Before this season even started, “Oathkeeper” was probably the episode that I was most looking forward to. The title of the episode refers to an important development in the Brienne/Jaime storyline, which is one of my favorite stories in the books. Unfortunately, after last week’s episode, Jaime’s rape of Cersei, and the subsequent revelations that the writers and director of the episode didn’t even consider there to have been a “real” rape, I found myself much less excited and faced with the prospect of being expected to have positive feelings about Jaime immediately following his having done something unconscionable.
So, going into “Oathkeeper,” I was already feeling disillusioned about the show in general and specifically concerned with what happened last week. The good news, I suppose, is that “Oathkeeper” contains some really excellent scenes, and the Jaime/Brienne scenes turned out beautifully (although I would have enjoyed them more if not for last week’s events). The bad news is that the show is continuing to take some important stories farther and farther off the rails in a way that completely changes it from the source material and, frankly, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. This episode also continues this season’s trend of ratcheting up the violence–specifically the violence against women–in a way that is especially disappointing to see in one of the few episodes of the show directed by a woman (Michelle MacLaren).
As always, spoilers (for the episode and possibly for books three through five) under the cut. And again, this week, trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexualized violence.
“Oathkeeper” opens in an interesting and, given the show’s general disregard for its POC characters, unexpected place, with Missandei and Grey Worm talking about their experiences as slaves taken from their homes as children while Missandei is teaching Grey Worm the language of Westeros. From a practical standpoint, this scene gives me hope that Grey Worm will be getting a larger role in the show as we continue through the series, as his learning the Westerosi language will make for fewer subtitles and, hopefully, more lines for the character. Aside from that, there’s quite a lot going on here outside of that more purely practical consideration.
It was suggested earlier in the season that Grey Worm was romantically interested in Missandei, and this scene expands upon that idea. There’s one moment where Grey Worm’s hand twitches, as if he’d like to reach out and comfort Missandei when she talks about the destruction of her home and her abduction, and it’s a beautifully subtle gesture that suggests a deep sympathy and gentleness in Grey Worm as well as his sexual attraction to Missandei. Missandei recoils slightly from Grey Worm’s movement, but her startled manner when Daenerys and Barristan interrupt their lesson seems to betray her own attraction to Grey Worm, although it could be simply self-consciousness at having witnesses to the emotionally intimate moment they were just having.
A Grey Worm/Missandei romance would definitely be a major change from the books, but I think it’s something that I would like to see explored on the show–as long as it’s treated with seriousness and respect, which I’m not certain the writers of this show are capable of. I worry that it will be explored but that Grey Worm’s status as a eunuch will be treated as a weird fetish or taboo for shock value rather than as a situation that simply requires a creative and open-minded solution for the prospective lovers.
My last thoughts on this scene are regarding the culture of slavery that is being described here. On the one hand, I like that they are giving screen time to these marginalized characters in order to discuss their feelings and experiences, but it feels possibly problematic on several levels. Missandei describes being abducted violently from her home by slavers and Grey Worm can’t remember a time before he was Unsullied, both experiences suggesting a system of chattel slavery that is consistent with the practice of slavery in the Americas, where Africans were often abducted and removed forcefully to new lives across the ocean where they and their children were slaves in perpetuity. I feel like, while this definitely provides the audience with a sense of visceral horror and outrage over slavery in general, it also ignores and oversimplifies the type of slavery that George R.R. Martin details in A Song of Ice and Fire, which is much more complex than that.
This isn’t to say that there is some gray area not being represented, where the slavery of Essos is somehow not horrific or something, but it seems as if there’s an effort being made to flatten the story of it and to force the representation of the slaves’ experiences into the familiar narrative of race-based chattel slavery as practiced by white Europeans. This seems to me to be profoundly dishonest and reductive, especially when, in the show, most of the slave masters in Essos have also been shown as people of color. In the real world and actual history, this sort of slavery was a unique invention of Europeans and founded in white supremacy, so it seems a bit slanderous to create this sort of fictional representation of slavery where people of color are both the perpetrators and victims and where a white woman comes to rescue them and teach them the value of freedom.
