[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 6, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Game of Thrones is one of the most diffuse storylines on television. Rarely an episode goes by that doesn’t ask the viewer to see the Seven Kingdoms from a multitude of varying perspectives. The many-headed dragon that is this sprawling story does something that, while not necessarily unique, is handled extremely well: No matter the viewpoint from which the story unfolds at any given moment, the perspective in question rarely thinks of itself as the villain of the story. And while this is increasingly true as the series has thinned its ranks and culled its cast of characters over the course of the last five seasons and some change – especially now that Joffrey has been made a checkmark in the minus column – the challenge facing the show has been to find a way to explore the hero-of-their-own-story dynamic without retreading the same ideas. And in ‘Oathbreaker,’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss choose to go the route of characters doing what they think is right, often when there’s someone standing right in front of them telling them they’re wrong.
The episode begins where ‘Home‘ left off: with Jon Snow rising from the cold slab his corpse had been laying on. His resurrection isn’t a scene that inspires great faith; it isn’t a man triumphantly returning from the grave. Instead Jon’s revival hews closer to an apneic episode. But the driving force of the scene isn’t that Jon’s back to life (that was last week’s episode), but that he’s back with stories of what a great big nothing waits for those whose watch has ended. That leaves Jon saddled with the mind-job of being brought back to life – or allowed back by the Lord, according to Melisandre – after having to recall being betrayed and murdered by his own men. “I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it,” he tells Ser Davos, kicking off an hour that believes so fully the battle for the Iron Throne and the future of all life in the Seven Kingdoms comes down to a matter of perspective it writes it into the text of an entire scene.
The hour’s biggest idea is laid out in grand fashion in Meereen, as Varys shrewdly questions a woman in cahoots with the Sons of the Harpy, hoping to find the head of the proverbial snake. While the woman is outwardly loyal to those who oppose Daenerys, and from their perspective see her and the Unsullied as a foreign invader, Varys knows there’s a perspective that trumps all of that. By playing off the love of a mother for her child, and promising them a new beginning – rather than the end she believed was her only option – he secures the answers he sought without spilling a drop of blood. High Sparrow plays a similar game when confronted by King Tommen, only it is praise for the boy king’s mother he offers and the blood he’s hoping to avoid being spilled is his own.
Both Varys and High Sparrow demonstrate an ability to see things from their opponent’s perspective, but both possess an uncanny knack for shifting the otherwise unwavering stance of the challenger to suit their needs. This is an especially handy talent for men who are otherwise unskilled in the art of bloodletting, unlike so many of the most powerful characters on the show. It’s a challenge to work your way through a situation that is seemingly begging for violence, only to find yourself talking things out instead. The dichotomy of two distinct but nevertheless linked perspectives is demonstrated again, as Daenerys finds herself situated in the stuffy Dothraki Widows’ Retirement Home. This time, though, the woman she meets doesn’t necessarily stand in opposition to Dany, she actually understands where the Mother of Dragons is coming from; the woman knows what it’s like to think the world is going to one day belong to her and her husband. But her once gilded perspective has been corroded with time and death and, worst of all, the truth.
Credit Game of Thrones for never questioning the truth that its characters so firmly believe they have, so that when certain things come to light – as they do when Bran takes a trip back to see how his father and Howland Reed defeated Ser Arthur Dayne – they tend to upset the foundations certain beliefs are built upon. It’s heartbreaking to see Bran’s heroic ideal of his father torn asunder, and the hour deftly balances the emotional weight of what has been until now the most honorable man in the entire series acting dishonorably with a provocative tease within the tower holding Lyanna Stark. ‘Oathbreaker’ comes close to confirming a huge theory, but instead focuses on Bran learning a truth he’d rather not, and how that compounds his frustrations with Three-Eyed Raven and the tree-man’s sometimes-opaque tutelage.
In that sense, Game of Thrones walks familiar territory – having the pupil question the teacher – but it manages to make it feel fresh by promising Bran (and by extension, the audience) complete knowledge of all that has transpired throughout the Seven Kingdoms. But Bran’s continuing education isn’t the only thing that felt familiar in ‘Oathbreaker.’ Arya’s training montage at the House of Black and White is your typical period of time compressed significantly to afford the hero new abilities. And while Arya’s physical sparring with the Waif is no different from anything seen in TV and movies for decades, tiny details about Arya’s thinking were sprinkled in like MSG to enhance the flavor of these warmed-over leftovers. Between being smashed in the face with a staff or whipped with a reed, the audience learned what Arya thought of Jon being a bastard and that, for a girl committed to doling out death to those she deemed worthy, even her perspective can be changed with a little one-on-one time.
Overall, ‘Oathbreaker’ balances the show’s typical kill ’em all perspective with one that is a little more hopeful and fitting with how recent events have played out. Rickon and Osha’s return certainly keeps things looking bleak, as the youngest Stark’s identity is confirmed for Ramsay with the decapitated head of Shaggydog. But while two characters no one has seen for a very long time wind up in the hands of a one-note psychopath, there’s some hope to be had in Jaquen H’ghar restoring Arya’s sight and Jon leaving the Night’s Watch behind after seeing his murderers hanged. Before Alliser and Olly die, however, the series makes one last effort to remind everyone how important perspective is, as Alliser’s final words jarringly mirror Jon’s. Alliser did what he thought was right, and he winds up being murdered for it. It would seem that in Game of Thrones, sometimes the right perspective comes down to whether or not there’s a noose around your neck.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘Book of the Stranger’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: