This week’s Game of Thrones has a lot to say about the promises we make in order to prove ourselves. Oaths are simple strings of words that at first seem noble, but when brought fully into practice they inevitably collide with the tacit commitments of family, the powerful bonds of friendship, and the cold, chaotic ambivalence of history. This is most prominently seen in the tragedy of Jaime Lannister’s reputation and is the prevailing theme of “Oathkeeper.”
We open on flames as Grey Worm practices learning the common tongue. It is night time outside the wall of Meereen, the slave city that was dramatically pulled into a siege at the conclusion of last week’s “Breaker of Chains.”
Missandei – the liberated woman who knows 19 languages – is his teacher, trying to coax the personal history out of Daenerys’ Unsullied MVP by sharing her own experience of being taken as a slave. Her tactic doesn’t work as a way of knowing Grey Worm any better, but it does get him talking about his most passionate subject, which I suppose should count as a victory in late life literacy education.
He was always Unsullied, says the intense and proud commander, until the Mother of Dragons gave him life.
His teacher wants a connection though, and it shows. The scene’s blocking manifests in a familiar “budding romance” style, with their hands at the centre of the frame the entire time and fingers just barely separated by painful millimetres of unsaid interest.
Grey Worm plays it loyal, asking for the translation of a Valyrian phrase.
“Kill the masters,” he repeats after Missandei, before being interrupted by Daenerys and Ser Barristan. According to the Queen it’s time to follow through on their promise to the slaves of Meereen.
A promise to liberate is the first vow “Oathbreaker” displays, and then things get a bit more complicated when family and friendship are brought to the table in King’s Landing, a bit of strategic oath swearing takes place at Castle Black, and some devilishly chilling deals go down beyond The Wall.
Sticking with Grey Worm for now – who takes centre stage for the first time in his newly free life – we follow a dispatch of un-Unsullied through the sewers of Meereen to a chamber where slaves are held.
The captives are debating whether or not to rally under Daenerys’ banner when they are joined by the intruding liberators. Though, as Grey Worm articulates to the non-warriors: This is not some sort of hostile takeover, and the army outside the walls isn’t there to give them freedom. He punctuates this by dropping bundles of weapons to the floor. The servants must take freedom for themselves.
Meereen has three slaves for every master, a ratio that is brought into stark realization when we cut to a slave owner in an alley halting his stroll when he literally sees the writing on the wall.
“Kill the masters,” it says in red paint.
The 75 per cent choose liberty and chant “Meesa” as they await justice from their new mother figure, who has climbed to a high point to address the overturned masses.
Barristan is either getting tired of the constant mining of this cathartic plot arc (approach city, request slaves, have slaves denied, cue gratifying violence, repeat) or he really is having an honour attack, but either way he requests that his Queen show mercy for a change.
She can’t roll her eyes enough at this. These people comprise the citizenship that thought crucifying 163 children as mile markers was a cool use of municipal time and resources.
Each master is nailed to a post in the same manner and the usual four episode revenge-sploitation story concludes with Daenerys in front of her flag having kept her oath to free the slaves.
After this we catch up with the Oathbreaker and the sellsword – Jaime Lannister and Ser Bronn of the Blackwater – training in their secluded seaside sparring space. It’s that classic conflict between the two worldviews these characters have come to represent: Fighting pretty versus fighting to win, concluding with Bronn swiping Jaime’s golden right hand and clobbering him in the jaw.
This schoolyard bully move gives a chance for some reminder exposition of what is happening in King’s Landing. Tyrion is in a dungeon awaiting trial for the alleged murder of former mad king Joffrey Baratheon and Jaime hasn’t visited him yet.
Bronn lays down some post-fight club guidance, letting Jaime know that when Tyrion was on trial by combat back in season one, the first champion that the Imp elected was his brother. Tyrion knew his brother would put family first. Jaime would drop everything and ride to his rescue because he is a man who keeps tacit oaths of family ties despite his inconvenient nicknames.
