"You are welcome to do so, Lord Umber. And when I am done with the Lannisters, I will march back North, root you out of your keep, and hang you for an oathbreaker." – Robb Stark
Game of Thrones thrives at subverting fantasy tropes; it exposes medieval society’s disgusting underbelly as it would necessarily be under the physics and politics of such a world. Game of Thrones not only asks us to question the nature of heroes and villains, but also the cultural bedrock of Westeros: oaths, vows, honor, and loyalty. Upholding that virtue makes a man righteous, a hero in Westerosi lore, even if that virtue comes at grave cost.
Oathbreaking may be vice in the Seven Kingdoms, but it is in fact the engine that drives our narrative forward.
Rhaegar Targaryen broke a sacred vow to his wife to elope with Lyanna Stark, thus kicking off Robert’s Rebellion. Jaime Lannister broke his oath to protect his king, murdering the mad Aerys and ending the Targaryen dynasty. Decades later, Robb Stark reneged on his oath to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters; in turn, Roose Bolton broke his oath to House Stark when he betrayed King Robb at the Twins. And on it goes.
Jaime Lannister once spoke sharply to Catelyn Stark about all the vows he’s sworn, and how often they are at odds. How can he defend the king and protect the people if his king orders him to murder the smallfolk? When Aerys told him to bring him Lord Tywin’s head, does Jaime’s oath to his father or his king take precedence? The conflict created within often drops our characters to their lowest point, creating a crisis of identity.
"My watch has ended."
The arc of Jon Snow’s character is riddled with oathbreaking, which is anathema to the Night’s Watch. When he heard of Lord Eddard’s death, he briefly absconded from the Watch before Samwell Tarly brought him back. He killed Qhorin Halfhand, joined the freefolk, and laid with Ygritte, any of which could have meant his head if his brothers at the Wall had deemed fit. And of course, he settled the wildlings south of the Wall, ending a thousand year segregation between them and the kingdoms of Westeros.
And yet, for all these broken vows, Jon is upholding the most important one: to defend the realms of men. Promises to Ygritte, the Watch, to the King-Beyond-the-Wall; none of these matter when doom comes for Westeros. George RR Martin’s story is a constant reminder that the petty squabbles of men pale in comparison to the existential threats that face them.
Jon Snow, like Jaime Lannister before him, has had enough of the oaths that imprison him.
Prior to his assassination, Jon struggled to adhere to his vows, even when he did end up breaking them. But his return from the darkness shows a struggle no longer. The miracle of his resurrection remains a mystery, but his commitment to the Night’s Watch is not in doubt. After hanging the oathbreakers who betrayed him, Jon hands over Lord Commander duties to his good friend Dolorous Edd, before exiting stage right with an emphatic "My watch has ended."
While some may see Jon as an oathbreaker once again, a deserter of the Night’s Watch (recall, the series itself opened up with Ned Stark executing Wil, a Night’s Watch deserter), others will point out that a ranger’s watch "shall not end until my death," thus providing an out for The Bastard of Winterfell. And for the first time this series, Jon Snow has truly broken free.
As a highborn bastard, Jon Snow’s ceiling in Westerosi society is relatively low; as a vassal of House Stark, the best he could hope for is to be married off to a lesser house, since most high lords would scoff at marrying their children to a bastard. Jon instead turned to the Night’s Watch, a place where bastards had a chance for upward mobility. And though he did ascend rather quickly, Jon had to sacrifice family, children, and his own freedom to do so.
Released from his Watch, Jon Snow is now at a crossroads.
Ramsay Bolton holds Winterfell, but Jon has little chance of taking back the stronghold without an army. His half-sister Sansa is heading toward Castle Black, but it remains to be seen if they will cross paths. And most of all, Jon knows that the White Walkers march on the Wall, and that ultimately that is the only fight that matters. He may be released from his vows, but the realms of men still need defending.
While the stories of Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister are about the oaths individuals swear, the great houses of Westeros also swear oaths, be it to the Iron Throne or the regional wardens. House Bolton now rules as Wardens of the North, and with Sansa Stark fled, Ramsay has to politic with the other Northern houses to secure his rule.