From this profoundly personal and intimate scene between Grey Worm and Missandei, we’re taken to the sewers of Meereen, where Grey Worm is leading a force of Unsullied into the city, disguised as slaves. In the city, and in keeping with my above point, we find the Meereenese slaves debating the merits and wisdom of rebelling against their masters when Grey Worm and company show up with weapons and a pep talk.
I actually sort of hate this trope in the series, that “no one can give you freedom; you have to take it.” The discussion that was happening before Grey Worm entered the room actually seems quite sensible to me. Some of the slaves of Meereen want to rebel, but they lack both military training and armaments to do so and it’s pointed out, quite rightly in my opinion, that without either weapons or training (or both) any rebellion is probably doomed to fail. It’s only when Grey Worm delivers weapons and the support and expertise of those Unsullied who have infiltrated the city that the slaves of Meereen are able to truly choose rebellion. Grey Worm has literally, by giving them the tools they lacked, provided the slaves with a choice, a freedom, that they didn’t have before. It’s easy to say that, well, they could have rebelled anyway, and, sure, they could have. But it’s even pointed out in this scene that they have rebelled before. Unsuccessfully. Because they lacked the basic means to do so effectively. The whole, “no one can give you freedom” thing is a great piece of rhetoric, but it’s patently absurd. The weapons that Grey Worm brings into Meereen are freedom, and what they allow the slaves to seize is power and control–which they then promptly turn over to Daenerys, calling her “Mhysa” and giving her all the credit for having rescued them, even though we’ve only just been treated to a speech about the importance of self-determination and taking freedom for themselves. It’s one of those things that makes for a good speech but doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it for even five minutes.
Meereen falls with barely a whimper, and the first thing Daenerys does is nail 163 of the city’s Great Masters to posts as justice for the children who lined her path to the city. Barristan points out that sometimes “it’s better to answer injustice with mercy,” to which Daenerys replies, “I will answer injustice with justice.” It’s a great line out of context, but here it seems only to highlight Daenerys’s inflexibility and self-righteousness–and her own potential for brutality. The final shot of Daenerys, standing atop one of Meereen’s pyramids, with the Targaryen dragon banner flying behind her, is actually quite chilling.
In King’s Landing, Jaime and Bronn continue their sparring with swords and words. Jaime seems to be improving until Bronn grabs his golden hand and hits him across the face with it. Bronn reminds Jaime of his responsibility to his brother after assuring Jaime that Tyrion didn’t kill Joffrey.
And so Jaime finally goes to visit Tyrion in prison, and it’s an excellent scene. Favorite line: “[Sansa]’s not a killer. Not yet.”
It’s really upsetting, though, that two such excellent Jaime scenes, in a Jaime-heavy episode, are so marred by his completely unaddressed rape of Cersei in last week’s episode. If you can pretend that didn’t happen, this is probably Jaime’s best episode in the whole show. If not, you’ll just end up feeling vaguely pissed off about it all like I did.
From Tyrion’s prison in King’s Landing to Sansa’s cell-like cabin on Littlefinger’s ship. We learn that they are on their way to the Eyrie, where Littlefinger is engaged to marry Sansa’s aunt, Lysa. I love everything about this scene. I love the visual parallels between Tyrion’s actual prison cell and Sansa’s cabin. I love the mirrored sentiments when Sansa, like Tyrion, is certain that her spouse was not responsible for Joffrey’s murder. I love that it’s clear that Sansa is nurturing a healthy distrust for Littlefinger. I love that it’s equally clear that Sansa is learning, that she’s taking in and remembering and understanding all the information that she’s being given. This scene feels like the most important scene in the show so far for Sansa’s character development. She’s one of my favorite characters in both the books and the show, so it’s really important to me that her story is done right. If this is the level of writing and acting we can expect for Sansa’s storyline, I’m very excited to see what happens next.
