Game of Thrones: The Futility of the Struggle in “Oathbreaker”


“I fought. I lost. Now I rest…You’ll be fighting their battles forever.” Alliser Thorne’s last words hang over “Oathbreaker.” The grand stories we tell both eschew and crave finality. A good journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but when we’re truly invested in it, we don’t want the ride to stop. We crave the spills, chills, and surprises. So heroes come back from the dead, siblings thought long lost reappear, and like the white walkers headed toward the gate, the story marches on.

Ser Alliser Thorne, however, does not. He dies with his head held high, as a man who knew who he was and what he wanted and lays out his actions in firm but understandable terms. I’ve never particularly cared for Ser Alliser–he always seemed to harbor an irrational disdain for Jon that initially made him too one-dimensional–but in his defense of Castle Black from the Wildling attack and in his honest defense of his principles in his final days, he showed himself to be the kind of man who makes a choice and accepts his fate. There’s something respectable about that, even when we may not like the choices made, and Thorne takes comfort in it.

Jon, on the other hand, has little comfort in this world. He arises from the dead, knowing that there’s something wrong about his resurrection. He feels the scars where the knives entered his body and understands that something unnatural has happened to him. He was drafted into this war, at some points making conscious actions because of his beliefs, but at others simply being swept along by the current of what was expected and required of him. Thorne tried to do what he thought was right and finds himself hanged for it. Jon did the same but gets to return from the land of the dead. The former gets peace; the latter is left to wonder if it’s all worth it, if he can stand fighting these same battles over and over again, if he can suffer the knives piercing his flesh that seem to come in one form or another no matter what he tries to do.

When Jon swings a blade of his own, slicing the rope that holds his betrayers in place on the makeshift gallows, it’s a visual echo of Ned Stark’s own execution of a deserter from Castle Black in the beginning of the series. That early scene, about the responsibilities of being a leader, accepting the uglier parts of the job and the attendant “honor” of them, has come back in several forms over the course of the show. From Rob executing Lord Karstark, to Theon’s botched execution during his reign of terror, to Jon himself punishing Janos Slynt, it’s been a recurring symbol of the burdens of command.

 

"Crap. Where did I leave my keys?"

 

But this time, Jon has to look into the eyes of a child. He has to cut that rope and watch the very kind of innocent he was trying to save resent him to his very last breath. This is Jon’s reward for all of his service and commitment. This is his reward for making those tough decisions. This is his reward for effectively giving his life in order to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of others. It’s ugly and harsh and made worse by the hatred from people like Ollly who will never understand Jon’s choices. That too wounds the Lord Commander, no matter how many warm embraces from his brothers he may receive.

It’s particularly harsh because, as Varys puts it, children are innocent. The Spider works his magic on a Sons of the Harpy sympathizer protecting a child of her own, and he’s a presence of Machiavellian perfection. The arch manner in which he probes his resistant confessor, the way he wields his iron fist in the velvet glove to get the information he wants, is another boon from one of the show’s most entertaining characters. But the futility of it all comes through in what he learns.

The lands that Dany liberated, the ones that made her the “breaker of chains,” have not only returned to slavery, but have been funding the Sons of the Harpy and setting the whole of Slaver’s Bay against her. Preceded, though it may be, by a hilarious scene where Tyrion tries to make conversation with his much more subdued companions, it’s a dispiriting revelation. Dany too tried to do the right thing, to live by her principles and make herself worthy of being called a queen. But parts of the old system are as resilient as they are malignant, and it’s exhausting to have to constantly fight to keep whatever meager gains you’ve managed to make.

And Dany herself is once more reduced to something less than she ought to be. She’s accomplished a great deal, and yet she is just the latest victim of this cycle. She stands surrounded by women who, as High Priestess explained, once imagined that their great Khals would rule the world with their distaff counterparts by their sides. Instead, they are each left to play out the string as something lesser and compartmentalized, with Dany potentially being punished for having dared to do anything but submit.

 

"Does anybody have one of those stain sticks?"

 

Maybe when she speaks to the council that decides her fate, she will convince them to free her, or at least to let her help them lead a horde of Dothraki to Slaver’s Bay as an antidote to the Sons of the Harpy. But one could easily forgive her for, like her raven-haired counterpart at the wall, growing tired of this never-ending battle that seems to leave you back where you started no matter how much progress you think you’ve made.

