Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is dreaming of better days, specifically his long-lost Winterfell, where he watches as his father, Ned, and uncle, Benjen, learn to spar. He even happens upon a slow stable boy, Willis, and realizes that this is an even more innocent version of the man who’s been protecting him in the present, Hodor (Kristian Nairn). This, of course, is an illusion, and the mysterious vision-sharing man known only as the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) soon pulls Bran back to his crippled reality. “You finally show me something I care about, and then you drag me away,” shouts Bran, and it’s hard not to hear echoes of the most ardent yet frustrated Game of Thrones fans, because the show’s sprawling narrative has room for no more than 10 minutes an episode for each character. That makes it increasingly hard to becoming truly invested in any of them, especially with a new subplot on the Iron Islands, where the possibly insane Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), claiming to be the Drowned God, deposes his brother, Balon (Patrick Malahide), by flinging him over a rickety bridge in the middle of a storm.
It’s possible that something will come of these scenes, especially after Theon (Alfie Allen) tells Sansa (Sophie Turner) that he plans to return home now that she’s being escorted to the Wall by Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Pod (Daniel Portman). After all, it’s even possible that all the Dornish intrigue will amount to something more than meeting the show’s de-rigueur quota for surprising bloodshed. But from a storytelling perspective, all of this comes across as an elaborate dance-of-the-seven-veils-like tease that prevents us from finding out what’s going on with the body of Jon Snow (Kit Harington).
The free folk, led by Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Edd (Ben Crompton) return to Castle Black just in time to prevent Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) from murdering Davos (Liam Cunningham) and the other loyal holdouts, but even then, it’s not until the episode’s end that Melisandre (Carice van Houten) uses her magic to resurrect Jon. If these scenes revealed anything about character, they’d be forgivable, but instead they tread water to show us what we already know: that Melisandre is still depressed about her visions being increasingly inaccurate; that Davos isn’t going to make it easy for the Night’s Watch to murder him; and that Tormund is fiercely loyal to Jon.
Things are only slightly more developed in Winterfell, thanks to the complete poker face Iwan Rheon brings to his portrayal of Ramsay Bolton. Roose (Michael McElhatton) is once again advising caution at Ramsay’s reckless plan to recapture Sansa by sieging Castle Black; he doesn’t want their family to be seen as untrustworthy, a bunch of “mad dogs.” Ramsay appears to be going along with the plan, but the second he hears that his stepmother has given birth to a son, he stabs his father to death and takes control of the kingdom. He is a mad dog, after all, a point emphasized when he feeds Walda Bolton (Elizabeth Webster) and her newborn to his vicious kennel of hounds.
Many of the events in Game of Thrones are developing so quickly that plot, by necessity, substitutes for development. That’s certainly the case with the accelerated training Arya (Maisie Williams) has been receiving as a blind beggar in Braavos. Williams does a fine job, as always, of articulating Arya’s determination and despair. But when the series suddenly pivots with cinematic sleight of hand away from her daily fights with The Waif (Faye Marsay) to the latest of Jaqen H’ghar’s (Tom Wlaschiha) tests, it’s hard to tell if Arya has truly learned to abandon her own identity with each utterance of “no one” or if these are just more words from a reckless, clever girl.
The same goes for events on the Iron Islands, where Gemma Whelan does great work as Yara, making it clear how much it would mean to her character to be the first female successor to her father Balon’s now-empty throne. But in the few minutes we spend with her, she’s basically forced to deliver exposition about the islands’ patriarchal government. Moves like this risk reducing Game of Thrones not to a mere game, which is more about the big plays than any individual participant, but to bland post-game commentary.
Thankfully, the writers still have some novel tricks up their sleeves, especially now that they’re increasingly veering away from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) takes it upon himself to feed Daenerys’s two imprisoned dragons, which he believes can only be done if he frees them from their fetters (and their hunger strike). To do so without being mauled, he calmly jokes around with the dragons (“I’m here to help. Don’t eat the help!”) and relates the story of how, as a child, he begged his father for a dragon, only to have his heart broken by the reality that the dragons were all (presumably) dead. Such scenes reveal that there are still plenty of active ways for Game of Thrones’s characters to reveal more about themselves, even if the scene itself doesn’t have an immediate payoff, beyond Tyrion casually revealing how terrified he was to Varys (Conleth Hill): “Next time I have an idea like that, punch me in the face.”
There’s hope for Game of Thrones in King’s Landing too. The impotent child king Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman) takes his “uncle” Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) advice and visits his mother, Cersei (Lena Headey), for advice on how to properly avenge the wrongs wreaked against her by the High Septon (Jonathan Pryce). At the same time, the Septon puts Jaime in his place by surrounding him with his devout followers. These scenes are especially interesting in the way they most closely have parallels to contemporary times, for unlike Mereen’s riotous Harpies, the Sparrows are a mashup of both religious extremists, unafraid to die for their cause, and the 99%, rising up against their systematic oppressors. It’s hard to know who to root for in this fight, which makes it all the more interesting to watch. More importantly, here is a scenario that’s shifting the status quo, even as the Boltons and Night’s Watch fight to keep the North as it has ever been, and the Ironborn cling to their petty island traditions. As the saying goes, “You can’t go home again,” and Game of Thrones is best when it’s zagging away from Bran’s happy flashbacks and toward an unknown future.
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