“I promise you,” says Grey Worm early on in “Oathkeeper,” “a single day in freedom is worth more than a lifetime in chains.” When dealing with a declaration like this, it’s best to examine the context. Grey Worm — who, as a child, was kidnapped, castrated, and trained to kill on command — has just broken into Meereen’s hottest club. It’s got everything: slaves, resentment, a shirtless guy who looks like F. Murray Abraham. To convince the shackled men of Meereen to rise up, he’s brought with him not just duffel bags full of weapons but also an inspiring speech straight out of Spartacus. (“No one can give you your freedom, brothers. If you want it, you must take it.”)
It works. The sacking of Meereen was far more effective theater than past Khaleesi conquests — all of which had been yadda-yadda’d due to impossible budgetary demands — thanks in part to ace director Michelle MacLaren, who proved on Breaking Bad that she’s more skilled than anyone alive at making benign locations, be they highway overpasses in New Mexico or back alleys in Essos, feel as ominous as the grave. But I think the most satisfying aspect of last night’s takeover was how inevitable and undeniable it felt. So much of Game of Thrones, particularly as we hunker down into the murky middle of the story, involves waiting for other shoes (or heads) to drop. At times, the stately pace and relentless grimness can make a viewer feel less like a fan of a television show and more like some sort of mute witness, cataloguing unspeakable horrors in pursuit of an unknowable goal. Grey Worm’s clean argument — and Daenerys’s spotless win-loss record — offered an uncommonly easy victory for the unambiguous good guys. (Maybe George R.R. Martin makes the slave masters more complex in the books. Onscreen they were basically these guys with face jewelry.) Meereen was the rare city that sacked itself.
But back to Grey Worm’s words for a moment, which were as interesting as they were inspiring. As played by the talented English actor Jacob Anderson — it’s hard enough to be charismatic in a suit of armor; try doing it while speaking a made-up language like a native — he’s certainly a worthy poster child for the benefits of free living. But I can’t help but wonder if he’s oversimplifying things a bit. For a show that prides itself on its foundation of moral quicksand — no one is all good, and no one is not sinking — Daenerys’s abolitionist banner stands apart. It’s awfully easy to root for someone who is against slavery, just as it’s pleasing to root for people triumphing over illiteracy (in this sympathy match, Grey Worm bests Ser Davos 2-1). But even on the (slightly) more enlightened shores of Westeros, where chains are used only for reasonable tasks like controlling direwolves and shipping wizards, I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of freedom. Whether it takes the form of a solemn oath or the kind of white-hot fury that sharpens into a knifepoint called “revenge,” every character on this show is yoked to something. Tyrion can’t escape his family. Bran can’t escape his visions. Hodor can’t escape Hodor. It’s a wildly entertaining, pretty-depressing-if-you-think-about-it cycle of pain, death, and suffering that makes for excellent television but an awful life.
Even as Daenerys tramps about a continent breaking people’s chains, she seems strangely untroubled by the ones crisscrossing her own existence. I think Ser Barristan was being downright sensible when he advised his queen to answer the injustice of the slave masters with mercy. The only way to end a vicious circle is to step outside of it. But Daenerys, like her fellow white knight (though he dresses in emo black) Jon Snow, believes in the counterpunch known as justice — which seems like far too pretty a word to be uttering while watching hundreds of humans being nailed up. As Daenerys looked upon her ruins, I despaired. Why does she want to go to Westeros, again? To avenge the good name of relatives she can’t even remember? To rule subjects she’s never even seen? The weather seems awfully nice in the East. She’s got multiple cities, three dragons, one army, and an ever-expanding inner circle of lusty dudes. Someone (Ser Jorah?) has knitted her an econo-size banner big enough to cover even the most imposing pyramid. Why not just hang out and chill? You can’t lose the Game if you refuse to play.
