"The North Remembers."
Three simple words, uttered by an extra, that carry so much more weight than anyone in Westeros can know.
"The North Remembers."
Baratheon. Lannister. Targaryen. Tully. Arryn. Frey. Bolton. Tyrell. Mormont. Martell. Game of Thrones is nothing if not vast; each season new families, new regions, and new characters come into play. As the story traveled north beyond the Wall, far south to Dorne, and far to the east in Essos, it becomes easy to forget where the heart of the story lies.
"The North Remembers."
Long before Peter Dinklage's Tyrion was the show's lead, before Jaime had lost a hand and gained his honor, before Dany gave birth to three fire serpents, and before Joffrey had trouble swallowing some pigeon pie at his own wedding, there was Ned Stark and his brood, our foremost protagonists in this sprawling epic. Our very first look at the Seven Kingdoms (in the pilot so many moons ago) was possibly the last happy moment for clan Stark; the girls doing their stitching (though how happy Arya was with THIS kind of needlework isn't much) and the boys practicing archery, all while Lord Eddard Stark and his wife Catelyn looked on lovingly.
Fast forward 5 seasons, and the picture is far more grim. Bran Stark lost his legs, Ned Stark lost his head, and Cat and Robb were murdered at the wedding of their own kin; the latter also losing his wife and unborn son in the process. Winterfell was sacked by Theon Greyjoy and then Ramsay Snow, two direwolves were killed and a third scattered to the wind. Bran and Rickon are believed to be dead, and many assume Arya is as well. Now their home, the largest of the Seven Kingdoms, is ruled by the treacherous Roose Bolton, the man who plunged his dagger into Robb Stark's heart.
Game of Thrones has not been kind to the Stark family, but this episode starts laying the groundwork for the wolves of Winterfell to be reborn.
The episode highlights three of the Stark children and how they must simultaneously embrace who they are while also burying that aspect of themselves (in Arya's case, quite literally) so that they can progress with their current agendas.
In Castle Black, newly-elected Lord Commander Jon Snow formally rejects Stannis Baratheon's offer to remove his taint of bastardy and become Jon Stark. In a roundabout way, Jon shows how much of a Stark he is by denying that name; he stays loyal to his Night's Watch oath, and his brothers, instead of becoming the new Lord of Winterfell.
Jon swore a vow, and much like Ned before him, he holds that vow sacred. Echoing his father and brother, Jon doesn't believe he can evoke loyalty amongst the northern lords if he himself can't be loyal to the Night's Watch. Recall Catelyn's words to Robb before he married Talisa: "Treat your oaths recklessly and your people will do the same."
The Ned parallels don't end there, as one of Jon's first actions as Lord Commander is to execute Lord Janos Slynt after Slynt refused his order to command at the abandoned fortress of Greyguard (more on Greyguard and the other castles along the Wall at the end). Jon may have won command of his brothers, but he did so by the narrowest of margins, making his hold on power tenuous at best, particularly with the presence of both Alliser Thorne and Slynt. Channeling his inner Michael Corleone, Jon "keeps his enemies closer" by awarding Thorne the position of First Ranger, a position last held by Jon's lost uncle Benjen. Jon and Alliser may be at odds, but both have a grudging respect for each other's ability and know that the Wall is stronger with both men stationed there.
Janos Slynt, however, offers none of the upside of Thorne and acts only to undermine's Jon command. After Slynt's refusal, Jon takes his head himself, much like his father would have ("the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword"). We've twice before seen Jon charged with execution; first he was ordered to kill Ygritte by Qhorin Halfhand, and then later the farmer at Queenscrown at the orders of Orell and Tormund. Each time it was not his sentence to pass, and each time he was morally compelled to disobey his orders. This time, Jon is serving himself as Lord Commander, and feels the moral rightness of his sentence. As Barristan told Daenerys last week, the more the Mad King passed judgment, the more sure of himself he became. Can Jon control his new-found authority, or will he follow the path of Aerys Targaryen?
