My regular readers know how I love to tie an episode up neatly in a nice thematic bow. But, to be honest, "Home" is one of those episodes of Game of Thrones—and there's at least one every season—when I struggle to find a common theme that links all the different storylines together. (Given the number of characters and sub-plots, it is remarkable that there aren't more such episodes, but usually the writers are miraculously nimble at weaving all the various threads into a coherent thematic pattern.)
The last episode that gave me such trouble, in fact, was Season Five's "The Sons of the Harpy," and I don't think this is a coincidence: both were written by GOT staff writer Dave Hill. It's not a slam on Hill—for many of his individual scenes are strong—but he doesn't seem so intent on, or adept at, making the whole hour greater than the sum of its parts.
Which is not to say that there are not thematic throughlines between several of the stories. The title, obviously, is a clue to one such theme: the word "home" occurs in Bran's story, and in Theon's, representing not just a longing for a place but a desire to return to a happiness and an innocence that has perhaps been lost forever.
Another, seemingly separate recurring theme is a tension between people and gods. Meera is angry with Bran for whiling away his days in spiritual visions. The High Sparrow expresses his fear of the gods, and Jaime scorns their judgement, saying that "they've spilled more blood than any of us." Balon accuses his brother Euron (Pilou Asbæk) of mocking the Drowned God, and Euron claims to be a god. Melisandre, meanwhile, is still despondent over her apparent rejection by her god, which leads Ser Davos into a marvelous burst of blasphemy. "Fuck him, then," Davos says. "Fuck all of them. I'm not a devout man, obviously. Seven Gods, Drowned Gods, Tree Gods, it's all the same."
But the most consistent theme running throughout "Home" is the question of mistakes, and the related theme of atonement. As we move towards the final acts of Game of Thrones—and after everything the characters have been through—people are understandably asking themselves some hard questions. How did we end up here? What choices led to this? And how did everything that was once so promising go so terribly wrong?
These, of course, are common and ongoing questions. For, if there's one certainty in Game of Thrones, it's this: mistakes will be made. As we draw nearer to the end, however, it's whether the characters can learn from their mistakes that matters.
"We all fail sometimes." — Jaime
At this point, it's almost hard to remember that the Lannisters won the war, isn't it?
Since the War of Five Kings, almost all of our main characters have been exiled from their homes and stripped of their statuses. The Lannisters should have been the exception—they still nominally hold the throne and the capital—but at this point the victors are almost as disenfranchised as the losers. Tywin is dead. Joffrey and Myrcella are dead. Tyrion is in exile, after being falsely convicted of murder. Jaime has been mutilated. Cersei has been imprisoned and humiliated. Tommen's queen is imprisoned, and the young king is powerless to free her. Across the Seven Kingdoms, the Lannister name has lost all respect and cachet—having become a subject of scorn and mockery—and former Lannister allies (like the Boltons) are in almost open rebellion.
And—this is the important part—it's all the Lannisters' own fault.
And I think Jaime knows this, on some level. "What about my sins?" he asks the High Sparrow. "What atonement do I deserve?" The questions come out as mocking, but I suspect there is more than a kernel of sincerity to them. Since at least Season Three, Jaime has struggled with the rightness of his own actions, and has had an uncomfortable relationship to his own sins. Is he the Kingslayer, or the savior of the city? Could it possibly have been justified to try to murder a 10-year-old boy, in order to protect the lives of his sister and children? From one perspective, everything that has happened in Game of Thrones—all the horror and death and upheaval—can be traced back to Jaime's actions. And this includes the death of his father, and the death of his two children, and the imprisonment and torture of his sister. What is his responsibility? What is his culpability? If there are gods, who care about right and wrong, how will they judge Jaime Lannister, and what atonement will they demand?
(There is also, in his question to the High Sparrow, a tacit recognition of his own privilege. The Faith Militant—reactionary conservatives, and entirely male—do not challenge men like Jaime. They go after women, like Cersei and Margaery. They go after homosexuals, like Loras Tyrell. They persecute vulnerable people for what they perceive as crimes against their faith's narrow morality, while wholly ignoring larger, more damaging crimes against humanity. It is a perceptive observation on the part of Jaime, and a surprisingly insightful understanding of his own status as the untouchable Golden Boy who has—literally and figuratively—gotten away with murder his entire life.)
