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Surpassing the Books May Be the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened to Game of Thrones

By Rob Bricken on at

Game of Thrones is clearly done taking its time. The amount of plot that happened in last night’s episode, Home is staggering; it moved as fast as an old man being tossed from a bridge, and it hit as hard as Cersei’s zombie-knightmare Ser Robert Strong. It was almost too much, and that was before another final moment that I will be circumspect and merely call “gratifying”.

After last week’s season premiere, which mainly served as a reminder of where all the characters were and their various states of distress, Home advances the story on virtually all fronts. And what makes this so notable is that, with the exception of the story currently brewing at the Iron Islands, almost every single story has moved past the material presented in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m sure I’m not alone when I admit I was concerned about the show going completely off on its own. Having run out of GRRM’s map, would the show suddenly find itself lost?

If last night’s episode is any indication, we needn’t have worried. No longer tethered to faithfully recreating Martin’s novels, the show is now free to tear through major events with confidence and get on with the story it’s so carefully built up these past five seasons. The result was not necessarily the best episode of Game of Thrones ever, but one of the most relentlessly exciting.

A large part of that excitement comes from Bran, who finally returns to the show after sitting out season five. He’s clearly been busy since we last saw him. The Three-Eyed Raven has been teaching him to use his powers to see, well, anything — and that includes Winterfell’s past, which is where we find him and the Raven standing, unnoticed, when the episode begins. (And yes, Bran is standing; he also walks in his vision, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright does a great job at subtly conveying Bran’s relish at his ability to again move under his own power, even if in a vision.)

There’s a genuine melancholy involved in seeing the Stark ancestral home’s happier days, no winter in sight, and children playing — namely his father Ned as a boy, teaching his younger brother Benjen to use a sword. The parallel to Game of Thrones’ first episode, when Jon was similarly teaching Bran to use a bow, is obvious but powerful. But it’s the arrival of their older sister Lyanna, who bursts in on horseback, that gets the most attention from Bran, even though Bran only recognises her solely from her tomb in the crypt. I would hazard a guess that Game of Thrones wants us to pay attention to her as well.

The Raven brings Bran out of the vision, to Bran’s dismay. But his dismay is nothing compared to that of Meera, who sits just outside their hidey-hole where she can do nothing but mourn her brother Jojen. She clearly feels useless and angry, but the Child of the Forest — that small, greenish person who seems to be roomies with the Raven — explains that Meera’s job is to protect Bran… especially when it comes time for Bran to leave, which raises many questions about Bran’s role in events to come.

In King’s Landing it’s time for Princess Myrcella’s funeral, which leads to a lot of Lannister family drama courtesy of the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant. Cersei can’t attend the funeral; Tommen has ordered her to be kept to the Red Keep, because the Sparrow forbids her from entering the Sept, and Tommen is (justifiably) afraid that his mother will be imprisoned again. Tommen is ashamed of his weakness, both now and before, and it takes Jaime to get him to man up and finally see Cersei. Although Tommen is king, he’s still more of a child than Joffrey ever was and his shamefaced apologies for not being strong enough to force her rescue, or Margaery’s, are endearingly pathetic. Cersei forgives him, of course. It’s such a tender moment that it’s easy to forget that it means Cersei is basically back in control of the king of Westeros. This isn’t going to end well for somebody (or several somebodies).

Speaking of which: Jaime and the High Sparrow have a talk in the Sept where Jaime subtly and quite inadvertently reveals the misogyny built into the Faith Miltant’s “faith”. He points out all his sins — including murdering the king he swore an oath to protect — and asks what he needs to do to atone. (I guarantee it doesn’t involve walking naked through the streets.) Of course, Jaime isn’t really looking for an answer — and the Sparrow doesn’t really have one — as much as the Kingslayer is thinking really hard about murdering the Sparrow and an inordinate amount of his followers. Knowing he would eventually be overrun by zealots, he chooses to bide his time… for now.

In Meereen, Tyrion is doing what he does best, which is 1) drinking and 2) knowing things. When Missandei delivers the news that the dragons have stopped eating since Daenerys left, Tyrion knows that keeping dragons in captivity is how the Targaryens basically ruined dragons. And when Varys announces that the Masters have retaken both Astapor and Yunkai, the two cities formerly liberated by Danaerys, Tyrion knows a possible solution to both problems. Dropping the knowledge that dragons are highly intelligent — as in, intelligent enough to recognise anyone who is helping their “mother” and not eating them — he heads into the catacombs to free Rhaegal and Viseron from their chains. Now, not only are Dany’s dragons free again, but now we know they can be used more strategically than just instruments of mass destruction, a major turning point for Dany’s children.

