Game of Thrones saw shocking scenes in this week’s episode Oathbreaker, as youngest Stark child Rickon (Art Parkinson) returned to the series after three years’ absence – only to find himself handed over to the Starks’ greatest enemy Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) by formerly loyal Stark vassals the Umbers.
It was a dark moment for a season that seemed to be giving the Starks some good luck for a change (Jon coming back to life, Sansa escaping Ramsay and Bran having fun flashbacks), so naturally some fans are already in denial.
Surely this must be a long con by the Umbers to betray the Boltons, they reason – after all, the severed direwolf head used to verify Rickon’s identity looks a little too small, and the timing (with Dean S Jagger’s Smalljon Umber taking the deal to Ramsay right after his more discerning father Roose died) was a little suspicious.
Wishful thinking, you’re probably thinking. ‘These fans are just in denial about Ramsay doing horrible things to Rickon, and will clutch at any straws to ignore the truth.’
Smalljon Umber and Rickon Stark
And ordinarily, we’d agree with you. In fact, when we first heard about this “conspiracy” idea we dismissed it out of hand, and figured everybody needed to move on.
But then we dug a little deeper, and found a surprising amount of evidence that the Umbers and/or another noble house might actually be conspiring to return the Starks to power – and a lot of the clues come straight from George RR Martin’s source novels.
To begin with, we need to understand the Umbers better. A tough Northern noble house with strong ties to the Stark family, the Umbers first appeared in season one of Game of Thrones, where their then-leader the Greatjon Umber (Clive Mantle) was one of Robb’s most trusted lieutenants.
In one memorable scene, the Greatjon challenged Robb (Richard Madden) during dinner, drawing a knife before being mauled by the Stark heir’s direwolf Grey Wind and losing two fingers. Conversely this led him to respect Robb a great deal, though the character disappeared after the first season (the book version of the Greatjon was captured at the Red Wedding, forcing his family into grudging compliance with the Boltons).
Clive Mantle as the Greatjon in season one
Now, note some of the dialogue from that scene, the last time the Umbers had a major role in the TV story…
[Greatjon threatens to leave if he’s not given more military command]
ROBB: You are welcome to do so Lord Umber. And when I am done with the Lannisters I will march back North, root you out of your keep and hang you for an oathbreaker.
GREATJON: Oathbreaker is it? I’ll not sit here and swallow insults from a boy so green he pisses grass!
And after watching the new scene between Ramsay and the Greatjon’s son Smalljon (now Lord Umber after the offscreen death of his father) in an episode actually called “Oathbreaker”, this season one exchange seems to gain greater significance.
Jon Snow was the main “Oathbreaker” of the episode, sure, but it also seems like the showrunners might have been trying to draw a line between the honour of the Greatjon and the apparent dishonour of his son by using the word so prominently.
The reason why is anyone’s guess – it could be argued that Smalljon was testing Ramsay’s strength in a similar manner to how the Greatjon challenged Robb’s, only to find the new Lord of Winterfell lacking (Ramsay gave no repercussions for Smalljon’s rudeness). Or it could just be a way for the showrunners to emphasise the loss of honour through just one generation.
Dean S Jagger as Smalljon Umber
Alternatively, it could be a hint that all is not as it seems. Would a family so violently angered by the idea of breaking oaths really shrug them off in such a blasé manner? Sure, Smalljon isn’t his father, but it’s worth noting that he doesn’t make any new oaths of loyalty to Ramsay either, opening the possibility of him reneging on their new deal without breaking any oaths at all.
But you’re still not convinced. Even if the Umbers did want to stab Ramsay in the back, why use the real Rickon at all? Why not some random kid? ‘This is all very circumstantial stuff, grasping at the shadows of straws and relying on background from season one that nobody even remembers,’ you may be thinking.
And that’s fair enough – until you consider the Manderlys.
