Unlike that episode, things actually move forward — if abruptly at times — and several major story points are put into play, perhaps earlier than fans might have expected. (Chief among them: the resurrection of Jon Snow, which happens at episode’s end, followed by a brutally perfect cut to credits.)
I say “almost every way,” because this was also an episode that featured a woman and baby torn to death by dogs, in a scene that had little narrative value beyond, “Would Ramsay have his newborn baby half-brother torn to death by dogs? Yeah, probably.” That cast a pall over the rest of the episode, because it leaned so heavily into Game of Thrones‘ single biggest problem: indulging in shock for the sake of indulging in shock.
But there was still plenty of good to celebrate here, and world-renowned thespian Max von Sydow joined the cast of the show as a man who lives in a tree. Can any other show boast that? Of course not.
So here we go. Three winners and seven losers for Game of Thrones‘ latest episode.
Winner #1: Jon Snow and/or Melisandre’s understanding of the magical arts
It’s tempting to name Jon a winner here because, hey, he defeated death (who gets moved to the loser column for the first time in the show’s history, probably). When major characters die on Game of Thrones, they tend to stay dead, and the only resurrections we’ve seen have been minor ones around the show’s edges (seemingly just there to prepare us for moments like this one).
And in every way, Jon coming back from the dead is a high point of the episode. It’s something we all knew was coming — it would have been lousy storytelling if it hadn’t — but the series still managed to stretch it out just long enough to make me briefly wonder if he would stay dead. But then Ghost woke up, and Jon opened his eyes, and all was well.
Yet Jon didn’t really do anything here, did he? Melisandre’s the one who provides the necessary magical knowledge to bring him back from the afterlife, while Davos gives her the pep talk she needs to go through with the ritual. (It’s really a nicely written little speech, presumably penned by episode writer Dave Hill, about how Melisandre made him believe in miracles. Seriously, you could drop it into the middle of a high-school sports movie, pretty much verbatim.)
And the ritual itself is filled with the sorts of physical, sensual touches that this show excels at, especially when employed in magical ritual. Melisandre tenderly washes Jon’s body. She touches it. She prays. She leaves thinking none of it worked, and she, indeed, is the failure she thought she was.
But it did, and Melisandre takes the early lead in the running for the season’s MVP.
Winner #2: The concept of flashbacks
If you hang around to watch the “inside the episode” sequences HBO broadcasts after every new installment, or if you’ve just read interviews with showrunners David Benioffand D.B. Weiss, you’ve long heard that the two didn’t want to employ flashbacks to the days before Robert’s Rebellion (the war that led to Robert Baratheon’s rule of the Seven Kingdoms).
Indeed, in the segment immediately following this episode, Weiss called them “lazy storytelling.”
But flashbacks are sometimes the single best way to fill in back-story, especially if you can make them rich with dramatic irony or understanding of character. And Game of Thrones has found a pretty smart way to utilize flashbacks this season — by turning them into part of Bran’s magical training at the side of the Three-Eyed Raven (played by von Sydow).
The two dart into the past, where Bran longs to stay, so he might continue to watch his father as a young boy, to say nothing of his Aunt Lyanna, whom he’s never met. But the Raven draws the two back to the cold, foreboding present.
Considering how many secrets lurk in the Game of Thrones backstory — like a certain character’s parentage — I’m hoping that the season uses Bran’s training to reveal these answers dramatically, rather than through tortured monologues. And so far, signs point to yes.
Winner #3: The High Sparrow’s theocracy
The High Sparrow represents the very worst aspects of unchecked religious rule, for the most part. He punishes people for offenses that are core to their very beings, and he throws the powerful in jail for the most minor of sins. And most of the time, the punishment far outweighs the crime, as we saw with Cersei last year.
But he also sells a powerful narrative of himself — and of who should be given power — as we see in this episode. When he confronts Jaime in the wake of Myrcella’s funeral, he mentions that all it takes is the poor, the powerless, and the dispossessed banding together, and they can overthrow an empire. Jaime doesn’t seem too impressed, but he’s also outmatched by all of the Sparrows in the room, so he backs off.
If Game of Thrones is about how you establish better systems of government than the ones you have, then here’s another (albeit deeply flawed) solution: use people’s religious fears to ramp up faith-based hysteria, then drive the rich and powerful out of the way.
Loser #1: Viewers who were hoping not to see a woman and baby get ripped to pieces by dogs
Look, I get why the episode had Ramsay Bolton trap Walda Frey and his newborn half-brother in the room where he keeps his hounds, then had him whistle so the dogs tore the woman and her baby to shreds.
This is certainly the sort of thing Ramsay would do to tighten his hold on the northern throne, and it’s a good reminder of what a monster he is. I guess you could also say that he’s probably just angered Walder Frey, and you don’t want to anger Walder Frey (if we think Walder really cares about Walda, which I’m unconvinced by). A showdown between the show’s two most purely sociopathic characters could be interesting. Maybe.
But it was still a completely empty, pointless scene to actually depict onscreen. We already know Ramsay is a monster. The show makes a point of reminding us of that every week, and just showed us the character killing his father. We also understand that with Ramsay in power, the baby (and, by extension, his mother) are in danger. If, in a future episode or scene, somebody said Walda had mysteriously disappeared, we would get it.
