Warning: major Game of Thrones spoilers below.
Sometimes you open a door and you can’t close it again. The Children learned this long ago, at the dawn of human history. But understanding came too late, so now the dead keep getting through.
“The Door” is an episode about consequences. Of the past seeping into the present, warping and twisting it. Which, of course it is, Ric. That’s just what drama is, almost without exception. Still, it’s an interesting choice to spend so much time focusing on the latter half of the cause and effect pairing here, in an episode featuring a character so powerful they can invert causality itself.
No point in burying the lede, I guess. Let’s start with the failure in the cave.
The home invasion that costs us Hodor, and Leaf, and Summer, and an old man stuck in a tree is a consequence of two mistakes. One from a child, one from the Children. Two doors that opened and couldn’t be shut. First came the tree, millennia ago. It’s clear something is wrong the moment we see it from above. We’ve seen artwork like that before; frozen flesh and bone dragged into place across a field of bloodstained ice. What’s coming is horribly obvious. Hindsight is 20:20, even over so great a distance. The Children are about to sow the seeds of their own destruction. It’s an old story, but then this is old footage. Besides, it’s interesting to see someone other than mankind stab itself in the foot with an obsidian dagger. It seems so strange that the two races couldn’t get along when they shared the same blind-spot. Though of course every human on Westeros shares that blind-spot, and look where it’s gotten them; scrabbling for scraps whilst a new Long Night descends. With what’s coming for them, the game of thrones is nothing more than a contest to see who can be murdered by ice-demons while sat in the prettiest chair.
Which means the Children might finally get their wish, a couple of millennia and one near-genocide too late. We were going to destroy them, so they destroyed themselves in trying to destroy us. The White Walkers are the Westeros equivalent of mutually assured destruction, except here only one side had the nukes, and they launched them against both their enemies and themselves. It’s a horrifying plan, breathtaking in its callousness. But we drove them to it. Not that this lessens their responsibility for unleashing the Walkers. Guilt isn’t a block of cheese you carve up and hand to people in strict proportion to their culpability. Guilt is hyper-dimensional, a shape unimaginable to us, defined by contributions from dozens, or hundreds, or millions of sources. Finding someone else to blame doesn’t mitigate your culpability. It just lets guilt grow in a new direction. The Children’s responsibility for the attack on the cave is not lessened by the fact that Bran brought it down upon them because he was bored.
It is, as I say, the kind of mistake a child would make. Specifically a schoolchild. You might be able to remember such things from your own past: your teacher is late, or out of the room momentarily, or busy with someone else, so you figure you may as well have a go yourself. Put in the chemicals you weren’t supposed to. Switch on the mains socket before you’ve had the circuit checked. Stick the thermometer in the Bunsen flame to see how hot it really is. Because sure, they told you how risky it was, but if it really was that dangerous they’d never let you be in a position to try it in the first place, would they?
And so, for lack of anything to do, because throwing stones at an old man wasn’t enough to wake him, Bran takes a trip into the vision space and everything goes completely to hell.
Before we get to the attack, though, let’s just stick with that idea for a moment: Bran as a schoolboy. Let’s not forget, he lost the use of his legs at just ten years old. He awoke to find his parents gone. We’ve already seen how the combination of abandonment issues and his struggle to accept his paraplegia impacted upon his learning. Then, at the age of twelve at the very most, Bran found himself a prisoner of a man he had known since birth, who then killed another man he had known since birth right in front of him. Within days he escapes, leaving his lessons behind. The next time we see him talking to his tutor, it’s to tell him goodbye.
Since then Bran has continued to learn, but only in very narrow fields. Jojen taught him the rudiments of sorcery, Osha and Meera taught him the rudiments of rabbit prep, and their constant squabbling presumably heightened the lessons in diplomacy he learned so long ago, in a distant place and time. Beyond that, every lesson Bran took in was about how to fear the living, and how to fear the dead. In his own way, Bran has been on no less damaging a journey than Arya, and all whilst at least a year younger. Of course in some ways he’s still a child, just as in others he has grown up horribly fast, even by Westerosi standards. Of course sitting in that cave day after day would drive him to the greenseer equivalent of scratching names on desks.
But then he’s caught, and punishment is coming. And he’s left a door open that cannot be closed.
