Spoiler Alert: The following post discusses events that occurred in Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 3, “Oathbreaker.”
Game of Thrones is obviously an abrupt, brutal and immensely unforgiving show that habitually deals out death to beloved characters, seemingly for no reason other than the sadistic schadenfreude of George R.R. Martin, author of the series-inspiring A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Yet, with the show charted well past the breadth of Martin’s currently published stories, we might need to break the habit of blaming him (at least, for now).
Indeed, “Oathbreaker” gave us an instance where the show’s crushing vice of vengeance yielded a tragically bittersweet, emotionally ambiguous result. Likewise, we definitely can’t collar Martin for this particular death because the character in question was not featured in the novels and was exclusively created for the television series.
With that bit of context set, I plan to argue that “Oathbreaker” gave us a helping of that aforementioned bittersweet emotional ambiguity with the execution of the young Night’s Watch mutineer Olly. – Yes, that Olly, bear with me.
“For the Watch.”
Undeniably, the executions carried out by the newly resurrected, Swiss-cheese-chest-sporting Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow was superbly satisfying justice at its finest. Deservedly, the craven cabal of killers who successfully (at first) assassinated Jon in Caesar-like fashion led by Alliser Thorne consisting of Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck and little Olly dropped and dangled from a gibbet. It was a moment that delivered a visceral (albeit rare) sense of relief for GoT fans that was a year in the making after Jon’s ire-inducing, speculation-inspiring assassination in Season 5’s closing moments. Jon’s awaited moment of revenge was followed by an equally inspiring step as he took an action that expressed -- to paraphrase the great poet Johnny Paycheck -- to “take this watch and shove it.”
So, one must be wondering what kind of obligatory contrarian bug crawled up my butt to have a questionable view about how all of that goodness played out. Well, when it comes to Olly (played by Brencok O’Connor), I can’t help but think that Game of Thrones dealt that character an especially untenable deal from the outset. While the “f**k Olly” fans on the Internet seem to be collectively urinating on his ashes, they do so with a shockingly short memory when it comes to the circumstances that brought him to the forefront of the series in the first place.
“Do you know how to get to Castle Black?”
It may seem like eons ago, but we first met Olly back in Season 4, Episode 3, “Breaker of Chains,” which aired on April 20, 2014. While some might have been taking too many holiday-appropriate tokes to recall, Olly was living an idyllic farm lifestyle slightly south of the Wall in the area known as “The Gift.” He seemed to be a normal, happy kid (given the brutal world in which he lives,) who had a father and mother who clearly loved him. That was until an arrow fired by Ygritte (Rose Leslie) found its mark in the back of his father’s head, kicking off a Wildling invasion.
His mother, whose last desperate words were screaming at Olly to hide, was subsequently butchered (and possibly later eaten) by the scar-marked cannibal Thenn brute Styr (Yuri Kolokolnikov) in an act Olly witnessed while hiding. However, despite being found by the attackers, Olly had a minor stroke of luck as Styr spared his life (not before scaring the bejeezus out of him,) simply so he could go deliver a message to Castle Black that the invading Wildling army was on their way to the Wall to overwhelm the undermanned Night’s Watch.
Upon arriving to deliver that malevolent message, Olly was greeted with compassion and the rejects and rogues of the Night’s Watch actually seemed to collectively take a shine to the boy. They helped him through his grief and, perhaps most importantly, gave him a new empowering purpose in life to fight back against the Wildling savages who took sadistic joy in murdering his parents. Given the way their deaths went down, it was hardly an unreasonable stance for him to have, right?
Olly came across (to those actually paying attention,) as one of the most uniquely tragic figures in the entire Martin mythos. and he wasn’t even in the books.
Olly: First of his Name, Slayer of Ships, Steward to the Lord Commander
Olly soon found himself under the wing of Jon Snow who became his mentor and combat trainer who, unbeknownst to him, was the long distant lover of his father’s murderer Ygritte. Indeed, that whole “unbeknownst to Olly” aspect would become a recurring theme, notably in Season 4, Episode 9, “Watchers on the Wall” when Olly, merely a boy, bravely stowed his trauma to show up on the front lines to battle against the Wildlings in the devastating episode-long Battle of Castle Black. Amidst the carnage, he ended up (as far as he knew,) saving Jon Snow’s life by putting an arrow through the heart of Ygritte, who had her bow aimed towards Jon, also getting proper vengeance for his father by vanquishing his killer (and creating one of the best gif moments in the last few years).