Once the action shifted to the West, it became clear “Oathkeeper” was one of those midseason Thrones episodes expressly designed to feel like a noose. Every circumstance feels so cruel, every setting so claustrophobic, that I’m longing more than usual for my favorite characters: Salladhor Saan, the merry sex pirate who is (wisely) sitting out the shitshow on land in favor of a pleasure cruise, and Thoros of Myr, the happy warrior-priest who resurrects dead pals and fights against the calcified establishment. Those two — plus maybe Ser Pounce, the cockblocking kitten — would be the stars of my stress-free and smiley version of Game of Thrones, even though it would last about four episodes before everyone gave up in boredom.
Happily for all of you, I’m not in charge. So we’re left instead with a show full of strivers wriggling on hooks they’re incapable of noticing. Even Littlefinger, who, in his mind, is freely climbing up his chaos ladder, reveals himself to be indentured to a fickle mistress known as ambition. While introducing Sansa to a little something he likes to call B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, he confesses his role in the Joffrey conspiracy (he was helping out the Tyrells) and also reveals the extent of his hunger. Littlefinger considers his appetite a strength, but to me it sounds like weakness. “So many men, they risk so little,” he purrs. “They spend their lives avoiding danger, then they die. I’d risk everything to get what I want.” In the short term, what he wants appears to be Sansa — it’s the classic “when your true love gets her throat slashed, get engaged to her sister while creeping on her teenage daughter” routine; I could be wrong, but isn’t this also the plot of The Notebook? — but in the long term, there is no limit to what he wants. This means he won’t stop, no matter what he’s achieved or what stands in his way. It’s a strategy that might pay off on the football field, but not in dangerous, rocky terrain like Westeros. This guy knows what I’m talking about.
If the righteous adventures to the East are meant to contrast with the selfish pursuits of the Seven Kingdoms, then what are we to make of the nightmare up North? Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Joffrey’s death created a vacuum likely to be filled by something or someone even more violent and cruel; one of the downsides of telling a story like this is that the bottom has to be lowered every time expectations are raised. The savagery at Craster’s Keep was the sort of thing Game of Thrones doesn’t flinch from portraying — although maybe, occasionally, it should. Here was Karl, last seen literally stabbing Lord Commander Mormont in the back, drinking red wine from the bisected skull of the man he killed. (Sidebar: Karl is played with leering venom by Burn Gorman, who is currently giving an equally memorable, polar-opposite performance as a prissy soldier on AMC’s Turn.) All around him, the mutinous rangers rape and pillage without even having to put on their boots. The violent assaults occurring along the edges of the frame were difficult to stomach, particularly so in light of the controversy over last week’s episode (more on that in a minute). “Fuck ’em till they’re dead,” Karl spat, presenting an appalling window into Westerosi freedoms. I understand the purpose of scenes like this: to highlight the impersonal sadism of the truly wicked and to remind us how little life, particularly female life, is valued here. My only issue is that all of these are lessons that have been well taught over the preceding three seasons of Game of Thrones. It was already clear how terrible these guys were. Sometimes the witness doesn’t need to be led.
Of all the gin joints in all the world for Bran Stark and his Young Avengers to stroll into, this would absolutely be the worst. (Though I suppose if you’re being literal, they didn’t stroll. First, Bran ghost-rode the wolf — allowing MacLaren the chance to use the state-of-the-art dog-cam she was denied on Breaking Bad — straight into a trap, and then they sort of scouted the place out, which turned out to be another, worse kind of trap.) On the plus side, it’s now finally clear just how this meandering story line is going to straighten itself out: Jon is en route to kill Karl and, presumably, will arrive in time to save his half-brother and at least one of the Wonder Twins. (That Locke, Roose Bolton’s bounty hunter who looks suspiciously like Evil Gary Cole, will be traveling as Jon’s right-hand — sorry, Jaime — man complicates matters a great deal.) On the negative side: literally everything else. I want to say that the sight of Hodor being tortured, Jojen foaming at the mouth, and Meera being threatened with a slit throat (or worse) upset me. But the truth is, I was still shaking from the awfulness that had come just before: the last of Craster’s sons being left on a snowbank, his terrified cry piercing the air like sleet. Again, it’s not the suggestion of horrible acts that disturbs me; it’s the extended, borderline fetishistic observation of them. Call me old-fashioned (or call me “human”), but I could have done with two or three fewer shots of the miserable, scared baby shivering en route to its quasi death. Sometimes ugliness serves a story, and other times it’s just ugly.
