In “Oathbreaker,” Game of Thrones continues to explore the theme of multiple perspectives, challenging conventional assumptions of right and wrong, good and bad. The show has never focused on the single-sided narrative, but it has leaned heavily on the notion that the Starks and their noble history is largely unassailable. In this episode, the writers challenge even that history, showing how all characters exist in a grey area—even the honorable Ned Stark.
When Varys captures an agent of the Sons of the Harpy, he listens to her side before offering his own. “Well, that makes perfect sense from your perspective. I have a different perspective, of course. I think it’s important that you try to see things from my perspective, just as I will try to see them from yours,” he says. The High Sparrow does something very similar with King Tommen, mollifying the innocent young ruler by showing sympathy for his point of view without yielding an inch.
Among the Dothraki, the high priestess of the dosh khaleen reminds Daenerys that she, too, thought of herself as the khaleesi to conquer the world; from her view, the mother of dragons is simply another widowed khaleesi who has broken the rules.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow reawakens to confront his murderers and their hatred of him. “I did what I thought was right and I got murdered for it.” He is shaken by this fact and the notion that many of his brothers view him as a traitor, not a savior. If his murderers already regard him as an oathbreaker, Jon decides to assume that mantle completely and end his service to the Night’s Watch.
In Meereen, Varys has Vala, a woman posing as a prostitute in order to murder men from Daenerys’s army, captured and brought to him in the Great Pyramid. It is clear that they have different perspectives on Daenerys’s rule. Vala feels that Daenerys is a foreign queen with foreign armies acting as an occupier in her land. Varys, meanwhile, believes that Daenerys is a liberator.
Though he admits that both views are valid, he tells Vala that it is in her best interest to see his perspective; if she reveals who is backing the Sons of the Harpy, he will give Vala and her son passage on a ship to Pentos with a bag full of silver. If she fails to comply, he threatens to have her executed for her crimes, leaving her son orphaned.
Notably, Varys refuses to use torture as a means to extract this information from her, stating that it rarely produces accurate information. “My job is to find the right answers. Do you know how I do that? I do it by making people happy.” He also refuses to physically hurt her son, calling children “blameless,” though he makes her see how it is in the best interest of her son that she is not executed. Vala is persuaded by Varys’s deal, informing him that the Wise Masters of Yunkai, the Good Masters of Astapor, and the “benevolent enslavers” of Volantis have all been funding the insurgency in Meereen. Tyrion asks Varys to send word through his birds (spies) to arrange a meeting with the masters of all three cities.
Varys has long been one of the best political operators in the land; once again, he exhibits his diplomatic strengths in this episode. Though Daenerys has been focused on marshaling an army to invade Westeros, it is her diplomatic team of Varys, Tyrion, and Missandei that may prove to be her true strength. And, well—dragons.
For now, however, Daenerys remains trapped by the Dothraki in Vaes Dothrak. She is taken to a temple where the widowed khaleesi reside. She threatens the high priestess, claiming that the woman will regret holding the wife of Khal Drogo and Queen of Meereen in the temple. However, the priestess reminds Daenerys that, from her perspective, she was also once the wife of a great khal whom she thought would conquer the world with her at his side. To her, Daenerys’s claim means little.
Daenerys visited these women, known as the dosh khaleen, all the way back in Season 1 when she was summoned to eat a stallion’s heart. They prophesied that Daenerys and Drogo’s son would be “The Stallion Who Mounts the World”—a conqueror of Dothraki legend. The dosh khaleen clearly misinterpreted the signs; however, like Melisandre’s visions of Stannis as the savior of the world, it is still possible that the Stallion will be connected to Daenerys, and may even be Daenerys herself.
For now, the high priestess tells Daenerys that her fate will be determined by something called the Khalar Vazhven, which appears to be a meeting of all the khals and their clans in Vaes Dothrak. Thousands of Dothraki soldiers and horses are gathering in the same city as Daenerys. Could this be her opportunity to bend a force of cavalry to her command?
Back in King’s Landing, the disgraced maester Qyburn is recruiting Varys’s little birds, plying them with Dornish sweets and favors to spy on anyone across Westeros who might be plotting against the Lannisters.
