How will the heroes of Game of Thrones become the leaders Westeros needs? As the threat humanity faces from the undead army from north of the wall has become more acute, the uniting power of violence seems less and less sufficient to the task. It’s one thing to rule through fear, another thing to try and field a fighting force with it. Stannis Baratheon burned his own daughter at the stake in an attempt to demonstrate his dedication to his troops, but his brutality inspired only a quick and decisive defeat.
In this week’s episode, “Oathbreaker,” we see the short-term effectiveness of the politics of fear: In murdering his father, Ramsay Bolton’s earned the grudging respect of the north’s Lord Umber, once a loyal Stark bannerman. “Fuck kneeling and fuck oaths,” he proclaims, but hands Ramsay a hooded and helpless Rickon Stark. The show’s characters seem to be renouncing any claim to a larger allegiance, left and right: “We’re the only ones that matter,” Jamie Lannister told his sister, Cersei, in the season premiere, echoed by what Samwell Tarly tells Gilly this week: “I don’t care about them. I care about you and him,” meaning her child. The title of “Oathbreaker” is a play on Oathkeeper, the legendary sword currently wielded by Brienne of Tarth, but there’s no place for her and her undying loyalty—based on rapidly-becoming-obsolete notions of chivalry and honor—in this episode.
The inability to inspire loyalty weighs heavily on Jon Snow, whose high-handed attempt to merge the Night’s Watch and the wildling armies resulted in his execution by his own men. Thanks to some combination of Melisandre, whose belief in her own abilities was profoundly shaken by Stannis’ defeat, and his faithful direwolf, Jon has returned from the dead, which, we’re told, has led some of the soldiers under his command to regard him as “a god.” But Jon’s faith in himself has been sorely shaken by his men’s betrayal, especially that of his former steward, Olly. “He put a knife in my heart,” Jon says. “I failed.” Although he’s a skilled commander on the field of battle, Jon has not yet learned to lead.
The team Daenerys left in Meereen is struggling to hold on to the power Daenerys gained through force and intimidation. Perhaps some new methods are needed. In “Oathbreaker”’s most resonant scene, Varys, the master of whispers, calls in a young woman who aided in the Sons of the Harpy’s uprising against Daenerys’ government. She, naturally, expects to be tortured, but Varys demurs. “I am not a torturer, though it so often is what people deserve,” he tells her. “It does provide answers, but they’re usually the wrong answers. My job is to find the right answers. Do you know how I do that? I do it by making people happy.”
Varys’ interrogation employs the stick as well as the carrot: When he casually drops the name of the woman’s child, the threat is powerfully implicit. But his methods are pointedly distinct from those employed in the rest of the show. As Varys points out, torture only guarantees that people will talk, not that they’ll tell the truth. In a larger sense, it reflects the distinction between leading from without and within. Daenerys and Jon have both tried to impose their will from the outside, trusting that the people will eventually see the rightness of their acts: He ended up dead, and she was only saved from assassination by a last-second dragon ex machina.
With winter, and the white walkers, well on their way, it’s not enough for Jon and Daenerys to be right. They need people to follow them. Daenerys has her dragons and Jon his resurrection as well his his quasi-noble lineage, which is likely to figure heavily in the rest of the season. (If you don’t know what “R+L=J” means, you will soon.) But they haven’t thus far been enough to win followers to their cause, at least permanently. They’ve tried argument and intimidation: The next step might be following Varys’ lead and giving the people what they want.