“Kill the boy,” Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow, “and let the man be born.”
On behalf of mothers everywhere, I object! On the very day that Hallmark made sacrosanct in your honor, here’s an old dude telling another dude that he can just go ahead and birth himself, without your feminine intervention. How rude.
Of course, Jon doesn’t know who is mother is, since Ned Stark took that particular secret to the grave. For a man so shaped by the mysteries and lacunae of his parentage, Aemon’s challenge must be both scary and exhilarating for the young Lord Commander. The blind maester isn’t referring to a real boy (though for a second there, I got scared on Olly’s behalf) but to the boy inside Jon Snow — the boy who struggles to follow the rules, in spirit if not always in letter, and to do right by his father figures (Ned, Qhorin, Mance). It’s a grisly metaphor for the painful process of growing up, but an apt one for a world so violent, where the relationships between children and adults can be so vexed.
I have no clue if Bryan Cogman, the producer who wrote last night’s episode, knew that “Kill the Boy” would fall on Mother’s Day, but moms — silly mamas, mean mamas, dead but loving mama bears — were all over the place. Though somewhat tellingly, they were, like Jon’s unnamed mother, conspicuous in their absence.
Catelyn Stark’s presence was warmly, if distantly, felt. Brienne and Pod have set up shop in an inn near Winterfell, which Brienne gazes at through a window. (I think she was choosing an Instagram filter. Winterfell is so pretty when you can’t see all the burnt bits! #sunset #grateful #isworeanoath) Brienne correctly susses out that the old man who brings them a washbasin is a Stark loyalist, and tells him that she swore to Sansa’s mother that she would keep the girl safe. Her mother’s dead, the old man retorts. “That doesn’t release me from an oath,” Brienne replies, as if offering the second part of a password. “I served Lady Catelyn. I serve her still.” (Valar dhaeris, all women must serve.) Later, at Winterfell, the old woman who whispered “the North remembers” to Sansa comes to refill her wash basin and give her a message: If she’s ever in trouble, she should light a candle in the highest window of the broken tower. “You are not alone,” the old woman tells her.
Catelyn’s specter returns when Sansa meets Myranda, the kennel-master’s daughter who’s been shtuppin’ and slicin’ with Ramsay and is none too pleased at having been turfed out. Myranda compliments Sansa on her dress, kicking off an awkward exchange about Catelyn, who taught her how to make her own clothing. Every time you wear something you made, Myranda says, you can remember her. To which Sansa replies, “I’d rather have a mother.” It was the bittersweet flip side to the stirring motto “the North remembers”; too often in the North, all they have are memories.
I thought Myranda might take the friendly ruse further, especially since Ramsay had suggested in their tense, violent lovemaking scene that she found Sansa pretty, too — she certainly caressed her sleeve in a way that could have been read as being something more than simply appreciative of fine needlework. And you could almost see Sansa going for it, too: Remember the sweet, almost-friendships she’s had with other young women, like Margaery and Shae. But instead, Myranda uses the brief moment of connection to twist the knife of memory even further, sending her down into the barking-mad kennels to meet Reek, whom Sansa once knew as her foster brother Theon but now knows as the traitor who killed her little brothers Bran and Rickon. (Though of course, to make things complicated, Theon actually had two other little boys murdered, and just pretended that they were the Starks. Roose knows the truth, as does Ramsay.) Sophie Turner’s face shows flashes of shock, disgust, pity, and a brief moment of — is it tenderness? Later, Sansa will tell Roose’s wife Walda that Winterfell isn’t strange, it’s the people living there now who are strange. Theon isn’t the person she once knew — he’s barely a person at all — but once he was familiar.
Speaking of sweet Walda: She’s the third mother in this episode, though the first we meet in the flesh. As you may recall, Walda was the granddaughter of Walder Frey, co-architect of the Red Wedding. Walder offered Roose his choice of his granddaughters and promised him the bride’s weight in silver as a dowry; being a practical man, Roose chose the largest girl. In the midst of a terrible family dinner, during which Ramsay puts on a big evil-clown show for Sansa (seriously, nothing good ever happens around a table in Westeros), Roose decides to drop the news that he and Walda have a little bundle of Bolton joy on the way. And from the way she’s carrying, the maester promises it will be a boy.
There was a lot that I was confused about in this dinner scene, both from a character and plot perspective. What does Ramsay gain by showing Sansa how gleefully cruel he can be, trotting out Reek to “apologize” for killing her brothers, and then suggesting that Reek give her away at the wedding, since he’s the closest thing she has now to family? Is it just that he knows no other way of asserting himself? It probably would have been smarter to pretend to be her ally, and it certainly would have been more interesting, plot-wise. (Raise your hand if Ramsay’s googly-eyed villainy felt played out, oh, about two seasons ago.) And what does Roose gain by letting his son run amok like that, especially since he’s already lectured the boy on how you catch more flies with honey than with flayings? For that matter, why does Roose even bother with Ramsay? I don’t buy that he has feelings for him (does Roose have feelings for anyone?), though I suppose he’s been some strategic help: He took Moat Cailin last season, and Roose did need an heir to ensnare a Stark in marriage. But Ramsay’s not exactly a diplomatic genius or a clear leader, like Robb Stark was. Roose’s commitment to him, and the show’s commitment to developing their relationship, leaves me a little baffled, because despite Ramsay’s obvious, deep need for official paternal recognition, I’m not convinced Bolton cares for such institutions unless they serve his needs.
