In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.
otIn a glorious triumph of cinematic television, “Battle of the Bastards” gave us a rare victory for the “good guys”—the Starks and, for the time being, Daenerys Targaryen. While the audience has a clear rooting interest in the Starks, Daenerys is more of a wild card these days. For now, we can applaud her victory. However, I wonder if by the end of the series this is the moment we look back on to mark the start of a tyrant’s campaign to brutally conquer the Seven Kingdoms. Only time will tell if Tyrion can continue to smooth out her fire-and-brimstone, “return their cities to the dirt” edges.
In the eponymous battle, the Starks unseat the nasty Boltons and reclaim supremacy in the North. Before he is mauled by his own dogs, Sansa reminds Ramsay, “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” Will Daenerys be delivering that same speech to Sansa in a season or two? What will conquering the Seven Kingdoms look like for the dragon queen? Tyrion looks horrified when she promises to raze cities in Slaver’s Bay and unsure when she grants the Greyjoys their independence. It felt so great to see the Stark banners unfurled over the walls of Winterfell once again, but how long can these fleeting moments of triumph last with dragons looming on the horizon?
The characters in Game of Thrones have suffered a lot over the years. Most are almost unrecognizable to their former selves. This episode’s title, “The Broken Man,” may be referring most specifically to the surprising return of Sandor Clegane (the Hound), but many other men and women bear this title, as well. One of the most important themes of the series is that war is awful business. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector in Vietnam and has spoken out against the glorification of war in other fantasy series. None of his characters escape the damaging effects of war.
In this episode, Jon Snow, still reeling from his murder, is unable to articulate the importance of his cause to the wildlings and minor Northern houses. He needs the help of Tormund, Sansa, and most importantly Ser Davos to sell a cause for which he once argued passionately.
Theon and Jaime have both been physically broken, a trauma that has similarly marked their psyches for life. Jaime wears his father’s armor (or something made to look like it) and plays the part of stern commander, but he is missing more than a sword hand in his limp confrontation with the Blackfish at Riverrun. Theon’s sister, Yara, does not understand what it means to be abused and urges him to find himself, not realizing that a broken man cannot just flip a switch to be healed again.
Sansa also carries around the trauma she suffered at the hands of Ramsay, using it to fuel her quest for vengeance on the Boltons. She tells Lyanna Mormont, “I did what I had to do to survive, my lady. But I am a Stark. I will always be a Stark.” Her sister, who only recently realized the same, is physically broken in this episode. Stabbed and left for dead, Arya searches the unfriendly Braavosi faces and finds no help or sympathy.
Finally, Margaery plays the part of a broken woman in her complete conversion to the Faith. Unlike the other characters, she has not actually been broken, but pretends to be in order to play the High Sparrow. Even her grandmother fears for her until Margaery is able to slip her a reassuring drawing of their house rose. She is still a Tyrell, and as their house motto goes, she is “growing strong.”
In one of the most tragic episodes yet, Game of Thrones explores the cost of war. We see it with the Children of the Forest, whom we learn created the White Walkers in a desperate attempt to fight back against the encroaching settlement of men. This was their nuclear option, and as we know now, it likely causes their own extinction. To secure his place on the Salt Throne, Euron Greyjoy murders his own brother and, in this episode, sets out to kill his niece and nephew. Tyrion forges an alliance between Church and State (much like his sister did, to disastrous effect) by inviting the High Priestess of the Red Temple to Meereen, offering her fanatical ministers free rein of the city in order to spread the great word of Queen Daenerys. Arya has to give up her past, her identity, in order to train to become an assassin, though it clearly still haunts her, and her sister Sansa confronts Littlefinger about her rape and torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton.
Ultimately, though, it is the sacrifice of Summer, the Children of the Forest, the Three-Eyed Raven, and especially Hodor that brings this point home to devastating effect. All along, Hodor’s very life has been enslaved to saving Bran from a certain defeat. In trying to win the battle against the White Walkers—or, at least, not to lose when they’ve only just begun the fight—Bran’s actions lead to the unintended consequence of destroying his friend’s mind, and eventually his life. For Bran, Hodor was probably the greatest cost of war yet, and now he must bear the weight of personal responsibility for his friend’s decades-long psychological maiming and death.
In war, the ends are often used to justify the means, but the costs and consequences of waging war have far-reaching and devastating effects.
In “Book of the Stranger,” brothers and sisters are united across Westeros, all of them changed in some profound way by what has happened in the absence of one another. Sansa reunites with Jon at Castle Black, Yara with Theon on the Iron Islands, and Margaery with Loras in the cells of the Great Sept. Times have changed so completely since the beginning of the series; when once it was the brothers who were on top, it is now the sisters who are the strongest of the pair. Up until recently, Jon was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The last time Theon returned to the Iron Islands after a long absence, he rode in cockily telling everyone he saw he was the only living son and heir of Balon Greyjoy, and even tried to seduce his own sister (before realizing it was her). Loras was once one of the greatest knights in the land, charming everyone with his manner and delighting people with his prowess in tournaments.
Over time, and for different circumstances, the brothers have all surrendered the fight. Meanwhile, in “Book of the Stranger,” their sisters continue playing the game. Sansa begs Jon to help her reclaim Winterfell, though he’s broken by the fact that he was murdered by his own brothers for doing what he thought was right. “I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself if I have to,” she says. This time around, Theon returns to the Iron Islands to surrender his claim to his father’s throne so that his sister might rule instead. Loras, a knight so rarely beaten, lies defeated in his cell as Margaery urges him to stay strong and survive as the future of the Tyrell house.
The title of the episode, “Book of the Stranger,” is named after one of the key books in the religious text, The Seven-Pointed Star. In her discussion with the High Sparrow, Margaery realizes that the man is quoting from the holy book and finishes the verse from memory: “And one day you walked through a graveyard and realized it was all for nothing and set out on the path of righteousness.” The brothers Jon, Theon, and Loras have all walked through that graveyard and are ready to surrender. It’s up to the women in their lives to help them regain their sense of purpose.
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 the second episode of Season 6, “Home,” we return to the Iron Islands, home of the Greyjoys. “What is dead may never die,” they say on the islands, and in Jon Snow’s case, they could not be more right. At the end of “Home,” the once-dead Jon rises again with the help of the forlorn priestess, Melisandre (in perhaps one of the least-surprising “twists” in the show’s long run).
To me, “Home” is the culmination of a long and slow shift Game of Thrones has undergone over the years, transitioning from a show of political intrigue to one of fantasy and magic. The political conflict at the center of this show, the War of the Five Kings, officially ended this week with the death of the final would-be king, Balon Greyjoy. Game of Thrones was once primarily dominated by the machinations of many players vying for the Iron Throne; but now, as the true conflict is revealed to be the eventual battle between the living and the dead, magic and prophecy play a much more prominent role.