In the season six premiere "The Red Woman," Game of Thrones took the briefest of pauses to reacquaint the audience with the human cost of this dangerous game. Fitting, then, that its successor, "Home," is a return to the show's most prevalent themes: the universality of the game of thrones. While "Home" refers to characters longing to return, it also represents the show's return to its thematic bedrock.
From Meereen to Pyke, King's Landing to Winterfell, the game is in full swing across the lands of Westeros and Essos. Rulers fall (in Balon Greyjoy's case, quite literally) and schemes are laid down as our characters try to secure their stations. If this sounds familiar, it should. George R. R. Martin has emphasized over and over again that the quest for power never truly ends; it plays out across the world, writ large and small, and one's grasp on power is always fleeting.
Still, it'd be wrong to start anywhere but Jon Snow's resurrection. Nearly 10 months in the coming, the return of Jon Snow was inevitable but no less satisfying. The show had a precarious path to walk here; unnecessarily prolonging his return would feel like stalling, while an immediate return would lessen the impact of his murder in the first place.
Before any of this could happen, Davos and company had to take back Castle Black from Alliser Thorne, with a giant assist from Wun Wun and the rest of the wildlings. Tormund and Dolorous Edd put the mutineers in chains, which clears the deck for Melisandre and Davos to work their magic.
Last week's cliffhanger revealed a Melisandre the audience had never before seen; defeated and neutered, we watch as the Red Woman is disrobed to reveal the humanity and frailty beneath. This moment provides an incredible launching point for Melisandre this episode. When Davos happens upon her bedchamber, Melisandre stares into her fire with a sense of resignation; the flames from which her power came seem to be nothing more than a lie.
The Onion Knight is an unlikely ally of Melisandre, and moreover, his pleas to her reek of a humanity that we haven't seen before in interactions with Melisandre.
The Red Priestess has long been a cypher on Game of Thrones; for some, such as Stannis, she was a means to an end. For others, she was a demigod wrapped up in flames and red robes. But rather than appeal to the priestess or her powers, Davos appeals to the woman beneath it all.
It's not about the gods or prophecies; it's about an extraordinary woman trying to help a man who has a role to play in the wars to come. Davos believes in miracles because of the Red Woman, and now, he believes in the Red Woman because he’s seen her miracles.
This dialogue calls back to Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion from season three, which Melisandre mentions to Ser Davos here. Thoros had never been much of a believer in the One True God, but when Beric fell to the lance of the Mountain, the red priest came back to the prayers he learned long ago. Unexpectedly, the Lord of Light answered and returned his friend to life.
And yet, knowing all this, Melisandre's face does not betray a flicker of hope during the "resurrection ceremony." She goes through the motions, but if she has any optimism, it's hidden behind a stoic facade.
The ceremony itself is likely a feint; words and rituals to convince Davos, Tormund, and maybe even herself. The chanting and hair cutting is nothing more than straw grasping. To that point, her words are not spoken in the Common Tongue nor are they subtitled; the words she speaks in High Valyrian matter not compared to the last word she utters: "please."
Much like Thoros before her, Melisandre’s prayers were not about reviving a soldier or hero; it was about something far more human. As Thoros pined for his friend, Melisandre is seeking the vigor that had been stripped from her (culminating with the crone reveal last week). Having lost all purpose and what few friends she had, the Red Priestess’s plea at the end signifies desperation, a yearning for some sign indicating her (potentially very long) life was not a waste.
For the nonce, the resolution of Melisandre’s despair is withheld from the audience. When Jon does not immediately return, she slinks from the chamber, defeated again. Edd, Tormund, and eventually Davos follow, leaving Ghost the sole witness to Jon’s resurrection.
Usually, in moments like this, it’d be the supernatural aspect of Jon’s return that would be worth breaking down; instead, the magic takes a backseat to the humanity wielding it.
Stories of magic, dragons, and demons thrill and inspire, but without robust, empathetic characters (and actors) behind them, it is not enough create the profound emotional catharsis that Game of Thrones pulls off here.
