This week’s installment of Game of Thrones, “Oathkeeper,” opens where we left off last week, shortly after Daenerys’ powerful and visually striking appeal to Mereen’s enslaved population. While Daenerys’ stirring speech and presentation via catapult of broken shackles has served to plant the seed of rebellion into the minds of the city’s slaves, it’s Grey Worm and a band of Unsullied who bring the idea to fruition by sneaking through the city sewers and into the slaves quarters, arming them with blades and the even more liberating idea that their freedom is in their own hands. This tactical ploy not only wins Daenerys’ the city and bulks up her ever-increasing throng of devoted followers and soldiers, but does so with very little effort on her part, as the city is taken down via revolt from within. Dany does get her hands somewhat dirty, though, rejecting Selmy’s advice to show mercy to the masters of Mereen, instead insisting on answering “injustice with justice” and ordering the crucifixion of one master for each of the child slaves they had crucified in their failed attempt to intimidate the approaching Khaleesi.
Though it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the slaughtered slavers, Selmy raises an interesting question that harkens back to Tywin’s advice to Tommen regarding what makes a good ruler – is it better for a queen to serve her people justice or to grant them mercy? Daenerys’ ordered crucifixion of the masters is absolutely just, but the pursuit of justice can quickly turn to the pursuit of simple vengeance. Of all the would-be rulers fighting for the Iron Throne, Dany has throughout the series been positioned as likely the best and most humanitarian candidate, yet she wields a terrible power as personified by the three increasingly unmanageable and deadly dragons she is responsible for. If their – and thus, her – capacity to wreck absolute destruction isn’t tempered with mercy and forgiveness, even the seemingly righteous Dany could slide down the slippery slope to tyrannical corruption. While she’s so far been noble in her actions, the fact that she certainly seems to relish the adoration of the freed slaves hints at a possibly swelling ego. As she blissfully walked through the masse of outstretched hands like a rock star greeting her adoring fans, I couldn’t help but think of the ridiculously reverent line from Annie Hall, as she’s “got a million followers, who would crawl across the world just to touch the hem of her garment.” Dany might be starting to see herself in the same deified light her followers do, as that final shot of her peering icily down from the city walls, the enormous Targaryen banner waving behind her, was almost a little frightening, seeming to cast her in the light of imposing conqueror rather than benevolent queen.
Questions about the meaning of justice and honor also abound in Kings Landing, where Cersei’s demands for retribution for Joffrey’s murder seem to have less to do with punishing the true culprit than simply punishing her hated brother, Tyrion. In a tense and cold confrontation, Cersei (who may or may not be partially responding to her rape last week at the hands of her brother, depending on how you read that much-debated scene) faults Jaime for not sufficiently protecting Joffrey or Tommen and asks him if he would bring her Sansa’s head if she requested or if his oath to Catelynn Stark is worth more than his bond to her. Cersei’s extremely narrow and self-serving sense of honor translates to protecting her own interests and, by extension, those of her children, so Jaime’s keeping his word to Catelynn, an enemy of the Lannisters, is tantamount to betrayal. Similarly, when Jaime visits Tyrion in his prison cell and, believing him innocent of his son’s murder (I loved the exchange between the two about being the “Kingslayer brothers”) offers his help, Tyrion half-seriously suggests he help him escape. As Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Jaime says his oath prevents him from doing so, though as Tyrion is quick to point out, his oath to protect Aerys didn’t prevent him from slaying the Mad King when he needed to be stopped. If breaking his oath was justified to serve the greater good then, why isn’t it so now, when his brother faces certain death for a murder he didn’t commit? It is acceptable to break your sworn vows in pursuit of justice and doing what is right and, if so, where does one draw the line?
With Jaime’s complicated ties to his family and his own conflicting notions of honor leading him to somewhat of a moral impasse, he turns to the stalwart Brienne to keep his promise to Catelynn by proxy. Brienne is more unwavering in her adherence to her moral code and her word than anyone in Westeros since Ned Stark, so it’s both fitting and stirring when Jaime gifts her with the priceless Valyrian steel recycled from the late Stark patriarch’s sword, a suit of armor customized to her zaftig measurements, and Podrick (a safe escape route for Tyrion’s loyal squire and the set up for a deliciously entertaining odd-couple pairing).
At Castle Black, Jon Snow, who is often positioned as a less-compelling counterpart to Daenerys, gives a rousing speech of his own (well, rousing by Jon Snow standards. Perhaps his call to arms would have been more impactful were it delivered in Emilia Clarke’s powerful High Valyrian), appealing not only to the immediate safety of the men on the wall, but also to their sense of justice, calling to avenge the murder of Commander Mormont, whose skull now serves as a stemless wine goblet for the vile leader of the mutinous Night’s Watchmen, Karl. The scenes at Craster’s Keep were hard to watch, especially in light of last week’s highly contested scene between Jaime and Cersei, as the manner in which the violence perpetrated against Craster’s women was portrayed felt lurid and exploitative. Again, here we see how serving justice to terrible people often does nothing to alleviate the suffering of their victims, as though Craster was an awful man who deserved his bloody comeuppance no less than the masters of Mereen deserved theirs, things have since gotten progressively worse for his wives and daughters under the new regime at the Keep. Likewise, Craster’s sons still meet the same unfortunate, sacrificial fate, though at least here we’re given an intriguing glimpse into what the White Walkers have actually been doing with all those unwanted baby boys, something that George R.R. Martin has yet to reveal in any of the five Song of Ice and Fire novels. (Admittedly, I had to hide my eyes in the moments leading up to the baby’s eerie transformation. I’ve become completely lame since procreating last year and felt very uneasy as soon as that very real, very sad little boy was left for the creatures out in the snow.)
That final revelation was not the only departure from the source material in “Oathkeeper,” as the kidnapping of Bran, the Reeds, and poor Hodor is also new ground, as is the infiltration of the Night’s Watch by Bolton family associate, Locke, who’s cozying up to Jon Snow in hopes of discovering the whereabouts of remaining Stark heirs, Bran and Rickon. As is often the case with Benioff and Weiss’ alterations and additions, I found this development very intriguing and am eager to see how it plays out next week. Even though I am familiar with the novels, I love that the show finds ways to continuously surprise me, yet still maintain the spirit of the source material.
While “Oathkeeper” could be viewed as a standard, table-setting mid-season episode, a lot of ground was covered this week. We caught up with Littlefinger and Sansa and got a little more insight into who was truly behind King Joffrey’s murder. As always, any scene with the clever Tyrell women is a delight and I loved both Lady Olenna’s story on how she seductively won her sister’s fiancé for herself and also how Margaery interpreted that advice to charm the sweet young Tommen (and Ser Pounce) and slyly begin turning him away from his mother’s influence. Aside from the overly nasty business at Craster’s Keep, “Oathkeeper” was a well-crafted, compelling turn and one that lays out an intriguing path for the episodes to come.