So the scene adds nothing but shock value, and Game of Thrones increasingly seems to exist solely to be fueled by shock value. That’s a dangerous way to build a TV show, and it’s a quality that only grows more and more hollow with every new episode.
Ramsay exists solely so the audience wants to see him punished now, but he lacks the psychological complexity of the show’s other villains, like Tywin and Joffrey. He’s a cardboard monster, and nothing the show does has fixed that problem so far.
Loser #2: Tyrion Lannister’s strategizing
This week, Tyrion’s bright idea is to try to feed Dany’s dragons (which haven’t been eating), in hopes of winning them over to his cause or something like that.
As written and played by Peter Dinklage, it’s a nice little moment within the episode, and it’s a great reminder that for most of these characters, magic is still something very haunting and novel and strange. Tyrion has never met a dragon before, and when he was a boy, he was haunted by the fact that he might never do so. Now that he is, there’s a hushed reverence and quaking terror in his voice. It’s all very nicely done.
But it doesn’t work in the slightest. Better luck next time, Tyrion!
Loser #3: Jaime and Cersei and Tommen
Across the Narrow Sea, the other Lannisters (Tommen is a Baratheon by name, but give me this one) find themselves similarly boxed in. Jaime has the aforementioned encounter with the Sparrows. And while the Mountain can wander the city, bashing in the heads of people who tell nasty stories about Cersei, one Frankenstein’s monster of a soldier isn’t enough to turn the tide of a war the Lannisters lost long ago.
Meanwhile, Tommen has realized just how little control he has over anything that’s happening, to the degree that he doesn’t get to see Margaery, even when he explicitly requests it. And considering he’s the only child Jaime and Cersei have left, it’s not hard to imagine both of them increasingly losing patience with the boy.
On the other hand, once you box these characters into a corner, they tend to react viciously. I wouldn’t count the Lannisters out just yet, especially since they’re now the show’s de facto protagonists.
Loser #4: The concept of narrative development
There was a time when Game of Thrones was something of an incrementalist show. Changes would be built to very methodically and deliberately, and then some major event would happen and shift the playing field all at once.
The show’s third season is perhaps the strongest in this regard, its thematic structure building to the Red Wedding so beautifully that the event seems at once to be a complete surprise and 100 percent inevitable — perfect for a big twist.
But increasingly, the show seems to toss the characters into situations, then immediately get them out of those situations. It makes sense why it would do this with, say, Jon, because nobody wants to pay Kit Harington for a season of television he mostly lays dead throughout. But it makes less sense when it comes to Arya, unless the show simply thinks that her being a beggar is a dead-end for stories.
And you know what? I’m willing to believe that might be true. But if it was, then why spend two episodes on it, only to abandon it entirely?
At its best, Game of Thrones is written in a way where the various storylines comment upon and enrich each other, sometimes through comparisons and sometimes through contradictions. Too often in recent seasons, however, it has the feel of a show saying, “Let’s try this!” and then never finding a reason to have tried something new in the first place.
Loser #5: Roose Bolton
I’ll admit that for a second, I thought he had stabbed Ramsay, and I was very excited for what seemed like a somewhat novel twist. But nope. Ramsay stabbed him, and that was that. Bye, Roose!
Loser #6: The Greyjoys
The Greyjoys are in a world of hurt. Balon just got killed. There’s no clear line of succession. Yara can’t get anybody to take her claim to the throne seriously. And they don’t have any real path forward to secure even slightly more power within the Seven Kingdoms. Also, they have to live in Pyke, which looks like a grey, stormy place on the best of days.
And as if that weren’t enough, presumably Theon will be headed back to them in the very near future. Normally, this would take months of travel, but on the TV series, the Seven Kingdoms are roughly the size of Manhattan, so expect him back on Pyke within the week.
I don’t entirely know why the series has opted to loop Pyke back into its story — OK, I do; it’s because the show is stalling for time — but the sheer scale of calamity that befell Yara in a very short time ended up being kind of unintentionally comical. I presume she’ll come back from this, because damn, she deserves to. But it’s still sort of funny to watch it all play out.
Loser #7: Death
OK, death knocked off a bunch of recurring and regular characters in this episode, including Roose, Walda, and Balon. You could argue it had a pretty good hour, if not an all-time best hour. (That will probably always be the Red Wedding, which was the “death inGame of Thrones” equivalent of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors season.)
But then think about it this way: not only did death not get to continue its claim on Jon Snow, but it also was forced to watch as a 400-year-old woman bested it in a battle of the wills.
And that’s to say nothing of the way that Alliser’s attempt to slaughter everybody on Davos’s little band of rebels fell to ruin almost immediately, thanks to the timely intervention of some loyal Night’s Watch members, some wildlings, and that super cool giant.
This is Game of Thrones. Death will almost certainly have a very good week next week. But for now, for this hour alone, death is a loser.
At least, so long as you’re not a woman being ripped apart by dogs because you’re a “less important” character. Then it’s just too bad to be you, right?