Now that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have decided to start resolving the dangling plot threads of “A Song Of Ice And Fire,” our weekly installments of “Game Of Thrones” have become take-no-prisoners plot machines. “Oathbreaker” is a genuinely surprising episode of “Game Of Thrones,” both because of the reappearance of Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) and his handler Osha (Natalia Tena)—a narrative resurrection entirely impossible to predict—and because of Jon Snow’s decision to leave the Night’s Watch, now that he’s been to death and back.
But for a book-reading fan like myself, the most thrilling resolution was in Bran’s vision of a battle between a dozen or so knights in the dusty desert at the base of a nondescript tower. That tower is the Tower of Joy, and one of the knights fighting for entrance is Bran’s father Eddard Stark as a young man (played by Robert Aramayo in the flashback). This is an episode that has been described in the books in just the vaguest of terms, but it is a very important site: It’s where Ned witnessed his sister Lyanna’s final words before she died. As Littlefinger told Sansa last season, Lyanna’s abduction by the royal Prince at the time, Rhaegar, plunged Westeros into bloody war and usurped the Targaryen rulers for Robert Baratheon and his wife Cersei Lannister. Robert was originally engaged to Lyanna, and was never able to let go of the memory of her, which is one of the many reasons Cersei hated him (as detailed way back in season one).
The books have not explained these events any further, and the show stops, in last night’s episode, with Ned walking up the steps of the tower, where he can hear a woman inside screaming. But at the top of that tower is the voice of Lyanna Stark, and to be super-nerdy for a second, that is extremely exciting, because Lyanna knows a lot of information. And for our purposes, the most important piece of information is a secret Ned (Sean Bean) visibly struggled to keep throughout season one of “Game Of Thrones”—about where Jon Snow really came from.
If you’re a fan of the series and don’t know about this theory: Well, basically, there is a prevailing fan theory, all but confirmed, that posits Jon Snow’s parents are not Ned and an unnamed random woman but instead Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. (Rhaegar, in addition to being the former Crown Prince, was Daenerys’ oldest brother.) The evidence in the book is a lot easier to locate—some very heavy foreshadowing, starting all the way back in the first book, when Ned was still alive to narrate from his point of view. In the show, the primary evidence is simply that Ned Stark doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife, and boy, for an average guy with a bastard son, Sean Bean’s Ned Stark sure seems to be tortured about something.
If this is the case, it was kept secret for some powerful reasons—ones that have something to do with that skirmish at the base of the Tower of Joy and something more to do with Jon Snow’s current ability to be resurrected from the dead. Whatever the “Game Of Thrones” mythmaking endgame is, it is approaching it with breathtaking speed; Jon had to turn in his cape at the Night’s Watch just to get ahead of the plot engine.
Given how ridiculous any rising-from-the-dead storyline could be, one of the things that is impressive about “Oathbreaker” is just how affecting Jon Snow’s personal experience of resurrection is. The moment where he rises up from the slab is shot beautifully, putting him in a kind of ghostly silhouette that makes him look, briefly, like the demigod that the other Night’s Watchmen believe him to be. Jon Snow is also, understandably, completely terrified, both uncomprehending of what has happened to him and barely able to appreciate its import. The final scene of the episode, where he individually assesses each of the men that betrayed him and asks for their final words, is a beautiful little reckoning with power and responsibility, hearkening back to what he learned from his father (or at least, his father-figure) Ned about how to be a good leader. Watching that execution, it is not surprising at all to see Jon turn away from his post as Lord Commander; he has had his fill of sentencing people to death, either through punishment or war. (Also, now that he’s died, he’s technically free of his responsibilities to the Night’s Watch; Westerosi contract lawyers can’t be too happy about that.) I expect Jon and Sansa are on their way to reuniting soon, via an overthrow and recapture of Winterfell; we’ll see.
Meanwhile, I’m a bit tired of wherever the plot is shuffling in nearly every other setting this week—King’s Landing, Meereen, and Vaes Dothrak are advancing their plots at a terrifyingly incremental pace, aren’t they? I accept that “Game Of Thrones” has to move a lot of difference pieces at the same time in under an hour, but it’s hard to be invested in the fundamentalists, the necromancers, the Dosh khaleen, and the Sons of the Harpy all at the same time. Next week’s episode promises the return of Littlefinger, which will be a lot of fun, and possibly a resolution with Margaery’s imprisonment, too.
What I did really enjoy, though, besides Jon Snow 2.0 and the Return Of Rickon, was Arya Stark’s training montage in the House of Black and White. This is a callback to one of “Game Of Thrones”' many cultural contexts, but Arya, the little tomboy with a lot of spirit and a penchant for swords, is a type of lead female character found in any number of fantasy books for girls with vaguely Eurocentric storylines—whether that’s Eowyn of Rohan or Alanna of Trebond or Aerin Firehair. Arya’s character arc is a lot more complicated, though. She went from a little spitfire badass to a pint-sized sociopath in a rather short amount of time. Now, she’s been in a training montage for what feels like two years; except every brutal inch of that montage has been laid bare to us and made decidedly unromantic. Arya’s face in “Oathbreaker” is mishmash of old bruises covered up by new welts. She’s been blinded and interrogated for days on end. She is being transformed, and there is nothing pretty or aspirational about it.
It’s been a long time coming, but the payoff of Arya’s arc gets to the heart of why “Game Of Thrones” is so satisfying; the illusions of any seemingly heroic or exciting story are ruthlessly peeled away, as a Bolton flays prey. Arya is a brutalized little girl, so removed from who she once was that her identity is being slowly beaten out of her. She will become a terrifying, untraceable assassin, which is a mighty superpower, yes. But it’s not a life that anyone sane would choose for themselves, and certainly not for their grade-school aged children. As powerful as Arya is becoming, the violence of her education is a stark reminder of just how high of a price she is being forced to pay.