Meanwhile, Cersei and Jaime continue to try to reestablish control over King’s Landing by claiming seats on the Small Council. They demand that their uncle, Kevan Lannister (current Hand of the King), do something about Ellaria Sand and the Dornish who are responsible for Myrcella’s murder. Kevan and his fellow council leave Cersei and Jaime alone in their cause, more concerned about the release of queen Margaery and her brother Ser Loras than attending to Cersei’s need for vengeance.
In another match of differing perspectives, King Tommen meets with the High Sparrow to try and force the man to let Cersei visit Myrcella’s grave in the Great Sept. The High Sparrow refuses, saying that she must stand trial for her many sins. From Tommen’s point of view, his mother has already atoned sufficiently for her crimes after her forced march through the city. The religious leader does not bend from his position, though he openly admires Cersei’s love for her son.
They find common ground in the acknowledgement of Cersei’s motherly love, which the High Sparrow is able to use to get goodwill from the king. As they sit and chat like equals, the High Sparrow uses his position to encourage Tommen to see his perspective: Cersei is capable of good, but requires the help of the gods to truly achieve it. “A true leader avails himself of the wisest council he can, and no one is wiser than the gods… There’s so much good in all of us; the best we can do is to help each other bring it out.” Tommen, thus outmaneuvered, looks far more unsure of his position than when he arrived.
In one of the more forgettable scenes this week, Samwell Tarly, Gilly, and Sam sail to Oldtown. They are headed to the Citadel, where maesters are trained. Sam was sent there by Jon Snow in order to train to be a maester and replace the deceased Maester Aemon at the Wall. However, Sam decides to first go to his ancestral home of Horne Hill, since Gilly (as a woman) will not be allowed into the Citadel. There, as always, he hopes she will be safe. Moving on…
A blind Arya continues to train with the Waif and Jaqen H’ghar in Braavos. As she spars with the Waif, she is asked questions about her past as Arya Stark, and is smacked repeatedly when she lies. She is asked about her “funny little list,” including Cersei, Gregor Clegane (the Mountain), and Walder Frey. The Waif believes that there are some names missing from the list—most notably, the Hound, who was once a prominent target for killing one of Arya’s friends (under Joffrey’s orders). When asked about the Hound, Arya says that she left him to die, claiming that he was on her list. However, the Waif smacks her as if she lied, and she admits, “He was not on her list anymore. She had taken him off it.”
“Why? Didn’t she want him dead any longer?” the Waif continues. “She did and she did not,” Arya replies.
“She sounds confused.”
“Yes,” Arya admits. “She was.”
Arya’s training as “No One” appears to be complete. “If a girl tells me her name, I will give her her eyes back,” Jaqen tells her once more. “A girl has no name,” she replies again, each time with more conviction. When Jaqen gives her a cup from the poisoned pool, Arya accepts it with hesitation. “If a girl is truly No One, she has nothing to fear.” We have seen this water give suffering people the relief of death. With complete faith in her new identity, Arya takes a sip from the poisoned well and her sight is restored.
Ever since Season 1, it’s been the tendency of most viewers to regard the Starks as the “good guys” and anyone in opposite to them as the bad. From episode 1, this concept was rooted in Ned Stark’s nobility and the honor with which he raised his own family. But in this week’s episode, Bran’s journey into the past with the three-eyed raven pokes a broadsword-sized hole in our notion of the honorable Ned Stark. Bran is the audience’s surrogate, his excitement at seeing this historic battle fading to disappointment as he watches his father win this famous swordfight with less-than-honorable tactics.
As they say, history is written by the victors, and history has long commended Ned Stark for defeating Ser Arthur Dayne, a Targaryen Kingsguard and a legendary knight—perhaps the greatest swordsman of his generation. As Bran watches, he sees how superior the Sword of the Morning is to his father, and wonders for perhaps the first time how his father could have actually taken down this fabled fighter. The truth, of course, is not as clear as history would have it, for Ned’s friend Howland Reed (Bran’s companion, Meera’s, father) rises to stab Ser Dayne through the back of the neck. Ned, though conflicted by this turn of events, ultimately decides to pick up his sword and finish him off.
Ned Stark has always been seen as good and virtuous, almost to a fault; Stannis Baratheon once said, “Lord Eddard’s integrity cost him his head.” Ned even told Varys, “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what?” But here we see that he did trade his honor for a few more years—decades, in fact. Once again, Game of Thrones reminds us that the world is not black and white as an older Ned Stark would have you believe, but grey all around.
Robert Baratheon himself was held up by men like Ned Stark as a courageous warrior who ended the Mad King Aeyrs Targaryen’s reign of terror in Robert’s Rebellion. However, from the perspective of the Targaryens and those loyal to them, like Ser Arthur Dayne, Robert was always the “usurper.” He may have overthrown a corrupt ruler, but at what cost? We know now that since the rebellion, Westeros has only grown more unstable and violent; the effects of Lyanna’s supposed kidnapping and Robert’s subsequent rebellion are vast. As Ser Arthur Dayne wishes a young Ned Stark good luck in the “wars to come,” Ned mistakenly assumes that the war is coming to end, but we know that Ser Dayne is right: they had only just begun. Perspective is everything.
After the battle, Ned heads for the Tower of Joy following the sound of a woman’s scream. Like Bran, we are desperate to see what is inside the tower—most likely Ned’s sister, Lyanna, whom he has been seeking out since the start of Robert’s Rebellion (when she was supposedly captured by Rhaegar Targaryen). What else will we find in the tower? Unfortunately, the three-eyed raven pulls us all back before finding out. (If you want to know the theory, be sure to watch this video, which I’ve linked to before in the past.)
This scene between Ned and Ser Dayne reminded me of a conversation between Maester Aemon and Jon Snow from Season 1, Episode 9 (the infamous beheading episode). In it, they discuss the clause in the Night’s Watch oath that states that they should take no wives and father no children. Aemon asks Jon, “If the day should ever come when your lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?” Jon replies, “He would do whatever was right, no matter what.” Maester Aemon is unconvinced. “Then Lord Stark is one man in 10,000. Most of us are not so strong. What is honor compared to a woman’s love? And what is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms? Or a brother’s smile? …We’re all human. Oh, we all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet sooner or later in every man’s life there comes a day when it’s not easy. A day when he must choose.” For Ned, that day came outside the Tower of Joy. For Jon Snow, that day came when he awoke from death.
Jon Snow comes back changed after his murder, shocked to be living with the idea of such betrayal. Melisandre is eager to know what happened after his death, wondering what lies beyond, but Jon says sadly that there was “nothing, nothing at all.” Melisandre continues on, says that the Lord of Light let him come back for a reason. “Stannis was not the Prince who was Promised, but someone has to be.” Jon, distraught over his murder, is unable to see that perspective. “I did what I thought was right and I got murdered for it. Now I’m back. Why?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. What does it matter? You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can,” Ser Davos says.
In what would be his last act as Lord Commander, Jon Snow (ever the Stark) swings the sword to put four of his murderers to death. Beforehand, he gives them each an opportunity for one last word. Ser Alliser Thorne claims that he had a choice: betray his Lord Commander or the Night’s Watch. He stuck with tradition rather than change his perspective in the face of a new threat, dying as a self-made martyr in service to his beliefs. “If I had to do it all over knowing where I’d end up, I pray I’d make the right choice again.”
If Jon Snow is our hero, then Ser Alliser is a villain, but as is true of real life, the world of Game of Thrones is not such a simple narrative. Thorne did what he thought was the right and honorable thing, protecting the Night’s Watch and the North from their historic enemies, the wildlings. Jon, on the other hand, understands the wildlings as new allies in the face of a common enemy: the White Walkers. Thorne was stuck in the past and died for it. “I fought, I lost, now I rest. But you, Lord Snow, you’ll be fighting their battles forever.”
Last week I wondered how Jon Snow would be changed after his resurrection, and tonight we got at least part of the answer. Shaken to the core by the idea of his murder, Jon Snow retires as Lord Commander, using his death as a way to honorably discharge himself from his oath (“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death…”). “My watch is ended,” he says as he marches out of Castle Black, leaving Dolorous Edd in charge.
Thus freed of his attachment to Castle Black, lots of opportunities open up for Jon’s storyline. I’d like to see him use his newfound freedom to unify the North not only in opposition to the White Walkers, but also to the Boltons; however, it’s unclear what responsibility Jon will feel for continuing to “clean up as much shit” as he can.
The North, meanwhile, is in as much shit as it’s ever been. This region is thought to be the first and oldest of the Seven Kingdoms, standing the test of time and conquest for much longer than the rest of Westeros. Though the great northern houses were once unified against their enemies, warning them that “the North remembers” every slight and betrayal, the North has been doing a lot of forgetting as of late.
