Apart from Homeland, Game of Thrones has the wildest swings between high and low quality scenes of any television show. Over the course of a season, and frequently in the same episode, there will be scenes that have audiences cheering out loud or retreating into their sofas in horror right after ones that send us reaching for our phones to check Facebook or Instagram. This bipolarity is partly a result of having so many dang characters and plots: no matter the intention, some are simply going to be more compelling than others. It is also, unfortunately, a byproduct of Game of Thrones’ status as a“crossover hit.” When a swords and sorcery story based on The War of the Roses achieves the cultural penetration that Game of Thrones has gained since it premiered, not every story or character is going to appeal to each viewer because there needs to be something for everyone.
Take, for example, Samwell Tarly. Sam was introduced as a prototypical nerd whose intellect came at the expense of being, well, physically capable. His bumbling, weepy ways earned him fans because he had to work so hard, and in such specific ways, to triumph. Over the course of the last few seasons he has become something entirely different, recast in the hero role alongside Jon Snow. He has killed a white walker (somewhat by accident) and a wildling, and in the process has become, in essence, another brave member of The Night’s Watch. He has the show’s most conventional, and stomach-churning, romance. His plot is less connected to the rest of the show than anyone else’s, yet the tone of his storyline, which breaks with that of the rest of the show to a distracting degree, is important to the show runners because it gives a certain otherwise-overlooked quotient of the audience something to root for. In a show that is dependent upon depicting a horrific and complex gender dynamic in a realistic way, Sam and Gilly’s storyline sticks out like a sore thumb, not because it comments on that dynamic but because it ignores it entirely in order to give the show a twee coupling for the fourteen-year-old girls in the audience to swoon over.
But in the same episode that we get a tone- and character-breaking Sam and Gilly scene, we also get one of the most satisfying child deaths in all of television history. Not since Joffrey’s face turned a glorious shade of purple has an audience applauded the graphic asphyxiation of a fourteen year old. The hanging of Olly, who had been effectively built up as a villain since he put an arrow through one half of the fans’ previous favorite couple, is something that only Game of Thrones could get away with. Sure, Alliser’s final speech can be read as the last gasp of the old world of The Long Summer giving way to the new ways of Winter, but really no one cares. All we want to see is that little bastard hang, and the camera doesn’t flinch, lingering for what seems like a whole minute on his lifeless visage.
Children are everywhere in “Oathbreaker” in what can be seen as a nod towards the transitional phase in which the story now finds itself. Mad Doctor Qyburn adopts Varys’s old network of orphan spies while the Eunuch himself uses a woman’s sickly son as leverage. Speaking of leverage, a distractingly pubescent Rickon makes his unfortunate return to the scene as both a token of loyalty from the younger Umber and a future bargaining chip for Ramsay in his inevitable conflict with Jon Snow. Young Arya receives a training montage that seemingly cements her new blank identity while Bran continues his “Yoda and Luke” routine with Max von Sydow. And Tommen continues his journey towards becoming a fully-fledged (and refreshingly sympathetic) character in his own right as he goes toe-to-toe with Pope Jonathan Pryce in what was probably the episode’s second-strongest scene. Tommen’s delayed waving away of his guards was a powerful moment, showing that he has learned both the value of violence and the power that comes from wielding it with intelligence and restraint, a lesson that Danaerys has failed to grasp.
One child who goes as-yet unseen is infant Jon, though his entrance into the story is teased with Bran’s flashback. The vision of Ned and Meera’s father defeating The Sword of the Morning represented a rare misstep in the show’s usually-excellent sword fighting, not because the choreography was lacking but because the outcome of the duel was known to all ahead of time. Game of Thrones is home to some of the best fight scenes on television because they are usually unpredictable (the series peaked early with Bronn’s duel against his honorable and armor-clad opponent in The Eyrie), yet Bran narrates the tension right out of his young father’s duel with the famed swordsman, right up until the all-too-predictable backstab. The Three-Eyed Raven’s “that’s enough for one day” might be the second most frustrating cliffhanger in the show’s entire run, although, given that L + R = J has already been all but confirmed in-universe at this point, it doesn’t quite have the same sting as pre-zombie Jon.
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The most worthless major plot of the season continues to be Danaerys’s journey back to Vaes Dothrak. Speaking of lacking tension, this storyline has no stakes. The widows threaten that she will have to go on some sort of trial for abandoning Dothraki traditions, yet all we can do is yawn and place idle bets on whether it will be Drogon, her lovers, or some combination of the two that rescue her in the end. The worst part is that this storyline affords an excellent opportunity for Dany to have some much-needed character growth: instead of simply reciting her titles over and over to a bunch of tribesmen who couldn’t give less of a shit, she should be grappling with the ways in which her past have influenced her present and how they might decide her future. But really, I hope the Dothraki cut her head off with one of their curved blades and get it over with. Emilia Clarke is a terrible actress who has seemingly gotten too famous to get naked on camera anymore (I'm not advocating for more female nudity just for the sake of it: the angles from which she is shot in that scene to avoid showing her body were distracting given that she has a rich history of being nude on the show) and Dany is a boring character with very little agency in her own storyline at this point. I understand that she’s a huge part of the show’s crossover appeal, but if the show runners ever want to shock the audience into paying attention with another Red Wedding-caliber death, I nominate Khaleesi.