Huge Stark family shakeups this week on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Arya Stark got her vision back. Bran Stark saw his father in action at the Tower of Joy. Rickon Stark has returned — but in Ramsay’s clutches. And Jon Snow just executed his enemies and quit the Night’s Watch.
Plus, season 6’s deadly major character kill streak continues — first we saw half the Dorne characters stabbed in the premiere, then Ramsay Bolton released the hounds on his family last week, and now the Night’s Watch mutineers have been executed, including the detestable, sniveling Olly and veteran bastard-hater Ser Alliser Thorne, who I eulogize heavily near the end of the recap (we also have an exit interview with Thorne actor Owen Teale that’s quite insightful and heartfelt, plus some thoughts from Kit Harington on why Jon Snow quit the Night’s Watch).
We start with…
Castle Black: Harrison Ford once defended his action-filled performances by saying, “I never accepted the notion that I was doing stunts — I was doing physical acting.” That quote often comes to mind while watching Kit Harington, who is rather terrific at physical acting. Like in this opening scene, where Jon Snow is breathing like he’s never drawn breath before and seems totally in shock. Watching googly-eyed Ser Davos is satisfying, and even icy Melisandre is pretty stunned.
Jon Snow tells them there’s no afterlife whatsoever, which is definitely a disappointment. But after seeing Jon Snow naked, I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t hit some CrossFit classes in purgatory.
Harington told us that line to Melisandre — that Jon Snow returns knowing nothing about any kind of afterlife — was crucial to his character this season, and I’m sure we’ll see a greater impact in future episodes.
Thankfully Ser Davos shakes off his shock and goes right into his standard Helpful Adviser mode: “You were dead, and now you’re not — that’s completely f—ing mad, seems to me; I can only imagine how it seems to you… What does it matter? You go on.” So yeah, buddy, shake it off; you’re fine.
Jon Snow goes down into the courtyard as his supporters stand there agape, though that might just be because Jon now has significantly shorter hair. Seriously, how much did Melisandre snip off during her impromptu resurrection ceremony? As he walks through the crowd I’m half-expecting somebody to try and kill him again, and each painful hug makes me wince. Tormund, who’s seen some magical stuff Beyond the Wall, is perhaps appropriately the least shocked and just makes a joke about Jon Snow’s johnson instead.
NEXT: Tower of Joy tease
The Ocean: Literal shipping with Sam and Gilly, back for the first time this season. They didn’t know Jon Snow died. But since he’s back, so they don’t actually need to know that now, really. Sam is going to the Citadel to study to become a maester to help Jon, but since women aren’t allowed, he’s planning on dropping Gilly at his family’s house in Horn Hill (where, you’ll recall, his father is a rather horrible person). There’s also lots of vomiting.
Dorne (twenty-something years ago): Another Bran flashback with the Three-Eyed Buzzkill, this time to a legendary fight that book-reading fans especially have been looking forward to seeing.
This takes place at the end of Robert’s Rebellion against Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Young Ned Stark and his companions were on mission to rescue Ned’s sister Lyanna, who was being held in a place in Dorne called the Tower of Joy (no, it only sounds like a multi-level Vegas strip club). Lyanna was either kidnapped by Rhaegar or eloped with him, depending on whom in Westeros you ask (the Starks and Robert say kidnapped, but Littlefinger once smirked at that description while noble Ser Barristan has praised Rhaegar as “the finest man I ever met”). The tower is guarded by members of the Kingsguard, most formidably by double-sword-wielding Ser Arthur Dayne.
What comes next is a fantastic sword fight as the totally outnumbered Dayne kills just about everybody. Bran is confused. It’s pretty clear Ned’s about to die, but he knows that’s not what happens. Suddenly Dayne is killed by being stabbed in the back by one of Ned’s dying companions — something noble Ned apparently left out of the story when retelling it over the years. It’s an intriguing character wrinkle, as Eddard Stark has long been considered honorable to a fault.
With Dayne gone, Bran speaks for all of us: “What’s in the tower?” And as Ned starts to ascend the stairs, Bran calls to him, and for a moment it’s like Ned can hear him.
The Three-Eyed Raven yanks Bran out his vision and back to their Groot cave, and fans with Jon Snow parentage theories throw up their hands in frustration. Bran tells him he doesn’t want to grow old in the cave, and the Raven assures him he won’t but has to learn. Learn what? “Everything” — that sounds like an awful lot and is rather annoying coming from somebody who just halted Bran’s vision right before he was supposed to find out something potentially super informative.
Vaes Dothrak: Dany is brought to her depressing new home for widowed khal wives. She meets the other exes, and they strip her and are rather unfriendly. The Real Housewives of Vaes Dothrak explain that even this miserable hut-based existence isn’t exactly guaranteed, and she still needs permission to stay when all the khalasars arrive for some kind of upcoming Dothraki U.N. meetup called the Khalar Vezhven.