House Umber appeared briefly in season one of Game of Thrones; the last great Northern house on the way to the Wall, the Umbers have been one of the Starks’ most stalwart allies during Robert and later Robb’s rebellion. Greatjon Umber was one of Robb Stark’s most trusted generals, even though the latter’s direwolf shortened the Greatjon’s hand by a couple of fingers. (Due to the economies of television, the Greatjon has not appeared since the initial season. Injecting some book canon here, the Greatjon was captured by the Freys at the Red Wedding.) When Bran and Rickon Stark split up at the end of season three, the wildling Osha takes Rickon and Shaggydog to the Umbers, hoping they can find refuge there.
The Umber holdfast, Last Hearth, is the northernmost Great House in mainland Westeros, and as such, the Umbers have a long history of fending off wildling raiders on the lands just south of the Wall. It comes as little surprise then that the Umbers reenter Northern politics just as Jon Snow has gifted those lands to the wildlings.
Our new Lord Umber takes a rather deconstructive approach to oaths; they are just words, easy to backtrack on and ultimately signifying nothing. Instead of swearing a vow of fealty, the Umbers instead offer a proposition: in exchange for ridding Umber lands of the wildlings, the Umbers offer Ramsay a new captive Stark; Rickon, and his protector Osha, who have been off-screen for 2+ seasons. Worse, to prove Rickon’s identity, the severed head of Shaggydog is laid at Ramsay’s feet.
With Rickon Stark, Ramsay has a powerful bargaining chip as he looks to solidify the North. Ramsay’s first notion may be to kill the child, thinning the Stark male line even further. As a hostage, he may be useful in negotiating peace with other houses if he holds the last heir of Ned Stark. And Rickon may also simply serve as bait, used to draw out Sansa Stark and Jon Snow.
Tower of Joy
No order or region in Westeros may be more defined by oaths than the Kingsguard; the story of oathkeeping and oathbreaking among the seven White Swords has shaped the history of Westeros.
Swearing off lands, titles, and families, the knights of the Kingsguard have one purpose; to defend the royal family and ensure the continuation of the royal line. The Kingsguard had successfully defended the Targaryen kings for hundreds of years, until Jaime Lannister drove his sword into the Mad King’s back and paved the way for King Robert Baratheon.
In this week’s episode, Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven take us back to Robert’s Rebellion, to an event not long after Jaime’s aforementioned kingslaying. We find ourselves at the Tower of Joy, a hidden enclave deep in the Dornish Marches. Here, a young Ned Stark leads his bannerman (including Howland Reed, father to Meera and Jojen) on two Kingsguard, Ser Arthur Dayne and Ser Gerold Hightower.
The young Lord Eddard seems confused by the presence of these storied knights.
Prince Rhaeger had fought and been killed at the Trident, where Lord Stark would have assumed to find these knights fighting for their prince. They were also not at King’s Landing to defend the Mad King or Rhaegar’s family, who fell to the Lannister swords. And they were not to be found at Dragonstone, where Queen Rhaella had fled with the last heirs of House Targaryen, a young boy named Viserys and a newborn girl, Daenerys.
Why then would the two most acclaimed knights be protecting a tower seemingly in the middle of nowhere, while war rages on all over the country?
The Kingsguard swore an oath to defend the King and his line, so what could they possibly be defending here? And on whose orders?
These are questions to which Bran Stark is struggling to answer, not to mention the more overarching question: why did the Three-Eyed Raven bring him to this moment? What relevance does this have to the White Walkers and the Battle for the Dawn?
All these answers are withheld from the audience, as Bran’s vision is cut short before he can see what his father found in that Tower almost 20 years ago. Instead, the audience is treated to a beautifully-shot, incredibly choreographed sword battle as the six Northerners face off against the two Kingsguard (in impressive Targaryen armor).
The odds quickly deteriorate into 4-on-1, but Ser Arthur Dayne is no landed knight.
