much like Ser Davos’s- “this is all f**king mad”. Unlike the plethora of comic book shows on screens big and small, in Game of Thrones death is really the end. Which is exactly why Jon’s resurrection hits so hard. Regaining consciousness, he looks at first like a man who has woken up from a nightmare, until he sees the stab wounds and the reality (loose word choice, but still) crashes into him with Kit Harrington selling the hell out of Jon’s horrified reaction.
Enter Melisandre with the glory-seeking look of someone who keeps saying that they were a Leicester supporter all along, branding Jon the Lord of Light’s new champion. She asks Jon what it was like on the other side: “Nothing, there was nothing.” is his reply. If indeed Jon is the Lord of Light’s new champion, you have to wonder if he was better off with nothing at all.
Oathbreaker is an odd title for an episode that doesn’t feature Brianne, whose track record with her oaths is spotty at best, and a minimal role for Jamie, whose murder of the Mad King is one of the building blocks of the show. Instead we have figures from both the past and the present who break their promises, ones that have helped guide their lives, in a manner that gives the episode momentum.
Take Varys, who in a delightful scene shows why he is such a skilful operator. Our past dealings with the character have mostly been confined to flowery and hilarious pep talks with Tyrion, and antagonistic conversations with Littlefinger about who has the best spies (that would be Varys and his beggar children who he pays in sweets), and who is the most loyal to their king (neither of them). In a tense conversation with a Meereen prostitute Vala, last seen in season five luring Unsullied into a honey trap for the Sons of the Harpy, she thinks she’s being threatened, then she thinks her son is being threatened. Varys’ cool “I can see why you think that, from your point of view” is fiendish. Yet his motives are pure, he gains information through rewarding his informants; in this case safe passage out of Meereen, and a bag of silver that you would need some help to carry. Varys swore an oath to King Robert to find and kill Daenerys, and now we see him working his particular magic on her behalf. Why? Because he believes in her.
Next via Bran’s vision quest is the broken oath of Sir Arthur Dane, member of the Mad King’s guard, and the greatest swordsman Eddard Stark had ever seen, who in young Ned’s view had forsaken Prince Rhaegar. It turns out that the aptly named Sword of the Morning was at this unnamed tower at the orders of the prince. In the episode’s best scene Ned demands to know the whereabouts of his sister, there’s a breathlessly inventive sword fight, victory for Ned, and a woman’s scream from the tower. That’s all we and Bran are allowed to see, but come on, this is the birth of Jon, right? It has to be. When Bran askes the three eyed Raven who’s in the tower, a goddamn crow crows!
One thing that separates Oathbreaker from most recent episodes is its abundance of Starks. Arya regains her vision after a Daredevil training montage where she finally lets go of her old life to become the girl, which is both a moment of strength and quiet tragedy. Yet that’s nothing compared to the episodes big OH SHIT moment as it is revealed that Ramsay has gained another Stark with the return of Rickon and Osha, everyone’s favourite wildling (who doesn’t have a magnificent ginger beard). There is a Stark at Winterfell once again, and if Ramsay’s evil smirk is anything to go by, Gods help him.
The episode ends as it began with Jon, the last oathbreaker, as he hangs those responsible for his death. His aversion to what, as High Commander, he has to do to Olly and the others, with the same look his father had before he finished off Sir Arthur Dane, proves that he is still a Stark- Arya considered him a brother, Ned considered him a son, his watch is over, and in the words of the Onion Knight he leaves the Knights Watch to fail again.
“A wise man once said, the true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms.” Tyrion is indeed a wise man- yet the true history of Game of Thrones is that these great conversations invariably lead to bloodshed outside of these elegant rooms.
8/10 – Much like last week, Oathbreaker is a table setting episode continuing to move it’s characters to unexpected places, except Daneryes who is still stuck with nothing interesting. A solid and sometimes shocking episode with bigger things promised in the coming weeks.