Let me start by apologizing for not giving you the yearly Primer post or for skipping last week’s “The Red Woman” write-up. Truth be told, I was enjoying being in the dark like everyone else about what would come next in the world of Westeros & Essos. It’s such a liberating feeling: the not-knowing. It’s not like I know any more now than I did before, but at least I’m back to continue taking stabs in the dark.
No pun intended.
But through two episodes of this new season, one thing is becoming clear: the fallout from The War of the Five Kings has swept away a lot of the old rules and ideals. This has been a long-simmering effect of the war, mind you. But whether it’s concepts like the protection of guest right or the bonds of familial love, war acts like a caustic substance which burns through it all and eats it all away. Vassals have betrayed their liege lords. Kings have been poisoned. Wards have been betrayed. Family member has struck down family member.
What impact could the cumulative effect of all this be? Could it, perhaps, be to forge a new a different world so different from the previous one?
Look the Lands of Always Winter for a lesson on how things were long ago. There Brandon Stark lies and trains with the Three-Eyed Raven AKA Bloodraven AKA Lord Brynden Rivers. He has been calling to Bran since Season 1, slowly pulling him towards the awakening of his power. Through it Bran is able to spy on the past – and what does he see? Why he sees his home, Winterfell, and he sees his father, his uncles, Benjen and Brandon, and his aunt Lyanna. He sees a world at peace; one where family cares for one another and there’s an order to the world – a world much like the one he was once in at the start of the story. He even sees Hodor as he was: a young and simple man named Wyllis who tended the stables and was kind but could speak and understand. However, Bloodraven doesn’t allow him to linger there. He’s not there to train to how to see the past. He’s there to train to help create a future – one far from their small cave.
Juxtapose that tranquil Winterfell to the one we see in this episode. Roose Bolton, Lord of The Dreadfort & Warden of the North helped forge this new world by betraying and stabbing his king, Robb Stark, in the heart during a wedding feast. His men stabbed and killed Robb’s pregnant wife, Talisa, to ensure no heir of his line could survive. How fitting then that he is stabbed by Ramsay, his naturalized son and heir, the moment that the maester arrives to tell them that Roose’s Frey bride gave birth to his new son. Ramsay cows the maester into lying about Roose’s death and then ensures that no other Bolton heir exists to challenge his claim by feeding Walda Bolton and her newborn son to his hunting dogs. A cruel act by a cruel man that is the perfect reflection of what Roose has wrought upon the North. Ramsay Bolton now stands as Lord of the Dreadfort and of Winterfell and all the North will bow to him or suffer.
A similar situation is being made in King’s Landing. King Tommen, feeling impotent and afraid, commands his forces to keep his mother in the Red Keep for fear of her falling back in the hands of the High Sparrow and the Faith. Jaime tries to scare the new leader of the Faith but finds his threats empty against a man who has been able to imprison both Cersei and Margaery and who has the command of a large army of zealots at his command. What threats can the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard level against someone who holds himself as righteous? Past High Septons would be easily cowed by men such as Jaime Lannister. But none had the Faith Militant at their back. The High Sparrow has changed the way things work in King’s Landing and kings and noble lords must bow to the power he wields and the army that supports him.
That army may, at some point, have to fight against the forces of Tommen who, angered at his weakness and unsure of what to do next, has returned to the side of his mother. Cersei is a woman simmering with rage and desperation. She’s had to bury two of her children, been imprisoned and broken by the Faith and is still to be judged for crimes which could destroy her and her house. What will she advice her son, the king, to do? Will she talk him towards peace? Or will she stoke that resentment and fear that’s already growing within him? Will she turn shy and meek Tommen into another Joffrey?
How to deal with potential monsters is a question for Tyrion, Missandei, Varys and Grey Worm. With their fleet burnt away and the once-freed cities of Yunkai’I and Astapor back in the hands of the Slave Masters, the group that is holding Meereen until Daenerys returns is desperate for an edge. Having seen Drogon in action, Tyrion thinks of that such an edge lies in the two remaining dragons, Viserion and Rhaegal, kept chained at Daenerys’ command in the bowels of their pyramid. But the dragons obey no one but the Dragon Queen. This doesn’t deter Tyrion, who approaches the mighty beasts with the respect and awe that he’s always held them in since childhood. Undoing their chains, he hopes he’s gained their trust so that he might one day free them to fight for his cause. What are armies and ships against the might of dragons? It’s something the Slave Masters must consider.
A more human monster, however, returns to the Iron Islands to steal away his brother’s crown. King Balon Greyjoy, the last remaining King of the original five that sought to battle for dominion over Westeros, has been pushed back off the North. He stews in his castle on Pyke and hopes to find a way to turn his situation around when his brother, Euron, returns to him. The man he once banished from the Iron Islands returns and pays him back in kind by throwing him off the rope bridge and to the rocks below. Yara may seek vengeance but how can she blame the shadow no one but the murdered Balon saw? And what kind of situation will Theon – Balon’s heir – find as the Iron Islands are without a king if he should make it there?
Perhaps no other situation shows how the world of Westeros is upside down than the return of Jon Snow from the dead though. His defenders and Davos Seaworth are rescued by the return of Dolorous Edd Tollett with Tormund, Wun Wun and the rest of the wildlings. The outmanned Night’s Watchmen surrender and Ser Alliser Thorne and Olly are arrested. This resolves the issues for the moment, but Davos has to go seek the aid of Melisandre, who is going through a crisis of faith. She was so certain of her visions in the flames: that Stannis would be king, that he would united the Seven Kingdoms, that he was Azor Ahai reborn. To have it all collapse with his loss and death of Stannis and his army has been a tremendous blow to Melisandre’s faith.
But she agrees to go through the motions of the Lord of Light’s burial rights. The same ones Thoros of Myr told her he had performed over his friend before he too rose from the dead. She washes his body, tends to his hair and speaks ancient Valyrian. And though everyone stands hopeful, nothing happens. It’s not until they all depart, dejected and defeated, that the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch opens his eyes and returns to the land of the living. Is he though? What is he now?
The actions of Tywin Lannister, Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon and so many others gave rise to the War of the Five Kings. From this war, the old world collapsed and a new one is slowly arising. A world where the Faith is not weak. A world where family bonds and oaths of service matter little. A world where monsters and legends soar above the skies and crawl among the snows. A world where death is not the finite end we all think it is. The old rules are gone and it’s anyone guess what the new ones are. In this upside down world these characters live, there’s no certainty of anything.
Well, maybe there’s certainty in this: as Sansa speaks with Brienne, she learns of Arya’s travels and travails. Though trapped in enemy country and as the snows pile around them, the love Sansa bears for her sister compels her to learn all she can of her fate. She does not know that Arya is half a world away, learning how to be “no one” in the House of Black and White. It doesn’t matter. The love Sansa has for Arya – for Jon, for Rickon, for Bran and even for Theon Greyjoy – could be the force that eventually brings the adrift Stark children back together to stand as one before the cold winds that rise around them.