This year, we’re going to be putting our day-after observations about Game of Thrones into writing instead of a recap podcast, in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. In keeping with our tradition, these will focus on explicating one scene as an interpretive key for unlocking deeper interpretations of the episode’s themes. These articles will contain spoilers through he episode under discussion. This week, Ben Adams tackles “Home” (S6 E2).
Subversion of expectations is the engine that has turned Game of Thrones into the powerhouse that it is. From the death of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding to that moment when you realize that Tyrion is the closet thing the series has to a protagonist, Game of Thrones makes its money on its ability to confound the expectations of the audience: you thought that guy was the hero? Well, off goes his head. You thought that guy was the hero? Well, Tywin Lannister sends his regards.
But just like jazz is all about the notes you don’t play, Game of Thrones is all about the stabbings that don’t happen. Because just as often as we are surprised by a sudden death or battle, Game of Thrones pulls away at the last minute, sparing us the battle that seems imminent. And that’s a vitally important part of what makes the narrative tick. You can’t have sudden deaths all the time, or they cease to be surprising. Unexpected life is just as important as unexpected death.
“Home” plays out this tension in a variety of ways. The first half of the episode is mostly filled with unexpected reprieves from death: at the Wall, the Wildlings take Castle Black (mostly) without blood being shed, despite the heavily armed camps on both sides. In King’s Landing, Ser Robert Strong (the Zombie Knight) looks like he’s going to have to cut down a dozen guardsmen, but Cersei decides to back down. Jamie decides not to kill the High Sparrow, and even Dany’s dragons decide that they’ve got a friend in Tyrion.
These moments are important because they remind the audience that despite the hype, Game of Thrones is about more than summary executions. Character development happens in these liminal spaces, where there is a real choice between fighting or retreating for another day: in their individual decisions not to fight, we learn something about Allister Thorne, Cersei, Jamie and the dragons.
But of course, this is just a setup for the carnage that is to come. These scenes all serve to teach us exactly the wrong lesson. Because it turns out there’s really nothing more to learn about Ramsay Bolton: he is exactly as much of a monster as we thought, and if you really believed that he was going to let a tender moment between father and son pass without bloodshed, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Beinoff send their regards.
Taken together, these scenes have an interesting effect on our perception of the confrontation between Lord Balon Greyjoy and his younger brother, Euron Greyjoy, on the bridges of Pyke. As far as I recall, we have not been previously introduced to Euron in the TV series, so this introduction, at the end of a rickety bridge in a blustering storm, is where we will learn what kind of man he is. The previous scenes in the episode have shown us that the confrontation could go either way—maybe he’ll throw him off the bridge, or maybe he’ll just let him pass. When he makes his choice, we learn that Euron is a card carrying member of the Ramsay Bolton School of Leadership.
**WARNING: The Net Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers**
Of course, all of this leads up to the final moment of the episode, and the scene we’ve all been waiting for. It is hard to think of a moment in recent TV history that has been as anticipated, speculated, rumored, theorized, and obsessed over than the final shot of “Home” with Jon Snow opening his eyes and coming back to life. The actor who plays Jon, Kit Harrington, god bless him, has spent the last year trying to insist that what we think is going to happen isn’t going to happen. And of course no one believed him.
So with all the speculation, the challenge of “Home” was to convince us that maybe, just maybe, Jon really wasn’t going to come back (or at least not yet). The entire 55 minute run-time up until that point is an exercise in building and confounding expectations, demonstrating that every moment in the series really does ride on a knife’s edge: the Wildlings and Night’s Watch may fight, or not; Robert Strong may kill 12 guardsmen at Cersei’s orders, or not; a girl may be Arya Stark, or not; the dragons may eat Tyrion, or not; Ramsay Bolton may hug his father without stabbing him, or not (OK, he’s totally going to stab him); and Euron Greyjoy may let Balon pass over the bridge, or not.
Even a moment as shocking as Ramsay Bolton and his dogs devouring a 1-hour-old baby is just a prelude to the Red Woman saying a prayer over the body of a freshly-dead Lord Commander. The episode (and the series as a whole) has trained us to wonder what’s going to happen next; to wonder whether our expectations are really going to be fulfilled.
And as Davos and Mellisandre and all the rest of the onlookers start to drift away, one by one, we start to think that maybe, just maybe, Jon Snow is going to stay dead (at least for now).
Only death can pay for life. That’s the way that magic works on Game of Thrones: to make life, you need death. But that’s also the way the narrative works: by balancing the scales of life and death, the story keeps us guessing, and coming back for more.
What was your key scene in this episode? Let us know in the comments below
Sigh, now we have a fucking Jesus in our show. The way his resurrection scene was filmed made it impossible to not make the connection. I really hope that this is more than mere fan service – a very tempting thing now that showrunners no longer have books to bind their hands. My only hope now is that he comes back completely changed, maybe a bit of a wraith, or a monster like the Mountain, who also had a resurrection of sorts.
