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(Spoilers below for the fourth episode of Game of Thrones, Season Four).
Largely a transitional episode, with an ironic title considering all of the changes from the book, Oathkeeper prepares viewers for the next major series of events. The title of the episode leaves little thought to what this Game of Thrones episode was going to be all about: loyalty. Loyalty, like the other moral issues on Game of Thrones, is a lot more complicated than we initially thought.
Loyalty is a unifying idea in this episode. There is no one single message, but rather a sandbox style of exploration, or a spectrum style that explores the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of loyalty.
While an idea traditionally associated with honor, the episode quickly denigrates into a more morally complicated interpretation. Loyalty is supposed to keep you on the path, and throughout the episode viewers see characters keeping oaths or solemn promises or remaining loyal in servitude. However, we also see it as a catalyst for conflicts and as an excuse for bad decision making. Oathkeeper even takes the time to show viewers what happens when the idea of loyalty is completely lost on the individual and on a group of people.
Keeping Your Oaths … For The Right Reasons
Game of Thrones is a pretty dark show. Even an episode with the title of Oathkeeper, manages to remain mostly cynical for its entire duration.
However, at the center of the episode, the Brienne and Jaime subplot again becomes prevalent. Brienne who is physical reminder for Jaime for the price of his freedom finally gets Jaime to do something towards fulfilling his oath to Catelyn Stark. It’s not a full blown commitment from Jaime, as he personally won’t be fulfilling the oath, but he does give the oath of returning Ned Stark’s daughters home safe one of the best possible chances of being fulfilled by sending Brienne out to accomplish the task.
Not only does Jaime give Brienne an expensive suit of armor he gives her his newly crafted Valyrian steel sword. Brienne will be hunting for Sansa with a sword that was created out of her father’s sword, symbolically linking the family with the quest. Jaime also finds a safe escape from Kings Landing for Tyrion’s squire Pod by having him accompany Brienne. Yet another honorable gesture due to Jaime’s loyalty to Tyrion.
While Jaime and Brienne are largely acting for the right reasons the episode showcases a number of moments where characters are acting loyally to their lord, leader, or Khaleesi. Despite being loyal, though, some of these below instances are not for the right reasons – at least morally speaking. We see Missandei teaching Grey Worm the Common Tongue, presumably at Daenerys’ request, Grey Worm recruiting the slaves of Meereen to rise up against the Masters, Locke’s loyalty to Roose sees him putting himself at great risk by infiltrating the Night’s Watch so that he can presumably kill Jon Snow or find Bran and Rickon, Margaery visits Tommen in a sexually charged, but not wholly inappropriate encounter out of loyalty to her family, and Janos Slynt suggests Thorne let Jon Snow go north of the Wall so that he can take up the Lord Commander’s position without his opposition. All of these actions are motivated by loyalty, and through them the tone of the episode as well as the show’s view of the idea begins to take shape.
Loyalty Causing Conflict
Loyalty and oaths to many different ideas or people often leads to conflict. After sparring with Bronn, Jaime is asked if he’s visited his brother Tyrion since he’s been imprisoned. Jaime guiltily admits he hasn’t, and it becomes clear that he has unwittingly taken up his family’s stance that Tyrion is guilty. Bronn tells Jaime about how he met Tyrion and how Tyrion discussed how loyal Jaime was to him.
Better late than never, Jaime visits Tyrion for the first time. Here we are left wondering if Jaime is going to try to help Tyrion based off the conversation he just had with Bronn, or if he is going to kill Tyrion based off the request he received from Cersei in the previous episode. Fortunately Jaime becomes convinced of Tyrion’s innocence, but Jaime’s loyalty to Westerosi law does not inspire him to free Tyrion. Instead, Jaime would rather let Tyrion go through what will likely be a fixed trial.
Shortly after this meeting Jaime is accused by Cersei of being disloyal to herself and the family.
Jaime weakly argues that Tyrion is innocent, however he is quickly shot down by Cersei. Furthermore Cersei tells Jaime to kill Sansa, which would bring him into conflict with the oath he has to Catelyn. Jaime in this episode becomes the symbolic representation of conflicts that are caused by loyalty.
Loyalty As An Excuse For Potentially Bad Decisions
Loyalty can lead to bad decisions, and Oathkeeper seems to focus particularly on the “arguably” bad decisions made by leaders who use oath keeping or loyalty to make said decisions. Bran is the leader of his small traveling companions. He wargs into Summer and gets his direwolf trapped. He then keeps his small group too close to the dangerous mutineers and the ending result is everyone gets captured. Why does Bran decided not to leave? Because of his loyalty to Summer.
Just on the other side of the Wall, Jon Snow manages to get approval from Alliser Thorne for forming a company of volunteers to go and fight the mutineers. In the case of Jon Snow’s bold plan of action, you know it’s a bad idea when Alliser Thorne approves of it. How does Jon get volunteers? When survival and loyalty to the Night’s Watch doesn’t stir the men, he uses their memories of Jeor Mormont, who was killed by the mutineers, to get some men to stand with him. Loyalty to Mormont’s memory may lead to a potentially bad decision for the Night’s Watch and Jon.
Arguably the worst decision in this episode may belong to Daenerys. Deciding to execute 163 of the most powerful nobles in Meereen after conquering their city allows her to fulfill the oath she made earlier in the season when she decided to avenge the 163 slaves their were crucified on each mile marker of their march to Meereen. It’s implied that Daenerys personally saw every slave on the march, and their is no doubt that vengeance is in her heart.
This is an eye for an eye moment, and the show definitely wants you to see Daenerys execute revenge for what the slave masters did to the slaves, but it’s only when Barristan questions it, that the viewer begins to question Daenerys’ decision for vengeance. Daenerys tells Barristan she will answer injustice with justice, echoing a philosophy of the late Robb Stark who died shortly after uttering those words. If that isn’t a cue for saying “executing those slaves might be a bad idea Daenerys,” I don’t know what is.
Loyal To No One
Who’s loyal to no one?
Sansa Stark has the answer … it’s Littlefinger. Sansa’s understanding of politics continues to grow, but Littlefinger’s decisions continue to remain enigmatic:
“A man with no motive is a man no one suspects. Always keep your foes confused. If they don’t know who you are or what you want, they can’t know what you plan to do next.”
Sure Littlefinger admits that Joffrey is a bad ally, and that his new allies, presumably the Tyrells, suit his needs much better. Based off three seasons of lying to everyone, the audience knows that Littlefinger is really loyal to no one. It’s so obvious even Sansa calls him out on it. Thinking back on all of the chaos caused by Littlefinger, he represents the destruction that a single individual can create when a quality like loyalty is absent from their essence.
While Littlefinger may represent an individual that lacks loyalty, it isn’t until the near end of the episode that we see what happens when a significantly sized group of people abandons the idea completely. Karl and the mutineers are at Craster’s drinking from a cup made out of Mormont’s skull, repeatedly raping Craster’s wives, abusing Bran and his friends, and eventually sacrificing a baby to the Wight Walkers. The sequence of scenes featuring Karl reminds viewers of what the absence of loyalty can do to a society. The sacrificed baby who become a Wight Walker at the end is the ultimate symbol of loss of innocence caused by lack of loyalty.