Tyrion is thusly paid a visit by his brother and after some preliminary sibling teasing they get down to brass tacks. Jaime wants to know how he can help and is willing to stand up for Tyrion and believe his innocence.
Jaime won’t spring Tyrion from jail, despite the request, and lets his brother know that Cersei is offering a knighthood to whomever finds Sansa, who is believed to also be heavily involved in Joffrey’s poisoning.
We find out immediately that this is for good reason. On Petyr Baelish’s ship, Sansa learns some very important details in the conspiracy to successfully kill the late king. Littlefinger, who is on his way to marry her aunt Lysa Tully (the woman who still breastfeeds her, like, eight year old), lets Sansa know that she was definitively involved in the Purple Wedding.
A stone from her necklace, given to her by Ser Dontos, was missing prior to the reception, and Littlefinger strongly implies that it was the murder toxin.
It is an appropriately convoluted scheme, exactly the kind you would expect Baelish to be attached to, always eager to climb his proverbial ladder of chaos, risking everything for, well, everything.
“A man with no motive is a man no one suspects,” he tells Sansa, impressing upon her that he did this just to sow confusion, effectively retaking his oath as Westeros’ best shit disturber.
He all but tells her who else is behind all of this, mentioning new friends he believes will be more productive allies as we cross fade to the Tyrell women.
Olenna talks about her previous meddling in arranged marriages and then pretty much just comes right out and says “I killed that little asshole no one liked,” by telling her granddaughter that she would never have let her marry that perverted monster.
This gives way to a jump up north to Castle Black where men who keep their oaths are training to dispatch men who break them. Jon Snow is giving new recruits some sword fighting tips as he prepares them for what he hopes to be a well attended and successful raid on the mutineers that are currently occupying Craster’s Keep.
Among the new crow blood is a familiar face, Locke from house Bolton. The manhunter isn’t hiding under a false name, though he is operating under false pretense. He earns the desperate respect of Jon through his demonstrated skill as a warrior, better positioning himself to do what he’s really here for: find young Brandon Stark, the rightful heir to the North.
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei is drinking alone. She is simultaneously mourning the death of her sweet demented Joffrey and worrying about the life of her bland and boring, breath of fresh air other son: Tommen.
Jaime comes at her request and is given the now usual cold shoulder. Cersei tells her loving brother to quadruple the guards outside of Tommen’s room and he pleads with her to see that Tyrion is innocent.
This scene is a clear emotional beat in Jaime’s “learn to be a good guy” transformation arc (which concludes two scenes in the future) but it is still tainted by the fact that he raped Cersei last week.
The encounter is framed to draw sympathy from Jaime, who in this moment is just trying to make sure no innocent people get hurt (particularly Tyrion and Sansa). The issue with this is that it seems perfectly reasonable for Cersei to be adversarial to Jaime. He raped her very recently, so it seems like the show is really pushing the emotional exploitation when it asks for us to be on team Jaime.
The Kingslayer’s failure to elicit audience sympathy in his sister’s presence seems extra egregious when considering how well his relationship with Brienne of Tarth demonstrates his best virtues. The episode’s best sequence (albeit not the episode’s most shocking) begins with Brienne reading Jaime’s embarrassing and short entry in the book of deeds before he presents her with three gifts: his Valyrian steel sword, new armour, and Podrick the squire.
Because all of the best swords have names, as the friends part Brienne christens the blade Oathkeeper.
A single exchange paints the best picture of why Jaime is a new, better man. He says goodbye and she just nods, clenching her chin and reflecting Jaime’s newly surfaced heroism at us through her tear-filled eyes. Brienne is universally beloved for her purity, so getting her approval is a clear sign to us that a character is a-okay.
The naming of the episode’s titular sword carries with it a heavy number of thematic implications. The word Oathkeeper is a clear inversion of one of Ser Jaime’s nicknames, Oathbreaker. When Brienne gives the name to the sword it is as if she is bestowing it upon the Kingslayer himself, allowing the birth of a legendary sword to complete his metamorphosis. Their glances say it all.