On to the final scene, then. I confess to mixed feelings here. I mean, obviously it looks brilliant. Of course it does, this is Game of Thrones in its imperial phase. It’s almost impossible to believe this show once balked at filming a small battle in a field less than five years earlier. And if the action was sometimes a little hard to follow, well, it was night in winter and a battle between two utterly incomprehensible magical forces. A clear understanding is not what you should be expecting. I’m also mainly okay with how vicious it is. Yes, the killing of three recurring characters (YES THE WOLF COUNTS) in the space of mere seconds is brutal. You’d have to go back to “The Watchers On The Wall” to see so high a body count among named characters, and probably “The Rains Of Castamere” for it to happen so suddenly and unexpectedly. That’s a hell of a butcher’s bill to lay on us before the season is even halfway done. But unlike the sudden deaths in the earliest episodes this year – unlike, if we’re being honest, the poorly set up Red Wedding, for that matter – this is a tragedy that feels earned. This is only the seventh episode the White Walkers have shown up in, and only the fourth in which they’ve got their fight on (the other three involving revelations about what they are and do, with this episode being the first to do both). In each of the three previous skirmishes, the result has been a resounding defeat for their enemies, each one more catastrophic than the last. The fall of the Children’s last fortress fits in to the pattern of ever-escalating peril.
It also does something else. With the Walkers being both an existential threat and one that has existed for five and a half seasons now, the risks and costs of allowing monster fatigue to set in are not inconsiderable. Especially since in five seasons they’d never managed to kill anyone who hadn’t shown up in the same episode for that very purpose. Redshirts, in other words, for all that fifty years of television evolution has developed what that role means (I’m still pissed off Karsi didn’t make it out of Hardhome). The Walkers are 0 for 2 in duels against people we’d actually met more than half an hour earlier, which of course is exactly how fantasy television tends to operate – you make monsters scary by having them munch on guest stars to ramp up the stakes (no pun intended) for your actual slayers, who then emerge victorious in the final act.
So the trope had to go for Game of Thrones. There had to be a throw-down between at-least-recurring characters and the monsters from the frozen wastes, and for the latter to get their massacre on just as successfully as they always do. That’s exactly what we got here. Job done. These monsters are not fatigued. They have been asleep for quite a while, after all.
But that doesn’t feel like it quite covers it. Whatever their plus points Leaf and and Roots No-Manuva might have had as characters, none of them are a Catelyn or a Robb, or even a Talisa, in terms of audience attachment. The emotional heft here comes almost completely from the death of Hodor. And that isn’t entirely without its problems. The long-delayed explanation of Hodor’s name is the best kind of reveal – an answer to a mystery no-one even knew was a mystery in the first place. More than that, though, it’s the absolute blackest of jokes, and one that colours everything that precedes it. I’ve seen people online suggest that the reveal of the name itself (as oppose to the explanation of Hodor’s mental state) isn’t really a big deal, a clever idea that doesn’t really change anything. I couldn’t disagree more. Hodor has been in the show since its very first episode, and literally every word he has said throughout that is now a reminder of his agonising death. You can watch scenes with Ned or Robb or Tywin and not necessarily be reminded of the fact of their later murders, You can’t do that with Hodor anymore. This is a vicious show and a vicious world, but even so this is an unusually bleak and fiendish move.
It’s here that my ambiguity sets in. Because for all I talk above about this being a necessary development to avoid the cliche of monsters that are unstoppable against guest actors and incompetent against anyone we’ve met before, Hodor’s death is its own trope; the minor character who steps in at the last moment to save a much more important one from being killed. And it’s that word “important” that causes me problems, because what we have here is a peasant (read: working class) character being sacrificed in order to save his lord (read: aristocrat). I don’t intend to go full Marxist here, but the idea that it’s the role of the lower classes to faithfully serve their “betters” until they have the chance to die for them is a spectacularly unpalatable one. And in Hodor’s case things are even worse, because the time-hopping nature of Meera’s command (she too is a noblewoman, remember) to “hold the door” means the entirety of Hodor’s adult life has literally been about his own thoughts and feelings being suppressed so that he can do what he’s told by the northern nobles until it’s time for him to do his ultimate duty. Every word he’s said to Bran since the latter was born literally translates into “I will die for you”, and not because such is Hodor’s desire. It’s just how things are done in this society. And not just this society, either.
You might even, if you thought the term was useful, want to call it a cross-class fridging. Bran will doubtless feel awful about Hodor’s fate, but that’s because he’s important enough to get to be alive to feel awful in the first place.
Martin is a writer who has at least some grasp of these issues. It is perhaps a shame that he doesn’t include all that many non-noble POV characters in A Song Of Ice And Fire (Davos was pretty much the only one for the first three books), but there are several story-lines within the novels that render problematic the social strata of Westerosi society. If Hodor’s dies in a similar way in The Winds of Winter, I’m hoping it will underline and address the problems I’m talking about. I’m afraid I don’t have much faith in the show managing to do the same. Not with the next set-piece to get to.