Known as the Sword of the Morning, Ser Arthur Dayne is the most revered knight of the Seven Kingdoms, past or present. His greatsword Dawn is the heirloom of House Dayne, a blade forged from a meteorite that landed not far from the Dayne keep Starfall. Ser Arthur, with two blades in hand, quickly evens the odd, cutting down the Northerners until only himself and Ned remain.
Bran is aghast as he watches his father on the defensive; Ser Arthur is not only better, but significantly so. This flies in the face of everything Bran had been told; growing up, men spoke of how Ned Stark was the man to finally defeat the Sword of the Morning, and that it was a great victory for House Stark that helped close out the war. Rather, Ned Stark is pushed to the brink of defeat, until Howland Reed stabs Dayne in the back, giving Eddard enough time to finish him off, albeit in a dishonorable fashion (which of course would never sit well with the honorable Ned Stark).
As is common in Westeros (and our own world), the tales passed on to the next generation are often embellished and sanitized, erasing the faults of humanity to preserve an idealized version of heroes and villains. While the truth Bran seeks is within the tower, the true revelation is that the stories he’s been told for years were half-truths.
Oaths in Westeros are more than just promises. They are sacred vows, and the backbone of a society that values honor and loyalty above all else. In more traditional fantasy, protagonists embody these virtues fully, creating clear-cut moral stakes in the ensuing story.
Game of Thrones breaks from this tradition; instead, it focuses on characters struggling with their vows, setting them aside when convenient, and altogether breaking them in order to survive. It is through this that Martin can tell the stories of the human heart in conflict with itself, which is the only story truly worth telling.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Daenerys Targaryen is also an oathbreaker in this episode, as she betrayed the Dothraki custom of returning to Vaes Dothrak following her Khal’s death. Her decision to rule as Khaleesi and continue her conquests flies in the face of Dothraki tradition, and her acceptance into the Dosh Khaleen now is contingent on a trial before the other war lords now.
- The show’s resident Oathbreaker, Jaime Lannister, bustles through the Red Keep alongside his sister Cersei and the zombie Mountain. The Small Council led by Kevan Lannister has no interest in doing business with them however, leaving the Lannisters alone at the table.
This scene marked the welcome return of Diana Rigg’s Lady Olenna Tyrell (herself an oathbreaking kingslayer), as she has taken a place on the Small Council along with her son Mace. With the fate of Margaery and Loras still in the hands of the Faith, the Tyrells likely have their own plots in motion to ascertain their freedom.
As I mentioned last week, the Lannisters and Tyrells have plenty of cause in joining to disarm the Faith in the capital, even if King Tommen seems incapable. Though disgraced, the Lannister twins may slowly regain a foothold in King’s Landing through a repaired alliance.
Also of note is Qyburn inheriting Varys’s "little birds" in King’s Landing. Just as we see kings and lords rise and fall, too we see the same game played for other positions of power, such as Master of Whisperers. These too would seem to answer to Cersei and Jaime.
- In Braavos, Arya Stark gets the Rocky sports montage treatment, as she shows great improvement both in her abilities and demeanor on her journey to becoming No One. The end result is the return of her vision, in what I’d consider one of the best Arya scenes in a while.
Arya Stark is one of the fandom’s most beloved characters, and Maisie Williams is probably one of the more perfect castings in a show that’s rife with them. That said, her story in Braavos the last two seasons has been inconsistent at best; the show has been slow in unraveling the truth of the Faceless Men, and often her scenes are repetitive, be it washing bodies or fighting blindly with a stick. None of this is helped by the fact that in Braavos, Arya is divorced from both the intrigues of Westeros and the Far East.
This week’s scene, however, was incredibly well put together.
The music, movement, and story all progressed in unison, telling an effective story within this episode itself. We witnessed Arya grow as a character and a fighter, and the visual presentation was gorgeous. It also pushes Arya’s arc past the "training" phase and allows her character to finally begin serving the Faceless Men. In that, Arya’s scenes offer a direct contrast to the rest of this episode.
While other threads are fraught with oathbreaking, Arya seems to be affirming her commitment to the House of Black and White for the time being.