In Braavos, Arya gets another lesson in stick-fighting from the Waif, which is to say the Waif beats Anya with a stick for a while. Arya is left swinging her staff wildly only to be stopped by Jaqen H’ghar, who promises her a bed, and food, and even her eyesight back if Arya will merely say her name. Although angry and frightened by her fight/beating, she maintains her name is “no one” — and Jaqen H’ghar leads her away, because Arya is a beggar no more. She’ll presumably go back to training (albeit still blind for the time being) in the House of Black and White next week. It’s especially gratifying to see Arya’s storyline move so quickly; I feel like in earlier seasons we would have sat through at least five episodes of Arya on the street.

In Winterfell, Roose and Ramsey argue about Sansa, as the Karstarks — no friends to regular Starks after Robb executed their lord – report back on the bodies of the men Brienne left behind. Knowing that Sansa is heading to the Wall, Ramsay wants to gather the northmen to attack Castle Black; Roose says such an attack would cause the North to rise against them. It becomes a bit of a moot argument, after Roose hears the happy news that his wife has given birth to a son… and Ramsey immediately stabs his father in the gut, just as Roose did to Robb.

It’s a very fitting end for one of Game of Thrones’ greatest villains, although it leaves the absolutely crazy and evil Ramsey in charge of the north. It’s bad news for everybody, especially his stepmother and new baby brother. In a scene that manages to raise the bar for Ramsay’s utter evil, he has his dogs return him to being “an only child”. Meanwhile, outside Winterfell, Sansa and Brienne do decide to head to the Wall, but Theon decides to leave them — not because he believes Jon Snow would have him killed for all the horrible things he did (he would and should, as Theon fully admits) but because Theon thinks he should be punished more than merely being executed. He decides to go to the place where he will be most miserable: home.

The show gets there first, finally returning to the Iron Islands where the rest of the Greyjoys are having a bad night. First, their men at Deepwood Motte have been killed, so Balon Greyjoy’s little “empire” on the mainland is now completely gone. Theon’s sister Yara thinks the Iron-born trying to hold any land that isn’t one of the Iron Islands is stupid — evidence seems to back her up — but Balon isn’t hearing it. He storms out of his keep, crossing one of Pyke’s precarious bridges (during a massive storm, no less)... at least until he sees his brother Euron standing in his way. Euron is hard to get a read on — he’s a bit crazy, but he also seems weirdly collected in his craziness — but he does manage to toss Balon off the bridge, into the churning waters below. The next day, Balon gets his Drowned God-style funeral, and Yara is ready to take charge of her people — only for her uncle Damphair to tell her there’s going to be a Kingsmoot to decide who rules instead. Yara is not pleased.

Finally, at the Wall: Davos and his men prepare to defend Jon Snow’s corpse with their lives, while Alliser Thorne prepares to give them their wish. But that’s exactly when Dolorous Edd returns with the Wildlings — including Wun-Wun the giant — and the Night’s Watch tosses down their swords, unwilling to die over who gets to hang onto Jon Snow’s body. Only Alliser and poor Olly refuse to submit to the Wildlings, and are tossed in the cells. And if you’re wondering why Davos has been so hell-bent on keeping a corpse, it’s because Davos has a plan: asking Melisandre to bring Jon back.

I’m not sure how I feel about Davos being the prime mover here; he’s no fan of Melisandre’s magic, and it seems strange that he’s so into Jon Snow that resurrecting the former Lord Commander would even occur to him. Because Davos doesn’t know what we know, that Thoros of Myr has successfully resurrected Beric Dondarrion several times; he just knows that he saw Melisandre give birth to a smoke-monster-baby-assassin, and feels that this probably falls under the same amount of difficulty. Melisandre, deep in her crisis of faith, reluctantly agrees to try. The ritual involves the Red Priestess carefully cleaning Jon’s bloodied body (and giving Kit Harington what must have been the world’s most eagerly anticipated haircut) and chanting repeatedly for R’hllor knows how long… but it doesn’t work. Melisandre and Davos exit in disappointment, leaving only Jon’s direwolf Ghost to keep his former master’s corpse company. And nothing happens.

And nothing happens some more.

And then Ghost raises his head.

