Jon Snow returned not with a bang, but a whimper. Resurrected last week after his murder by mutinying members of the Night’s Watch — not to mention a year of furious speculation by the audience and half-hearted denials by the cast and crew — the Lord Commander reentered the land of the living less like a triumphant messiah and more like a guy who’d just come to after a horrendous car accident. His breath came in gasps. His eyes were wide with confusion and distress. When he stepped off the slab, he couldn’t even walk without an almost equally stunned Ser Davos holding him up. And what did he learn on the other side? As the saying goes, he knows nothing. His rebirth was basically one big supernatural panic attack.
Related: What Jon Snow’s Return Means for ‘Game of Thrones’
With this scene, tonight’s episode — “Oathbreaker” — set its tone early. Coming back from the dead guaranteed Jon no more sense of purpose, let alone success in achieving it, thanDaenerys‘ dragons gave the Targaryen queen a route to the Iron Throne. Fantasy may be a much larger factor in the show than it was when it first started, but its magic is still a very messy business — and the stuff that isn’t magical is often even worse.
The unhappy fate of Rickon Stark and his wildling companion Osha illustrates the point all too clearly. Book-readers haven’t lacked for departures from the source material to shock and dismay them since way back in Season One. But the severed head of the lord’s direwolf, presented as proof of heritage to a smirking Ramsay Bolton, is one of the most discomfiting differences from page to screen yet. Here’s where the Bastard of Bolton’s well-earned track record of brutality pays off: You don’t need to do anything to communicate the danger the boy and his friend are in beyond simply placing them in this psychopath’s presence. Considering how long it’s been since we’ve seen them — nearly two full seasons — it’s a genuinely heartbreaking homecoming.
Rickon was far from the only young aristocrat to make what was, in retrospect, a terrible decision. Cersei, her brother Jaime, and her zombie killing machine Ser Gregor Clegane scare small children and annoy the Small Council; the siblings’ son, King Tommen, seeks out the High Sparrow to demand that his mom be granted access to his late sister’s tomb. It does the heart good to see the kid standing up for his family, even one as shitty as the Lannisters, but he makes the rookie mistake of listening to what the old man has to say. Once he has his foot in the proverbial door, the kindly fanatic quickly defuses the situation, feigning infirmity and blowing smoke up the monarch’s ass regarding the Queen Mother’s near-otherworldly level of devotion to him.
Actor Dean-Charles Chapman aces the assignment of playing a ruler who knows what he’s supposed to do but lacks the experience to do it right; there’s shades of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys in his uncertain handling of adversity, a comparison enhanced by the Breaker of Chains’ own encounter with a belief system being used to imprison her elsewhere in the episode. (All hail the royal Dothraki widows called the Dosh Khaleen.) The scene also reads as a mirror image of Varys‘ canny interrogation of an enemy agent in Meereen, in which the spymaster also plays on the love between parent and child to get what he wants. Echoes like these add intricacy to a show too often discussed in terms of sheer shock and awe.
And if it’s intricate you want, dig the editing in Arya‘s portion of the episode, which takes a concept as hoary as the training montage and turns it into something visually complex and emotionally riveting. Still blind, the Stark girl endures both beatings and questioning at the hands of the Waif, her cruel tutor in the ways of the Faceless Men, and its unclear which is more painful. Their back-and-forth digs out deeply buried feelings in the trainee: She considers Jon a real brother despite his bastard status, and she’d actually decided to spare her old running buddy the Hound from death before circumstances necessitated a Plan B. Coming to terms with this stuff appears to have played a big a part in her mentor Jaqen H’ghar‘s decision to restore her eyesight as her newfound Daredevil-style ability to fight blind did.
In his own way, her brother Bran is also learning to see truths that were perhaps better left hidden. With the Three-Eyed Raven by his side, he journeys back in time to the last battle of Robert’s Rebellion, in which his father Ned Stark and his friend Meera’s dad, Howland Reed, defeated the brilliant swordsman Ser Arthur Dayne with a stab in the back. On one level, this punctures the heroic myth the boy had believed regarding Dad’s defeat of a formidable opponent. And in pure plot terms, the vision gave a tantalising hint as to the fate of Lyanna Stark, the source of the post-fight scream we hear. (Hint: There’s a reason this episode aired on Mother’s Day.)
But this wasn’t an entirely pessimistic episode, even if it ended with Jon walking away from the Night’s Watch after hanging his betrayers, including the young Olly, in graphic fashion. The most uplifting note wasn’t Gilly carrying on like a giddy tourist, or Tyrion‘s Larry David–level awkwardness at making small talk with Grey Worm and Missandei, or even the fact that mad scientist Qyburn didn’t poison those adorable kids. (Children acting cute without getting murdered: Is this a Game of Thrones first?) It was a major-key variation of the series’ theme song, soundtracking Lord Snow’s first appearance before the Watch and the wildlings since his revival — a sonic cue that’s so important it requires the familiar opening fanfare to accompany it. Sit tight through the misery, folks: There’s Snow in the forecast.
Previously: Snow Day