“I wasn’t drowning, I was home.”
Bran Stark stands among the dead. Watching his father, uncle, and aunt at play through the power of his second sight, he is bewitched by the idea of returning to a family lost to him forever. But when he returns unwillingly to the waking world he is confronted at once with Meera’s family, with the vast emptiness of the Far North laid out where her brother used to be. What he has is an illusion; what she faces is reality. That the episode ends with another breach of the veil between life and death, the resurrection of Jon Snow at the hands of a desperate, shaky Melisandre, is an unsettling omen at the very least.
“It is beautiful under the sea,” the Raven tells Bran in the vision. “But stay there too long, and you’ll drown.” Their exchange begins the episode’s dive into humanity’s longing to touch the ineffable. Consider Balon’s attempt to undercut his younger brother, Euron, for losing his head during a storm, a shameful thing for one of the Ironborn. Euron answers that he is the storm. What unmade him, what drove him face to face with oblivion, he has become. It has an echo in the High Sparrow courting death at Jaime’s hand, deriding himself and all the living as despicable sinners. He has seen the disease and decay of Westeros’s wars and he wants to embrace it, to create a crusade with his own martyrdom, to make of his pierced body a gate to unthinkable carnage and mayhem.
In a way, this is the conceit at the center of Game of Thrones. The series is one of the most hardline antiwar creations of the decade, a brutal thesis on man’s inhumanity to man even in the face of impending ruination. And now, six seasons deep into the muck and madness of war, it looks like things have (knock on wood) gotten as bad as they possibly could. With the deranged Euron on the rise in the Iron Islands, Ramsay knifing his old man and feeding his stepmother and baby brother to his hounds, Cersei and the High Sparrow preparing to savage one another over the bones of King’s Landing, and Ellaria and her all-girl brute squad whipping Dorne into a frenzy of vengeful wrath, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a monster in a position of ultimate power. There are people who’d rather throw open the gates to Hell than dare to feel love for their enemies.
And even the more or less reasonable people can’t get out of their own way. The Night’s Watch, sort of the Bad News Bears of Westerosi factions and long plagued by infighting, are now coming apart at the seams. Owen Teale’s grumpy, hard-bitten Ser Alliser Thorne is maybe the bit player who’s grown on me the most over the show’s run. Six seasons of misery have given us a chance to get to know the man behind the asshole, a has-been with a mean streak a mile wide and a completely incorruptible commitment to his oath. His lifelong, bone-deep grudge against an enemy who no longer matters in the shadow of the White Walkers’ threat drove him to assassinate Jon and further weaken the Wall against encroaching doom, but it’s hard not to admire his steely conviction and bananas battlefield courage in the face of a giant pulping his bros like ripe fruit. His and Olly’s capture is frenetic and tense, every blade a horrible accident waiting to happen, the giant an engine of destruction poised to smash the courtyard’s occupants to pulp.
Kristofer Hivju’s Tormund is riveting on and off the battlefield. A Wildling with a soft spot for turncoat kings, he seethes with unstoppable energy as he leads his men against Thorne’s mutineers. Watching Melisandre minister to Jon, though, his face is expressionless, his pose tense. Watching him imagine that this could happen, that the man he gambled on and lost could rise again, that there could be a second shot for his people, is a mesmerizing spectacle. Watching him crush that belief, at least for now, and walk out of the room is even more so. ‘Home’ is intimately concerned with the many things that drive us, in life or in unrealized yearning, back to where we come from. Theon, broken in body and unwilling to accept redemption in spirit, sets off homeward in part because he believes himself unworthy of anything else. Bran seeks the idyll of a time before his family was ripped apart before his eyes. To Tyrion home has long been something unattainable, something of which he was robbed when his mother died bringing him into the world, when he dreamed of flying on a dragon’s back only to learn that the dragons had all died out a century ago.
Director Jeremy Podeswa imbues ‘Home’ with delicate beauty, lingering as much on oddments of nature and lights in the dark as on the empty rooms and quiet skies that have become a visual hallmark of the series. Tyrion’s descent into the lair of Rhaegal and Viserion, Daenerys’s chained and abandoned dragons, is a gorgeous piece of cinema as the reluctant Imp leaves the light of the world behind and stumbles forward in the shrunken circle of torchlight. The wyrms’ eyes bloom red in the dark as they uncoil their bulk and advance, as terrifying and awe-inspiring as any dragons in the history of the screen. The moment is tender, but there is real tension to it. A much smaller example of Podeswa’s finesse is Cersei’s rumination over a loose thread on her sleeve, a close shot that lingers just long enough to let uncertainty in before snapping back to a wide, empty frame in a desolate room where the queen sits alone except for her monstrous, silent protector, his name a mocking echo of the husband who beat and raped her when it suited him.
Ramsay’s callous execution of Walda and her baby may be the vilest act in ‘Home,’ but it was Arya’s brief duel with empty air that resonated most with me. Abandoned by her sparring partner, the blind girl continues to swing and swat, staggering and screaming, her life reduced to a ringing alarm bell and the urge to flee or kill. This is the person the world of Westeros and Essos produces with its endless wars, a sightless child with no name, no past, no future, always wary of another trick, another trap. Always fighting, even when her home is ashes and her enemies are ghosts.