There was one respite from the nastiness last night, although it was hard to consider it much comfort, considering the source. A week ago, Jaime Lannister forced himself on his sister Cersei on the floor of a church beneath the corpse of their dead, teenage son. There was a great deal of outcry over this particular scene that, in the moment, I didn’t share. Partly, this was because a majority of those offended by this dark turn for Jaime seemed to be book readers who took issue with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss changing the nature of an encounter that had been consensual on the page. My feeling about that was simple: It’s within their rights as showrunners to make whatever changes they see fit. The only version of Jaime that’s “true” for Game of Thrones is the one who, after months of character rehabilitation, raped his sister. This was deeply disturbing to watch and think about, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker: Lest we forget, this is a protagonist who introduced himself to us by throwing a child out of a window. Jaime does terrible things. He’s also, at times, quite likable. This is the nature of the character and the twisty series that birthed him — at least as far as the majority of viewers are concerned.
The only thing that would trouble me — and this was a point well articulated by Mo Ryan over at the Huffington Post — would be if Jaime’s actions were essentially forgotten going forward. Rape is a legitimate plot point in drama, but it needs to be used with a bit more care and subtlety than, say, a flying dragon or an oversize pie. It’s not a shortcut to character development. It is itself a major, unretractable development. Acknowledging that makes stories better; ignoring it makes them immeasurably worse.
So while I still choose to take the long view, I wasn’t much encouraged by what I saw in “Oathkeeper.” The Jaime of last night wasn’t just the rehabbed almost-hero of Season 3 — this was charming Prince Valiant in the flesh: bantering with Bronn, bonding with Tyrion, and basically reenacting the shopping montage from Pretty Woman with Brienne. (How hard would it have been for HBO to get St. Vincent and dude from the National to cover a lute-core version of “Walking on Sunshine”?) He even found a happy home for Podrick and kept a promise to dead Cat Stark!
All of this was great fun — though chain mail sizing is really something you don’t want to eyeball — and I have no trouble with Jaime containing the potential for tremendous good as well as despicable bad (he did, if you’ll recall, throw a child out of a window). But the blithe resumption of his merry ways suggests a level of denial even greater than whatever it is that forbids him from referring to Joffrey as his son. I suppose the aftereffects of that brutal scene in the sept were visible when Jaime visited his sister in her chambers, catching her in mid-refill of that novelty-size wine aquarium she calls a glass. There was a rage and a chill between them that didn’t exist before. It’s possible Benioff and Weiss amped up the violence of their coupling to drive just this sort of wedge between the twins. But mostly their behavior suggested a disconnect between what the showrunners intended last week and what the show-watchers saw. If that’s the case, it’s a rare gaffe for a series that, like excellent sex-murderer Olenna Tyrell, generally makes the complicated look both clever and effortless.
About the frigid horseback ride that ended the episode: I suppose we now have a major piece of the Game of Thrones puzzle, though I have to say it’s not one I find particularly compelling — at least not yet. The White Walkers have existed mostly in the abstract up until now; sure, Sam killed one, but there remain far scarier things to worry about south of the Wall. We don’t yet know enough about them to be overly concerned with the prog-rock magic that made them that way. Still, this surprise answer only created more questions: Were all the bearded ice zombies once humans? Were many of them babies? Do White Walkers age? I assume so, because an army of terrifyingly cute infants with piercing blue eyes would probably have the wrong effect on the citizenry of Westeros. So while winter continues its inexorable approach, I think we still have a few years before these guys arrive to cool off all the heated human drama with their supernatural frost. After all, you have to learn to White Crawl before you can White Walk.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!
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