“You'll find little joy in your command, but you will find the strength [for] what needs to be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Kill the boy, and let the man be born.” —Maester Aemon
Game of Thrones is one of the very few shows on television where an episode called "Kill the Boy" could plausibly be about a child being slaughtered. Thankfully, the episode's title is not to be taken literally. As Maester Aemon explains to Jon Snow in the central speech of "Kill the Boy," a good ruler needs to make the choices that might seem objectionable to his men and his less calculating self. Jon has already started to find his footing as Lord Commander of The Night's Watch, doling justice out to Janos Slynt two weeks ago, but now he has a much more unpopular action in store: bringing the tens of thousands of Wildlings who have taken refuge in the desolate fishing village of Hardhome under the protection of the Night's Watch.
Aemon suggests that true leaders must make themselves into leaders by ignoring their heart and stiffening their resolve. As Lord Commander, Jon doesn't have to answer to anyone now. But that power also isolates him — and his lack of true confidants might come back to haunt him if he makes a mistake.
Jon Snow isn't the only leader with tough choices in "Kill the Boy." Daenerys is still struggling to gentrify the people of Meereen to her new, slaveless ways. Last week, an ambush by a resistance group called the Sons of the Harpy led to the death of her beloved Barristan and the grave injury of Grey Worm. But the greater damage is the chilling message the attack passed on to both her enemies and her followers: the sense that her grip on the city is loosening.
Daenerys has long insisted that imprinting her ideals onto Meereen is the right thing to do, for her and for the city. But like Jon, she has nobody answer to, only actions to answer for. With some of her council arguing for mercy, and some of her council arguing for violence — not to mention her own grief clouding her judgment — Daenerys' heart and her mind have never been more polarized.
At first, Daenerys seems to be on the path of vengeance. She finally takes Daario's advice from the season premiere, unleashing her inner dragon queen as she rounds up a nobleman from each of Mereen's biggest families and ushers the group into the dragon pit. What follows is a game of good cop/bad cop in which both of the cops happen to be humongous dragons.
When nobody admits to being involved with the Sons of the Harpy, Daenerys has two noblemen prodded into the path of dragon fire, watching passively as they get burned alive. It's a ruthless moment, as her dragons scream with hungry joy as the other men look on, horrified.
In the end, though, Daenerys knows she cannot fight with fire, and lands closer to the side of mercy. Daenerys has her own "kill the boy" moment when she realizes the one thing she can do to placate the Mereenese is to embrace the city's traditions, open the fighting pits, and marry into one of their noble families.
Marriage has long been the businessman's handshake in Game Of Thrones. The pilot saw Daenerys married off to Khal Drogo so that her brother could acquire an army, rendering her little more than currency to men playing a larger game — at least until she fully embraced her new role as Khaleesi. Since then, she has been born again in fire and blood, and outlived some of the greatest rulers on either side of the Narrow Sea.
Daenerys has long refused the unbalanced gender politics of marriage in favor of carving out her own identity in her radical rule. But here, she has to resign herself to her duty. The arranged marriage to the Mereense man Hizdar zo Loraq will almost certainly be loveless, but it will bring peace to the city, and as the person responsible for Mereen, that needs to be her priority.
Back in Westeros, Sansa Stark is learning about duty and leadership as she settles back into life at Winterfell. Both literally and psychologically, Littlefinger saved Sansa last year by rechristening her Alayne Stone, as her own name had become too dangerous to carry. But to do duty to her house, her betrayed family, and her noble name, Sansa must now kill Alayne and let Sansa rise from the ashes again.
It wouldn't be so hard if she wasn't constantly reminded of the destruction surrounding Winterfell, from the scorched buildings to the crumbled tower that Bran was thrown from in the very first episode. Winterfell is a fractured limb struggling to heal.
And then there's Myranda, Ramsey's lover and quasi-fiancee, who was cast off at Roose's behest when Ramsay became legitimized. So Myranda, the poor kennelmaster's daughter, swears her own kind of revenge. She leads Sansa into the dark, damp kennels and guides her to the very end, where she finds Theon Greyjoy — her family's former ward, and one of its biggest betrayers — curled in the corner, shaking and sobbing. The moment is laced with tension; Sansa believes Theon killed her brothers Bran and Rickon, but she also thought him dead. When she sees the stunted, trembling mess Theon has become, it's an unsettling look at what might lay in her own future — especially when Ramsay finds his own position threatened by the news that his father is expecting another son.
Many of the show's regular characters are missing in "Kill the Boy": The episode never goes to King's Landing, so Cersei, Margaery, and King Tommen are all absent. Also MIA are Arya and the Dornish Martell family. That underlines the point that on a purely geographic level, the action is converging on the North, as two powerful houses aim to battle in the burned ruins of another noble house.
The stakes are high and personal. Stannis Baratheon has taken his wife and daughter along, to fight a man with one son in the castle and another on the way. Sansa's future is uncertain, regardless of who wins. And Jon is journeying to Hardhome to deal with the Wildlings himself, not content with being the kind of leader whose power comes only from signing parchment in his tower. All the while, Brienne and Pod are heading toward Winterfell, aiming to rescue Sansa and avenge Renly by killing Stannis.
And so here we are, halfway into season five already, with urgency and panic pushing characters and stories away from the original novels' narrative and into new, uncharted territory. Even as the winter winds grow fiercer, Game Of Thrones is heating up in the most unexpected ways.
Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
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* Game of Thrones recap: 'The House of Black and White'
* Game of Thrones season premiere recap: 'The Wars to Come'