Janos pleads for mercy in the end, admitting his own cowardice, but Jon does not relent; if he is to lead these men, he must show his words have mettle and his commands consequences. The North Remembers here as well: Slynt betrayed Ned in the throne room of King's Landing, ordering the gold cloaks to kill the Stark men while Ned was taken captive. Four seasons after that paradigm-shifting event, some modicum of revenge is finally obtained.
Jon isn't the only one wrestling with what it means to be a Stark, as Sansa Stark must come face-to-face with the man who murdered her brother and mother. Sansa has to decide if she is going to continue to be a pawn in the game of thrones, or if she will take the necessary steps to become a player and avenge her family. "There is no justice in the world," Littlefinger counsels her, "not unless we make it."
Littlefinger has betrothed Sansa to Ramsay Bolton, hoping to secure an alliance between the Vale and the North and further expand his control in Westeros. Sansa here is being presented as another pawn to the Boltons; marry her, and few could object to Bolton rule with the eldest surviving child of Ned Stark at their side. Here, Sansa's famous name is all that is needed to secure dominion of the North.
But while she may be a Stark in the streets, Littlefinger clearly wants her to be a direwolf in the sheets. While openly acting like the lady she was raised to be, Sansa now can begin to undermine the Boltons and avenge her brother and mother for the Red Wedding.
The elderly handmaiden who shows her to her new chambers casually utters "The North Remembers," immediately notifying the audience that the northerners have not forgotten the kindness of the Starks, nor the terrible tragedies enacted upon them. Coupled with Lyanna Mormont's letter to Stannis last week, it's becoming readily apparent that the North may be supporting House Bolton overtly, but underneath the facade is a people hungry for vengeance in the name of their former liege lord and King.
The wildcard in this plot thread is the son-of-Ned-in-all-but-blood, Theon Greyjoy. While having a very complicated connection with the Starks, Theon was raised amongst Lord Eddard's children, and was afforded every courtesy and honor at the hands of his warden. He actively avoids Sansa in this episode, but that likely won't last long, and it remains to be seen what effect that will have on Reek. Ramsay has thoroughly stamped out every bit of Theon Greyjoy that he could, but deep inside Reek's broken frame remains a little bit of Stark that was instilled in him, and Sansa may just be the spark to light that kindle to flame.
And we can't ignore where all of this is taking place, the ruin of Winterfell. This episode marks the first to take place within those walls since the Season 2 finale, marking 22 episodes since we last saw the Stark ancestral home. The opening credits have helped keep it in the viewer's mind, but just as the story returns focus to the remaining Starks, Winterfell also once again becomes the main setting for action.
Finally, we come to Arya, the only surviving Stark not in the North (or Westeros for that matter). After gaining entry to the House of Black and White last week, we find Arya sweeping the floors of this temple, still uncertain of where she is exactly or the truth behind the Faceless Men. Looking down upon her are statues in honor of gods of all sects; the burning heart of R'hllor (the symbol of the Red Priests), the weirwood face of the Old Gods (holy to the Starks and wildlings), the Drowned God (ditto the Ironborn), and the Stranger from the Faith of the Seven.
While all these faiths differ in practice and philosophy, they have in common what all religions of our world do: the concept of death.
The very core of faith is bringing understanding to the world around us, and specifically to areas that no human can possibly know. Death is the most prominent and inevitable of all these, as Arya witnesses a man drink from the holy pool, before laying himself at the feet of the Mother (another of the holy Seven) to die. When asking why there are statues to so many different dieties, Jaqen responds that there is only one God, recalling memories of Syrio Forel. "There is only god," Syrio told Arya long ago, "and his name is death." It turns out the House of Black and White, among other things, is a sanctuary for those who seek Death's gift.
We still know little about who the Faceless Men are, or what all happens in the House of Black and White, but we did learn that Arya cannot be herself to join their order; she must become no one before she can become faceless.
Upon noticing her effects, Jaqen asks Arya to rid herself of all her Stark belongings; her clothes, her coin, and most of all Needle. The first two she has little trouble parting with; Needle, however, is much more difficult to leave behind.
"Needle was Jon Snow's smile," Arya thinks to herself, recalling the loved one who gave her this sword. Needle is everything that is lost to her; her sister, her brothers (and half-brother), her parents, her wolf, her home. Arya must become No One to become a Faceless Man, but she knows that deep down, she will always be a wolf inside.
