“I want to see what the world looks like when she’s done conquering it,” Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) muses as he and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) search for Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), previously seen fleeing Meereen on the back of a dragon. “So do I,” Jorah confesses, the rare time the sellsword and the disgraced Westerosi knight agree on anything other than Dany herself.
It’s the rare moment in “Game of Thrones” that anyone will confess that they’re looking forward to seeing the world entirely upended and made new. But if “The Red Woman” didn’t give us an answer to what had happened to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) after he’d been stabbed and left for dead by the men of the Night’s Watch who saw their Lord Commander as a traitor for letting the Wildlings through the Wall, it did give us a nice question to ponder for the rest of the season: When the world is about to change so dramatically, what elements from the past are worth carrying into an unknowable future? And what notions might get you killed, or worse?
At the Wall, Ser Alliser Throne (Owen Teale) tries to justify his murder of Jon — which is not going over well with a fair number of his sworn brothers — by arguing that he only broke his personal oath to save the institution as a whole.
“Jon Snow was my Lord Commander. I had no love for him. That was no secret. But I never once betrayed an order. Loyalty is the foundation on which the Night’s Watch is built, and the Watch means everything to me,” Ser Alliser argues to the crowd, hoping that his confession will gain him some leeway. “Jon Snow was going to destroy the Night’s Watch. He let the Wildlings through our gates, as no Lord Commander has ever done before. he gave them the very land on which they reaved and raped and murdered. Lord Commander Snow did what he thought was right, I have no doubt about that…He thrust a terrible choice on us. And we made it.”
Thorne isn’t wrong that Jon’s actions are a radical challenge to everything the Night’s Watch understands itself to be. But just because something is new or strange or frightening doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Jon made a remarkable leap last season, recognizing that distinctions between different groups of humans were nothing compared to the difference between humans and a power that wants to corrupt them to ends that go far beyond reaving and raping and murdering. That’s a conceptual jump larger than the literal one Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) took from the walls of Winterfell last season; a hurdle far greater over the chasm that separated the Wise Masters and the people they believed to be their property in Meereen.
I’m frustrated with “Game of Thrones” for stringing along the question of Jon’s fate beyond this episode, prolonging a cliffhanger central to both readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels and people who only watch the show in a way that feels less like manufacturing genuine tension and more like pure holding out on us. But Jon had reached a place so far politically advanced from the other characters in the show, that I suppose it makes sense to give them at least a little bit of time to catch up.
South of the Wall in Winterfell, Roose (Michael McElhatton) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) aren’t merely geographically isolated and facing the prospect of a Lannister army. They’re recognizing that they played a very particular hand of cards, one highly dependent on the Starks’ historical position in the North and the traditional laws of succession, and that the next card off the deck might not come up in their favor.
“A reckoning will come. We need the north to face it. The entire north. They won’t back us without Sansa Stark. We no longer have Sansa Stark,” Roose tells his son. “You played her games with her. You played your games with the heir to the Iron Islands, and now they’re gone.”
Roose’s cruelty, and his willingness to violate an oath combined with Walder Frey’s (David Bradley) lack of compunction about breaking the laws of hospitality, were a break with tradition that vaulted the Boltons to the stewardship of Winterfell. But Roose’s violation of those norms still seems to have been in service of a plan that required many of the old laws and customs to hold. A willingness to be violent may confer some advantages. But I wonder more and more if Roose Bolton chose the wrong norms to break; the world may will split open around him in ways that render Sansa Stark moot, at least for the role the Boltons intended for her.
In Dorne, we’ve known since last season that Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) is another person who’s willing to use shocking violence in violation of existing agreements. This time, though, when she murders her lover’s brother Doran (Alexander Siddig), she does so for reasons that echo Ser Alliser’s at the Wall, killing him to return Dorne to its first principles: strength and self-defense.
“Elia Martel raped and murdered, and you did nothing. Oberyn Martell butchered, and you did nothing. You’re not a Dornishman. You’re not our prince,” she says as she and her daughter Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) slaughter Doran and his guard, Areo Hotah (Deobia Oparei) “Your son is weak, just like you. And weak men will never rule Dorne again.”
If this means a clash of wounded queens, with Ellaria seeking her revenge on Cersei Lannister, that might leave the Boltons room to maneuver in the North. But however tragic those consequences might be, one of the virtues of “Game of Thrones” and George R. R. Martin himself has been that women have just as much room to scheme and destroy and fall prey to their darkest, most vengeful impulses as men do. Whatever faces women like Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) might wear for the comfort and convenience of men, the reality bears more resemblance to the macabre and beautiful collection in the House of Black and White.
But “Game of Thrones” being “Game of Thrones,” the answer isn’t as simple as “tradition is bad” or “tradition is a cover for people’s weakest impulses.” One of the strongest sections of “The Red Woman” was the long-delayed meeting between Theon, Sansa, Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) and the ever-magnificent Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie).
The man Theon may have been before he was Reek may have been prideful and ambitious and disloyal, but underneath something noble was annealed to his soul, buried down where even Ramsay’s tortures couldn’t cut it away. Watching him cross that freezing river with Sansa, his bearing erect as a talisman against the frigid water and her fear, was a beautiful testament to just how well-acted and subtle this series can be, and how much it values human qualities amidst its carnage. From that river crossing, it was one step towards Theon’s determination to sacrifice himself for Sansa. And from there, there was real joy in watching him pick up a sword again, having earned the weapon he once carried so casually. The chivalry of knights may not matter in this tortured landscape. But that doesn’t mean that in rediscovering the truth of the values he once cast off that Theon didn’t find a measure of himself again.
And as Brienne gave Sansa her oath, and as Sansa accepted it and swore her own in return, these two women put themselves back together, too.
“I will shield your back, and keep your counsel, and give my life for you, if need be. I swear it by the old gods and the new,” Brienne told the mistress who’d rejected her before, her dedication finally finding its reward. “And I vow that you shall always have a place by my hearth and–” Sansa told Brienne, stumbling on the words that belonged to the high-born lady that she once fancied herself to be, as blind to the meaning of that station as Theon was to the values meant to inform his own position. “Meat and mead at my table,” Pod prompts her, not unkindly or as a rebuke, but giving her the words as a gift. “Meat and mead at my table. And I pledge to ask no service of you that might bring you dishonor, by the Old Gods and the new,” Sansa finished.
And back in the Dothraki sea, Dany first thinks that tradition will save her, then believes it has entombed her. Invoking her status as Khal Drogo’s widow persuades Khal Moro (Joseph Naufahu) not to rape her. But he also sentences her to return to Vaes Dothrak to become part of the Dosh Khaleen, the community of women who were once married to long-dead Dothraki ruler. This might seem to us, and to Dany, as if she’s being blocked from the reconquest of Westeros that has long been her goal.
As Quaithe (Laura Pradelska) once told Dany in a prophecy, though, “To go forward you must go back.” It’s easy to dismiss as impossible the suggestion that the sun might set in the east. But the relationship between tradition and the new world, and the question of what we carry forward with us from the broken wreckage of the past, are things everyone Westeros in Essos will have to grapple with as they are carried inexorably into the future.
Correction: This post initially misstaked Ellaria and Doran’s brother, an error I can only attribute to it being late and the “Game of Thrones” part of my brain being pretty over-stuffed with character details. I’ve corrected the error.