One gripe I’ve had with Game of Thrones, is the amount of plot threads the writers jump through per episode. As my fellow BYTer Alan Zilberman put things, sometimes it feels more like a greatest hits reel than a coherent and sustained act of storytelling. And I still think it would behoove Benioff, Weiss, and Co. to focus on individual story threads less often, while telling more of them in one go when they do. That said, one benefit of their current approach is that, every so often, it results in a veritable Christmas bonanza of big plot turns delivered in one hour-long sprint. That’s what last night’s “And Now His Watch Has Ended” gave us, and it was orchestrated marvelously.
The first twist was the total disintegration of the Night’s Watch, following their slow burn in the background of this season. We’ve only gotten snippets of them through Sam’s eyes every episode, so the noose of desperation and starvation closed slowly and quietly. But last night, standing in the shadow of Craster’s food stores — and forced to endure the old man’s self-righteousness and the constant evidence of his perversity — the most foolish and craven among them finally snapped.
Jeor Mormont had relied on every ounce of respect, fear, and grizzled orneriness he could conjure to keep his men in line, knowing that a breakdown in discipline at this point would be the end of them all. Watching the mutiny claim his life was especially poignant — human beings are mechanisms as much as thinking minds, and sometimes you just can’t hold back the inevitable. But Mormont’s raging determination to kill his murderer even after being literally stabbed in the back was a testament to the old man’s tenacity. Meanwhile, Sam had the presence of mind to grab Gilly and her newborn and sneak them out past the slaughter. That showed him to be more mind than mechanism in comparison to his comrades, despite the physical limitations and humiliations he’s endured because of his weight.
Then there was poor, wretched Theon. After escaping from imprisonment and torture last episode, he was delivered right back to his captors by his would-be rescuer last night. For those of us who’ve read the books, this not only answered a few big questions about how the writers will handle the mechanics of Theon’s arc this season, but more importantly why they’re taking this direction. Theon is a weak man, but the Starks’ code did not see weakness as a deciding vice anymore than it saw strength as a decisive virtue. Theon was their captive, but he remained a member of the community. Ned and Rob recognized absolute moral duties towards him as a fellow human being, regardless of his own failures or the circumstances of his captivity. The ethos of the Iron Islands leaves room for no such interdependence.
So, bathed in the momentary hope of deliverance, Theon confessed his realization that, by taking Winterfell, he sold his soul acceptance from a family and culture that was never his, and despises him anyway. Meanwhile, the truest family he’s had lies in ashes, thanks in small part to his own doing. The horror Theon is in for this season would be bad enough if it wasn’t coming on the heels of his new moral clarity.
In the Game of Thrones world, nothing is harder than the long, slow climb out of moral darkness — and whether you win or lose, live or die, has nothing to do with whether you achieve the ascent. Like Jaime, who lost his hand last episode but found an unexpected source of fellowship and strength in the woman he’d ceaseless mocked, Theon has begun the trek back towards the light.
But the big turn was Daenerys overthrow of the slavers at Astapor. As with the Night’s Watch, we’ve only been getting Daenerys’ arc this season in one-off bites. But that allowed the gross, misogynistic arrogance of Astapor’s main slave trader, along with the overall brutality on which the society’s wealth is founded, the time to grind and sink in. It also revealed Daenerys’ long game: by hiding her knowledge of the Valerian language, she was able to gauge her opponent’s nature and recognize his weakness. Soaked in privilege, it didn’t occur to the man that a dragon would not behave simply because it had been bought, or that the state of slavery is an artifice enforced by power rather than an actual state of being.
Watching Dracarys cook him, while Daenerys won an army of 8,000 through communion rather than market exchange, was a spectacular moment of catharsis. And nothing communicated it better than the look of pride on Jorah Mormont’s face, as he realized just what his young queen is capable of when relying on nothing but her own resources.
The Last Dragon already has her steeds, but now she has an army.