In the most literal display of burying Starkdom deep below the surface, Arya refuses to part with Needle, and instead hides it under a pile of rubble. Arya now becomes an apprentice in the House of Black and White, and for the time being, is truly no one. But a lying wolf does not sleep forever, and when she awakens, will she find her fang where she left it?
When Jaqen gives the dying man his drink, he mutters "Valar Dohaeris" (All Men Must Serve), the yin to the yang of "Valar Morghulis" (All Men Must Die). Game of Thrones has emphasized the latter (both in dialogue and in action), but this episode shows that the concept of serving also binds the children of Winterfell together.
On one end of the spectrum, Jon Snow is serving the entire realm as Lord Commander, with the imminent task of stopping the oncoming White Walkers, all while juggling relationships with his own men, King Stannis, and the wildlings. And while Jon serves from a position of power, the other end of the spectrum finds Reek, who no longer has any agency or freedom, and is shown quite literally serving his master Ramsay Bolton food and wine.
Meanwhile, Arya must begin to serve in the order of the Faceless Men, and with that comes the shedding of who she is as a Stark, as well as the impulsiveness and fire that defines her. Jaqen tells her that the Faceless Men do not kill on a whim, that they are merely servants of those who seek the gift of death. Arya begins her apprenticeship with the cleaning of a corpse, though what is to be done with the body afterwards is not yet revealed.
Sansa, on the other hand, is serving more than just Lord Baelish and Lord Bolton; she is serving her inner desire of vengeance for her family. As she openly plays her part as a highborn lady and heir to House Stark, her inner direwolf hungers for more. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and no one understands cold better than House Stark.
There was a lot to unpack in this episode (see below), but the key takeaway for me was how the focus of the narrative shone most brightly on the remaining children of Ned, be they Stark, Snow, or Greyjoy.
For the first time since in the inaugural seasons, they have the freedom and the power necessary to start righting the wrongs that have befallen them. The children have faced war, torture, and mutilation in the past 4 seasons, but now the tables turn, and it may just be a time for wolves. The North remembers, and so do we: winter is coming, and when the snows fall and white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.
In a Game of Thrones first, we finally had an uneventful wedding with King Tommen marrying Margaery Tyrell, married in the temple by the High Priest, in the sight of "the seven." And based on their pillow talk, the bedding may have been fairly uneventful as well, at least for Margaery.
After she gives Tommen her rose, she starts planting the seeds for Tommen to ship his mother off to Casterly Rock. Cersei is all that remains in House Tyrell's path to total power, and Margaery has begun the process of setting the Queen Mother (or is it Queen Dowager?) aside. Not unlike Samwell to Janos Slynt last week, Margaery thoroughly undresses Cersei in their small talk, bringing attention to her drinking problem, her advanced age, and the questionable lineage of her children (noting Tommen is "half lion, half stag" ironically).
Cersei takes the high road in this instance, but the way "The Rains of Castamere" plays after she departs tells us this lioness still has claws. The Tyrells have been key to the Lannister hold of power since the Battle of the Blackwater, and were mostly held in check by Tywin Lannister's sheer force of will.
With her father dead and the Tyrells scheming all on their own, Cersei enlists a new ally: The High Sparrow and the Faith. She deposes the sinful High Septon (giving the old pervert to Qyburn and his experiments deep in the Red Keep's dungeon), and quickly curries favor with the High Sparrow, played wonderfully by the affable Jonathan Pryce. From our own medieval history, we know that when the Church would tie itself to rulers, corruption and bloodbaths would soon follow. And seeing as Martin draws from all sorts of historical events....
I don't want to delve too deep into the Faith of the Seven (as I imagine that will be prominent in upcoming episodes), but here is a quick recap of what we do know: The Seven Gods of the Faith, brought to Westeros by the Andals thousands of years ago, represent the cycle of life and the faculties of man: the Father (judgment), Mother (motherhood), Warrior (battle), Smith (labor), Maiden (innocence), Crone (wisdom), and Stranger (death). In the phrase "the old gods and the new," they are the "new" gods (The old gods being that of the North, focused on weirwood trees, wargs, and the children of the forest). Most houses south of the Neck practice the Faith of the Seven, and are led by the High Septon, who acts essentially as the Pope.