Back in King’s Landing, Olenna Tyrell is preparing to leave the city, much to Margaery’s dismay, but not before proving herself once again one of the most interesting and delightful characters on the show with a story about how she stole her sister’s intended husband followed by straight up admitting that she was the one who killed Joffrey. Margaery, apparently, had no idea. Olenna’s parting advice to her granddaughter is to secure a place in Prince Tommen’s affections while Cersei is distracted.
At the Wall, Jon Snow is training with some of the other men, but Alliser Thorne interrupts to point out that Jon is a steward, not a ranger. The most important thing we see here, however, is that Locke has made it to the Wall, where he’s apparently posing as a recruit. We also find out, via Janos Slynt, that Jon’s request in the last episode to go deal with the mutineers at Craster’s was denied, and Slynt advises Thorne to reconsider the request in the hope that Jon will be killed and so won’t be a threat when the Night’s Watch gets around to choosing a new Lord Commander.
Cersei, meanwhile, is drinking. She’s summoned Jaime to inquire about who is protecting Tommen. She also wants to give Jaime a hard time about his vow to Catelyn Stark and his visit to Tyrion. She’s angry at Jaime, over Catelyn, over Brienne, and over his relationship with Tyrion, and she’s unpleasant to him, but there’s no mention whatsoever of last week’s rape. Even in the books, Cersei’s declining sanity and increasing paranoia after Joffrey’s death and her sabotage of every relationship in her life seemed portrayed in a way that, even in Cersei’s POV chapters in A Feast for Crows, was terribly unfair to the character. This scene, written and filmed in such a way as to make Cersei seem unreasonable and Jaime seem victimized, is incredibly shitty after Jaime’s rape of Cersei last week, especially when the rape isn’t acknowledged or discussed in any way. It’s about what I expected of this show, but it’s still disappointing to have been right about it.
Margaery, taking her grandmother’s advice, manages to sneak past the Kingsguard posted outside Tommen’s room so she can visit with her prospective child husband. This scene is sweet, but also a little unsettling. I was happy to see Tommen’s cat, Ser Pounce, though. It’s a little strange seeing a Tommen so much older than Tommen in the books, who was about seven. The boy playing him now is fourteen, but I think this kid plays a bit younger. I’m a little concerned about how scenes between him and Natalie Dormer (who is my age) will play out as he ages over the next year or so, though. In the books, Margaery (only about 16 herself, whereas Dormer is in her early 30s) is almost motherly toward Tommen, but I feel like that dynamic changes dramatically with a Tommen who is old enough to start being sexually interested in a beautiful woman even if he’s not old enough to be an object of sexual interest to a woman. Even though Dormer herself can pass for a younger woman, maybe early-20s, I sort of feel like that may make things even weirder as Tommen goes through puberty. I’m not sure if this is a real criticism of the show, and I don’t really know what they could or should have done differently (aside from casting a younger Margaery, but I love Natalie Dormer in this role). It’s mostly just an observation on the weirdness of it, and some mild concern about this portrayal when we live in a society that routinely dismisses and minimizes the negative effects of predatory behavior of older women towards teenage boys. I suppose it’s just another way in which I don’t trust the writers of this show to do things right.
Elsewhere, Brienne is reading Jaime’s entry in the White Book, which is is disappointingly short and empty of achievements. “There’s still room left,” Jaime says with a meaningful glance at the Valyrian steel sword Tywin gave him in the first episode of the season. He gives the sword to Brienne, telling her that it’s reforged from Ned Starks sword and that she will use it to defend Ned Stark’s daughter. He also gives her a beautiful suit of armor to wear on her quest to find Sansa. “I’ll find her,” Brienne vows, “for Lady Catelyn and for you.” Watching this scene was perhaps the first time I felt really and truly enraged about the rape scene in “Breaker of Chains.” This is one of my favorite (maybe my number one favorite) scenes in the entire ASOIAF series, and it’s really perfectly done here, so it makes me furious that it’s tainted for me by Jaime now being a fucking rapist in the show. It’s such a wonderful twist on the ordinary fantasy tropes about knights and quests for honor and so on, and it’s such an important thing for Brienne’s character, and I’m just fucking livid that I can’t enjoy it the way that I would really like to be able to.