The Games Continue
Jon’s story was the takeaway of this story, but thematically, the show returned to its proverbial bread and salt: politicking. The saga constantly reinforces that no matter the scale or location, the game of thrones continues unabated. "Home" features upheavals in the Iron Islands and Winterfell, while others begin to make power plays in King’s Landing and Meereen.
Out east, Meereen is on the brink of war yet again. Astapor and Yunkai, slave cities sacked by Daenerys in Season 3, have been retaken by the masters and slavery has been reinstated. Worse, these cities are looking to march on Meereen and rid Slaver’s Bay of its Westerosi rulers. With no fleet and a battered force of Unsullied, Tyrion Lannister turns to Dany’s remaining dragons, Viserion and Rhaegal.
In an incredible turn for Peter Dinklage, Tyrion Lannister cautiously descends into the darkness of the dragon pits and confronts Daenerys’s chained behemoths.
Given his sharp tongue, Tyrion comforts himself (and a very wise Varys remaining at the entry to the pit) by reciting a story from his childhood. He dreamed of dragons, and wished for nothing more than to ride one for his name day. A child’s fancy, ultimately harmless, but Tyrion’s hopes were dashed immediately by his Lord Father. "The dragons are dead," Tywin would explain, and Tyrion’s desires were nothing short of foolish. The pain of that moment clearly has lingered with Tyrion to this day.
But it is the Lord Tywin, not dragons, who is dead in this story. Tyrion’s eyes are equal parts fear and wonder as he nears the dragons; in the same moment he is living out a childhood dream and tempting his own mortality. Whether it’s his words, his demeanor, or something else entirely, the dragons allow Tyrion to approach and remove their shackles. With the dragons unchained, Tyrion is hoping he’ll be able to tame, control, and when the time comes, unleash the dragons.
Tyrion's bookish by nature, and his fascination with dragons is apparent enough. While Daenerys has been nominally been able to control her dragons, her knowledge of them comes from what little her brother taught her (which has proven little enough time and again). If Tyrion possesses a deep understanding of dragonloore, it could be a major turning point in that entire arc. Dragons have played as a sword without a hilt; capable of both salvation and destruction. If Tyrion can get a handle of that sword, he may be able to wield it to devastating results.
As for the mother of dragons, the Targaryen words are "Fire and Blood," which is exceedingly appropriate for a family known for dragons and conquest. The last few seasons, however, Daenerys chose a different path in Meereen, one of politic and compromise, but to no avail. With the situation worsening, it appears if Tyrion is preparing for a show of force to remind Slaver’s Bay who truly rules.
A show of power is also in the cards in the capital, as the Lannister twins make moves to secure King’s Landing for themselves again. Cersei chooses a more covert road, first sending the undead Mountain after a commoner speaking ill of her. It appears one of the nearby scullions watching the man may have tipped Cersei off; in this case, it appears Cersei may slowly be rebuilding her network of spies (aided by Qyburn, no doubt, who had filled in as Master of Whisperers after Varys’s flight).
Maybe more telling is that Cersei’s spies are no longer focused on the lords in and around Red Keep; the smallfolk of King’s Landing can be just as important to securing the Iron Throne for her family. She has witnessed the disregard they had for Joffrey, and the love that Margaery Tyrell could cultivate from them. More dramatically, she had seen the sparrows rise up from nothing to overthrow her.
So while Cersei hasn’t changed her brute approach to the smallfolk, she knows she must control them if she has any chance of reclaiming power. And sometimes that means closing a few loose mouths.
Later, she finally speaks with King Tommen, in an initially chilly scene between the mother and son. Tommen has come to apologize, and his unease is quite clear. Even more, he has donned his crown, possibly to show his mother that he wants to be a man worthy of it (or perhaps, to show his mother he deserves respect).
Cersei, in an uncharacteristic move, allows Tommen to dictate the conversation, never making eye contact as he apologies for inaction after inaction. He finally comes around to say he wants to rule as his mother does, at which Cersei finally turns to embrace her son.
Cersei speaks little and less, and the words she does speak are distant and melancholy, but it seems as if she may have her claws back in her son.