So that’s what everyone’s talking about talked about. What else did we get this episode?
Well, there’s Littlefinger, who last year opened a door and threw Sansa straight through it. Which he has form with, of course. This time though the consequences seem to have been rather less desirable for him. And that’s the last time I shall pretend the scene in Moletown was about Baelish (other than to point out Vale is somewhere around two and half thousand miles from the Wall; Sansa must have had time to put together an entire winter wardrobe). This is Sansa’s moment, and Sophie Turner sells it utterly. It’s exactly as uncompromising and unsparing and difficult to watch as it needed to be. There’s just no way Sansa is going to let Littlefinger off the hook here. Even her decision to spare his life reads as determination that he lives with her total rejection of everything he is. Her line about his grand plan being reducible to him basically changing the surname of the Stark-murdering sadists she was imprisoned by would be a pick for the best of the episode if she didn’t also get to say this:
I can still feel it. I don’t mean in my tender heart it still pains me so, I can still feel what he did to my body, standing here right now.
That’s just so brutal, and powerful, and sad. It functions as a refusal to let Littlefinger or the show forget exactly what the consequences of last year’s Sansa plot really are. Of course, we once again rather run into the problem of the show having chosen that plot in the first place, but if you wanted to view this scene as an attempt at penance, then I think they chose it well. As always, I cannot usefully comment on how accurate a portrayal of a domestic abuse survivor this is, but in my ignorance I see much to recommend it.
Except… there’s the problem of that damn play. It’s pretty hard to fully buy into the idea that the writers have realised how badly they screwed up with Sansa last year and are trying to make amends if in the same damn episode they cast another beautiful young actress as Sansa Stark and immediately rip her top off. I’d feel skeezy watching to double-check, but I’d guess Eline Powell spent more time in that episode topless than she did with words coming out of her mouth. If you want to repair the damage you’ve done to a female character, at a bare minimum you need to not replay and rewrite that character’s past so it can feature more tits.
Let’s stay in Braavos for a while, now we’re here. We’ll skip the latest iteration of Arya getting repeatedly hit in the face, since I was completely over that at least two episodes ago. What follows is much more interesting; a brief history of the Faceless Men who founded Braavos. In an episode which ends with a peasant sacrificing himself for his master, it brings some nice balance to hear about nameless slaves founding a secret order that overthrew and murdered their masters. Where the movement was what mattered, not the name of the man in charge of it. No “Great Men Of History” theory here, just a nameless slave who one day had had enough. Who opened a door, and let the Many-Faced God in. And here we stand, centuries later, in a city founded by assassins, whilst the civilisation that once enslaved them is a haunted, steaming ruin. Which is pretty satisfying, actually, but it does make me wonder: just how many gifts did the Many-Faced God give? And what if they weren’t gifts, but loans? What will he demand when he shows up for repayment, with interest?
Complaints about the Sansa link aside, I also loved the inclusion of The Bloody Murder Of The Foul Lord Stark Near His Enormously Topless Daughter. History repeated as farce, indeed; consequences from another continent stirred and jumbled and taped together in the dark by an idiot. A reminder that the history books are written not just by the winners, but the jobbing playwrights who don’t want to piss the winners off too much, or who don’t even care beyond wanting to maximise the number of bums on seats. I wonder how much of this alternate version of events, in which Ned Stark was a gurning power-grabber executed by a scheming Tyrion – is actually already the generally accepted story. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the origins of the White Walkers, a fact so long forgotten it isn’t even myth anymore. In contrast Ned Stark’s body is barely cold, and already the conventional wisdom is hardening that he betrayed his oldest friend for the sake of the Iron Throne.
What makes this especially frustrating is the realisation that this is probably the most coherent depiction of what happened after Robert’s death that Arya will have ever been given. She got some scattered scraps from her father for a little while, but then the Tower of the Hand was flooded with Lannister guardsman and she had to get out. She knows Kevin Eldon and the woman she means to kill are spouting crap, as is the young actor afflicted with genital warts, presumably as karma for making Joffrey look human. Beyond that though she has barely any more insider knowledge than anyone else in the audience. She knows it’s wrong, but she doesn’t know what would be right. She sees the lies spreading, but she doesn’t know the truth. Given everything that’s happened to her since the day she and Micah headed to the river to find some branches to hit each other with, this is probably one of the more minor punches to the gut. Still though. If she does end up killing Lady Crane, it might be on general principle.