Though I agree that this plot definitely needs to be handled carefully, this is not the first resurrection in Westeros — show or novels — so it’s not only “now” that we have a Jesus. The most important one, I think, is Danerys at the end of Season 1 (though that happens in Essos); it’s also happened to Beric Dondarrion and (novels only) Lady Stoneheart.
And you’re right that being resurrected by R’hllor changes you—Dondarrion talks about it specifically.
I like this idea of returning, but changed as an overarching theme for the episode (and maybe the season, but it is too early to tell).
This idea connects Jon’s resurrection with a lot of the other threads from this episode… the return on Euron Greyjoy to the iron islands (as well as Theon’s likely return later in the season), Theon’s own return to himself from his long vacation as Reek, Arya’s return to the faceless men, Bran’s “return” to Winterfell via magical diagetic flashback, the dragons’ return to freedom, Ramsay’s return to being unfettered evil (as opposed to the more fettered evil he was during his first stint as Roose’s legitimate heir), Jamie returning to threats of violence to protect his family, Tomnen returning to his mother, Melisandre’s return to magic/miracle working after a brief lapse into self doubt. Others that I missed?
All of these connect pretty well to the title of the episode- “Home”. In all of these returns/resurrections, there is sense that you can go home again, but but both home and you won’t be the same when you go back. I think this sense of characters returning to places or states of being that are familiar but changed is compelling, and seems likely to be a force propelling the plot forward this season… rather than deliberating or waiting, these changed characters take action to get what they want… if that holds up, it is likely that we’re going to have a lot of big plot movements over the course of this season.
The common thread in your list is that they involve characters whose agency had been subjugated, but is now making a return – as in: these characters are back to having some degree of control over their own fate and maybe even the larger events of Westeros. It’s a theme that ties together the two new episodes, because season 5 left all the major players very diminished pretty much simultaneously. I had hoped that some new powers would rise up and fill the vacuum (go Boltons!), but instead we see the old favorites all mounting some kind of comeback (well, probably not Stanis).
Meanwhile, both in the North and South, the old enemies of our favorite families lost their competent, experienced rulers to patricide. In all three cases this will surely leave them radicalized and less able to act effectively to achieve their interests. That all leaves a shallow new simplicity to the situation. The Dornish are now villains. The Boltons are now even worse. The Iron Isles are up to something unsavory again. Against all this upgraded villainy stand the Starks and Lannisters, who, as a sympathy-generating bonus, are all emerging from profound and excessive punishment. (I suspect Dynaris’ emergence is one episode slower.) So now it’s just overdetermined whom we should root for, and I think that’s a shame. GoT is best when things are murkier.
One of the things that seemed especially pronounced this episode was that the show is increasingly more interested in visuals and less interested in text, and that at heart, D&D must be visual storytellers.
Compare all the texture and foreboding in the shots of the dog cages and the gates to the kennels, which are quite elaborate and poetic, with the actual dialogue, which is very pedestrian and straightforward (“he’s your brother” “I am Lord Bolton”) and you see where the heart of the show is right now.
In that vein, I think the anointing of Christ imagery in the Jon scene is really more about the show wanting to explore that imagery and play with it than it is textually about Jon being Jesus.
Or, rather, the imagery is much more _specifically_ Jesus imagery than Jon’s story is _specifically_ a Jesus story. His story is more generally messianic.
I’m hesitant to call the Jon Snow resurrection a Jesus story. While any resurrection-from-the-dead in the Western canon is going to have to stand in the shadow of Christ to a more or less extent, the Snow story so far doesn’t really fit the mold. Two main reasons why:
1) The most important part of the Jesus story is not the resurrection: it’s the sacrifice on the cross. Neo’s death in the last Matrix movie fits this mold, where he volunteers to fight Agent Smith. Jon Snow, on the other hand, was just straight up murdered – there was no intent on his part. It’s much more of a Caesar story than it is a Jesus story.
2) The manner of resurrection also doesn’t fit the Jesus mold. The two most prominent explanations for his resurrection are either that Mellisandre’s prayer raised him, or that some magic involving Ghost raised him. Either way, this is different from Snow rising from the dead due to some inherent goodness or nobility.
3) More symbolically, I don’t remember a whole lot of Jesus-specific imagery in the Snow death or resurrection. There’s no stigmata, no particularly prominent wound in his side (he has stab wounds all over), and not even any prominent crucifix/cross imagery. His body in the snow has one arm sticking down at his side, and the other over his own torso, not outstretched as if on a cross; ditto with his body on the slab (arms are at his sides).
I agree with you that Jon has to come back changed in some way – I’m less convinced that he needs to be *completely* changed, but he can’t just be the same old Jon Snow, his death just some weird story he can tell Sam down the road. But the show has done so much work to invest the audience in Jon Snow-qua-Jon Snow that it would be a waste if he came back as a totally different person. The Tower of Joy/R+L=J/Jon Snow’s parentage plot line has yet to pay off, and if Jon Snow is just some otherworldly monster inhabiting Jon Snow’s body, it would be completely irrelevant.