While Cersei games with restraint and silence, her younger twin takes a more overt approach in his discussion with the High Sparrow, threatening to spill the fanatic’s blood right there. "The god wouldn’t mind," Jaime says, "they spill more than the rest of us combined."
The statement tracks with others uttered by Cersei and Tywin; while the Lannisters do not reject the gods outright, they take a rather nihilistic approach on their laws for men.
Jaime’s threats are countered, however, as sparrows swarm the Great Sept, and Jaime eventually stands down. Even so, Jaime had the opportunity to seize up the High Sparrow, as he remains public enemy #1 in House Lannister.
Given the numbers of the sparrows, one wonders if Jaime may turn to some unlikely allies to help overthrow the Faith Militant. The Tyrells, it seems, would have equal interest in doing so to free Margaery and Loras.
Pyke makes its return to the story (and credits) this week as well, as we see Balon Greyjoy, who has apparently survived the War of the Five Kings.
Despite being the last king standing, however, the Ironborn are in ruins. His only son Theon is lost to him, and the Ironborn may reject his daughter Yara as heir to the Salt Throne. Their conquest of the North is all but over; Deepwood Motte has fallen back into the hands of the Glovers, and the only treasures they’ve reaved are stones and pine cones.
Balon Greyjoy tried to play the game of thrones, but his Ironborn had little impact other than to hand Winterfell to the Boltons, and to end the male line of Greyjoys. Balon was unimaginative and dreamt small, and his obstinate adherence to Ironborn traditions inspired little faith elsewhere. The Lord of Pyke may have survived the War of Five Kings, but he did not come close to winning it.
All this sets the stage for the return of Balon’s younger brother, Euron, who makes a dramatic entrance on the rope bridges connecting the towers of Pyke. Euron (a.k.a. The Crow’s Eye) was banished from the Iron Islands by his elder brother long ago.
Considered mad by most, tales say Euron sailed and reaved all over the world, from Oldtown to Quarth to the shadowlands of Asshai. His command ship, Silence, is supposedly oared by mutes (or rather, men whose tongues have been torn out on the Crow’s Eye’s orders).
Euron’s arrival spells doom for Balon, as the latter is quickly dashed on the rocks below. As his body is laid to rest the following day, the Drowned Priest informs Yara that the lords of the Iron Islands will not necessarily be ruled by a female, and thus a Kingsmoot will be had for them to choose their king (or queen).
So in Pyke, like everywhere else, the game of thrones endures, as Yara and her uncle Euron (and possibly, a homeward-bound Theon) vie for the Salt Throne of the Iron Islands.
Lastly, our episode turns to the Lords of Winterfell. Roose Bolton’s hold on the North is tenuous at best; with Sansa and Theon fled, the Boltons will have to play the political game to keep their hold as Wardens of the North. The Karstarks are immediate allies; their liege lord was executed by King Robb, thus housing no love for the Starks. The Karstarks also come with one of the stronger military forces in the North, as most of their soldier fled North after Lord Rickard Karstark’s execution in season 3.
In the new Lord Karstark’s presence, Ramsay orchestrates his coup of Winterfell, stabbing his father moments after the birth of Roose and Walda Bolton’s son (where the actual stabbing echoes the staging of when Roose gave Robb Stark the Lannisters’ regards). The moment was altogether abrupt; it’s a prediction that many had for this season, but the suddenness was jarring. The new lord Karstark looks on undisturbed (likely part of Ramsay's play here), as Ramsay sends the terrified maester off to fetch Lady Walda and her newborn son.
The encounter between Lady Walda and Ramsay is about as frightening as one would expect; after holding the baby and giving Walda his heartfelt congratulations, Ramsay leads mother and son into the kennels, and with slow-building dread, eventually unleashes the hounds on his mother and brother-in-laws. In a span of a few minutes, Ramsay wiped the slate clean in Winterfell; there remain no challengers for Ramsay within House Bolton.
Upheaval came suddenly and quickly in the North, as it had in the Iron Islands and Dorne. A common aspect in these three cases is that the usurper in each case had familial ties to the ruler; be it Ellaria/Doran, Euron/Balon, or Ramsay/Roose, the former murdered a member of their family to seize control of their respective kingdom (noting that Ellaria was the paramour of Doran’s brother).