And Jon Snow wakes up, with pure terror in his eyes.

Yes, Jon Snow lives. Finally. But in addition to solving this infinitely asked mystery, look what else Home gave us: Roose Bolton is dead. Balon Greyjoy is dead. The Iron Islands are in turmoil. Bran’s learning about the past. Arya’s doing magic face assassin training again. And Dany’s dragons are not only free, but basically best friends with Tyrion. Again, in previous seasons, each of these stories could easily have taken up 5-6 episodes. Now it’s a single Sunday night.

What makes this even more marvellous is that in the past, Game of Thrones has usually been forced to balance its major plot developments with its more character-illuminating scenes; if there was a lot of major story to be told, the characters who had to take a back seat to the plot, and vice versa. Home, however, doesn’t have to make that trade because it’s still full of wonderful character moments, and this time it’s all thanks to the actors who do some marvellously subtle but powerful work in between the lines.

Take Jaime’s look of suspicious bafflement when the Sparrow tells Jaime to kill him, revealing that while the Kingslayer has changed in some ways he’s still the same man in others. Or Ramsey’s look of surprise and pain when he stabs his father, as if even he can’t believe what he’s doing, and almost as if he were the one being murdered. Or Tyrion’s look of exhilaration at actually touching a dragon, which radiates through his terror like a beacon.

Or, in my favorite performance, when Cersei refuses to open up to her apologising son Tommen, and can’t even look him in the eye. It’s easy to think that she’s mad at him for failing her, but Cersei has always considered Tommen as her baby and I don’t think she expected anything else. Plus, the minute he asks her for help, her stony façade crumbles and she embraces him warmly. I think — backed up by her mention last episode of the prophecy that she would see all her children die before her — that she knows he too is going to die, and she can’t bear it; she tries to wall herself off from him, as if by refusing to see him or acknowledge him he’ll somehow be safe. Of course, she loves him too much to ignore him when he’s in need, but there’s a haunted look in her eyes even when she hugs him, as if she knows there’s nothing she can do to truly help him in the way that matters most.

So yeah, this would have been a pretty damned good episode even if Jon Snow hadn’t returned from the dead. Actually, I’m pretty sure even if the rest of the episode had been crap, the fact that we finally got Jon back — something a lot of us have basically been waiting for since A Dance With Dragons came out in July, 2011 — would have still made it a pretty damned good episode.

But you know what? If you watched the “next episode on” preview, it looks like Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven are going to be watching a certain battle at the Tower of Joy, meaning we might get even more answers about Jon Snow in just six more days. Again, Game of Thrones is clearly done wasting time. I couldn’t be more excited.

Assorted Musings:

• In his vision, Bran sees Willas, a gigantic and simple stablehand who Bran recognises as the young Hodor, back when he could talk in complete sentences. Bran has no idea what happened to him — or that he was ever a normal, albeit giant, kid — but in the books we know he was kicked in the head by a horse, right?

• In other news, Bran has received the second of two stylish Stark haircuts this episode, while the Three-Eyed Raven has gotten a complete Max Von Sydow-ectomy. Max Von Sydow is of course an excellent actor, but I miss the crazy forest hobo-look of season 4’s Three-Eyed Raven. Von Sydow just looks like Von Sydow. I kept waiting for him to give Bran the map to Luke Skywalker.

• So apparently Ser Robert Strong spends his free time wandering the streets of King’s Landing, looking for anyone who says something bad about Cersei. Somehow, the silent efficiency with which he crushed that guy’s head makes him even more terrifying than the equally strong but more volatile Gregor Clegane.

• Tyrion’s story about desperately wanting a dragon as a child should fuel the “Tyrion is a secret Targaryen” theory rather nicely.

• In the books, all the readers know for sure is that Euron fell from one of the bridges during a storm. It’s heavily implied that Balon was murdered by a Faceless Man, presumably hired by Euron (who coincidentally shows up on Pyke a mere day after Balon’s death, after several years on the sea). I’d say Euron’s casual murder of Balon on the show lends credence to this.

• Do not shoot Wun-Wun with a crossbow.

• Davos gets the line of the night: “Fuck the gods.” Thirty seconds later: “I’m not a devout man. Obviously.”

• How hilarious would it be if Jon Snow’s resurrection was actually one of the major ways the show deviated from the books, and when GRRM finally releases The Winds of Winter, it opens when Jon Snow’s already burning on a pyre? And by hilarious I mean people would actually riot in the streets.