Eight days remain until the premiere of season 7, and today in our Memory Lane, we’ve reached Oathbreaker. The episode sees the return of multiple Starks- Jon, Rickon and the late Ned in flashback- and the realization of the Tower of Joy, a scene that fans have waited twenty years to see. But of course, episode three was just a tease of the Tower…Guiding us through the journey today is another Watchers on the Wall regular and familiar face in Memory Lane, Jared Kozal! – Sue the Fury
When Jon Snow fell to the mutineers’ knives at the end of Season 5, most viewers fervently believed that he would return – with good reason. The character was too important, and the great potential of his destiny as an avatar of ice and fire had yet to be fulfilled. But the immediate aftermath of Jon’s resurrection derives its power not from the promise of his newly-renewed future, but from the raw reality of a man processing his own murder, an extraordinary and brutal development even in such an extraordinary and brutal world.
“Oathbreaker,” directed by Daniel Sackheim and written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, sees almost all of its characters being broken and challenged. But it also finds them starting again, gathering up the pieces of their old lives and forging something new, for good or for ill.
The episode opens on Davos, scarcely daring to believe his eyes as Jon slowly rises into a sitting position. The way this scene is lit, framed, and shot evokes the idea that Tormund later gives voice to – that Jon is some kind of god, the Man Who Returned From the Dead. But whatever else Jon is now or may be in the future, he remains a mortal man. And when he looks down, he sees the proof – evidence of his assassination on his own body. He touches his scars – they’re real. The memories come flooding back. Traitor. Daggers in the dark. For the Watch.
Shock and horror spread across Jon’s face. His breathing becomes shallow and panicked. In all the time we’ve known him, we’ve never seen Jon look this unambiguously terrified. He tries to stand and collapses. Davos catches him as he falls, then asks him what he remembers. “They stabbed me,” Jon whispers, still wracked by disbelief. “Olly … he put a knife in my heart.” He looks up at Davos, and he appears completely lost. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Melisandre enters, stricken with awe. She did this, but she has no idea how – only that amidst despair and doubt, the Lord of Light answered her at last. Eagerly, she asks Jon what he saw when he passed to the other side. But the only answer that he has for the Red Woman is the same one that Beric Dondarrion gave her many years ago. “Nothing. There was nothing at all.”
This may not be what Melisandre wants to hear, but she began the season as a broken woman, and now that her faith has been rekindled, it will not be easily doused again. “The Lord let you come back for a reason,” she declares. “Stannis was not the Prince Who Was Promised, but someone has to be.”
Prophecy. Destiny. These are heavy burdens to lay upon a man who can barely stand. Davos recognizes this, and wisely asks Melisandre to leave. When he addresses Jon, his words are less grand, but far more effective. He knows that Jon has to go on, and keep fighting to make the world a better place. But Jon is shattered. He did what he thought was right, and he got murdered for it. “I failed,” he says, and his gaze falls. In this moment, perhaps he wishes that he could lie back down on the table and return to the darkness. But Davos gives him strength. “Good!” he tells the Lord Commander. “Now go fail again.”
As ever, the Onion Knight’s wisdom is simple, but elegant. It’s not much, but it’s enough – for now, at least. So Jon begins his return to the realm of the living by descending into the Castle Black courtyard, where he’s greeted by awe, fear, and reverence from the assembled wildlings and black brothers. But his friends Tormund and Edd greet him with something far more valuable – warm embraces, and good-natured jokes. And so the solemn nature of Jon’s return from the dead is broken with much-needed laugh.
In the Narrow Sea, Jon’s dearest friend Sam is facing far more commonplace fragilities – seasickness, and anxiety about the future fueled by fears from his past. Sam ostensibly left the Wall to become a maester, but his primary concern was to ensure that Gilly and her son were safe. He intends to bring Gilly to Horn Hill, where his father Randyll Tarly rules. Sam has proven to be courageous and honorable, but the prospect of once again facing the man who broke him and sent him to the Wall is clearly terrifying. Nevertheless, he’s willing to ask Randyll to take Gilly in so that the people he loves most can be safe, even if it means abandoning the spirit of his oath to protect the realm and everyone in it. This perspective may seem selfish, but as Aemon once observed, what is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty compared to the feeling of a newborn son in your arms, or a brother’s smile? Or a promise to a sister …
And so we cut to perhaps the single most-anticipated scene in the history of the show (well, the first half of it, anyway). Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven visit the final days of Robert’s Rebellion to witness Ned Stark, accompanied by Howland Reed and four others, ride up to the base of the fabled Tower of Joy. There, they are met by two knights of the Kingsguard – Lord Commander Gerold Hightower, and Ser Arthur Dayne, the legendary Sword of the Morning.
Dayne smiles resolutely. “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.” He dons his helmet, and readies himself for battle. “And now, it begins.”
“No,” Ned says, his voice tinged with sadness but laden with determination, “Now it ends.”
