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Counting Up the Dead and Undead in Last Night's 'Game of Thrones'

Zombies, resurrections, patricide—just your average day in Westeros.

by J. W. McCormack
May 2 2016, 4:52pm

Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO. All photos courtesy of HBO

Warning: Season six episode two spoilers abound.

What Wylis Was Talking About

"Home," season six's second episode of Game of Thrones, is effectively its first—the premiere being too weighted by expectation and general mood-establishing to be seen on its own strengths. Following a recap to remind us who the hell the Karstarks are and the comforting plop of the bridges of Pyke during the opening credits, we finally have an answer to the question that has lit up a thousand message boards, birthed fan fiction disguised as spoiler reports, and disturbed our sleep lo these many months: What was Hodor trying to say all this time?

Yes, we finally know what Bran has been doing while he was away all of last season. Apparently he was smoking pipeweed with some seriously Genesis P-Orridge-looking elves and watching the Criterion Collection so intently that he managed to bring Max Von Sydow back with him. In fact, Bran and Sydow's Three-Eyed Raven are presiding over a participatory flashback that shows us the young Benjen and Ned as cowlicky roustabouts in Winterfell's courtyard, interrupted in their manly swordcraft by the hitherto-unseen Lyanna Stark. Three-Eyes seems about to say, "You do know that's Jon Snow's biological mom," when Bran wades deeper into his vision, prompting the introduction of a stablehand named Wylis, whom we know will rise to be Belfast's favorite disyllabic house DJ, Hodor. He talks! He walks! He fights! And maybe he can siiiiinnngg... except that Three-Eyes wakes Bran from his greendreams, leaving actor Isaac Hempstead Wright to say what the audience has been saying for five seasons, namely, "You finally show me something I care about, and then you drag me away."

Sydow's answer is a doomed-to-go-unheeded warning to the fans who spent the last week wondering how the Sand Snakes got to that boat so damn fast or how all those dogs disappeared when Brienne showed up to save Sansa: "It is beautiful beneath the sea. But if you stay too long, you'll drown." But we're already here, and you're already reading a recap of an episode you plainly saw, so we might as well drain the ocean that is Game of Thrones to the last drop.

Apologies for What You're About to See

We cut to the present-day Castle Black, right where we left Davos and the Night's Watch mutineers. Cue the stand-off we saw previewed on Conan, then a Wun Wun ex machina that introduces this episode's abiding motif: tiny men getting their heads exploded by giants. Sadly, those of Ser Alliser Thorne and Olly, the internet's most-hated squire, are not among them. It is nice to have Nordic spokebeard Tormund Giantsbane back, though the line he speaks over the prone body of Jon Snow—"took a lot of knives"—speaks to a distinct lack of bedside manner north of the Wall.

Blessed Down South

The second in our tally of smashed heads belongs to some plebe in King's Landing who tells a bawdy story about the queen mum before going for a leak against the city walls, only to be introduced to the kind of justice that can only be doled out by a seven-foot zombie in gold armor. Cersei herself is barred from the funeral of her daughter by orders of King "Butters" Tommen, who gets a nice scene with Jaime, in which some OJ-style lip service is paid to the effort to catching Trystane's real killers.

Two more showdowns ensue: Jaime opposite the High Sparrow, in which the Kingslayer gets to recapture some of the 'tude neutered by his three seasons of redemption, clutching the hilt of his sword as he tells the Faith Militant's unimpressed ringleader, "You must long for the next life," before rattling off every bad thing he's ever done. Then we have a genuinely affecting scene between Tommen and Cersei, where we see just how many of his mother's mistakes he has internalized as his own—just in time for Mother's Day.

Next Time I Have an Idea Like That, Punch Me in the Face

In an episode featuring mendicant priests, a whole pantheon of gods Faceless and Drowned, not to mention an actual resurrection, the most biblical thing going might still be Tyrion's beard, as he regales a skeptical Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm with both his loquacious smarts and metabolism. The scene that follows, of Tyrion in the dragons' den, is much classier than three minutes of sweet-talking CGI ought to be, but our feeling of the Imp acting as Daenerys-surrogate is as vivid as our sense that the dragons are fulfilling the role of any good pet, standing in for the lack of human contact that comes, for example, when you have murdered half your family and eroded the goodwill of the rest.

The Roose Is Loose

The next three scenes take us on a whirlwind tour of the hinterlands—Braavos, Winterfell, and the Iron Islands—where we are assured that we won't have to watch poor Arya be blind for eight more episodes, followed by the offings of two patres familias. Counting Doran in episode one, that's three in two episodes. Maybe now's the time to recognize the most visible consequence of the show going off-book: the pace. Whereas previous episodes devoted whole acts to stirring speeches about beetles, arguments over who skins the best rabbit, and Pod's sexual savantism, here we're checking off boxes left and right as we lurch toward dénouement. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

The Salt Throne Is Not Yours to Swear Upon

There's no show like Game of Thrones for treating the death of a major character as an afterthought so we can dwell on the suffering of a female. Here we check in with Team Sansa to learn secret-hero-of-the-show Theon is thinking of heading home to Pyke. Except that looks like a terrible idea, because Pyke has just lost its king in a death so foregone (and poorly lit) that Melisandre promised it two seasons ago.

You Were Right All Along

And so we come to the awaited guest, the Crow in the ointment, the joyless laying-to-rest of all our year's anxiety, the rebirth of Jon Snow. Can we pause and appreciate just how good and christly the once and future Lord Commander looks, wounds washed out by Melisandre, package all swaddled and neat? He looks exactly like the Holbein painting on the cover of my copy of The Idiot. Look at this.

So, yeah, the Bastard of Winterfell comes back to life after Melisandre reads the liner notes to Slayer backward to no apparent effect and Dolorous Edd, Davos, and Tormund let themselves out, followed at length by a thoroughly demoralized Melisandre. Anyway, just as we're beginning to consider that we haven't been lied to by the show's stars and producers over an excruciating ten-month mourning period, we get the big reveal to the tune of a ridiculous swell of credits' music, and there's no miracle because this is what we all knew would transpire.

No, I know. I'm as happy as anyone to have the hero-with-a-thousand-faces back to bring order to the Seven Kingdoms, but there was something very poignant about Melisandre coming to terms with her lack of holy exemption from the rules the rest of us are subject to. And that's the problem with a show that can always fall back on magic to relieve us just when the grim human drama becomes unbearable. It's not that I'm confused about what show I'm watching, but at its best, Game of Thrones—especially when we're watching the more seasoned actors like Liam Cunningham, Peter Dinklage, or Charles Dancemakes me forget its clumsier aspects.

For me, those tend to be the eight-sided dice moments, where the fantasy intrudes most rudely. This episode had brilliant conversations between a mother and a son (never mind that they are protected by a lumbering Frankenstein); a lost soul among his surrogate family (who, yes, commands dragons); and between Davos, the blighted realist and Melisandre, the witch startled into self-doubt (until the God of Light undoes it). That's the thing about miracles—they tend to undercut tragedy. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor's Misfit, "She would have been a good woman if there had been someone there to make her meet the Many-Faced God every minute of her life."

Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.

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