To me, how we'll finally judge Jaime Lannister is one of the most interesting questions left to us in Game of Thrones. Has any character so precariously straddled the line between hero and villain? Which side of that very permeable line he'll ultimately end up is still to be determined: will he double-down on the mistakes of the past, or learn from them and become something different?
And the questions of culpability, atonement, and possible redemption become even more complicated when we consider Cersei Lannister. Tommen—at his uncle-father's urging—goes to apologize to Cersei this episode, for allowing her to be imprisoned and humiliated.
As Cersei said of Myrcella last episode, Tommen's essential goodness comes from an almost inexplicable place: he has a decency and a tenderness that he learned from none of his family members. And last week Cersei seemed to be grappling with this unpleasant truth, marveling at the fact that she somehow produced two (out of three) children who were not monsters. This apparent growing awareness of her own failings makes our reading of Lena Headey's performance this week all the more complex, as she—coldly? stoically—listens to her tenderhearted son apologize to her for things that were entirely her fault.
For, make no mistake, the architect of Cersei's misfortune was Cersei. She single-handedly empowered the Faith Militant, and she did it out of jealously, spite, and a vain attempt to hold onto some semblance of power and influence. It was even Cersei who made her son, the King, so impotent against them. Tommen wanted to exercise his authority; he wanted, in fact, to summon the army and wage war to free his wife. It was Cersei who talked him out of it, convincing him that the situation was somehow beyond his control.
Now, he apologizes to her for not waging war to get her back. "I should have executed all of them…as you would have for me," he says. "You raised me to be strong, and I wasn't." He begs her to teach him to be strong now, and the emotions that cross Cersei's face are enigmatic. Her son—her last child—is asking her to teach him how to be ruthless and powerful. Is this a moment of clarity for her, in which she realizes all the mistakes she has made and decides not to repeat them? (She once threatened to take Tommen away from Tywin, rather than let him corrupt her tenderhearted son.) Or will she repeat her mistakes, once again make a desperate play for power, and perhaps turn her one remaining child into another monster?
"We've all had to make difficult choices." — Brienne
Everyone is grappling with the mistakes they've made this week. For Sansa, it is the simple recognition that she erred by not accepting Brienne's protection, when it was first offered back in "The House of Black and White." It's the sad realization that, if she'd made a different choice, she might have avoided the rape and torture she suffered at Ramsay's hands. Brienne senses the depth of Sansa's trauma. ("What happened at Winterfell?" she asks gently, and does not press for an answer when Sansa says nothing.) But she does not blame Sansa, and does not want Sansa to blame herself. "It was a difficult choice, milady," she says. "We've all had to make difficult choices."
For Theon, however, the choices he has made are not so easily excused. He knows what he has done, and he knows that he had no good reasons for doing it.
He killed those two farm boys. He killed Ser Rodrik—whom we glimpse this episode in his younger and happier days—and who proclaimed with his last breath that Theon was now well and truly damned. He betrayed Robb, who had called him brother. He profaned Ned's memory, by seizing by force the home where Ned had raised him. "My real father lost his head at King's Landing," Theon realized later—but he realized this far too late.
Sansa—infinitely kindhearted, and understandably desperate for any familial contact—is ready to forgive him. But Theon knows he does not deserve a place at Sansa's side, even if she'll have him. "I don't want to be forgiven," he tells her now. "I can never make amends to your family for the things I've done." And he's right: there are some sins for which there can be no redemption, and Theon has committed them.
But Theon's scene here, like Cersei's, ends on an ambiguous note. "Where will you go?" Sansa asks him. "Home," he replies, and—as the next scene shows us Pyke for the first time in several seasons—we might suspect he means the Iron Islands. But that "real father" line still lingers, and Theon may still be seeking some measure of atonement. His real home is Winterfell, and—with his own life meaning so little to him—he may be heading back there to try and undo some of the terrible damage he has caused.