The duel commences. It is, in a word, magnificent. Dayne is an artist, and Ned fights with the ferocity of a man possessed. But for Bran, this story he grew up hearing a thousand times doesn’t seem to be following the beats that he expected. “He’s better than my father,” he correctly assesses as Dayne, wielding Dawn in one hand and a second sword in the other, wounds Howland and takes on Ned and three others at once with ease, effortlessly cutting them down one by one until only Ned is left. “Far better,” the Three-Eyed Raven agrees.
Indeed, Ned seems to be on the verge of death when Howland rises and drives his dagger into the back of Dayne’s neck. The Sword of the Morning falls to his knees, choking on his own blood. He glares at Ned ruefully, and Ned seemed agonized that it came to this. Bran is openly appalled – the illusion is broken. What remains is the harsh truth. “He stabbed him in the back.”
Once, it would have seemed unfathomable that Ned would condone, let alone participate in, such an action. But just as love is the death of duty, it is also more important than honor, especially when the stakes are this high. So Ned picks up Dawn and strikes down the now-unarmed Arthur Dayne, ending the life of one of the most revered knights the Seven Kingdoms has ever known. And then, from high above in the tower, Lyanna screams. Ned races towards the steps. Bran calls after him. “Father!”
Ned turns around. He sees no one, but the Three-Eyed Raven’s agonized expression all but confirms that Bran possesses the power to transcend the seemingly ironclad laws of time and affect the past. Shaking off the eerie moment, Ned enters the tower. Bran moves to follow him … and the Three-Eyed Raven stops him, pulling him back into the present day.
“Why did you do that?” Bran demands furiously, perfectly articulating (minus a few choice swear words) the frustrations of every single person watching at home, screaming at their television.
Once again, the Three-Eyed Raven warns Bran about the dangers of remaining in the past for too long. But now that Bran has glimpsed what’s possible, he has no desire to return to his own broken body, slowly learning the answers to obscure questions. He fixates on the only question that he and the audience want answered at this precise moment. “What’s in that tower?”
In time, the truth we all suspected even then will be confirmed: the man who began his second life at the beginning of this episode began his first in that very tower. But that time is not now, and the full implications of that reveal have yet to be reckoned with. After all, a Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing …
Another Targaryen presently alone in the world is Daenerys, who is brought to the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen and immediately stripped both of her clothes and the idea that her long list of titles affords her any respect here. For Dany this is merely a setback, but it’s meant to represent a permanent end to her ambitions. The High Priestess espouses the belief that Dany’s idealism simply hasn’t yet been broken by cold reality; Dany isn’t the first Khaleesi who thought she would one day conquer the world. None of the women who now reside in the temple wished to live out their days as widowed prophets offering counsel and omens to the rampaging Khals. They all had greater ambitions for their lives. But those dreams have been taken from them – they may not be broken, but they are resigned to their fate. Dany, however, is neither broken nor resigned. She knows what she wants, and she’s already working on a plan.
In Slaver’s Bay, Varys has a plan of his own – he intends to break Vala, the young Meereenese prostitute who has been conspiring to kill Dany’s soldiers. The Spider forgoes torture, but he’s ruthless in his own way, and while Vala is committed to her beliefs, they are not the most important thing in the world to her. Varys has already located Vala’s weakness: her young son Dom. He would never directly harm a child, but Vala herself is another matter. “How will poor Dom get on without his mother?” the Spider muses, “And with his breathing problem …”
This naked threat splinters Vala’s spirit of resistance. Varys offers her a lifeline – reveal who funds the Sons of the Harpy, and she and her son can receive a new life in Pentos, along with a heavy bag of silver. Vala complies, confessing that the Masters of Astapor, Yunkai, and Volantis are supporting the insurgency. Armed with this information, Grey Worm and Missandei believe that violence is the only recourse, but Tyrion is more skeptical, believing that diplomacy can work. Tyrion asks Varys if his little birds can deliver a message …
In King’s Landing, Qyburn has recruited Varys’s (former?) little birds into Cersei’s service. Cersei endured her Walk of Atonement and the death of her beloved daughter Myrcella, but she wasn’t broken by her traumatic experiences – she was hardened by them. Her hatred and desire for retribution against her enemies give her focus, and she and Jaime are set on taking back all that was taken from them. “If someone is planning on making our losses their gains, I want to hear it. If someone is laughing at the Queen who walked naked through the streets covered in shit, I want to hear. I want to know who they are. I want to know where they are.”
Still, Cersei doesn’t yet possess the raw power necessary to force her way back into the highest spheres of influence. When she and Jaime attempt to establish themselves on the Small Council, Kevan Lannister and Olenna Tyrell decide to take their ball and go home. It’s another setback, but Cersei has suffered far worse recently. This won’t deter her for long.
Cersei’s son Tommen attempts to exert his influence as well when he goes to visit the High Sparrow. But unlike his mother, Tommen is fragile, easy to break. The High Sparrow senses this immediately, and seizes his opportunity. The King of the Andals and the First Men walks right into the trap. Tommen may not fully realize it, but his half-hearted attempt to climb the ladder is already doomed, and the eventual fall will leave him broken at the foot of the Red Keep.