This extends into the next scene, where Jaime presents his last gift to Brienne–a squire. I love Podrick, and he did the thing where he calls Brienne “Ser” and then “M’lady.” I’m very much looking forward to seeing the Brienne and Podrick road trip. Finally, Brienne names the sword “Oathkeeper,” and Jaime looks like he wants to either cry or kiss her, but he does neither, although he does watch Brienne ride away until she’s out of sight. I want to love this, but again, Jaime is a fucking rapist, which makes it really hard for me to feel good things about him, and I’m still furious that this is the case.
Back at the Wall, Sam is feeling guilty about leaving Gilly in Mole’s Town. With wildlings raiding south of the Wall, he now worries that she’s no safer there, after all. It bothers me that we don’t get to see Gilly at all during any of this. It’s an obvious instance of a woman being used as a plot device for the development of a male character. We don’t know how Gilly is doing, how she’s getting along in Mole’s Town after being abandoned there, or how she feels about anything, but we sure do get to hear about how much the situation is bothering Sam. In this scene, we also learn that, unlike in the book where Sam was sworn to secrecy, in the show Sam has told Jon Snow all about meeting Bran. This is a huge change, and I don’t like it one bit. Locke shows up conveniently in time to hear “Bran” and “Craster’s” before telling Jon that Thorne wants to see him.
Thorne has decided to allow Jon’s foray to Craster’s, but he won’t order any men to go, putting Jon in the position of having to try and get volunteers. To Thorne’s surprise and discomfort, Jon gets quite a few men to join him in rooting out the deserters. I hate the long, drawn out dramatic music in this scene, which is completely invented for the show.
I just don’t like the changes that have been made to Jon’s story this season at all. We’re four episodes in, and we haven’t seen Mance, we’ve only seen Ygritte once, the Thenns have been turned into cannibals, the wildlings haven’t come near Castle Black, Sam’s character development has basically stalled, and Stannis is still at Dragonstone. The deserters at Craster’s don’t matter at all, so I don’t understand why the writers even wanted to revisit them. It’s just a lot of pointless delaying of the things that ought to be happening at the Wall: the wildling attack and Ygritte’s death, Jon’s rallying of the forces there to defend against Mance Rayder, and the huge battle at Castle Black where Stannis shows up to save the day. At this point, it doesn’t even feel like we’re making any meaningful progress toward these events, the first of which I had originally predicted would happen by this point in the season. ASOIAF is an enormous, complex series, and with only ten hours of programming per season, I’m simply baffled that the writers seem to be wasting time with pointless, boring shit that doesn’t have anything to do with the books.
In preparation for the imminent battle at Craster’s, we also get subjected to a scene of what Karl, Rast and the other deserters have been up to since we last saw them, and it’s fucking terrible. Karl is drinking wine from Jeor Mormont’s skull, shouting about fucking Craster’s wives till they’re dead, while Craster’s obviously abused wives are being raped in the background (and foreground). This is the single most disgusting scene I’ve ever seen on this show. Like with Arya and the Hound in the season opener, the rape of women is here treated as part of the scenery. The difference, though, is that while in that earlier episode we only saw a woman being man-handled and heard her crying out in distress, here we see women in various states of undress, bruised and bloody, and actually, currently being raped.