"Where is your kingdom?" — Yara
Meanwhile, Theon's biological father has taken a bit of a tumble.
The Iron Islands occupy a fair amount of George R.R. Martin's novels, but—like Dorne—they have received short-shrift from Game of Thrones. In fact, for several seasons now, it has seemed as though the show had jettisoned this subplot completely. But Benioff and Weiss now know the whole story, and they must have realized that Pyke has a role to play in the endgame: as a result, the show is doing some fast and ugly dancing in an attempt to make up for lost time. The scene in which Balon meets his end is dramatic and atmospheric, but its impact is inevitably weak. It all happens too fast, and we are too little invested: we have barely had time to remember who Balon is before he is dispatched by a character—his brother Euron, though unnamed here—that we've neither seen nor heard of before.
We will probably have to expect some amount of awkward patchworking over the next couple of seasons, as Benioff and Weiss struggle to guide this story home without a map. So I don't begrudge them the awkwardness too much, and I do appreciate that Dave Hill manages to give us a thematically-relevant conversation before throwing Balon off the bridge. As with other characters this week, Balon and Yara are grappling with the mistakes they have made, and how everything has ended up so shitty.
"The War of the Five Kings, they call it," Balon says. "Well, the other four are dead!" That sounds like winning, but—echoing the Lannisters' situation—it's a Pyrrhic victory at best. House Greyjoy has lost its last stronghold, and is on its last legs. This is the second failed rebellion the Greyjoy's have launched in Yara's lifetime, and she's realizing the futility of them both: all they've resulted in is the loss of her brothers and the humiliation of her family. Robb offered Balon an alliance, and would have and would have made him King of the Iron Islands—but Balon rejected that offer out of pride, and set his house—and his son, Theon—on the path to destruction. "Why?" Yara wants to know now, and there's no real answer.
"When you rule the Iron Islands, you can wage all the peace you want," Balon says. As we've discussed throughout, Game of Thrones is largely about the possibility of breaking out of the entrenched mistakes of the past and implementing real change, and Yara's quest to become the first woman to rule the Iron Islands echoes other battles for reform happening elsewhere. (Just as it is in those other places, however—King's Landing, Meereen, Castle Black, etc.—reform is strongly resisted in the Iron Islands. Yara is smart, capable, and her father's chosen heir, but she will have to face a "kingsmoot" to get her shot at ruling.)
"Everything I believed…all of it was a lie." — Melisandre
To me, Melisandre is another character—like Theon—whose sins are so grievous that she can never truly atone for them. (Call me intolerant if you must, but burning adorable children is a deal-breaker to me.) But she attains some personal redemption this week, by raising one of Game of Thrones' indispensable heroes from the dead.
This is another storyline that seems rushed and awkward to me, forced by the necessities of plot rather than being driven by character or logic. Alliser Thorne—speaking of mistakes—becomes perhaps the shortest-serving Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, when his ill-conceived rebellion collapses before a shockingly quick and easy Wildling invasion. ("For thousands of years, the Night's Watch has held Castle Black against the Wildlings," Thorne says. "Until you," Tormund replies.) A little more time and space to play this storyline out would have made it more impactful, but it's worth it for the mission-statement payoff—following on "Hardhome"—of the Wildings and the Night's Watch uniting to control Castle Black. It's truly no longer us vs. them: now it's us and them versus the forces of death (and assholes like Alliser Thorne).
(Needless to say, this scene was also worth it just to see Wun Wun go Hulk on a guy who was brave and foolish enough to shoot him with an arrow. "Puny archer.")
And I am not enamored of Davos being the one to suggest raising Jon from the dead. I can buy—just barely—that he was impressed enough with Jon Snow to believe that the realm desperately needs him. (In the coming war against the White Walkers, Dolorous Ed would make a slightly less confidence-inspiring leader.) But Melisandre's magic has always horrified Davos: for him to suddenly characterize her dark parlor tricks as "miracles" seems out of character, as does the fact that neither he nor anyone else even raises the question of whether something might go disastrously wrong. (Melisandre has seen a relatively normal resurrected man—Beric Dondarrion—but no one else here has: they have only seen the Walkers raise monstrous reanimated wights.) And the resurrection itself—which involves a haircut, a beard trim, and a gentle spongebath, is just all too easy.