Meereen: Varys meets with Vala, the woman who helped orchestrate the Sons of the Harpy insurgent attacks last season. This is interesting because for six seasons we’ve heard about Varys being this incredible intelligence agency master, with his “little birds” bringing him all sorts of valuable tidbits. Here, we finally see behind the curtain to glimpse his method — “making people happy.” Studies in our real world have found that building rapport actually is superior to torture when it comes to extracting information from enemies — and that’s Varys’ technique, too.
Meanwhile Tyrion is bored. He’s stuck with Grey Worm and Missandei, two characters not exactly known for their conversational skills. He’s on the verge of getting them to agree to a game of Never Have We Ever, which we’re all down for watching, when Varys disappointingly interrupts. He informs them the masters of other Slaver’s Bay cities that Dany conquered are funding the local rebel operation in Meereen. The news makes Tyrion only slightly less bored.
NEXT: The Shaggy DOA
King’s Landing: Creepy quack Qyburn is talking to a gaggle of street kids, and we’re instantly a bit nervous over what he might do to them. We learn they were Varys’ “little birds” informants, and Qyburn is giving them sweets to continue their intelligence-gathering for him. If they weren’t wary enough talking to Qyburn, they’re outright terrified when Mountainstein enters, followed by Cersei and Jaime. Quite rightly, they scurry out of the room.
Jaime wonders aloud if the Mountain even understands what they’re saying, and we get another great scary head-turn out of him, and even better, Jaime’s startled reaction. We learn here that Cersei thinks the Mountain will only have to face one of the High Sparrow’s men, meaning she plans to opt for Trial by Combat and appoint the Mountain as her champion. As far as I’m concerned, the Mountain is already a champion because every time he’s added to a scene, all he needs to do is stand there and everything gets tenser and funnier.
Speaking of: Later there’s a Small Council meeting complain-fest that Cersei and Jaime try to crash. Here the Mountain quite literally scares the s–t out of Maester Pycelle. Queen of Thorns Lady Olenna is there, too, trying to help her imprisoned granddaughter, Margaery, and boldly throwing incest shade at Cersei: “You’re not the queen; you’re not married to the king; I do appreciate that these things can get a bit confusing in your family” — she’s might be the bravest one in the room.
But Cersei’s Uncle Kevan is having none of her interfering and walks out in protest — taking the rest of the council with him, even cowardly Pycelle. They hurry past Mountainstein just like the little kids.
Braavos: Here’s a real rarity in the Thrones universe — a training montage! It’s craftily edited so you almost don’t quite realize it’s a montage, but it is. This is Arya’s Rocky IV sequence, progressively getting better at fighting blind and receiving face-whacks by the Waif while passing her oral exam, too, as she recounts her past. Finally she’s getting Daredevil-like successful at fighting without her eyes, only without an annoying Foggy Nelson to hold her back.
Jaqen H’ghar tries to tempt her by asking once again if she says her name, he’ll give her eyes back. But Arya sees right through that (ahem). She says “no one,” passing his test, boom — no more cloudy contacts: Arya can not only see, but also can now fight in the dark better than anybody.
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Winterfell: Ramsay could use some cheering up. His buddy Theon ditched him, his bride Sansa dumped him, his father and stepmom and baby brother died. Yeah it’s all totally his fault, but still…
Now here’s one of the North’s bannermen
Rob Zombie Smalljon Umber being disrespectful by accusing Ramsay of killing his father, Roose, and refusing to kneel. I like how Ramsay is totally unfazed by Smalljon’s attitude and seems, if anything, amused. You just never know how Ramsay is going to react to anything.
Smalljon reveals he has a present for Ramsay, which gets him excited. People probably don’t bring Ramsay presents very often. One is a hobbit — or, er, Rickon Stark! But Ramsay isn’t sure it’s really him, and frankly neither are we. Since we last saw him in season 3, Rickon looks like he aged at least half a decade and has been working in a surf shop somewhere.
In the early seasons, we called Rickon the Maggie Simpson of the Stark family because he basically never had any dialogue and rather amusingly still doesn’t have any now. Previously, Bran had sent Rickon and his Wildling nanny Osha to live with House Umber since they were Stark supporters. But now the Umbers are supporting the Boltons because there don’t seem to be any Starks left to support — unless you count Jon Snow (who has annoyed them by letting Wildlings south of the wall) or Rickon (who’s still pretty young and doesn’t have anything to say). You could say he’s an “oathbreaker.”
