Winner: The girl formerly known as Arya Stark. Loser: Fight choreography.
“Oathbreaker” is a crisp, lean, nicely paced episode of Game of Thrones. It’s one of those installments where the characters are mostly being positioned for the future, but it’s a solidly executed version of that basic template.
The series has hit this paradoxical level where it’s as solidly put together as ever, particularly in terms of its editing (each hour seems to fly by), but the storytelling is lumpier and more misshapen than it’s ever been.
Scenes will seem great in and of themselves, until you think back on them and realize how little they contributed to the overall landscape.
Still, “Oathbreaker” is a surprisingly hopeful episode for the show, and particularly for season six. That means there are more winners than we’ve had the last few weeks.
Here are five winners and five losers from Game of Thrones‘ “Oathbreaker.”
Winner #1: Jon Snow and Davos
Jon’s return from the dead is treated with the same eerie reverence that his initial resurrection received last week. I actually spent some portion of the scene — the part where he sits up and gasps, as if he’s hyperventilating — wondering if he was going to have a heart attack from the shock of being alive. (That would have been hilarious, but also very poor storytelling.)
But, nope. Jon is back from the dead, Davos is the best adviser he could possibly have, and Jon ends “Oathbreaker” by resigning from the Night’s Watch after hanging the men who killed him. It’s a surprisingly efficient hour for everybody’s favorite formerly dead Lord Commander, and it only continues to burnish the reputation of Jon, a character I had written off as unsalvageable as recently as the start of season five.
The best thing about Undead Jon is that he’s perfectly aware of how unnatural his predicament is. He lets everybody know that, so far as he can tell, there’s no afterlife. When people tell him how weird it is to see him walking around, he’s more than happy to agree that, yep, it’s pretty weird.
But he also wastes no time in getting down to business. He reconnects with old friends to assure them he’s not a god (they’ve already surmised this, based on dick jokes). He executes the treasonous. He’s basically ready for whatever.
And I want to give a shoutout here to Davos, one of my favorite characters from Game of Thrones‘ source novels, who I think has always gotten a bit of short shrift on the show. This is partially because in the books, he primarily serves as a point-of-view character who functions as a window into Stannis’s world, something the show didn’t really need. But on TV, newly freed from the need to support Stannis, he’s revealing all over again what a good tactician and adviser he is. All hail Davos!
Winner #2: Varys, super spy
While Tyrion continues to pretty much rub everybody in Meereen the wrong way (though I couldn’t bear to put him on the losers list for the third week in a row), Varys is getting things done. He makes progress in investigating the Sons of the Harpy, and he finds ways to protect his sources from retaliation, too.
Varys has long been one of Game of Thrones‘ best characters, albeit one the show uses primarily as a secondary spice in whatever stew it’s brewing up. Conleth Hill’s reserved presence and arched eyebrow make the character exactly the sort of person you want on your side in the event you decide to invade Westeros.
Now that he’s finally ingratiated into the power structure of the absent Daenerys’s kingdom, Varys can get down to the business of secretly knowing everything that’s going on. And when we see Qyburn’s bribery of Varys’s former King’s Landing sources (a bunch of kids), it only drives home how much more entertaining Varys is at this sort of business.
Winner #3: No One
The girl formerly known as Arya Stark is at the center of what might be the episode’s strongest scene, a montage of her slow rise from helplessly blind to exactly the kind of assassin Jaqen has been looking for.
It’s the first sequence this season that feels like it has a little bit of that old Game of Thrones magic to it, thanks to the gutsy, dedicated performance of Maisie Williams, the economical script of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and the rhythmic direction of Daniel Sackheim. On some level, it’s a training montage straight out of a Rocky movie, but that’s okay. The destination is worth it.
Let me once again single out Williams, who is giving one of the best performances on TV right now, but is so isolated in her own storyline that she seems unlikely to receive, say, awards nominations from it. No One goes from feeling completely helpless to seeming like she might slaughter everybody in Westeros just by imagining it, and that’s all on Williams. She’s an enormously gifted performer.
Winner #4: Book readers
The general consensus about Game of Thrones season six has been that book readers would no longer have advance knowledge to lord over people who just watched the TV show. And to a degree, that’s true. There are no more major shocks (like the Red Wedding or Jon’s assassination) the show has to deploy.
And yet this season has dug deep into the books’ back story and subplots to find new things to adapt. All of Bran’s flashbacks have been things taken from the books and/or their supplemental material (though they look as if they’re about to explain several things book readers have long speculated about), and the storylines of both Sam (headed to Old Town) and the Greyjoys (who sit this episode out) are book stories that had yet to be adapted.
The Arya montage, which is a rough adaptation of events in A Dance With Dragons (the fifth book) suggests several ways that the books can continue to inform the series and make it better. The difference between scenes where Benioff and Weiss have the books to lean on, and scenes where they’re finding their own way, is still palpable. (It also brings up The Hound, someone most book readers are convinced will turn up on the show again.)
Speaking of which…
If you have not read the books, book spoilers (that are probably not show spoilers) are about to arrive. Please skip over the next section to Loser #1 if you want to be unspoiled.