That said, it COULD be really cool if Jon Snow came back as a bad guy, or if he came back changed in a way that twisted his previous character in some interesting way. My point is just that he has to be at least a *little* bit the same guy if the story is going to have some kind of continuity.
I take another thing from this episode. The “rational” decision making. Jaime/Cersei don’t fight back (it’s not the moment to), Ramsay and Euron kill their fathers (ok, that really looks bad) because is the best moment to do it and take control, Arya says what they wanted to hear and benefited from that, Davos Seaworth don’t surrender to Alliser (and get the wildlings and Night’s Watch both bands killed), Melissandre does try to revive Jon even if she is totally depressed and has lost faith, and Bran does nothing…
Maybe Ramsay and Euron is a stretch, but I really think they did what they “HAVE TO”, no emotions involved. (Roose just “replaced” Ramsay with the new son so sooner or later he’s going to be powerless, and Balon Greyjoy was… oh we have no idea who the f Euron is and why he does what he does, but this episode shows that Balon was making bad decisions anyway, so kind of justified the killing in my mind as a necessity for the greyjoys)
So, my Downton Abbey moment for this episode is when Tyrion is talking about dragons. And he says something along the lines of “Dragons are intelligent. Some say more intelligent than men. They remember who their friends are and their enemies.”
This episode is full of remembrance of past rights and wrongs, and people trying to figure out their current relationship with somebody based on what they remember about them, from Tommen recalling the events of Cersei’s and Maergary’s imprisonment, to Jaime “confessing” his sins, to Brienne remembering when she saw Arya, to Arya remembering the Waif as an enemy and Jaqen as a friend even though they are the same person, probably. And of course the Greyjoy legacy – what is dead that never dies? Memories! And of course the poor Walda dies because she does not remember who her friends and enemies are.
The title of the episode is kind of about Jon coming “home,” and it raises the question, what does he remember? Either from death or before death.
And the way these episodes in this show work is the next episode will have different themes or will change gears, and we won’t start with the answer to that question, however urgent it seems right now.
And looking at what Ryan wrote about how “you can go home again,” but is it the same – I think that all fits together. Or rather, creates a bit of a matrix. You remember home as different from away, and you remember friends as different from enemies, and you would think they ought to match up, but they don’t. Like when MAX VON EFFING SYDOW tells Bran staying in an old memory of home is like holding your breath underwater. You have to remember what is helping you live and what is trying to kill you.
Is there any possible scenario where Max von Sydow and Peter Dinklage end up having a bunch of scenes together? There’s probably not, right? Seems a shame.
I wonder if we’ve past the point of big twists. All the balls are in the air and now it’s just a matter of narrative gravity bringing them back down.
Sort of like Highlander, every time you kill off a major character, the others become harder to kill off. Characters from season one are nearly bullet proof at this point. Jon’s quite literally knife proof. The same thing happened in Lost and occurs in Walking Dead.
I think there will still be twists, but I think you’re spot on that we have reached something of a tipping point in terms of the type of surprises to expect from here on out. I like the idea of “narrative gravity” as a way of explaining this- there are certain themes and stories that have to pay off at some point, and that constrains the writers choices to a great degree.
Dany is the best example of this: she HAS to come to Westeros, or her plot line would be COMPLETELY irrelevant. She can die when she and her dragons get to the Seven Kingdoms and actually start interacting with the rest of the plot, but not before.
And that’s OK! Stories are about more than just surprise, and at a certain point you want gravity to take over and for the pieces to start falling into place.
To Ben’s original point, one interesting feature of all this is that the showrunners haven’t quite outrun the books just yet. They have with the plots that we care about, mostly, but Balon died a while back in the books. And the interesting thing about THAT death, is that in the books, it’s presented as if Melisandre’s magic is what did him in. He dies off camera by falling off a bridge in a rainstorm. It’s a slightly shocking moment precisely because we only learn of it second-hand: “Oh, I guess minor characters might die in the background while we aren’t looking at them. Weird.” But there is a sense that this is the indirect result of Melisandre’s blood-magic: she performs a ritual that’s meant to kill the false kings Balon, Joffrey, and Robb, and although there’s no direct supernatural agency for any of these as there was with Renly, they do all end up dead in pretty short order.
If you’ve read that far in the books, as soon as you see Balon walking out onto a bridge in the rain you’re like, “Okay, his ticket’s punched.” And you’re reminded of the efficacy of Melisandre’s witchcraft, even though the show didn’t do anything to make that connection.
So the same scene that trains you to think Jon might not come back, if you just know the show, trains you to think that he for sure will come back, if you also know the books.
The other interesting question that hasn’t been asked is:
Did they write/film the Bolton patricide before or after watching a certain space-opera last year.
Either way, which set of writers were the more shocked?