Critic's Notebook: 'Game of Thrones' Plays a Game of Overkill

As Sunday's episode illustrated, the HBO hit seems to be in the habit of upstaging itself these days — and that's a risky narrative strategy.
Courtesy of HBO
[This article contains spoilers for the May 1 episode of HBO's Game of Thrones.]
 
Let's get straight to the big mystery either raised or resolved in Sunday night's Game of Thrones episode, titled "Home": Willis or Wyllis? Or Wyllys, I suppose?
 
It's funny that there were a full five or 10 minutes in which Twitter was positively a-gush about the revelation that Hodor once had a non-Hodor name and a non-Hodor identity and that he was once named "Willis" or "Wyllis" or "Wyllys" and he was once capable of polysyllabic speech. If your feed was like my feed, you saw 30 different variations on Diff'rent Strokes jokes, each more hilarious than the last.
 
We should all be writing our recaps about Hodor's true identity and the introduction of Lyanna Stark — and the frustrating fact that nobody wanted to write in an explanation for how Bran and Meera and Hodor have spent the past couple of months living beneath The Tree of Accelerated Aging or living under the careful watch of The Three-Eyed Advanced Puberty Raven or something else to explain why Isaac Hempstead Wright suddenly looks 17 — a totally appropriate fact, given that he's 17 — rather than however old Bran really ought to be at this point in our narrative. When we check back in on Rickon in the seventh season and he's played by Rupert Everett, this will have to be addressed. Aging is a pernicious adversary, even if it appears not to have impacted new series co-star Max von Sydow for several decades.
 
 
This episode of Game of Thrones went out of its way, in fact, to keep upstaging itself — probably the show's general modus operandi at this point, which may not be the best way of approaching drama. If Thrones has committed itself and viewers to all-you-can-eat gorging on twists rather than a carefully curated omakase of tension and carnage, that's probably appropriate to our Twitter world in which viewers need something to "OMG!" every five minutes over or else the will to live ebbs from our fingertips. Twitto ergo sum and all that. 
 
Me, I like to savor the flavors of a Red Wedding or Joffrey foaming at the mouth or what went down with the Mountain and the Viper, but after we dispatched with Bran's triumphant return, Sunday's episode was an assault of shocks and outrage so steady that if one thing didn't move the needle for you, the next thing probably did.
 
Generationally, Thrones killed its way up and down the ladder in Sunday's episode. 
 
Has Roose Bolton not met his formerly bastard son? What good did he think was going to come from letting Walda give birth to his latest small Frey — yes, I know it's a small Bolton, but I'm making the joke and I don't care — under the roof of his sadistic, newly legitimized heir? Was his mistake to think that Ramsay was still in his pluck-the-wings-off-of-dragonflies stage when viewers knew Ramsay had moved along to castration and rape long ago? So Lord Bolton's servant is all "It's a boy" and Lord Bolton is all "You'll always be my first-born" and Young Dirty Bastard is all "That means a lot to me <stab><stab><stab>" and audiences were all "Ramsay's gonna Ramsay."
 
 
In this instance, kudos to Thrones for not letting our shoulders release from our shrugging posture before sending Ramsay down to meet his new brother. Here, our uncertainty changed. With Ramsay and Roose, we knew Ramsay wouldn't hesitate to kill his dad and we knew the show wouldn't hesitate to show us Ramsay killing his dad, but with Bouncing Baby Bolton? We had to spend a couple minutes going, "Is he? Would he? Sure he would, but would the show? Would it really? NOT THE FREAKING DOGS." Oh yes. The dogs. And a baby. Nobody seems to care that the dogs also presumably ate Walda. Poor Walda. 
 
Ramsay Bolton is not a nice man. If he were, everybody would have called him Bolton's Son From a Woman Not His Wife or That Illegitimate Guy. Naw. He's a bastard and Thrones not only won't let viewers forget it, but the show wants to reassure you that whatever the moral floor is, Ramsay is ready to take up a pickax and start digging like Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes. There is no bottom. And guess what, kids? I don't think Ramsay is redeemable at this point. For at least a little while, we're all going to be like little Robin Arryn yelling, "I want to see the bad man fly" every time Ramsay materializes.
 