A key distinction between the Faith and the other two religions we are most familiar with (the old gods of the North and the fire god of Melisandre and Stannis) is that there does not appear to be any magic or supernatural phenomenon associated with the Faith. On a side note, one of my favorite aspects of Martin's work is treating magic as religion. If our medieval ancestors witnessed magic events like those in Game of Thrones, they would most likely chalk it up to the god(s) they believed in. A nice twist on the old trope of magic in high fantasy.
A couple extra ravens:
- Before getting to the rest of the episode, a quick check in on the off-screen Starks. From casting notes, we know that neither Bran or Rickon will appear this season. Rickon hasn't been spotted since the penultimate episode of season three, when he, Osha, and Shaggydog left Bran and company behind to find the Last Hearth (the seat of House Umber, and the last great house of Westeros before reaching The Wall). Bran, meanwhile, was last seen meeting the Three-eyed Raven, where he presumably is being trained in the ways of greensight. To which I say to all of this: Hodor.
- I chose to focus my main review on the Stark children, but I could have just as easily zeroed in on the female characters. What a tour de force all around for the women of the cast; Cersei, Margaery, Brienne, and of course the Stark girls were all simply wonderful in this episode.
- My favorite part of the episode may have been the "origin story" of Brienne the Beauty. In Gwendoline Christie's finest work to date, we finally learn of Brienne's awkward youth, and how she came to be so enamored with Renly Baratheon. She loved him, yes, but it was more than just a romantic crush or the fancy of a handsome prince. She loved the only man who truly showed her kindness, and she still aches to avenge her lost King. She rides North for Winterfell and Sansa, but she also may be on a collision course with the man whose shadow killed Renly, Stannis Baratheon.
- Podrick Payne is the most happy-go-lucky character in the Seven Kingdoms, hands down. A Podstimist? Nah...I'll come up with something though.
- Speaking of these two, the CGI and camera work as the camera panned up from Sansa entering Moat Cailin to Brienne and Pod was simply gorgeous (with the marshes in the distance reminding me of the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings). As a whole, the camera work this season has been phenomenal. There are a lot more panning and tracking shots, more interesting cinematography (think Tyrion's view from the box), and much less over-the-shoulder angle/reverse angle dialogue scenes. The show doesn't have to rely on these techniques to make the story interesting, but it adds a lot to the visual richness of an already beautiful show.
- Another northerner makes his season debut this week, as Jorah Mormont of Bear Island finds himself in the same brothel as Tyrion and Varys in Volantis (a brothel that has a Daenerys look-a-like, uncoincidentally). After kindly letting Tyrion finish his business, he ties the dwarf up and claims he's taking him to the queen. Does he mean to take Tyrion to Queen Daenerys and win back her favor? Or is he taking the Imp back to his sister, where he can not only cash on his pardon but new lands and title as well?
- Bonus visual callback: Tyrion pissing off the Long Bridge of Volantis is captured at the same angle as Tyrion pissing of the Wall in Season 1, Episode 3.
- Above I noted Greyguard, the abandoned castle along the Wall that Janos Slynt was commanded to garrison. There are 17 castles on the southern side of the Wall, but only three of which are manned: Castle Black, the centermost castle where our story takes place. Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, the easternmost castle on the shores of the Bay of Seals; all the naval might of the Night's Watch resides here. And the Shadow Tower, one of the westernmost castles that overlooks the mountain passes that intersect with the Wall (Denys Mallister, the third nominee for Lord Commander from last week's episode, is in command here). The other 14 castles are currently abandoned, mostly due to the lack of men available to man them. We saw one of these abandoned castles in the Season 3 finale, as Bran Stark and company found passage through the Wall via a hidden well in the Nightfort. With the White Walkers on the march south, it appears Lord Commander Snow is going to rebuild some of the other castles to help fortify the north against the oncoming doom.
The North Remembers.