Sorry, we know – in a series stuffed with about 473 different noble houses we’re throwing yet another one in, but this particular family might be about to make a significant appearance in the TV series.
You see, in the books, one of the later plotlines sees the appearance of Lord Wyman Manderly, a comically fat noble in his 60s who claims loyalty to the Freys and Boltons after the events of the Red Wedding.
Throughout his appearance in most recent novel A Dance with Dragons, Manderly appears weak and foolish, agreeing to marry his granddaughter to the Freys and giving up some of his lands despite the fact that his own son Wendel was killed at the Freys’ Red Wedding. Later, he even orders the execution of Davos Seaworth, who had come to treat with him on behalf of Stannis Baratheon (who is not dead in the books, unlike the TV show).
However, it is later revealed that this is all a charade – Manderly is still loyal to the Starks and is only pretending to be a fool, displaying the severed head and hands of someone someone else in place of Davos and plotting revenge against the Freys and Boltons on behalf of his murdered son (who also died in the TV show – you can see the Manderly mermaid crest on this guy in the Red Wedding).
It’s also hinted that Wyman bakes some Freys into pies, but let’s not dwell on that too much.
Anyway, the reason this is important now is that the TV show recently brought up the Manderlys as an important alliance for the Boltons alongside the Umbers and the Karstarks (who hate the Starks after Robb executed their father in season three). Just check out this quote from Ramsay in this season’s episode two, “Home”:
“We don’t need every house in the North. The Umbers, the Manderlys and the Karstarks command more soldiers than all the other houses combined. With their support, none could challenge us.”
We’ve already seen the Karstarks and Umbers, so you can bet Manderlys are coming. Meanwhile, fan site Watchers on the Wall have posted rumours that the show put out a casting for someone to play Wyman this season:
“He is a fat nobleman in his 60s. He has distinctive rugged features, a Northern accent, and a distinguished air. Our source says he has a stirring speech during which he unexpectedly shifts political allegiances.”
Stirring speech? Could they possibly be referring to this iconic moment from the books when Wyman dramatically reveals his true colours to Davos?
“Foes and false friends are all around me, Lord Davos. They infest my city like roaches, and at night I feel them crawling over me.”
The fat man’s fingers coiled into a fist, and all his chins trembled. “My son Wendel came to the Twins a guest. He ate Lord Walder’s bread and salt, and hung his sword upon the wall to feast with his friends. And they murdered him. Murdered, I say, and may the Freys choke upon their fables. I drink with Jared, jape with Symond, promise Rhaegar the hand of my own beloved granddaughter… but never think that means I have forgotten. The north remembers, Lord Davos. The north remembers, and the mummer’s farce is almost done.
Manderly then goes on to implore Ser Davos to bring him Rickon Stark so the northern houses can rally behind him, and generally speaking this plotline is referred to by fans as the Northern Conspiracy.
The truth is out there
So in summary.
- The Umbers might not really have betrayed Rickon, and even if they have, the Boltons’ other main ally the Manderlys might be about to stab them in the back.
- Shaggydog’s severed head might be the in-show equivalent of the fake Davos head and hands – a bit of theatre designed to lull the Boltons and Freys into a false sense of security.
- And the fact that the Umbers used the real Rickon as an offering to Ramsay doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve betrayed him. As an in-show explanation it could be that Rickon ordered them to use him in case any old Stark servants recognised him (and to avoid putting an imposter in danger), and as a real-world reason the show could be trying to make us think this oathbreaking is genuine. If they used a fake, there’d be no suspense at all.
In other words, this very well could be the show’s attempt to compress and adapt the Northern Conspiracy storyline (substituting a few other houses for the Manderlys and/or Umbers), and generally speaking there might be hope for the Seven Kingdoms yet.
Or you know, we’re wrong and Rickon is about to get flayed and burned upside down on a cross by Ramsay next week.
Fingers crossed, eh?
Game of Thrones continues next Monday at 2am and 9pm on Sky Atlantic