So again, we have to suspend some disbelief, and forgive the show for the clumsy hoops it has to jump through. (Jon Snow's inconveniently dead body was literally the last thing from Martin's books that the show was forced to deal with.) And this storyline does work as character development for Melisandre. As we discussed last week, Melisandre's petty and ineffective evil has always been powered by her own unshakable conviction in the rightness of her actions. Now—in a week that is largely about people grappling with their mistakes—the recognition of the fact that she's been wrong actually makes her more powerful, not less. In letting go of her entrenched ideas, and accepting her own fallibility, she finally opens herself up—as characters like Cersei are perhaps beginning to do as well—to the possibility of change. (And, in doing so, she brings back one of this show's most important agents of change and reform, Jon Snow.)
"The were all so happy." — Bran
"So were you, once." — The Three-Eyed Raven
I've intentionally left this episode's first scene for last, because I think it's only in retrospect that Bran's experience resonates with the rest of the episode.
I've never been a fan of Bran's storyline, but it finally begins to pay off as the Three-Eyed Raven—now played by the legendary Max von Sydow—begins to show him the past. One of the themes of Game of Thrones is how personal choices echo forward in time, cascading through history to influence events in unforeseen ways. At some point, the show was going to have to grapple with its own pre-history—what happened before we met the current generation of Starks, Lannisters, et al—and this is as elegant a way to do it as any.
(Note the opening shots, which are symbolically simplistic but still evocative: the Raven and Bran having their vision while tangled in roots. We are delving into the roots of the entire story here, seeing how the world we know has grown up—tangled and entwined—from its beginnings.)
I said above that, from one perspective, the plot of Game of Thrones was set in motion by Jaime and Cersei's crimes. From another, arguably more important perspective, however, it was set in motion long before that, and that's what Bran is being shown here. Though we could always go further back—into the ancient pre-history of the Seven Kingdoms—the current situation really evolved around one figure: Lyanna Stark (played here as a teen-ager by Cordelia Hill).
The Westeros we have come to know since Game of Thrones began was shaped by Robert's Rebellion. And Robert—way back in Season One—was pretty clear about the fact that he waged war because of Lyanna. He loved her, he had been promised to her, and Rhaegar Targaryen took her. Perhaps the overthrow of the Targaryens would have been inevitable anyway—the "Mad King" doesn't seem to have been the most stable of rulers—but the fact of the matter is that the entire world changed hands because of this one woman.
Despite the fact that the show has moved beyond the books, I'm going to resist—a little while longer—the urge to openly speculate too specifically about what really happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna, and how the first scene of this episode might resonate strongly with the last. (Y'all know what I mean.) But it's worth noting that we have heard conflicting stories about it. The narrative told by the Baratheons and the Lannisters—the history written by the victors—is that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna. But in Dorne, where Rhaegar's wife Elia was from, they tell a different tale: "Beautiful, noble Rhaegar Targaryen left [Elia] for another woman," Oberyn said, back in "Two Swords." "And that started a war." Littlefinger—who presumably knows where all bodies are buried—more or less supported this version as well. "How many tens of thousands had to die, because Rhaegar chose your aunt?" he asked Sansa, last season. (Sansa's repetition of the company line—that Rhaegar then kidnapped and raped Lyanna—just earned a bemused smile from Baelish.) Were Rhaegar and Lyanna in love? Was Robert's righteous rebellion really just the selfishly violent reaction of a thwarted lover? If so, that puts a very different spin on everything we've always believed about how the current generation came into power.
But, one way or another, Lyanna's story is the original sin at the heart of Game of Thrones. In this episode that is largely about grappling with the mistakes of the past, Bran gets a glimpse of life before the first mistake, the one that set in motion everything else that has happened on both sides of the Narrow Sea. This is the moment before Ned was fostered at the Eyrie, where Jon Arryn—whose murder became another major plot catalyst—would become a father to him. This is the moment before Ned met Jon Arryn's other ward, Robert Baratheon, who would become a brother to him, and fall disastrously in love with Ned's sister. This is a time when Dany's family was still in power, and the kingdoms were not at war, and a whole lot of people who would go on to die horrible deaths were still alive. "They were all so happy," Bran observes. "So were you, once," the Raven replies dryly.