Over on Pyke, meanwhile, we have another example of the consequences of ancient decisions reverberating in the here and now. This time, though, it’s not the threat of homicidal bio-weapons, but the more commonplace – and thus more damaging – issue of the patriarchy. Watch how Euron Greyjoy defeats his niece at the Kingsmoot. He barely even recognises her presence, instead attacking Theon by questioning his manhood and his vocabulary, which itself then becomes an attack on his manhood (those of us with above-average intelligence may recognise more than a little of Euron’s approach from our own school days, perhaps: “You know words YOU MUST BE GAY!”). And somehow this works, despite the fact that Theon’s only purpose at the Kingsmoot is to explicitly agree that he’s not worthy. Somehow defeating Yara’s brother means defeating Yara, and she barely even has to be looked at for that to work. Indeed, Euron main interaction with Yara is to immediately steal her idea. We move from a schoolyard slanging match to a board meeting, with a man shamelessly parroting an idea literally just pitched by a female colleague and somehow getting the credit themselves. For all that the general reaction to this scene seems to have been shrugs and yawns, I think it’s another example of the show putting work into improving its treatment of gender politics, and I’m glad it made the cut. Especially if this can be built on to give Yara a victory later in the season.
From a woman denied power to one who has once more reclaimed it. Outside Vaes Dothrak, Daenerys and Jorah both have to deal with the consequences of the knight’s double banishment. She kept opening a door and pushing him through, but he always found a way to unlock it from the other side. This time, of course, there can be no pushing, because what if that meant her touching him? You know, the only thing he’s wanted since the day they met.
What I love about this scene is how little sense it makes on the surface. So Jorah fought his way from the smoking shores of Valyria to the fighting pits of Slaver’s Bay, was cast out a second time, then leaped back into the gladiatorial bloodshed again so he could once again face his beloved and tell her he has to be sent away?
But that only holds as a criticism until you realise exactly what Jorah is after here. His goal hasn’t been to stay with Dany since the moment he saw the first crack. He’s known he couldn’t do that ever since. That’s what his puppy-dog eyes have been about every time he’s stared at his tearing, hardening skin. Not about his impending death, but how his dream is already dead (as always, Iain Glen makes this all look effortless). His goal shifted after Valyria from returning to Dany’s side to returning to Dany’s good graces. To feel once more that he was serving the woman he loved.
That was all he could still have. He needed to be allowed to open the door he is stepping through himself. With every route to true victory closed off, he needed to secure the best option that was still possible. And he succeeded. If this is the last we see of Ser Jorah Mormont of Bear Island, then it will do.
Still in central Essos, Tyrion is opening a very dangerous door indeed. But then we know the risks because we’ve seen what happened to his sister when it was her making common cause with religious fanatics. Like Arya before him, Tyrion is too far removed from his family to know what has happened to them. So this scene pulls double duty, as both another example of Tyrion digging himself deeper into a hole that will soon flood with the consequences of his compromises, and as dramatic irony regarding how badly things go wrong when Lannisters try to play the religious card. Yes, right now, the goals of Daenerys loyalists and the Red Priesthood dovetail very nicely. But what happens when that stops being true? As Varys points out, Dany isn’t the first blue-blood to be mistakenly fingered as the Prince Who Was Promised, which is something of a problem when you’re laying claim to undeniable, universal truth. What if Kinvara decides she’s made a mistake? Is she going to blame herself and calmly reflect that Dany’s goals are valuable ones even if they’re not the direct will of the Red God? It’s not likely. No-one does well with guilt; we tend to convert it into anger, or even hatred. For the fanatic this process is even more extreme. When Melisandre concluded she’d made a mistake, she abandoned her erstwhile saviour – and several hundred other people – to be butchered in the snow. And things could actually be even worse if there’s a schism in Meereen, if only because there’s so many more people to badly inconvenience through being killed. It’s starting to look like Dany returning with a horde of Dothraki to murder every master in Slaver’s Bay might actually be the best-case scenario for Tyrion’s administration. If you open all the wrong doors at all the wrong times you can end up weakening the structure of a house, to the point where sooner or later there’s no better option than to just knock it down.
So that’s episode five. One last marinade in the past before the future overtakes us all, though as Hodor demonstrates, the two are not necessarily distinct. Sometimes – almost always – the future is just the past in a more fashionable hat. A repetition that shouldn’t happen, but somehow does. Like how Jon Snow could somehow be the 999th and the 1000th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch despite it being a lifetime appointment. The echoing doesn’t make sense, but still it happens.
Not that that is necessarily bad news for everyone. Take Dolorous Edd. Jon’s unprecedented – albeit brief – double tenure has apparently broken the process of succession to the point that everyone simply assumes he’s in charge without so much as setting up an exploratory committee. Which he probably doesn’t think is the best development ever, but never mind. As his first act in charge, he does the only sensible thing to do.
He closes the door.
Reviewer: Ric Crossman