Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 4 - Oathkeeper
April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
Game of Thrones has a problem. Last week, I talked at length about the reasons I thought Jaime’s rape of Cersei was a mistake, both from a plot perspective, as an adaptation choice, and as an indication of the message this series is trying to send to its viewers. I am unsurprised to find that the rape is pretty much completely ignored tonight, but that doesn’t mean I’m not unhappy about it. Yet “Oathkeeper” isn’t satisfied to just have one major character rape another for virtually inexplicable reasons and then completely ignore it. No, this week we are introduced to a completely unnecessary (and, I should add, entirely invented; nothing like this exists in the books) subplot about the Night’s Watch mutineers and the rape den they have set up for themselves in Craster’s Keep.
I cannot say for sure, yet, that this plotline isn’t going somewhere major for the series, nor that it won’t prove to be vital that these guys are in this hut, especially now that they have Bran (and especially because, again, this is brand new material, so I know as little about where this is going as anyone save Benioff and Weiss). But what I can say is that the various sexual assaults, of nameless women in powerless positions, that take place at the side of the frame and in the background of these scenes are useless, cruel, and deeply problematic. They serve no storytelling purpose in this episode, except to tell the story of more rape. They serve no thematic purpose, especially as, at this point, I do not think anyone needs to be reminded that women are vulnerable in the world of this series (last week, we saw the most powerful woman on the planet sexually assaulted, so yeah, we get it). These are just rapes for rapes’ sake. And I am sick and tired of it.
“Oathkeeper” is, unsurprisingly, about promises kept and broken, oaths sworn and rescinded. In a world as cold and cruel as Westeros, a man’s word has to count for something. Little restrains behavior, especially in times such as the ones these characters find themselves in. Strength can become brute force, power can become despotism, injustice can be branded as justice. The only thing that separates the good men from the monsters is the code they keep themselves to, the way they comport themselves in the world. This, ultimately, is the lesson Jaime Lannister has been learning over the course of this season. Jaime broke the most important oath he ever took when he killed Aerys Targaryen, and he will be branded “Kingslayer” for the rest of his life. But his travels with Brienne have taught him the importance of a man’s word, and tonight, he betrays Cersei (a moment that would have more import if he hadn’t raped her last week), gives his Valyrian steel sword to Brienne, and sends her out to keep the promise he made to a dead woman. Jaime Lannister has learned the value of a promise, and he gives the most valuable gift he has ever been given to the one person he knows who has always seen her word as the most important thing she has to give.
The moment where Brienne and Jaime say goodbye is one of the best in this season so far, to the point where I am surprised to find it in an episode that gets so much else so very, very wrong. Their relationship is incredibly complicated. It isn’t as simple as Cersei tried to make it out in her conversation with Brienne. It isn’t just the case of Brienne being in love with Jaime (though I think she is, a little), nor of Jaime feeling duty-bound to Brienne. It isn’t just that Brienne has taught Jaime how to be a better man, nor that Jaime has shown Brienne there is room for redemption in the world. These two are bonded in ways they do not fully understand, and have developed a great affection and mutual respect. When you say goodbye in Westeros, part of you has to think that it might be forever, and “Oathkeeper” captures the power of that moment in the silent nods they grant each other before Brienne and Pod ride off together.
The middle of every Game of Thrones season runs into problems, because Benioff and Weiss like to cram both the beginning and the end of seasons with big, climactic events, which leaves the center stretch feeling like a series of stall tactics of varying levels of effectiveness. It’s like the show realizes it ran through way too much material early on and now has to hold off on its next big thing for a few weeks, so mostly the characters stand around talking about things that happened or wondering about things that will happen. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; in fact, some of the greatest scenes in the history of the show come when two characters just talk to one another for a while about history, about politics, about philosophy and about where all of this is going. But “Oathkeeper” has very little of that. Instead, it mostly checks in with everybody, and they are all pretty much exactly where they were last week.
We see Daenarys start a slave revolt in Meereen and snatch power virtually over night. We watch Jon Snow gather men to attack the mutineers. These two are on similar arcs at the moment, upending ancient power structures to shake up a world that needs to change. Dany is rooting slavery out of Meereen, Jon is rooting ineffectuality and apathy out of the Night’s Watch. Both anticipate huge battles in their future, battles that will change the course of the world as they know it. And both are less prepared for what’s coming than they might like to think. Dany stands atop of a pyramid in the deserts of Essos, while Jon prepares to slink under a wall of ice in the North of Westeros, but the lessons each needs to learn are very similar.
Another problem this series continually has is its unwillingness to trust the intelligence of the viewers. This is a dense series, full of dozens of characters, some of whom disappear and reappear much later, others of whom have secrets that were revealed long ago and that may be important later on. Yet its viewers know these things, and can be trusted to remember people and events. Two things in particular leaped out at me tonight: the final scene with the White Walkers, and the reveal of who actually killed Joffrey. This show seems seriously worried we will forget White Walkers exist (maybe because they never get anything to do, but that’s more a problem for George R.R. Martin than for the showrunners), even though they are terrifying ice zombies who get talked about all the time. Also, the fate of Craster’s male children has been heavily implied and pretty much shown once before. Did we really need it to be spelled out for us?
Further, the show wasn’t sure that having Littlefinger say his “new friends” helped him kill Joffrey and cutting to Olenna Tyrell was enough for us to put things together, so it goes right ahead and has her come out and admit her complicity to Margaery, the sort of thing a woman of her intelligence and subtlety would never do. You never know who might overhear you in King’s Landing, and it serves literally zero purpose for Margaery to know Olenna killed Joffrey. This moment exists solely because this show didn’t have faith in us to put two things together, even when it had made them pretty obvious.
“Oathkeeper” is a midseason mess of an episode that reveals a serious problem this series has with depictions of rape. But even outside of that, which is enough to tank the episode for me, and to make me question a lot of assumptions about the series, the episode mostly flails from filler to filler, with only the occasional bright spot to liven up an otherwise lifeless episode. This show can do better. This show should do better. This show needs to do better, or we’re in for some rocky years ahead.
- -“You talk to my brother this way?” “All the time. He got used to it.”
- -“Are you really asking if I killed your son? “Are you really asking if I’d kill my brother?”
- -“Sansa’s not a killer. Not yet anyway…”
- -“A man with no motive is a man no one suspects.”
- -“If they don’t know who you are, what you want, they can’t know what you plan to do next.”
- -SPOILERS: Good God, did this show go off the reservation tonight. Obviously, it is too soon to say whether the changes are good, but the mutineer subplot does not exist in the books, nor does Bran’s capture by them obviously. I have no idea where any of this is going, but so far, it all seems kind of stupid, seriously rape-y, and like the world’s biggest stall tactic. Speaking of stall tactics, “Oathkeeper” moves us into two plotlines that have always felt like stalling to me even in the books, in Dany’s taking power in Meereen and Brienne and Pod heading off to…I don’t know, just wander Westeros for a while until Martin figures out what he wants to do with them. If this episode is any indication of how the show will deal with filling out these sort of useless stretches of story I am really, seriously worried about the show’s future quality. But hey, at least Ser Pounce is here, right?