“I fought. I lost. Now I rest.”
Alliser Thorne dies steeled with the conviction that, torn between his oath to his Lord Commander and his love and loyalty for the Night’s Watch itself as he sees it, he did the right thing. His dilemma is hardly unique. It’s a permutation, after all, of Jaime’s infamous decision to murder his king to keep the man from reducing King’s Landing to, in Martin’s words, “charred bone and cooked meat.” Ser Alliser’s internal conflict may be rooted in a bitter prejudice against the Wildlings, but the pain and confusion he must navigate are very real. What are people meant to do when their loves and loyalties begin to crash together, when even an iron-clad oath or the holy writ of the gods can’t provide a clear way to proceed?
‘Oathbreaker’ digs into the web of contradictory motivators that underlies the entirety of Game of Thrones, pulling back the curtain on tales of knightly heroism and the slick storytelling of spymasters alike to reveal the muddy, ugly wheels of history churning at full pelt. “He’s better than my father,” Bran observes, troubled, as he watches across the sea of time while a young Ned retreats from the flashing blades of Ser Arthur Dayne. He’s heard this story from his father, and in the version he knows there’s no screaming woman trapped in a tower, no slaughtered comrades left in the dust, no dagger in the back for the greatest swordsman in the realm. It’s like a little morality play spelling out the series’ take on what knightly honor and the rules of Westerosi society are worth. Ser Arthur is the flower of Westerosi chivalry, a master swordsman with an ancient name and a strong jaw, utterly dedicated to the point where not even his beloved prince’s death keeps him from doing his duty, and he gets ventilated by a swamp man while protecting a stolen, dying woman.
Jon’s first act as a newly risen man, meanwhile, is to sentence the aforementioned Ser Alliser and his co-conspirators to death by hanging. With four men to kill, the dreary logistics of beheading them all individually make a mass execution expedient. The hanging is no better. The procession down the line of the condemned as Jon gives them a chance to speak their last is a nightmarish procession through a horrid grieving process. Disbelief, bargaining, acceptance, and finally Olly’s putrefied, shivering hatred. The sight of the young boy hanged disgusts and wearies Jon so profoundly that he turns the Watch over to Dolorous Edd and abandons his post, deserting the men he feels he failed. The end of Jon’s fierce loyalty to the Night’s Watch comes on the heels of his time among the dead, an experience of nothingness that puts the lie to the rat race everyone in Westeros is trapped in just like the Walkers themselves do.
Ramsay’s chuckle-worthy hesitancy to trust someone who won’t observe the forms and customs of swearing fealty is answered by his Umber petitioner with a practical demonstration of loyalty. The man brings him a gift, Rickon Stark and Osha with Shaggydog’s head thrown into the bargain as a grisly certificate of authenticity. He also spells out his reasons for seeking Ramsay’s suzerainty, bypassing niceties and flowery promises in favor of an ugly pact built up around murder and kidnapping and headed for more of the same. Stripped down to their constituent parts, honor and fealty look no better than they do in full kit. This business of lords and knights is sucking the Seven Kingdoms, and Essos too, down a bloody drain, and it’s looking even worse for the sharp focus ‘Oathbreaker’ provides.
Nothing, in fact, looks better with the lights on here. Certainly not the putrescent business of espionage. Varys’s “little birds” are revealed as ragged orphans tempted with kindness and candies into risking their lives to report on the comings and goings of people who would kill them without a second thought should their deceptions become known. “Children are blameless!” Varys exclaims when the prostitute Vala accuses him of trying to get at her through her child. “I would never hurt one.” But he would leave them to the fates, and he makes that plain to the anguished woman before pumping her for information and booting her out of town with her kid and a bag of silver. It’s a shakedown, plain and simple, and when the focus shifts to Qyburn all the way across the Narrow Sea, we’re treated to the reality of how Varys thinks of children. They are convenient, able, and unnoticed, three things all good spymasters prize. Disposability is simply icing on the cake.
The shots of Varys sitting on the side of Dany’s royal dais and fanning himself in the oppressive Meereenese heat are worth noting. There’s a pleasant asymmetry to the whole setup that echoes the tactics the spymaster uses to keep Vala wrong-footed and playing defense. Likewise the conversation between King Tommen and the High Sparrow, tense and close at first with Tommen shot from a low angle to play up his anger, then at a greater remove and with a softer, more neutral angle in concert with the retreat of the Kingsguard and the Faith Militant and the adjournment of the conversation to a nearby bench. The progression is seamless, a deft and immersion-building reinforcement of the story playing out in front of us. The dialogue is a good one, too, with the Sparrow playing on Tommen’s good nature, his own physical frailty, and a saintly portrait of Cersei as the world’s most devoted mother to diffuse tension and endear himself to the earnest but inexperienced young monarch.
The conversation functions as a dark mirror to Bran’s re-learning of a familiar tale as something altogether uglier. Here the High Sparrow papers over the unmitigated brutality and cruelty of his regime with platitudes about a mother’s love. The narrative he weaves is like Ser Gregor, a rotten monstrosity encased in shining gold, and like Ser Gregor it is deadly in the extreme. A short conversation in a grimy sept and suddenly Tommen isn’t shouting anymore, the guards have all backed off, and Cersei’s shit-smeared procession through a city eager to mock and wound her body and destroy her spirit is forgotten. The kid’s got chutzpah, but he’s too young to know who he should listen to and who would he should ignore. Words can still blind him to actions.
Last, but certainly not least on the visual front, the editing of Arya’s long ordeal in the House of Black and White deserves some kind of combination double take and shout-out. For something as hackneyed as a training montage to not just look gorgeous but for it to tell a visual story interlaced with a complex exploration of Arya’s identity and emotional life is no mean feat, and the execution here is nothing short of a master class. The brutal process is so physically concussive, so dependent on Arya’s ability to annihilate her own conception of herself as a thinking, feeling person that the sequence feels less like watching someone build skills than it does like observing a dissection. Arya is peeled apart, layer by layer, and what the House deems extraneous is cast aside.