Arya Stark isn’t quite so easily broken, but after losing her sight and spending weeks being beaten in the streets, the relentless trauma of her training is exacting its toll. When the Waif isn’t bloodying her with a staff, she forces a girl to examine Arya’s past life from the perspective of someone who is no longer tied to it. Arya’s family (all dead, or lost to her). Arya’s list (now surprisingly short). Arya’s feelings about the Hound (despite her prior denials, she did not hate him by the end). “She sounds confused,” the Waif sneers. “Yes,” a girl responds. “She was.”
Arya sounds broken in that moment. But a girl is resilient, and she is learning. She manages to strike the Waif, and then blocks her rival’s furious retaliatory attack, proving that she has learned how to fight without relying on her eyes. Jaqen approves, and he leads her to the pool, inviting her to drink. “If a girl is truly no one, she has nothing to fear.” Arya drinks, and her vision is restored. “Who are you?” A man asks. “No One,” a girl declares. For the first time, it doesn’t completely impossible that she might be telling the truth. Or perhaps she’s learning how to play the game of faces at last …
As one Stark possibly renounces her name, another is in dire peril. At Winterfell, Ramsay receives a contingent from the Last Hearth, now ruled by Smalljon Umber, the deceased Greatjon’s son.
Crueler and more practical than his father, Smalljon doesn’t consider words of fealty to be as valuable in binding rival houses together as shared interest. What he can’t cast aside, however, is his bone-deep, lifelong hatred of the wildlings that have raided his family’s lands for generations. And while Smalljon may be willing to abandon his past allegiance in favor of ruthless realpolitik, he isn’t exactly brimming with affection for the new Warden of the North either. Ramsay suffers this disrespect with a surprising degree of restraint, but he cannot agree to the Smalljon’s request to join their forces without some token of fealty. “Fuck kneeling,” Smalljon declares, “And fuck oaths. I’ve got a gift for you.”
He brings in two figures, hooded and trussed. Our fears are confirmed when the figures are unmasked and revealed to be Rickon Stark and his fiercely devoted protector, Osha. Ramsay asks for proof of Rickon’s identity, and Smalljon obliges by bringing in the head of Shaggydog. House Stark, already devastated, has suffered another grievous wound.
At Castle Black, Rickon’s half-brother Jon sits quietly before the fire, holding the black Night’s Watch vest he wore on the night he was killed. It’s still stained with his blood and riddled with holes where the knives punched through the leather and into his flesh. When the time comes for him to avenge his own murder, Jon confronts the four surviving mutineers and asks for their final words: Bowen Marsh is entrenched in denial. Othell Yarwyck attempts to bargain. Alliser Thorne accepts his fate. His final words convey no remorse, but perhaps a hint of prophecy. “I fought. I lost. Now I rest. But you, Lord Snow, you’ll be fighting their battles forever.”
Olly says nothing to Jon. Jon says nothing to him. Some wounds can never be healed.
Jon prepares to carry out the sentence, but hesitates. He stands still, remembering the way the knives felt as they plunged into his body, the way he bled out onto the frozen ground. Jon’s face darkens. His heart hardens. He brings his sword down, sending the mutineers into the all-consuming darkness from which he had only just returned. Jon watches them die, quivering with suppressed rage as the mutineers twitch, choke and finally grow still.
Edd suggests that they burn the bodies – now that justice has been meted out, he expects things to return to normal. But for Jon, things can never truly be normal again. He hands Edd his cloak, and then he hands him command of Castle Black. Everyone watching, wildlings and crows alike, is stunned. But Jon, who has been hesitant and unsure ever since his return, finally seems to have settled on the one thing he knows, or at least that he wants, to be true. “My watch is ended,” he declares, and strides out of the courtyard towards an uncertain future.
Did Jon break his oath? Some may see it that way. For others, his debt to the realm and to the Watch has been satisfied by his death. But right now, Jon isn’t interested in anyone’s perspective but his own. Burdened with the certainty that he faces neither reward nor punishment if he should he fall again, only the prospect of eternal nothingness, he intends to live his second life as he never lived his first: for himself. Fortunately, hope and a new purpose are on their way to Castle Black, and while an unquestioning obligation to duty no longer rules the former Lord Commander’s heart, the promise of family and home will soon spur him to answer the call.
Introductions: In the present, we meet the High Priestess of the Dosh Khaleen (Souad Faress), the young Lhazareen khaleesi Ornella (Hannah John-Kamen), and Smalljon Umber (Dean S. Jagger). In the past, we encounter three legendary figures from Westerosi history – Ser Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts), Lord Commander Gerold Hightower (Eddie Eyre), and Howland Reed (Leo Woodruff) – as well as the young adult version of Ned Stark (Robert Aramayo).
Deaths: Alliser Thorne, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, and Olly are repaid for the treacherous murder of their Lord Commander with execution by hanging, courtesy of the man they had (temporarily) assassinated. Shaggydog, Rickon’s loyal direwolf, is discovered to have been killed by the Umbers. And in the past, we witness the deaths of Arthur Dayne and Gerold Hightower, as well as all of Ned’s Northern compatriots save for Howland Reed.
BeautifulDeath: Alliser Thorne and the mutineers