“Oathbreaker,” Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, was a welcome chance to rebuild after lessons learned, and a much-needed chance for viewers to breathe—sometimes, even cheer—after weeks of observing all that pain.
Some characters triumphed and regained parts of themselves they'd lost: Arya Stark earned back her sight. Jon Snow, back from death, regained his voice and right mind. And Cersei and Jaime Lannister, their sense of entitlement restored, burst into a Small Council meeting to sneer and snap and terrorize—just like old times (to our endless delight).
Others saw holes poked in the stories they tell themselves and weave into their identities, like Daenerys, humiliated queen of self-mythologizing, and Bran, who learned the unsavory truth about one of his father’s legendary exploits in a dazzling (but torturously incomplete) look back at the Tower of Joy.
The tantalizing flashback, seen through Bran’s greensight, is the closest the show has come to revealing the answer to its biggest mystery: the identity of Jon Snow’s mother. Frustratingly, the Three-Eyed Raven blocked Bran from following his father into the tower but, if the still-unconfirmed R+L=J theory is to be believed, we already know who’s inside.
In a nutshell, fans have long thought that Lyanna Stark—Ned’s sister, King Robert Baratheon’s betrothed, and the object of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s affections—is the one inside the tower, screaming as she gives birth to slain Rhaegar’s son. When Ned finds her dying inside, in a bloodied bed surrounded by blue rose petals, she makes him promise to take the boy and keep him safe. That boy, if you haven’t guessed, was Jon Snow—aka Jon Targaryen, whose last name Ned hid in order to shield him from Robert’s Targaryen-killing warpath.
Jon’s secret Targaryen lineage ties in to a prophecy about the Prince Who Was Promised (a world-saving figure mentioned again in this episode by Melisandre, who now openly believes it might be Jon). And if Jon is indeed a Targaryen, that also possibly makes him one of the “three heads” of the dragon, a related prophecy Daenerys once overhead in the House of the Undying. This is all to say that Jon’s Targaryen lineage seemingly makes him destined to help save Westeros in its darkest hour—which is why the gods allowed him to come back from oblivion. The video below explains the theory in more detail.
But apart from the brilliant swordplay and the potentially world-saving repercussions, Bran’s flashback also told us something new about the noble Ned Stark. His storied battle against Ser Arthur Dayne, the legendary swordsman who served as one of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen’s Kingsguard, did not end as gloriously as the stories recall. Dayne, Rhaegar’s best friend, a knight renowned for his chivalry, was stabbed in the back—a part that got left out of the retellings Bran grew up with.
Interestingly, the scene also hinted that Bran may have the ability to affect the past, despite the Three-Eyed Raven’s warning about history being “already written” and the ink dry. Bran is overcome by the sight of his father (the first time he’s seen him since Ned left Winterfell to become Hand of the King) and shouts after him. Shockingly, Ned stops and turns around.
The Three-Eyed Raven tries to dissuade Bran from believing Ned heard him, but Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran, has already likened this new ability to Doctor Who (“It’s Doctor Bran!”), saying his character is “starting to discover he can interact with the past.” That’s a massive superpower with untold potential—if Bran gets the hang of inserting himself into the past without the Three-Eyed Raven’s help, it’s easy to imagine that the Tower of Joy will be the first place he looks. Maybe then we’ll learn once and for all who’s inside. (It’s totally Lyanna.)
In Essos, the stories Daenerys uses to define herself also took a hit in credibility. Thrown into rags with all the other khals’ widows in Vaes Dothrak, she demands respect the same way she always has: by listing her titles and asserting her destiny—like it matters to these women. Dany thinks herself unique among the Dothraki wives but, as another khal’s widow informs her, she’s not the only one who was told her husband would conquer the world.
Her dragons, her silver hair, her emergence from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre—nothing persuades the Dothraki women to stoop down and kiss Dany’s feet, as she seems to expect them to. This may be a good thing: Dany’s uneven rule as Targaryen queen only threw Slaver’s Bay into chaos. It could be useful for her to remember how to command respect without her dragons, Jorah, or an endless string of titles at her back.
Over in Winterfell, two long-lost characters made overdue returns: Rickon and Osha, victims of House Umber’s betrayal, were handed over to Ramsay in lieu of a formal oath of fealty. (Accompanying Rickon was the horrifically decapitated Shaggydog, the most adorably named of all the Stark kids’ dire wolves. Whoever killed him will burn.) Having the littlest Stark in his grip gives Ramsay leverage over the territories of the North—the kind he lost when Sansa escaped—and an emotional advantage over Jon, whom the now-official Warden hopes to overpower at Castle Black. In a twist of irony, it was Jon’s noble actions that endangered Rickon in the first place: By bringing Wildlings south of the Wall, he prompted House Umber to turn to Ramsay for help in herding the “goat fuckers” back North.
Of course, neither Ramsay nor Umber know that Jon Snow has just come back from the dead newly determined to serve his own ends. Living with the memory of his own murder and the meaningless oblivion that came after, Jon has finally absorbed the lessons from his (and his role model Ned Stark’s) fatal mistakes: valuing honor and “the right thing” at the cost of survival.
Before death, Jon absolutely would have let Olly off the hook—sparing a child’s life, after all, is what Ned would have said was the “right thing to do.” This Jon, however, quickly understands after coming back that doing “what I thought was right”—attempting to unite Night’s Watchmen and Wildlings in a fight against the encroaching White Walkers—is exactly what got him murdered. He hesitates, but decides against showing mercy. He lets the boy hang. (Yet another twist on Maester Aemon’s advice to Jon last season: “Kill the boy and let the man be born.”)
To its credit, the show dissuades viewers from taking too much pleasure in much-hated Olly’s death. He becomes strongly sympathetic in his last moments: Three grown men are hanged with him, but it’s only Olly who looks his executioner in the eye and refuses to look away, even after Jon raises his sword to cut the rope. He stays silent out of defiance while the others wax philosophical or, more embarrassingly, ask for favors.
And, more than with Shireen or Walda Frey’s baby, the physical grotesqueness of Olly’s death is impossible to ignore: His skin turns gray, his eyes bulge, and the camera lingers on his dead frozen face just long enough to extinguish the victory. A kid—a loyal one, with heart—is dead, and it wasn’t a villain who murdered him. (How perfectly Game of Thrones to have Jon’s first task after evading death be sentencing others to that same oblivion.) Disillusioned, Jon hands the mantle of Lord Commander to a bewildered Dolorous Edd and walks out of Castle Black. “My watch is ended,” he says. Mic drop.
Shortly after being revived, Jon asks Davos why he’s been brought back, to which Davos answers, “What does it matter? You go on. You fight for as long as you can.” It’s unclear where Jon is heading next—but we know he’s ready to fight. With any luck, it’ll be for Winterfell, for his surviving siblings, for his dead ones, his parents, and for the fate of Westeros as the Prince Who Was Promised.