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Game of Thrones Explained: Jon Snow’s Existential Crisis Begins

By  · Published on May 9th, 2016

The plight of the Starks – past, present and future – continues on Game of Thrones.

After two episodes that included a torrential downpour of death and destruction, Game of Thrones used the third hour of its sixth season to slow things down and do some soul-searching. “Oathbreaker,” written by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, is the season’s first exposition-heavy transitional episode. Usually, this is sort of a slog. But in a season that has already done quite a lot, it’s a welcomed reprieve from the madness.

Directed by newcomer Dan Sackheim, “Oathbreaker” delivered some setup for what is to come, answering some big questions and posing some new ones. While we still don’t know how Jon Snow will ultimately react to being alive again, we are starting to see how it will impact those around him. While we aren’t getting our biggest fan theories answered this week, we do get a taste of what the show wants to tell us in the future.

These topics and more will be explored below. But first, a spoiler warning: If you haven’t watched the episode, you might want to stop here. Plenty of spoilers, a little bit of book knowledge, and some speculation exist below.

Who is this Prince That Was Promised?

As we may have expected, Jon didn’t come back quite the same. But it’s a little different than coming back with a wolf brain. Jon is now dealing with the existential crisis of why he was brought back. He’s also wrestling with the fact that, as he says to Melisandre, there was nothing on the other side of death. This informs his decision to walk away from The Night’s Watch at the end of the episode. He knows now that he only has this one life, and beyond it there is nothing, so he appears to be adjusting his plans for the future.

The scenes at Castle Black also emphasize the way Jon’s return will affect the people around him. For Melisandre, this is an eye-opening moment of clarity. “Stannis was not The Prince That Was Promised, but someone must be,” she says, perhaps beginning to believe again in what she’s seen in the flames. It will be interesting to see how this character’s faith will be rebuilt and whether or not that will embolden her to get back to Peak Red Woman magicking. She appears ready to believe that Jon might actually be Azor Ahai come again, the warrior champion of The Lord of Light. The show hasn’t touched on this prophecy since season two, when Melisandre fed the Azor Ahai come again tale to Stannis as motivation. For those who don’t spend their weekends reading the Wiki of Ice and Fire, here’s a brief explainer:

Azor Ahai come again – or “The Prince That Was Promised” (they are separate, but interchangeable prophecies – is a leader who is expected to deliver the world from darkness. It is believed that his return will be in response to the return of The Great Other (who many think is either The Night’s King or the deity funding The Night’s King with magic). Humanity’s very survival will depend on the success of The Prince That Was Promised. The more specific Azor Ahai legend is based on a warrior who defended the realms of men from the darkness a long time ago, but only after forging Lightbringer, his flaming sword, by plunging it into his wife, Nissa Nissa, fusing her soul with the blade. Basically, he’s a warrior who lost the woman he loved, wielded a weapon that made agents of The Great Other explode, and was chosen by the Lord of Light. Sound like anyone we know?

Before he can become The Prince That Was Promised, Jon Snow did have a little business to which he needed to attend. His last task as the Lord Commander of The Night’s Watch is the most emblematic moment of Jon Snow 2.0, in which he executes the four traitors who killed him, including the show-invented character Olly. Throughout the show’s five seasons, we’ve watched Jon Snow become the most Ned-like of all the Stark children. Honor and oath above all other things. He punishes the oathbreakers who killed him, then does a complete 180 and mic drops on The Night’s Watch (“Jon Snow Out!”). Does this make him the titular “Oathbreaker”? Not exactly. The oath of a Night’s Watchman can only be broken by death. He has achieved that and more. Now he must face the deep existential question of, “what now?” What should he do with his second chance, especially now that he knows there’s nothing after death? My gut tells me that reconnecting with and protecting his family (some of whom are coming to Castle Black soon) will be a priority, as will his place in the war between the living and the dead.

What’s going on in that tower?

Can we say the same thing about uber-honorable Ned Stark, whose formative years are being explored in BranVision this year? We watch as Ned, Meera’s dad Howland Reed, and a host of soldiers roll up to a striking tower guarded by Targaryen Kingsguard commander and legendary fighter Ser Arthur Dayne. What the show isn’t explicitly telling us yet is that this is The Tower of Joy, a subject of great speculation for book readers for years.

The setup of The Tower of Joy is simple. Following Robert’s Rebellion and the death of both The Mad King and Rhaegar Targaryen, Ned leads a party in search of his sister Lyanna Stark, who was abducted by Rhaegar, the event that kicked off the whole conflict. He’s about to find his sister and perhaps answer a lot of burning questions, but not quite yet, thanks to the show’s newfound season six patience.

First we needed to witness the death of Ser Arthur Dayne, one of the great warriors Westeros has ever seen. The finishing move, courtesy of Howland Reed, wasn’t quite as honorable as we – and Bran – had believed. It’s interesting to see the show deconstructing Ned’s character, showing that at the end of a great war he was okay with watching an honorable man stabbed in the back in order to get to his sister, in the same breath as it shows us Jon Snow walking away from The Night’s Watch. These kinds of conflicts change people. And when push comes to shove, what will ultimately be more important? Usually it’s a combination of self preservation and family.

Ned’s self-preservation moment was watching Howland Reed stab Arthur Dayne in the back after one hell of a brilliantly choreographed fight sequence.

Arthur Dayne is a character book readers have been waiting to see for a long while, and this was brilliant payoff. Here are some other things you should know about The Sword of the Morning:

The show douses the audience (especially rabid theorists) with some cold water before we learn what’s really happening inside the Tower, but we can expect to revisit. Like us, Bran Stark wants to know what’s going on up there. But unlike us, he doesn’t have years of theories about Rhaegar, Lyanna, Ned, and Jon Snow burning in his soul.

Did anything else happen in this episode?

Plenty else happened, though the big stuff all revolves around Starks of past (Ned), present (poor, sweet Rickon), and future (Jon). Here are my stray observations:

What can we expect next week?

Based on the “Next Week on” preview, here are some 7-days out predictions:

For more, check out our other Game of Thrones content. And don’t forget to subscribe to A Storm of Spoilers, the podcast I co-host, as we’ll have a new episode up by mid-week.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)