To Jon’s credit, he didn’t hold the killing of Ygritte – an earnest act of loyalty -- against Olly. In fact, after the grand battle when the Bastard of Winterfell found himself as a hero in the eyes of his peers and was voted to become the Night’s Watch’s new Lord Commander, it was Olly who Jon appointed as his personal steward; a position Jon held to his predecessor Jeor Mormont that is deceptively valuable since it essentially grooms the leader’s replacement.
However, things started to change for Olly with the Wall’s occupation by Stannis Baratheon’s army who accepted the surrender of the Wildling forces. An atmosphere of general weirdness was upon everything where up was down, left was right and, most importantly, the Wildlings were suddenly no longer “the enemy,” but forces to be utilized. Additionally, Olly saw his friend and mentor Jon openly display traitorous “pro-Wildling” leanings. Olly’s misgivings were further compounded by Jon’s diplomatic recruitment trip with the Wildlings to Hardhome in Season 5, Episode 8, “Hardhome,” in which he took a group of the surrendered Wildling forces led by, of all people, Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), the very man who led the Wildling’s attack on Olly’s home back at The Gift!
Of course, we the viewers can easily sit back objectively and pontificate that the greater good of the land calls for unity, putting aside “petty” differences with the Wildlings to fight the undead forces of The Night’s King and his White Walkers. However, for young Olly, those issues were anything but petty and from his perspective, he was witnessing an insidious betrayal of everything that helped him cope with the destruction of his old life. Plus, he saw someone he considered his best friend in Jon figuratively getting into bed with the same people who gleefully murdered his family (though, in actuality, Jon literally did do that with Ygritte!)
Making a (Jon Snow) Murderer
From there, Olly’s path to betrayal was not seen on camera, but it’s rather obvious how it came about. Thorne, the enmity-motivated mastermind of the cowardly conspiracy saw something innately malleable in Olly. Perhaps, with some effort, he managed to instill the young man with platitudes about the integrity of the Night’s Watch and its 8,000-year-old mission to fend off savage invaders from the North. Of course, the tragic memory of Wildlings brutally massacring his family, friends and anyone he had ever known or loved might have also served as effective kindling to light that fire. Just saying.
Led down a dark primrose path, Olly came to the conclusion that for the good of Westeros, the honor of his family and, of course, his new brethren in “the Watch,” Jon Snow had to go. Accordingly, when the time came to lure Jon to his fate with a tall tale about his uncle Benjen, you could see the conflict in his eyes. Thorne, Marsh and Yarwyck then plunged knives into Jon, leaving Olly to deliver the unkindest cut of all into his heart with tears welling in his eyes as his loyalty to Jon was overruled by what he thought was his greater sense of duty.
In the end, Olly was shortsighted and wrong as hell. Still, in a testament to the character-crafting complexity of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Olly came across (to those actually paying attention,) as one of the most uniquely tragic figures in the entire Martin mythos. And he wasn’t even in the books. Certainly, Olly fought hard after tremendous tragedy to find a place for himself and do what his young mind was made to think was right. Yet, he was fighting a fatalistic force that ultimately doomed him from the get-go in a manner as Shakespearean as the death he helped deal Jon Snow.
Later on, after Jon’s miraculous resurrection, some viewers cheered as the look of pure hatred on Olly’s face turned to nothingness when his body dropped from the end of a noose, quickly becoming lifeless, reclaimed by a cold atmosphere that was as unmerciful to him as life was. Yet, with the numerous Game of Thrones characters who carried out egregious acts of evil that we eventually went on to cheer (The Hound, Jaime, Stannis, Melisandre, etc.), Olly’s original (and only) sin was the show’s most humanly understandable transgression.
R.I.P. Olly. May the Mother imbue you with the power to nod smoothly at folks for all of eternity.