I’m actually surprised there hasn’t been more outcry about this in the blogosphere, because it’s so egregiously awful. Obviously, the show has really been ratcheting up the violence this season, especially the violence against women, but this scene was just beyond the pale. Making the rape of women into scenery is bad enough, but by filming it wish so much nudity they’ve made it so that it mirrors the atmosphere of brothel scenes in King’s Landing, where women’s naked bodies are also used as scenery for the titillation of the audience. It sexualizes the horrific violence that the women are experiencing without ever focusing on their feelings or emotions, and so it becomes incredibly and sickeningly objectifying.
While this is going on, one of the older women brings in a baby that is Craster’s last child, and it’s a son. Disturbingly, we then hear the remaining wives begin to chant for the boy to be given to the “gods” (the white walkers). This is profoundly unsettling, and it has a really unpleasant side effect of making these women seem creepy and inhuman, weird religious fanatics calling for the sacrifice of an infant. This also seems to contradict what we’ve seen of them earlier in the show, when some of them helped Gilly and her son to escape with Sam. Why would these women, who seem unquestioningly ready to sacrifice a male child, have helped Gilly then? And doesn’t this also contribute to portraying Gilly as an exceptional woman who inexplicably resisted the apparent brainwashing that her mother, aunts, and sisters must have been subjected to in order to become what we see here? It doesn’t even make sense.
Karl gives the baby to Rast and sends him out to dispose of the child and feed “the beast,” which turns out to be Jon Snow’s wolf, Ghost. Rast taunts Ghost by pouring a canteen of water on the ground in front of him. Then we hear crows calling, like we did before Sam and Gilly were found by the white walker last season, and the water Rast poured on the ground freezes in a way that implies magic. Rast gets freaked out and runs back to the keep.
Elsewhere in the woods, Bran, the Reeds, and Hodor are sitting around a fire when they hear a baby crying. Bran wargs into Summer to go investigate, but Summer gets caught in a trap, which means they have to go find him. While lurking around outside the keep, of course they get caught. Karl, of course, realizes how weird it is that some teenagers and a disabled giant are hanging around north of the Wall, so he starts torturing them to find out who they are. This of course means that we get to see him being super gross to Meera, because no female character on this show is safe from the threat of sexual violence.
Like the rest of what’s going on at the Wall and with the Night’s Watch, this is absolutely nothing like the way things happened in the book. Also like the rest, this doesn’t make even a tiny bit of sense. If Bran and company were going North from the Nightfort, without a map to know where any settlements are, how did they even get to Craster’s Keep? Why would Karl and the deserters have Ghost, who wasn’t even at Craster’s in the first place? Why on earth would Bran give his real name? And so quickly? Karl talks about having highborn hostages, but how does he intend to ransom them from north of the Wall? And why would he think that someone highborn wandering north of the Wall would even be able to be ransomed? It’s not like highborn kids just go traipsing north of the Wall for fun.
I suppose this means that next week, we’ll get some kind of intended-to-be-epic rescue, but I’m really having a hard time even caring about this extremely different-from-the-book storyline. I had no desire to revisit Craster’s. I certainly could have done without revisiting it in this manner. And I’d rather be seeing Bran and company meeting Coldhands and actually making progress on their journey than dealing with this extremely contrived and nonsensical danger.
Finally, the episode ends with Craster’s last son being carried off by a white walker. The zombie horse in this scene is superb, but there’s not much else good to say about this reveal of how the white walkers are created. I mean, okay, but why reveal this now? Or at all? It’s, again, not something we’ve seen so far in the source material, and I’m not sure it’s even relevant. The interesting thing about the white walkers isn’t where they come from; it’s the threat that they pose to the Seven Kingdoms. This doesn’t even really answer the question of where they come from. Craster was maybe in his 60s or 70s, but the white walkers have been around for thousands of years. They can’t all have been made from Craster’s sons, so what is even the point of showing this except maybe to try and make it seem necessary for us to be revisiting Craster’s Keep? It’s absurd, and I hate it.