Mistakes will be made, and those mistakes—whether made from honor, pride, ambition, or love—will echo forward through history in profound and terrible ways: we're all only human. Game of Thrones makes it clear that the future, however, will depend on whether anyone has the capacity to learn from those mistakes.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- For the second week in a row, I've skipped over my favorite character: Arya. But nothing much has happened with Arya, has it? Blind, begging, beaten. (I could make a thin thematic tie-in to the rest of the episode—she is, after all, atoning for her mistakes here—but there's not much to say about it.) She does pass Jaqen's test this week, so hopefully she's moving on to something more interesting next week.
- Speaking of Arya, how sweet was the scene between Sansa and Brienne? "She wasn't exactly dressed as a lady," Brienne reports of Arya. "No, she wouldn't be," Sansa says, with a fond smile. And how nice for Sansa to know that—somewhere in the world, at least—she has some actual family left, apart from Jon.
- I didn't have the energy to discuss Bolton Family Values this week: those people just depress me. But it has several interesting echoes with the rest of the episode, and with previous episodes. Obviously, Roose is getting a little cosmic comeuppance here, since he gets done to him exactly what he did to Robb. (They were both new fathers, as well, of doomed babies born to doomed mothers.) And Roose's problem here echoes back to Cersei's: the child he has raised and empowered is a monster. (Cersei still has one chance to do parenting right: Roose, alas, ran out of time.) Finally—as Roose warns him—I don't think there's much doubt that Ramsay is rashly making mistakes here—for petty, personal reasons—that will soon bring him his long-overdue comeuppance.
- I enjoyed the flashback/vision glimpses of young Ned (Sebastian Croft) and Benjen (Mateo Elezi), and how they echoed with other training sequences, including the one in the pilot and (more directly) the one of Jon training Olly in "The Wars to Come." ("Keep your shield up, or I'll ring your head like a bell," Jon told Olly, just as Ned tells Benjen here. It's a nice reminder of how fathers live in sons.) And I was amused to recognize the late Ser Rodrik (played here by Fergus Leathem) by his magnificent muttonchops: way to commit to a look, Rodrik.
- And then there's the intriguing mystery of Hodor/Wylis (Sam Coleman). (Is it just me, or does Wylis remind us of Samwell Tarly here? The soft gentle boy who doesn't belong in the training arena.) But I kind of don't ever want to know what happened to Hodor: I just know it's going to make me sad.
- I was less amused by the unnecessary time spent on the drunken braggart (Dylan Edwards) in King's Landing who claimed Cersei was really impressed with his cock. And does Ser Robert Strong/FrankenMountain just take breaks from protecting Cersei to wander the city looking for people who insult her?
- It wasn't really played for laughs, but I laughed nonetheless at Tommen's casual speculation about who had Trystane killed: "I expect it was mother."
- Melisandre might have stopped sulking a little earlier if she knew Balon Greyjoy had finally died, only two full seasons after she cast a spell on him. (Those were some slow-acting magical leeches…)
- Finally, of course, I skipped over a scene I liked very much: Tyrion Lannister, The Dragon Whisperer. (I haven't really decided if this, too, ties into the overall throughline. "Dragons don't do well in captivity," Tyrion says, but Dany had very good reasons for chaining her dragons up back in "The Children": they were eating people. But that was also a moment when she surrendered some of her power, and control of Slaver's Bay began to slip away from her. So was it a mistake? Balancing power with compassion is one of the chief challenges of rulers in Game of Thrones.) And I like how—even though he's scared shitless—this moment is a realization of a childhood dream for Tyrion, and an invocation of his happier youth. In the books, Dany's vision in the House of the Undying suggests that her three dragons are destined to have three riders. My own opinion—for reasons I won't get into here—is that we'll see Dany, Jon, and Bran flying into battle against the White Walkers someday, but Tyrion makes a case for himself here as a man who could sit a dragon comfortably.