With Season Five’s major question mark resolved, “Oathbreaker” finds HBO’s Game of Thrones more unburdened than it’s been all season: we know Jon isn’t permanently dead, and the show can focus on what Westeros looks like with him alive. And now that he’s back, if not part of the Night’s Watch for long, Season Six finally has the chance to move beyond being a glorified “Previously On” segment plus a few developments in some of the show’s less interesting areas and teases over Jon’s fate.
So what does “Oathbreaker” do with its new freedom? Not a ton, but the incremental progressions still work better than anything the new season has offered to date. Even if Jon is still the first order of business, his reunion with Tormund and the Rangers who don’t betray him is far more humanistic and compelling than the “will he or won’t he return” back and forth of the first two episodes. It’s a humanism that includes a joke about Jon’s penis size, of course, but such is life in Game of Thrones.
It is still a life that has crueler and more unpalatable sides, though, and the subplots involving both Sam and Gilly and Bran are some of the show’s less brutal elements. Although most of Westeros seems pretty unappealing for women, Sam is genuinely concerned about Gilly’s future in Oldtown, and his offer to have him stay with her is as selfless an action as we’ve seen this season.
Bran, on the other hand, sees a darker side of his father’s supposed selfless heroism, which also showcases some excellent sword fighting choreography. The fight only lasts until Meera’s father stabs Ser Arthur Dayne in the back, though, leading to a less than noble conclusion. There’s a lot that Bran hasn’t learned about his family’s history, apparently, and what he finds out doesn’t necessarily fit his vision of how things happened.
Bran is far from the only one in Westeros whose life isn’t going according to plan. Even if Daenerys is the Mother of Dragons, the Dothraki continue to be unamused by her decision to leave Vaes Dothrak. Daenerys’ arc over the course of the series, from reluctant wife to ferocious leader back to a confined existence with the Dothraki, has been among Game of Thrones’ most fully realized character trajectories, and her current state is a compelling addition to her story.
But if Danerys seems to have gone back to where we found her at the beginning of the show, although she’s learned a lot along the way, Arya continues to make progress, even if it’s the most monotonous progression the season has offered. She continues to be resilient, proceeding along the plucky path she’s always been following, but her resilience is starting to lose meaning in its repetition. Then again, it does prompt Jaqen to restore her eyesight, so perhaps Arya’s story will now have a chance to take her beyond obstinance and being hit repeatedly by sticks.
By contrast, Ramsay doesn’t seem in danger of changing a bit — not that the show has suggested any reason why he would. Fresh off throwing Walda and her son to the dogs last week, he’s ready to torture Rickon and Osha, thanks to a gift from Lord Umber. But are we ready to watch him? “Oathbreaker” mercifully cuts away before Ramsay can, well, be Ramsay, but the threat doesn’t bode well for his upcoming appearances. The show has presumably moved beyond dedicating half a season to torture (i.e. the Theon subplot), but the terrified looks from Rickon and Osha suggest more brutality to come.
There’s brutality in Jon’s execution of Alliser and Olly, as well, though it’s of a different kind. Sure, it’s painful and grotesque to watch them hang, and director Daniel Sackheim maximizes the scene for visceral effect, but the sequence bears the weight of their brutal killing of Jon. He’s justified in the execution, and he knows it, but his vengeance doesn’t detract from the pain of taking human lives. Although the scene is yet another example of Game of Thrones’ much discussed tendency towards graphic and perhaps unnecessary violence, it does serve the purpose of complicating Jon’s ostensibly deserved revenge.
Will the execution weigh on Jon as he experiences life beyond the Night’s Watch? Undoubtedly, and it thus adds a wrinkle to his renewed existence. Jon is back, he doesn’t want to be a Ranger anymore and death very well may have been the least of his troubles.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.