But if patricide doesn't do it for you, can I interest you in some fratricide? Technically, Ramsay committed fratricide as well. And technically, Balon Greyjoy is at least the same generation as Roose Bolton. And now they're equally dead. Hey, welcome to Game of Thrones, Euron Greyjoy. Or should I say, "Welcome to Game of Thrones, guy from Borgen playing Balon Greyjoy's seemingly much younger brother"? As Euron Greyjoy arrived onscreen in the midst of a torrential downpour, you may have stuck your head out your window and heard a chorus of A Song of Ice and Fire readers cheering, "Yay! We can still be insufferable." I kid. But if you're only watching the show, you just know that Balon had a brother, that he had some military success somewhere and that he was responsible for Balon taking a fatal plunge. Up next? A Kingsmoot. 
 
So that was two patriarchs and one wee heir killed off in maybe 10 or 15 minutes and suddenly nobody cared anymore what Hodor's name was or even that Tyrion went down to the basement and tried to get one of the dragons to eat. Come on! In a normal week, we'd be talking about Tyrion The Dragon Whisperer and everybody's response to everything would be, "That's what I do: I drink. And I know things." But no.
 
We're also probably not talking about how much Cersei's new Kingsguard buddy hates jokes at her expense or the confusing lameness of Blind Arya's "arc" thus far.
 
Instead, our conversation about Thrones this week is going to center on the least surprising, but most lied-about twist of the season and the episode.
 
Jon Snow? He's dead.
 
 
But as followers of the Drowned God like to natter at each other, "What is dead may never die" followed by "But rises again, harder and stronger," which could have been the setup for the big, graphic punchline on last night's Silicon Valley.
 
So all the people who kept saying that Jon Snow was dead, of course they weren't lying. It's the people who said that Kit Harington wouldn't be back this season who were lying and then gave "Sorry we had to lie!" interviews to the same publications that ran their lies in the first place. [#Journalism]
 
Davos approached Melisandre with the exact same questions fans spent nearly a year asking. Basically it was, "Yo, is there anything the Lord of Light can do about this?" And Melisandre, doubting her connection to her deity after all of those fall fire messages, pouted and shrugged and then finally gave Jon Snow's corpse the $10 SuperCuts "Shampoo, Haircut, Knife Wound Bathing" package, muttered a few words to R'hllor and then left in disappointment, followed by a disappointed Davos. Only Jon Snow's dire wolf stuck around long enough to see Jon's eyes pop open.
 
Here, every viewer in America tweeted some variation on, "I knew it!" which raises an interesting question about twists: If we knew it, was it a twist? And does it matter? David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are fairly smart guys. They knew you would know Jon Snow wasn't going to be gone forever. They're not shocked that you cracked their code. Sometimes things you don't expect are satisfying and sometimes things you expect are satisfying. You probably weren't shocked by Sunday's episode, but you were confirmed with an exclamation point.
 
Thrones has delivered plenty of moments that surprised non-book-readers and even now several things that have shocked readers off of their/our pedestal, either by dispatching with somebody still alive on the page or, in one key case, not resurrecting at least one person who's been resurrected on the page. In the case of the latter non-twist, I think that any gratification that came from Jon Snow's return was enhanced by having not gone to that well previously. We all knew Thrones was a universe in which resurrection seemed plausible, but if Zombie Ned, Zombie Robb and Zombie Viserys were already up and about, Zombie Jon Snow wouldn't be interesting.
 
These days, it's not a surprise when a character we thought was dead returns. There's the "If you don't see the body, they're not dead" school of doubt, but with our Lazarus Pits and limbo hotel karaoke bars and our vampire blood ingestion and all of that, even certifiably dead folks don't need to stay dead for long. 
 
These days, it's not how you die that requires creativity, but rather how you come back. The success or failure of Jon Snow's return isn't whether or not you "predicted it" or "knew it" or "saw it coming," but rather if Benioff and Weiss do something worthwhile with whatever version of Jon Snow we're about to see. It's not the twist, it's the utilization of the twist within a narrative framework created to support twists and build on them.
 
I have confidence that Game of Thrones will do something cool with Jon Snow in his new incarnation. And then that they'll upstage the impact with the death of one old man, a set of Siamese twins and an adorable kitten. 
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