While houses like the Karstarks and the Umbers were historically aligned with the Starks, the scene with Ramsay Bolton indicates that these houses are more fractured and opportunistic than ever. Smalljon Umber (another great Northern lord) comes to ally himself with Ramsay. However, Umber will not even bend the knee to the new Lord of Winterfell, claiming that Roose Bolton bent the knee to Robb Stark only to betray him and his word; therefore, what good is kneeling in this world? Instead, he offers Ramsay a gift.
For the first time since Season 3, we see Umber bring in the wildling Osha and her charge, Rickon Stark (who has aged significantly), the youngest Stark boy. The last we saw them, Osha, Rickon, and the direwolf Shaggydog were headed for Last Hearth, the home of House Umber, in order to find safety. It was Bran who suggested the Osha take Rickon there, hoping that the Umbers would protect the Stark heir in case anything should happen to him as he journeyed north of the Wall.
Clearly, they made it to the Umber stronghold, only to be marched back to Winterfell. When Ramsay asks for proof, Umber’s men produce the head of the direwolf, satisfying the new Warden of the North. With Robb, Sansa, and Rickon’s direwolves all killed, and Arya’s missing, the clan of great beasts is dwindling at a rate even faster than the Starks themselves.
Since Umber refused to bend the knee to Ramsay, could these houses can be turned and reunified behind a Stark banner led by Jon Snow and/or Sansa Stark? Or will they prove to be committed enemies of the once-great Stark household, even in the face of the great danger that is to come? Smalljon Umber talks about the danger of the wildlings, but when the real enemy reveals itself to be the hoards of undead marching south, will his tune change? After all, the North is full of oathbreakers; what’s one more?
Other Thoughts on “Oathbreaker”:
- There’s a rather fun theory being tossed about that Shaggydog is still alive and the head that was presented to Ramsay was a feint. Many felt that the head looked too small to be a direwolf. Additionally, people have hypothesized that Smalljon Umber wouldn’t bend a knee to Ramsay because (like many Northerners) he actually believes in the importance of oaths and refuses to break a real one. He did speak rather contemptuously of Roose (calling him a cunt repeatedly) and made fun of Karstark’s nefarious predilections. Could this mean that the Umbers are actually planning a move against the Boltons? Though you could easily dispute this theory, click here to see the reddit thread where it is discussed.
- I’ve made a lot of the R+L=J theory. However, there are plenty of rebuttals out there, including ones known as B+A=J and R+L=D (seen explained in a video by Preston Jacobs here). We’ll have to wait to see what’s in the Tower of Joy before we know for sure.
- Could Bran have the ability to change the past? When he calls out for his father in the vision, Ned seems to hear him. “The past is already written, the ink is dry,” says the three-eyed raven, but could he be wrong?
- The Waif was particularly focused on the Hound when questioning Arya. Many fans hold out hope that the knight is in fact still alive, which could explain why the Waif makes such a big deal of Sandor Clegane– perhaps reminding us of his existence and setting us up for an eventual reveal. If you’re interested in the evidence to support the theory, watch this video.
- Sam’s scene this episode was almost painfully irrelevant, but none perhaps more so than Tyrion’s scene with Missandei and Grey Worm. I think that the showrunners are terrified of running an episode without him, which leads to some pretty awful material for one of the show’s best-loved characters. I’d much rather see Tyrion in scenes that matter only once in a while rather than having to check in on him every week. Still in Meereen? Yep, still in Meereen. Still drinking and cracking wise? Yep, still drinking and cracking wise. A lot of people would probably take whatever Tyrion they can get, but I’m not one of them.
- I hated that “Oathbreaker” was missing my favorite oathkeeper, Brienne, and her appropriately-named sword, but hopefully she reappears next week—ideally, at Jon Snow’s side.
- Mance Rayder, the leader of the wildlings who was executed by Stannis last season, echoed Ser Dayne in wishing Stannis luck in the “wars to come” before he was put to death, just as the Kingsguard wished to Ned Stark.
- Dolorous Edd remarks on Jon’s eyes still being brown, which is in reference to the way the eyes of the wights (the dead reanimated by the White Walkers) turn icy blue.