They’re not the only ones who end up back where they started though. In a surprise reveal, we see Osha and Rickon back in Winterfell for the first time since they departed Bran and company. While I fear that their reappearance will be another excuse to give Ramsay a new set of torture toys, there’s a similar theme running through the preceding exchange between the new Lord Bolton and Smalljon Umber, the rebel bannerman who delivers the youngest Stark.

Umber refuses to swear oaths, kneel, or pledge fealty to Ramsay. He’s seen what oaths are worth: the Boltons turning on the Starks, Ramsay turning on his father, and the Karstarks joining Ramsay even though they share blood with Ned’s brood. What good is an oath, whether it be a bannerman’s to Ramsay or a brother’s to The Watch, if they can be broken so easily. Maybe they’re just a way to keep people in line, to keep them from looking out for themselves or upsetting the usual order, and those lines can only be crossed so often before people begin to wonder if they were illusory in the first place.

The High Sparrow figures out how to keep Tommen in line–another innocent child tainted by the movements of the larger forces at work–through his mother, who is facing challenges of her own with the small council. The soft machinations of the High Sparrow, seeming to constantly yield and yet simply redirecting forces like anger to his own ends, allow him to use Tommen’s connections to his family to help keep him cowed.

Arya is kept in line through breaking those sorts connections. The Faceless Man and The Waif teach her to sever her ties with her siblings, with the names on her list, and with the relationships that kept her a part of her former life. As I’ve said before in regards to this storyline, the montage that shows her developing skills as an assassin is a bit too Karate Kid for my tastes, but by drinking the bowl full of poison, Arya follows her brother in accepting a dividing line between an old life and a new one, and changing your methods accordingly.

 

YOU'RE THE BEST AROUND! NOTHING'S EVER GONNA KEEP YOU DOWN!

 

But those sorts of connections are the one warm thing for Jon as he returns to the living. The joking embrace of Tormund and the ribbing welcome of Edd make it feel as though there was at least something for Jon to come back to. But there’s one such connection that’s absent — Sam, who is bringing Gilly and Sam Jr. back to the place that he started. It’s likely to be an unwelcome homecoming for Sam, but he undertakes it for the good of the people he loves and who, as Gilly conveys by calling him the father of her child, love him back. He set off on this journey in order to help Jon and to protect his loved ones from the rapists and criminals at Castle Black, and though his pleasant moments are punctuated by unhappy (if amusing) bouts of nausea, he knows what he has to do, and is buoyed by the affection of those he feels that familial connection to.

The same familial connection drives a young Ned Stark in the show’s flashback to the Tower of Joy, witnessed through Bran’s eyes. Ned intends to rescue his sister, but the methods used fail to live up to the man Bran imagined his father to be. This too, is a broken oath, of sorts. Bran has heard this story a thousand times — he knows how it’s supposed to end. Instead, he discovers that even honorable Ned covered up the fact that his bannerman, Meera’s father, stabbed the opposing swordsman in the back to win the day.

Once again, honor is shown to be a fairytale in Westeros. It’s a place where even the show’s most notable paragon of virtue (give or take a Brienne of Tarth) will invent lies in service of a truth he finds more important. We don’t get to see all the details of that truth just yet, but Bran, and the audience, are learning that there’s more to the story.

 

George Lucas presents -- The Young Ned Stark Chronicles!

 

And there’s more to Jon’s story as well. After seasons that left Jon concerned with the affairs of The Wall, whether at Castle Black or in the Wildlings’ territory, he is headed elsewhere for once. But he remains stung by the futility of his actions and the realization that he cannot try to serve the greater good, cannot try to live up to his father’s honor, cannot even die, without being pulled back into this eternal struggle.

Only Alliser Thorne could make coming back from the dead sound like a failing, but he’s right. Jon will be drawn back into that struggle; he will continue to suffer losses, and he may never have the chance to rest. He has fought these battles–many other people’s battles–for so long. Who can blame him for seeing something like Olly kicking in mid-air and deciding that he’s had enough? Once Jon pledged, like all of the brothers, that his watch would “not end until my death.” Well, he died. And now his watch has ended. And the closest thing to a traditional hero left on Game of Thrones has earned the right to go fight his own battles, to go fail again, or perhaps to not even fight at all.


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