Winner #5: Lady Stoneheart truthers
The show has gotten so far past where Lady Stoneheart (a beloved character returned from the dead, who is introduced in book four and has yet to do anything else) first appears that it seems likely it’s decided not to complicate its already complicated storyline even further with her re-emergence.
That is, that would be the case if you don’t think that the show was saving its first major character resurrection for Jon Snow, and might work Lady Stoneheart in later. And if you think that, “Oathbreaker” offered one key clue that suggests you might be on the right track.
Specifically, it looks like Jon’s wounds are just going to remain in a state of being grisly and gruesome, rather than healing. Considering that’s exactly what happens with our Lady of Vengeance, it’s a good argument that the show is laying the groundwork for her arrival.
Maybe! I still have my doubts, but I’d love to see this particular bit of the books adapted.
Loser #1: Daenerys finds herself held captive
It is in no way clear what Dany’s time among the Dothraki is going to add to the story, other than keeping her away from the Seven Kingdoms for another season. Emilia Clarke, the performer who’s often most buoyed by strong material, seems a little lost, and the whole thing is flirting with irrelevance.
This is, of course, the perpetual danger with Dany, the one major character who has essentially no major connections to anybody back in the Seven Kingdoms. (Yes, she works with Tyrion and Varys, but they’re in Essos for the time being.) Season two — the season of “Where are my dragons?!” — showed how difficult it can be to adapt her more internal stories from the books, and I fear we’re headed in that direction again without the books to serve as a guide.
On the page, Dany’s story is one of a young woman who finds it within herself to be the great queen she knows she could be. But that’s a journey that largely takes place inside of her head. That makes it hard to dramatize onscreen, and I hope we’re not in for a lot of scenes where Dany faces off with people, only to back down, only to have the last laugh whenever Jorah and Daario and/or her dragons show up.
Loser #2: Ned Stark’s reputation
This episode’s flashback doesn’t take us inside of the tower that may or may not hold the answer to one of the show’s greatest secrets (though the screams we hear on the wind, which seem to be Lyanna’s, all but confirm what’s about to happen). But it does show us a scene that undercuts Ned Stark’s hard-won reputation as a man with honor.
Ned and a small platoon of men take on two members of the Kingsguard, who manage to fight off and kill everyone but Ned, before the injured Howland Reed leaps up and stabs the last Kingsguard member in the back. It saves Ned’s life, but it’s also utterly without the kind of honor Ned prides himself on having.
It’s a gut-wrenching moment for Bran, who watches and realizes that the long-accepted story he’s heard is ultimately just a story. But that turns out to be one shattering revelation enough for the Three-Eyed Raven, who drags Bran back to his tree, where they fight all over again about how little Bran wants to hang out with an old man in a tree.
Loser #3: Tommen’s authority
For a moment, it seems like Tommen might be standing up to the High Sparrow, to save both his queen and his mother. But the High Sparrow once again disarms the boy with talk of the Seven and how we know the Mother’s love through our own mothers. (Happy Mother’s Day from Game of Thrones.)
Tommen isn’t an evil king, like his brother, but he’s also not a very effective one, which has allowed the Sparrows to run roughshod over his rule. It’s all part of the show’s constant dialogue over what makes for a good ruler, and Tommen seems to show the pitfalls of not having a spine.
Anyway, the interesting thing here is that if Tommen dies, it’s not immediately clear who would ascend to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. He might be ineffective, but he’s the only thing standing in the way of a genuine governmental crisis, one much greater than the one the nation is embroiled in currently. This intriguing Mashable post has more on the matter.
Loser #4: Rickon
Good news! Rickon and Osha are still alive, and are part of the show again. Bad news! They have to hang out with Ramsay Bolton and his band of rapists and murderers. Also, Rickon’s direwolf is dead.
Good luck, Rickon!
(Sidebar: in two consecutive weeks, Ramsay, or representatives of Ramsay, have killed a baby and a dog. The show couldn’t be trying to get us to hate him more if it had had him re-enact Weekend at Bernie’s with his dead father’s corpse.)
Loser #5: Fight choreography
Game of Thrones‘ fight choreography seems to get a little worse with every season, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on.
The swordfight between Ned’s men and the Kingsguard members is a good example of what I mean.
For one thing, it’s edited all to hell, so it’s never entirely clear what’s happening. This might be okay if it were trying to simulate the chaos of battle, but Sackheim keeps cutting back to wide shots to show off the whole battlefield, and they somehow only make the action more confounding. Only once the fight has been reduced to a handful of men does it start to make sense.
In and of itself, this isn’t the end of the world. (It’s certainly not as bad as the garden swordfight in Dorne from season five.) But it is symbolic, I think, of how Game of Thrones occasionally coasts on its reputation when it comes to the technical aspects of its creation. It looks gorgeous, but it sometimes cuts corners on the small things, because it trusts us to overlook that corner cutting.
Sometimes, it works, if the emotional impact is enough (as it was here). But it’s rarely an encouraging sign.
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