When we meet Mom No. 4, Ramsay’s long-lost mother, she’s little more than another pawn in the chess game between these two. Roose used the news of Walda being pregnant with Baby Bolton to unsettle Ramsay and, I’d guess, put him in his place. Then he uses the truly ghastly story of Ramsay’s mother, an unnamed commoner whom he raped after hanging her husband, to cement his commitment to his son, telling him that when the woman delivered the baby to him, he almost hanged her and threw him in the river — until he looked at him and realized that he was definitely his son. It’s the horrible counterpart to Stannis’s story to Shireen last week, which had similar beats (a stiff father, a moment in which a child is recognized and named) but a wildly different melody. Though just as I fear that the moment last week was a prelude to something awful happening to Shireen, I wonder if Roose is playing Ramsay for a fool somehow. Hey, a girl can dream.
The fifth mother of the night is Daenerys, though exactly whose Mhysa she is these days could be a matter of some debate. After the death of Barristan Selmy, Dany rounds up all the heads of the great families of Meereen, including her counselor Hizdahr zo Loraq, and brings them on a field trip to the dragons’ kennel. Her children are violent and unpredictable, she says, talking about the dragons but also about the unruly, harpy-loving citizens of Meereen. “But a good mother never gives up on her children. She disciplines them if she must.” Then she has Daario push one of the masters forward. “But she does not give up on them.” Well, I guess she gave up on that one, because the dragons ate him.
I don’t know about you, but when my mom had to discipline me, she made me stand on time-out behind the television set; she didn’t try to feed me to her pets. But Dany seems to be at the throw-anything-against-the-wall phase of Mhysa-hood. She’s abandoned the commitment to justice and fair play she’s always insisted upon applying to her people (though I guess she’s always been less committed to that when it comes to the slavers), breezily wondering whether she should just let her dragons decide the masters’ innocence in a trial by flambé. She doesn’t, though, seemingly moved by Hizdahr’s bravery in the face of the dragons.
What’s interesting to me is that while the Daenerys scenes begin with her asserting her mother-ness, it ends with her deciding to take on another feminine familial mantle: wife. She seeks counsel from Missandei — who, incidentally, has finally gotten a confession of love from Grey Worm, making for a nice Upstairs, Downstairs counterpart to Dany’s story line — and Missandei tells her, basically, not to bother with counselors, which is more or less the same advice Jon gets from Maester Aemon. Why Missandei has such faith in Dany’s decision-making abilities is a little unclear, since the woman’s been making a general hash of ruling for at least half a season now. But the pep talk sends Dany to Hizdahr’s cell, where she tells him she will reopen the fighting pits to free men, as he suggested, and oh, by the way, we’re getting married because I want to forge a lasting bond with the Meereenese people. Maybe this is what Maester Aemon meant when he said that a Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing. (Remember — he’s one, too. Though who’s been sending him those updates about his grand-niece?)
Daario Naharis is not likely to be happy with this new arrangement, but the person who’s going to be ROYALLY pissed, or at least SUPREMELY mopey, is Jorah Mormont, especially since he just got ambushed by the Stone Men while passing through Valyria and, whoops, caught the grayscale. (Ten-second recap: Valyria was an incredibly advanced civilization that collapsed hundreds of years ago in an incident called the Doom; it was the original home of the Targaryens and the last place that had lots of dragons; people think it’s wicked haunted and stuff, and they send people with grayscale there to turn into feral zombies and die.)
I’m sad we rushed so fast through Valyria; the cinematographer, Gregory Middleton, lavished some beautiful shots on Jorah and Tyrion’s little boat, the lush foliage, the heavy clouds, and the haze around the crumbling ruins. In a season that’s placed so much emphasis on monumental structures — the Titan, the Harpy, the Great Pyramid, the House of Black and White — it was chilling to be reminded of just how impermanent a great society can be. Tyrion’s near-drowning offered an opportunity for some flashy camerawork, like the moment where he wakes up and the scene cuts in and out on a slowly coalescing image of Jorah’s face. And the use of sunlight was so expressive, particularly at the end, when Jorah walks away from Tyrion to gaze longingly toward the outlines of Slaver’s Bay in the warm dusk — like Brienne at her window, staring at Winterfell in search of Sansa — then pulls aside his sleeve to peer at the small patch of grayscale on his arm. The setting sun illuminates him from behind, like a halo; then, as the ominous music swells, his body eclipses it for a moment, and his face goes dark just at the point when you can see him decide he’ll put his beloved queen at risk in order to see her again. When he moves away, the sun breaks through again; only this time, it’s not very romantic at all.
The final mother in last night’s episode was Selyse, though we saw her only briefly, and only in the context of looking drawn and sour as she chastised Davos for scaring Shireen with tales of war. (Though maybe we should count Melisandre here, too? She did birth a smoke baby, after all.) Selyse, Shireen, and Melisandre are all marching off with Stannis’s army to Winterfell. Stannis tells Davos they’re coming along for their own safety — because so many men of the Night’s Watch are murderers and rapists, he says — but that seems unlikely. Jon, meanwhile, has made the call, unpopular on all sides, to make peace with the Wildlings, both to honor the Night’s Watch vow to “guard the realms of men” (which should include the free folk) and to bolster their defenses against a White Walker attack. Aemon promised that he would find little joy in ruling, but that he might find strength. He’s definitely going to need it if he’s going to survive the dolorous looks of Olly, the motherless child who’s been orphaned by the Wildlings.
See you back here next week — just one less day till we get to see Arya again. Sorry. Fewer. Never mind.