Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Game of Thrones” Season 6, Episode 3, titled “Oathbreaker.” To refresh your memory on the events of Episode 2, check out last week’s “Game of Thrones” recap.
Jon Snow is alive — but he doesn’t seem very happy about it. As evidenced by Buffy Summers, Dean Winchester and countless other TV heroes resurrected through mystical means, a trip back from the great beyond always comes with its share of baggage, and despite Melisandre’s reassurances about the Lord of Light and a grand destiny, it’s clear that Jon’s not arrogant enough to believe his revival is some divine attempt to balance the scales of justice — just further evidence of mankind’s hubris. When people meddle with forces they don’t understand, best case scenario is a Lord Commander who looks like a pincushion — worst case is Qyburn’s Frankenstein-esque experiment on Gregor Clegane, a mottled, Mountainous mutant who does nothing but grunt, murder and otherwise unnerve the residents of King’s Landing.
Jon may not have the ice blue eyes of the White Walkers, but he obviously recognizes the precariousness of his position, even before the awe-filled surviving members of the Night’s Watch and the wildlings shrink away from him like he might smite them at any moment. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says, after the reality of his situation sinks in. “I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. Now I’m back — why?” It’s a question without an answer, at least for now, but it’s fitting that Jon’s search for meaning takes place in an episode that also teases us with a potential answer to the lingering mystery of his parentage.
Fans of George R. R. Martin’s books have been eagerly awaiting a visit to the Tower of Joy, where Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven witness a young Ned Stark and his allies (including Meera and Jojen’s father, Howland Reed) facing off against legendary swordsman Ser Arthur Dayne, a member of the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen’s Kingsguard. Dayne and his ally were apparently instructed by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys and Viserys’ older brother) to guard the tower, where Ned suspects his sister Lyanna is being held after Rhaegar “kidnapped” her and incited the rebellion that eventually saw the Targaryen dynasty removed from power and Robert Baratheon installed on the Iron Throne. (For more on Rhaegar and Lyanna’s history, this clip is worth a rewatch.)
What relevance does this have to Jon Snow’s parentage, you may ask? You can fall down that rabbit hole of speculation here — but it’s worth remembering that after Lyanna’s death and Robert’s victory, Ned returned home to Winterfell and his new wife Catelyn with a bastard son, but refused to tell anyone the identity of Jon’s mother. Seems pretty fishy for a man known for his noble and honorable nature who just suffered the loss of his sister, right? Way back in Season 1, Ned promised to tell Jon the truth about his mother in due course, but sadly his fatal sense of honor and Joffrey’s sadistic temperament derailed that particular reveal.
The truth about Lyanna’s final moments and the promise she asks Ned to keep on her deathbed are still a mystery (at least until Bran gets a chance to go back to the Tower of Joy), but there are very few coincidences in Martin’s meticulously crafted series, and there’s probably a good reason why the Three-Eyed Raven doesn’t think Bran is ready to learn the truth about whatever Ned found in that tower. Just as intriguing is the revelation that though Bran may not have the power to truly change the past (“The past is already written, the ink is already dry,” quoth the Raven), it appears that he can at least make his presence felt, with Ned seeming to hear Bran calling to him even though the event Bran is visiting took place decades ago. The flashback also seems to indicate that Ned’s strong moral code wasn’t quite as sturdy when he was younger — at least when it came to protecting his family. There’s no honor in stabbing a man in the back; especially a man who takes his own oaths seriously.
Bran has to take it on faith that his patience will one day be rewarded, and that the Raven is keeping a leash on his power for a reason, and faith is a recurring theme in the episode, for good and for ill. Sometimes that belief is rewarded, as exemplified by Melisandre’s renewed faith in the Lord of Light; Arya’s (literal) blind faith that if she follows the rules in the House of Black and White, she will become the warrior that Jaqen H’ghar always intended (and get her sight back as a result); and Davos’ faith that eventually, good and righteous men might prevail, even if they have to fail many times before they succeed.
But blind faith is also dangerous; Ser Alliser Thorne looks Jon in the eye and tells him that he believes he did what was right when he betrayed the Lord Commander in order to protect the sanctity of the Night’s Watch, and that he’d make the same choice again; just as the High Sparrow believes that he and the Faith Militant are empowered by the gods to mete out their particular brand of justice — acting as vessels who unquestioningly follow a doctrine that leaves no room for human flaws. Cersei has already been on the receiving end of the justice of “the gods,” which explains why she’s willing to put her faith in Qyburn and the resurrected Gregor Clegane — but it’s arguable whether any good can come of trusting an abomination like The Mountain, who was pretty unhinged even before he was pulled back from death’s door. The Dothraki’s deference to their power structures and traditions takes the agency away from individuals like the widows of the Khals, leaving women like Daenerys at the mercy of men who treat their wives like chattel and see the world as something to be conquered. Oaths can bring powerful alliances — like Sansa and Brienne — but Ramsay Bolton and Smalljon Umber are proof that oaths are made to be broken; sometimes mutual self-interest is enough reassurance, since Ramsay’s trust in another traitor delivers him another unexpected gift: a grown Rickon Stark and his protector, Osha, who were last seen in Season 3. That can’t be good.
In the end, Jon, at least, decides that he no longer wants to be at the mercy of dogma — he’s seen firsthand that there are no gods, not the Lord of Light nor the Seven nor anyone else, waiting on the other side. That realization might be terrifying, but it’s also liberating; he hangs up his cloak (or rather passes it on to the deserving Dolorous Edd) and walks away from the Night’s Watch. He might be the “oathbreaker” that gives the episode its title, but Jon has technically fulfilled his vow to the Night’s Watch and then some, since the pledge says that a man’s watch “shall not end until my death,” and there’s no fine print about what to do in case of supernatural resurrection. It’s just a pity that Jon’s self-doubt is taking him away from the Watch when they need him more than ever, their numbers decimated by Hardhome and multiple mutinies, with the wildlings, the Watch and Melisandre desperate for a leader they can rally behind. But it’s probably just as well — since Ramsay has just gained another Stark as a chess piece and continues to terrorize the North, and Jon no longer has to honor his vow not to involve himself in political squabbles (or to “wear no crowns and win no glory”), it looks as if we might be gearing up for an epic clash of the bastards — Snow versus Snow. It’s about time Ramsay met his match.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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