To help with ID’ing Rickon, Smalljon reveals they have killed the kid’s direwolf, Shaggydog (a name that always seemed to prove you should be at least 10 years old before you get to name a direwolf). Everybody is very upset about this. I have no knowledge of why Shaggydog — a name I always want to spell as Shaggydogg — was spiked, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was for totally fan-frustrating pragmatic writerly reason (Like: “Hm, but what do we do with Rickon’s direwolf while he’s captured?” “We could just kill the direwolf.” “Sure, okay, that solves that!”). Tally update: We’ve now lost three Starks (Ned, Robb, Catelyn) and are down three direwolves (Grey Wind, Lady, Shaggydog — with Nymeria MIA).
Castle Black: Jon Snow is called down to execute the traitors. One of them asks him to write a letter to his mother, and Jon looks like he’s totally not going to bother. Ser Alliser Thorne, well, we’ll get to him in a moment. While Olly looks indignant. After Jon executes all of them, he then gives Dolorous Edd his black cloak and reveals: “My watch has ended” — he’s quitting! And he can do that, sort of. The Night’s Watch creed says, “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death…” Since Jon Snow has now died, he would no longer technically be an “oathbreaker” to give up the Black. A loophole, and he only had to get stabbed to death to do it. I wonder if he’s going to let Edd come with him.
Personally, I loved Thorne and want to eulogize him a bit here. He wasn’t a total villain like Ramsay or even an evil schemer like Tywin. And his position was never indefensible. Thorne’s duty was to keep the Wildlings and supernatural beasties from coming south. The Wildlings — as we saw with Olly’s family — rampage through towns killing innocent people. Thorne is a like a solider who’s been given an order that, in his mind, contradicts his purpose and is therefore unlawful. A great number of southern houses want Thorne on that wall; they need him on that wall. He’s their Col. Jessup. So when Thorne decided to give Jon Snow a Code Red, it was for reasons that we might not agree with, but the move was aligned with the same leadership and heroism Thorne showed while defending the courtyard during the Battle of Castle Black.
Plus, Thorne’s total intractability was fun. From the moment Jon Snow arrived at Castle Black in the first season, Thorne was Severus Snape to Jon Snow’s Harry Potter — the older, bitter, black-clad authoritarian teacher who totally resented this young, talented, rule-breaker from an admired family. And as with Potter and Snape, everything Snow did just managed to piss off Thorne even more, no matter how well-intentioned or heroic. We’ve all had people in our life or workplace who, no matter how hard we try, we simply cannot impress. No matter what Snow did, Thorne’s hatred only grew. Snow’s a natural fighter? Bastard! Keeps his oath with the Night’s Watch despite his father and brother being killed? Bastard! Infiltrates the Wildlings and warns Castle Black of their pending attack? Bastard! Reject Stannis’ offer to reclaim his home? Bastard!
Then, finally, Thorne gets so fed up with him, he stabs Jon Snow to death. Snow is dead — really dead. Thorne finally got rid of his nemesis. Then Jon Snow comes back to life — resurrected and seemingly totally fine. And Thorne, this guy, he’s still not impressed! Even Jon Snow returning from the dead doesn’t faze him. Ser Alliser is just like: Oh yeah? So? You think you’re special or something? You just gonna keep being resurrected like a coward whenever life gets too hard and somebody kills you? Bastard!
So Thorne actually tries to make Snow feel lousy about not having the decency to stay murdered. “You’ll be fighting battles forever,” Thorne tells him. He’s basically saying that since Jon Snow’s a bleeding heart in this cruel Darwinian world, he’s just gonna end up having to fight to keep people from trying to kill him the rest of his life. You didn’t win, Snow, ya cheated — literally cheated death. Is that that kind of man you are? A cheater? I half expected Thorne, as he was dancing at the end of the rope, to gasp out one final, “Bassssstaaarrrrd…”
Oh, and of course Olly dies, too. The orphan’s betrayal of his mentor Jon Snow was particularly effective last season because we sympathized with Olly and rooted for him, so his actions felt like he was not only betraying Snow, but also betraying us. He’s since been dubbed “the most hated character in television.” Now he’s giving Joffrey footrubs in hell.
More: Here’s our interview with Ser Alliser Thorne actor Owen Teale where he gives some insight into “Oathbreaker” and his time on the show. And see our brief chat with Harington about why Snow is leaving the Night’s Watch.
If you haven’t checked out our behind-the-scenes cover story of Jon Snow’s death and resurrection, it’s a 4,500-word tale that includes an exclusive Harington interview and quotes from the showrunners, directors, fellow castmates, HBO, and more. Read it here ($1.99 for non-subscribers).
Tomorrow we’ll have another episode of our GoT podcast to break down “Oathbreaker”; subscribe and listen here. (UPDATE: New episode posted below)
Here’s our trivia question, for a season 5 Blu-ray set. First to email the correct answer to firstname.lastname@example.org gets it. Picking something from our big Harington interview so an EW subscriber wins this one. The answer is very simple if you have a print or online copy handy: What’s the final quote from Kit at the very end of this week’s cover story?