‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4, Episode 4 Recap: “Oathkeeper”

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Early on in “Oathkeeper,” it occurred to me that Game of Thrones has itself a little pacing problem. Meereen, or at least its masters, has fallen. Daenerys is once again victorious. And, minor book spoilers, we’re pretty much at the end of the Breaker of Chain’s story for the entirety of Storm of Swords, with six episodes left to go in the fourth season. So how in the hell is this series going to stretch out the tail end of a book into ten episodes of television? Luckily, my question was answered just a few scenes later. Not so luckily, the solution turns out to be making up at least one time-consuming story line nowhere near the caliber of plot threads pulled directly from A Song of Ice and Fire. Suddenly, I’m much less excited for the rest of season four than I was a few hours ago.

Before we dive in to whatever the hell’s going on north of the Wall, let’s backtrack a bit. We spend the first quarter of “Oathkeeper” over on Essos; interestingly, though, this might be the first time Game of Thrones has ever shot scenes in Slaver’s Bay where Dany’s presence is only peripheral, if she’s even around at all. We open with a conversation between Grey Worm and Missandei, an exchange that showcases one of the show’s cardinal strengths: its ability to build out characters whose point of view isn’t included in the books into people independent of their original limited narrator. Dany may have been chattel in a past life, but even her use as a barter chip between her brother and Khal Drogo can’t touch Missandei’s experience of being torn away from her homeland by slavers.

The heart-to-heart gave me hope that Game of Thrones was finally starting to relinquish one of the many problematic aspects of Dany’s story line: the grounding of a liberation narrative on the liberator rather than the liberated. Grey Worm’s foray into the bowels of Meereen, however, does far less of a service to the city’s enslaved, who act out a hackneyed debate of rebellion vs. complacency before being interrupted by the Unsullied. The subsequent slave-rebellion scene, starring a slogan that would make Don Draper throw himself off a building, isn’t much better.

Notably, though, Dany’s victory is briefly marred by a disagreement with Barristan, always a voice of reason. He advises her to spare the masters the eye-for-an-eye punishment she’s devised. Daenerys, however, has bought into her own freedom fighter image a little too much. She’s crossed the line from righteous to vindictive, and we’re subsequently treated to a series of one-handed crucifixions that’s gruesome even by Game of Thrones standards. It’s the first sign that toppling the social order of three massive cities might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Or more importantly, not something Daenerys is entirely prepared for.

With Tyrion in prison and Cersei increasingly crazed, the King’s Landing plot lines have mostly condensed into the story of Jaime the Rapist. (I’m calling him that since, judging by his interactions with Cersei this week, the show can’t be trusted to remind us of what happened last week all on its own.) By sending Brienne to save Sansa immediately after his sister asks him to murder the younger Stark daughter, he’s making a symbolic commitment to a higher moral order over Cersei. It’s exactly what I was afraid would happen last week: rather than being treated with the gravity it deserves, Jaime’s rape of Cersei is depicted as a turning point in Cersei’s descent into vindictive paranoia and Jaime’s ascent into a classic white knight, free of allegiance to his crazy partner in incestuous crime. Between a shot that unsubtly shows the literal distance between them and Margaery’s creep-tastic seduction of Tommen, “Oathkeeper” brings Cersei’s isolation to new depths.

A final qualm before we move on to the North: between “Kill the Masters,” the decision to depict Jaime as a fully redeemed hero rather than a man who raped his own sister, and the spoon-fed explanations of Joffrey’s murder, “Oathkeeper” was severely lacking in the nuance I’ve come to expect from Game of Thrones. With transitions that connect Joffrey’s murder to Sansa and then Littlefinger’s role in that murder to Olenna, there’s hardly any need for Olenna’s out-and-out confession to Margaery (though I did enjoy her seduction story, indicating that Olenna used to be as Bond Girl hot as the actress that plays her). But the show gives us that in addition to Littlefinger’s umpteenth “I want everything and I’ll do whatever it takes to get it” speech, which clues us in on the jewelry-as-poison strategy the books are far more subtle in explaining. It felt like Game of Thrones didn’t trust its viewers to put the pieces together unless it told us the story of Who Killed Joffrey in the most explicit way possible, though it could be I just feel that way because I was so frustrated by the rest of the episode.

The final chunk of “Oathkeeper” was also my least favorite, an invented plot surrounding the mutineers at Craster’s Keep. This show has always been light on traditional villains, and with Joffrey gone, I’d been hoping characters would err even further on the side of moral grey. But instead we get Carl, a one-dimensional class warrior who we meet while pulling the positively cartoonish supervillain move of drinking wine out of Lord Mormont’s skull. He captures Bran and company, he’s already got Ghost in a cage, and just in case we don’t hate him enough, there’s a little gratuitous rape thrown in on the side. (It serves some purpose, but as of “Breaker of Chains” I’m not in the mood to give Game of Thrones the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sexual assault.) Presumably, we won’t see him again until Jon and his crew arrive, unless Locke offs Lord Snow first.

“Oathkeeper” may not be the best episode in Game of Thrones history. At least it goes out with a bang, though; Carl may be an unwelcome addition to the show, but the White Walkers remain shrouded in mystery five books into A Song of Ice and Fire. The final scene gives us a crucial bit of world-building: just where a race of ice beings that appears to be entirely male comes from. The Stonehenge-like sacrifice area is a bit cheesy, as is the split-second shot from the baby’s point of view. But those eyes? Totally, awesomely creepy.