As with any episode of television that bears Michelle MacLaren’s directing credit, “Oathkeeper” does not merely look good. More than most shows, Game of Thrones benefits from great direction, with a careful eye for suggestive composition and subtle flourishes than what usually adorns a writing- and acting-first medium. But the difference between an episode done by one of the show’s stable of talented and intuitive directors and one from MacLaren can be so vast that the lifelong TV vet with no feature-length theatrical releases to her name resembles less a gun-for-hire than the Scorseses and Finchers who stunt-direct glamorous pilots. Contrary to HBO’s motto, when MacLaren works on Game of Thrones, it’s clear how much the rest of the series looks like TV.
That’s immediately apparent in the episode’s failure to follow through on last week’s now-notorious scene between Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey). That scene ostensibly rewrote a depraved but nominally consensual encounter from the book into the rape that it was in everything but name. Initially, this just seemed honest, but troubling remarks made by director Alex Graves that what he filmed as an unambiguous rape scene was meant to reflect the eventual consent offered in the book. Normally, artistic intent counts for little, especially coming from a director on a television series, but the latest episode doesn’t follow up on that scene whatsoever, suggesting that either that Graves misread the scene when he filmed it, or that the writers have no intention of exploring the ramifications of that turn. Either way, this retroactively reveals a major moment as meaningless and makes “Oathkeeper” the first major stumble in the season, one exacerbated by a gang rape at Craster’s Keep so unnecessary and gratuitous that it stands with the scenes of Theon’s torture in the previous season as the show’s most dismally callous violence.
The episode’s saving grace, however, is MacLaren’s direction. Judged solely on beauty, numerous shots in “Oathkeeper” stand head and shoulders above their peers. Look at the Rembrandtian chiaroscuro that dimly illuminates a long shot of an underground gathering of slaves mulling over the idea of a revolt in Mereen. Better still, watch the way a track out from a wooden piss bucket in Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) cell reveals such a perfect snapshot of a medieval dungeon, with a solitary beam of mocking light illuminating a grimy pit so foul you can practically see its stench, turns an ironic shot into a tragic one.
MacLaren then takes striking images like these and uses them to develop the episode’s plot. When Margaery (Natalie Dormer) sneaks into Tommen’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) chambers to start working her charms on him, two-shots of the pair cast golden-orange light on the woman’s seductive entreaties while the boy, petrified by her advances and his interest in them, sits frozen in cold blue. The chromatic distinction emphasizes everything from Margaery’s ambition to Tommen’s isolation, first from his betrothed but eventually, perhaps, from his domineering mother. Thematically, MacLaren’s penchant for wide vistas with characters dwarfed in the frame captures the stasis of this season better than anything to this point. Small touches, like the bit of editing that breaks up the shot-reverse patterns of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) talking to remain on Littlefinger’s amused face as he listens to the girl’s warnings, show even other members of the crew rising to the material MacLaren gathers for them.
MacLaren’s wide-lens, long-shot compositions pull the camera back just as the series was getting visually claustrophobic again, all the better to see the characters begin to rally once more. The episode’s title refers to the name that Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) gives the Valyrian sword that Jaime offers as a gift when he sends her to find Sansa, but it more broadly refers to the themes of duty that propel the episode. Brienne centers that idea, a fiercely loyal fighter who has nonetheless shifted allegiances twice now in response to the death of a master, marking her as honorable but not quixotic. Other characters face harder, more brutal obligations. Jaime, having sunk to an unthinkable low in the last episode, is here made a sympathetic figure, torn between two equally strong familial impulses: one to save his brother from what is sure to be certain death, the other to kill that same brother on the suspicion that he murdered his son. In the North, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) rallies volunteers for a secret mission to kill the rogue members of the Night’s Watch to prevent them from spilling secrets to wildlings. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) enters Mereen after its own people have handled the revolt for her, and immediately her desire for vengeful justice comes into conflict with the more prudent course of mercy.
The fourth season to this point has concerned the characters and even the environment coming to terms with the vast carnage wreaked on them, and in “Oathkeeper” they appear to finally have some bearing on where they want to go. Strange, then, that this should feel like the first episode of the season that just marks time. The focus on honor and duty gives the episode the tone of the show’s early days, back when such things were not yet a cruel farce. Reintroducing these ideas attempts to restore some semblance of humanity of the series, particularly in light of the episode’s troubling coda involving the White Walkers, but it throws off the tone the series has set for itself. Stacked against the mountain of maimed and dead left in the show’s wake, the impossibility that the small moments of conviction shown in this episode could overcome even a portion of the horrors only makes Game of Thrones bleaker. And as many characters prepare to set out on numerous missions, they ironically seem more uncertain and directionless than they were when they had no idea what to do.
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