“The Lord let you come back for a reason,” Melisandre (Carice van Houten) tells Jon Snow (Kit Harington), shortly after the breath rushes back into his lungs, and he returns, stunned, to the world. “Stannis was not the prince who was promised, but someone has to be.”
It’s a canny statement, one that speaks to Melisandre’s just-restored, but still-fragile, faith, and to the two themes that tie together “Oathbreaker,” the strongest episode of the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” to date: The blurry lines between the miracles we think are given to us, and the ones we create for ourselves; and the stories we think we know, but can still be surprised by.
Speaking of the latter, and the tendency of this season of “Game of Thrones” to speak to viewers through the characters’ on-screen experiences, I think one of the reasons I enjoyed “Oathbreaker” so much this season is that as a book reader, the episode took me beyond what I knew and could predict, and into completely new territory.
The most dramatic part of the map to get shaded in this episode was Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) vision of the Tower of Joy, the fortress where a young Ned Stark confronts Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts), demanding to see his sister, Lyanna. It’s a story that Bran thinks he understands, a moment that contributes to his father’s legend. But as he watches his father fight the Sword of the Morning, Bran begins to have his doubts.
“He’s better than my father,” Bran observes, watching Arthur Dayne fight two-handed, in one of the few scenes of violence this season to earn the sobriquet of choreography. “Far better,” the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) agrees. “How did he beat him?” Bran wants to know, greedy for more than even the vision has already shown him. “Did he?” the Three-Eyed Raven asks. And we learn, along with Bran, that this chivalric tableau is tainted, that Howland Reed stabbed Arthur Dayne in the back, and that Ned finished the job in a slashing cut reminiscent of the own death that would find him on an executioner’s block in King’s Landing so many tragic decades later.
Bran’s desperate for the rest of the story, and of course, so are we. Yet if the Three-Eyed Raven’s penchant for cutting off training sessions seems to coincide suspiciously with moments of great narrative tension, he’s also making an interesting point. Bran thought he knew the story of the Tower of Joy. But even though he knows the version of the story he knew was a lie, he doesn’t have enough context to understand the events as they actually played out.
Dany (Emilia Clarke) is facing a similar, and more immediately dangerous, confrontation with her own ignorance back in Vaes Dothrak. She’s furious to be stripped of her finery and the necklace that marked her as the Mother of Dragons, and she doesn’t have much patience for the idea she might be judged.
When Khal Sovo’s widow tells Dany that “I thought he would conquer the world with me at his side. You’re young. we were all young once. But we all understand the way things are. You will learn as well, if you are fortunate enough to stay with us,” she’s not being unkind.
If Dany’s been a disaster for the past few seasons — a queen who liberated her people and then couldn’t defend them from murder, who conquered cities and couldn’t govern them — it’s not entirely her fault. Dany had a brother who wanted to use her, a protector who sold her to his own advantage, a husband who turned out to be kinder than she expected, and lovers and people who wanted to be her lovers, but she’s never had teachers, and she’s certainly never had advisers who were her true equals, or even her superiors and who could tell her no with real authority and the expectation that they’d be respected.
Dany may not have the patience to recognize that to go forward she has to go back. But as uncomfortable as it might be for her to find herself in the Dosh Khaleen, Dany needs wisdom to match her power, and the perspective and experience of these older women just might be the education she needs, even if this detour doesn’t match the story Dany likes to tell about herself.
In Braavos, Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) training montages with the Waif (Faye Marsay) might be tiresome to some viewers. But her conversations with the Waif bring Arya closer to a true version of her own story, especially when she confesses to her ambiguous feelings for the Hound (Rory McCann). “Arya Stark left him to die. He was on her list. He was not on her list any more. She had taken him off it,” Arya confesses, a greater show of vulnerability than any moment when she’s slow to get up from the Waif’s blows.
“Game of Thrones” often gives the impression that decisiveness and brute force are the quickest ways to gain power. But Arya’s willingess to be vulnerable, to know that she can tell the truth and survive, mark her as stronger than ever, even if she’s trying to become No One.
Arya’s transformation may not be as dramatic as Jon’s. But both of their stories happen at the intersection of the seemingly impossible with real human effort. We don’t know what force gives the Faces the power that they have, and “Game of Thrones” has been wise not to question. And it’s not yet clear just Jon came back from the dead. But these are both miracles, as Melisandre suggested, that require not just human faith, but human work.
Jon, at least, has Davos to help him. “You were dead, and now you’re not. It’s completely [f——] mad, seems to me. I can only imagine how it seems to you,” Davos tells Jon bluntly when he rises. “We don’t know [why]. 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 [s—] as you can….Now go fail again.”
It’s a more practical, more secular way, of telling Jon what Melisandre told him. The world needs people to go forth and give their fellow humans faith and provide them with some sort of hope and leadership. Whether Jon’s return is a miracle enough to sustain his brothers as Castle Black is an open question. It’s one thing for a god to rise in your midst when previously, the only things coming back to life were the frosty, murderous dead. It’s another to see your god walk out on you, even if, like Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), you harbored sizable doubts about the nature of that divinity.
But elsewhere, other people are doing the work of keeping hope alive, and preserving that tiny, flickering possibility. It’s for that reason that, direwolves’ heads on hooks aside, I found “Oathbreaker” much more watchable episode than last week’s “Home.” This is an episode of “Game of Thrones” that reminds us that Westeros is still worth fighting for.
In King’s Landing, we get a closer (and Mother’s Day-appropriate) glimpse at another side of the High Sparrow’s faith (Jonathan Pryce). Thus far, we’ve mostly seen the punitive side of this canny cleric, but “Oathbreaker” suggested that the High Sparrow is so harsh on humanity at least in part because he has high expectations for what it can achieve.
“Her love for you is more real than anything else in this world, because it doesn’t come from this world. But you know that. You’ve felt that. You’ve seen her when she talks to you. It’s a great gift, one I never had,” the High Sparrow tells Tommen, giving him the gift of a way to see his mother’s shame as an act of courage and adoration. “When your mother made her walk of atonement, she did it to get back to you…The Gods worked through [your grandfather], whether he knew it or not. As they work through your mother. There’s so much good in all of us. The best thing we can do is bring it out.”
Seasick and miserable on the boat to Oldtown, Sam (John Bradley) tells Gilly (Hannah Murray) that while he cares about the world he’s meant to serve, he cares about her and her baby — their baby, really — more. And while it might seem like his world is shrinking, it’s a touching rebellion against the dehumanizing understanding of duty and loyalty that have been used against Sam his entire life, first by his father, and later by Ser Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale). Sam has a family to fight for now, real people rather than an abstraction.
And in Meereen, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) tries to teach Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) that conversation can be more than reports, that drinking need not represent a fatal moment of laxness, and that getting to know them would actually be fun for him. Tyrion’s bitterness in George R.R. Martin’s novels ate at him and the books like a cancer; in “Game of Thrones,” his sense of humor and love for the life that’s often been so cruel to him have survived intact. That may be a secular miracle, but it’s a marvel, and a welcome one, all the same.