The warring factions thus far have generally been family against family, rich against the poor, slavers versus slaves. But as the tale of deceit and betrayal grows, animosity has slowly begun to turn inward within these various factions.
One of Martin’s prevailing motifs is that the fight for power is not bound by time or custom. Be it fantasy worlds or our own, men and women will always be vying to seize whatever throne is laid before them. It was deft of the show to take this hour to reacquaint us with the politic before it shifts into the final phase: the descent of the White Walkers, which will expose the pettiness and triviality of these wars between men.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Before I touch on the rest of the episode, I wanted to return to the Ramsay/Walda scene and express my general disgust with this storytelling decision. One of my main criticisms is that, on occasion, the show wallows a bit too much in the sadism and brutality that defines this world, often with characters such as Joffrey or Ramsay.
While the extreme violence and ruthlessness needs be depicted, a scene like this strikes me as gratuitous. The show thankfully held back from any gory visuals, but aside from "Roose’s wife and son are now dead," very little narrative value comes from this scene. Ramsay’s one-note cruelty is well documented, as is his love for murder via hound. It feels as if this scene was simply there for the shock value, even though every last viewer likely saw it coming. I don’t find this scene any more effective than if Ramsay had simply told the maester to fling Walda and her son from the Winterfell battlements.
Additionally, while the scene evoked requisite dread, it wasn’t particularly elegantly staged either. It’s clear to us that Ramsay is up to no good, and although Walda has little chance for escape with a newborn baby in her arms, she makes no attempt at flight. She simply just stands there as Ramsay drones on.
Staging like this has occasionally been an issue in the past; the exact scenario plays out when the White Walker attacks Gilly and Sam in Season 3 (Gilly makes no attempt to flee or even move). It should also be noted that this week’s director, Jeremy Podeswa, was also the director for that terrible Sand Snakes fight last season, so this may just be one of his weaker directing skills.
- Bran Stark returns after a season-long hiatus, along with Meera Reed, Hodor, and the Three-Eyed Raven, now played by Max Von Sydow. Bran’s quest to become the last greenseer has begun, and for this particular lesson, the Raven takes him to Winterfell many years ago.
Here, Bran witnesses the older generation of Stark kids (his father Ned, his uncles Brandon and Benjen) training in the courtyard not unlike how Jon, Robb, and Bran trained not long ago. As the boys battle, a teen girl rides in through the portcullis, and her presence and charisma immediately announce her as Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister and Robert Baratheon’s beloved. Or more importantly, Lyanna Stark abduction at the hand of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys's brother and Crown Prince of Westeros) was the tinder that sparked Robert's Rebellion.
I don’t want to linger too much on this, as Bran’s abilities and the older Starks will be heavy discussion items in the next couple weeks. But we do discover that Hodor once went by Willas and had broader powers of speech than we have witnessed. He’s about to spar with the youngest Stark child before Old Nan (looking much less Old) runs in and shoos him off. When Bran emerges from his dreams, he’s quick to tell Hodor all of this. Hodor’s response, however, is nothing but sadness and resignation. Credit to Kristain Naarn for consistently being able to inflect genuine emotion with a limited script.
- Another day in Braavos, another day of begging for Arya Stark. This time, however, her bout with the Waif is followed by a visit from Jaqen H’ghar. After rejecting his offers of food, shelter, and sight, Arya seemingly passes whatever game Jaqen is getting at, and leads her on, presumably back to the House of Black & White. The main takeaway from this scene is that Arya’s training is not yet complete, and that her blindness may not be permanent.
- Not often one can say "this was a good television episode for giants," but here we are. We witnessed both Wun Wun and the Mountain smash smaller men against brick walls, and even Hodor/Willas gets a mention for having "giant’s blood."
- Even if the show doesn’t go this route, this is officially my head canon: Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Dolorous Edd Tollett. Would also accept Wun Wun.
- After all the handwringing over Kit Harington and his hair length this past offseason, it’s very meta of this show to have Kit Harington’s luscious locks be the keys to resurrection.