There is also the history of the sword to take into account: it too was transformed, literally reforged out of dead Ned Stark’s greatsword, Ice. Reborn as Oathkeeper, Eddard’s steel is tasked to continue his fatherly duties from beyond the grave. Brienne will be the avatar of Sean Bean’s paternal protection as she rides out with Pod to save Sansa Stark from anyone wanting money, fame, and a title.
As soon at the name of the episode is evoked, we are shot back up to The Wall as the oath keeping boys of the Night’s Watch walk us through a case study in promises.
Sam fritters aloud about how he feels beholden to Gilly, wanting to break his vows and rescue her from the impending Wildling purge. Jon, who is planning his raid on Craster’s Keep, demonstrates his proudly worn loyalty, reminding his pal that no one leaves.
Jon wonders if Bran might be heading to Craster’s too, when he is interrupted and brought before the Acting Commander. He is told that he may go to silence the threat of the mutineers, but can only bring volunteers with him.
Doing what a young hero is supposed to do in this situation, Snow does his best “goin’ to battle” speech and recruits five brothers to help and a sneaky snake in the grass named Locke. Though the hunter for house Bolton hasn’t yet taken his vows, he is given permission to become a full member of the crows on the way to Craster’s.
It is thrilling to see the Night’s Watch story finally connect to the Westeros drama so tangibly, but mostly this move on Locke’s part really offers up one of the best examples of the heroism required in oath keeping. The cool, pragmatic, and brutal Bolton hunter is going to say some words, simply to get to where he needs to be. They have no meaning to him, and despite the conversation between Jon and Sam, it is true: an oath is just a bunch of things you say.
Catching up with the Craster Mutineers this is all too clear. Karl, the leader of these oathbreakers drinks wine from the skull of Jeor Mormont (the old commander of the Watch) as the lesser bullies of the group rape Craster’s daughter-wives.
Karl is interrupted from his constant boasting (pretty much begging to be killed by this show’s standards) as a daughter-wife enters with the last of Craster’s children. It is a boy, and despite the only rule around here clearly being “There are no rules,” the mutineers observe an ancient unspoken promise and offer the boy to the White Walkers.
Rast goes to do this, tempting fate and leaving the little bundle of joy in the snow some safe distance away. Paying a visit to the captive Ghost on his way back, he taunts the direwolf by pouring water outside of the dog’s cage.
Then the ravens start screaming and the puddle of water starts freezing and we all know what that means. But before we get another glimpse of the Walkers, we get to see that Bran, Meera, Hodor and Jojen are just a baby’s scream away from this potential zombie snowpocalypse.
The Little Lord wargs-out and investigates the crying in the form of his direwolf Summer. He finds Ghost, but falls into a trap so the children and the giant go to the rescue, only to be taken prisoner by the ex-Watchmen.
They are brought before the king of the mutiny, Karl, who after some bragging, posturing, and child abuse induces a seizure in Jojen and learns the true identity of Bran.
We are left with that, all the pieces set for a very high stakes revenge-slaughter between oathbreakers, oathkeepers, and an outlier who operates on a whole different level of morality.
The final scene is beautiful and sublime (and I’m told uncharted territory for hapless viewers like myself and knowledgeable book readers alike). A White Walker on a steed is slowly making his way across the frozen wastes in a blizzard, holding the last of Craster’s sons. The god-like being on a once-dead horse brings the child to an icy shrine in the shadow of a mountain, where another figure comes to hold the offering in its arms.
This tall humanoid with a spiky face places a finger on the infant’s cheek and its eyes turn a wonderful shade of White Walker blue. Apparently this is how babies are made in the far north.
It is also a perfect example of the causal problems with oaths, promises, and long standing deals. A sacrifice might be made in the short term with the best of intentions (keep the zombies away, etc.), but a lack of understanding in regards to what that action means might end up leading to a net loss (more ultra-zombies are created).
A dragon flaps its wings on the other side of the world and a White Walker is born in a blizzard beyond the wall. The words said between might give us all hope and inspire us to be better, but in the end the picture is too big to comprehend and obscured by time and snow.