The first thing Vala (Meena Rayann) does upon being brought to Varys (Conleth Hill) for interrogation in tonight’s Game of Thrones, “Oathbreaker,” is to explain that she won’t betray the Harpies, and that he might as well begin torturing her. This, however, isn’t Varys’s way; he insists that he much prefers to make her happy, which is to say, he wants to find an amicable way to console her perspective of reality—that she’s helping her people fight off those who would destroy her city and its history—with his own somewhat rosier view of the Unsullied. That his threats against her son are more implied than spoken doesn’t make them any less real, and this is the way the world works: such that fundamental rules—of leadership, of power—are the fiction of mass consensus rather than any sort of god-given fact.
There’s still a lot of wheel-spinning going on in “Oathbreaker,” but there’s a surer sense of purpose in the way the episode’s nine sprawling plots serve to emphasize this common theme. As Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) puts it, “A true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms,” and while the rooms need not be particularly refined (just look at the humble lodgings of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen, now ensconced with the other Khaleesi widows behind the walls of Vaes Dothrak), Game of Thrones knows that more can sometimes be accomplished with intrigue than with action. Violence is what occurs only when people cannot otherwise be made to listen, which is certainly the case when a resurrected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) confronts his murderer, Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), who tells him that he still perceives Snow’s alliance with the Wildlings to be dangerous.
There’s no pleasure in the way Jon kills these traitors, including Olly (Brenock O’Connor), a young boy, and yet it remains the only way to console these two conflicting viewpoints. That’s an interesting way in which to view the episode’s title, a sobriquet for those whom history hasn’t yet favored. Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) is a sadistic, sociopathic monster who rapes and tortures women, and yet he’s supported by Harald Karstark (Paul Rattray) because he offers the man vengeance against the Starks, who wronged his family. The same is true of Smalljon Umber (Dean S. Jagger), who petitions Ramsay for aid on account of the Wildlings whom Jon allowed past the Wall. He doesn’t swear loyalty, citing Ramsay’s father’s betrayal of Robb, but instead brings two prisoners: Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) and his protector, Osha (Natalia Tena). There’s a perspective of the world in which these aren’t awful people, to be using children as hostages, but it all boils down to who triumphs. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), after all, is known as the Kingslayer, and yet is seen by some as a hero who ended a madman’s rule.
There are new perspectives all over the place in “Oathbreaker,” most notably Bran Stark’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) realization that his father, Ned, wasn’t quite the hero he believed him to be. While using his powers to view the unadulterated past with the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow), Bran learns that his father didn’t best Sir Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts), as the legends go, but rather that he won thanks to the backstabbing intervention of one of his comrades—and that he rewrote history afterward. Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman) also reevaluates the way he views his mother, Cercei Lannister (Lena Headey), after speaking to the High Septon (Jonathan Pryce), who assures him that he’s not trying to shame Tommen’s mother, but rather hoping to allow the gods to speak truth and love through her, an act that can be done only through confession and contrition.
As a history lesson, Game of Thrones can get away with scenes that are uninteresting or plot-heavy, especially when they’re so fervently and sincerely delivered, as in the way Pryce’s soothing tones hide his character’s usurpations of the throne, or the way Teale justifies Thorne’s murderous actions through a grim dedication to duty. But these moments work only if, as Tyrion suggests, these conversations eventually lead to a greater truth. The problem this season continues to be plotlines that seem horrendously out of place, like the comic relief of watching a seasick Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) vomit into a bucket while traveling with Gilly (Hannah Murray) to Old Town, or the third montage in a row of Arya (Maisie Williams) learning to fight and to embrace her new identity as a member of the Faceless. The sight of Qyburn (Anton Lesser) operating Varys’s old network of child spies (“whisper” gatherers) in King’s Landing is an extra flourish, but it’s at least thematically on point, as it emphasizes how information can be used.
“Oathbreaker” ends with Jon Snow handing command of Castle Black over to his loyal comrade, Edd (Ben Crompton): “My watch has ended,” he announces, which is true enough, considering that he did in fact die in service to the Night’s Watch. Here’s hoping he swiftly finds a new purpose, and not more of the nothingness he tells Davos (Liam Cunningham) that he faced after death. He is, after all, perceived by some to be a hero, and there’s a derailed plot that’s currently very much in need of saving.
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