Wednesday, May 25, 2016

6.05 The Door

Hello my friends, and welcome to this week's heartbroken recap of a heartbreaking episode, in which our favourite Hodor meets his demise at the precise moment when we discover exactly why the only word he can utter is "Hodor." In the days that have followed, tributes have ranged from the crass — doorstoppers with Hodor's pained face on them — to the lovely — people putting stickers of Hodor's face next to elevator "Hold Door" buttons. The task of discussing that final scene will fall to my comrade-in-arms, Christopher Lockett, this week, so I shall begin. 

Nikki: The first thing that must be pointed out about this fantastic episode is who directed it. You should have seen the look on my face when “Directed by Jack Bender” flashed across the screen. For those of you who didn’t obsess over every moment of Lost (in which case, how, exactly, did you come to read my blog?!), Jack Bender was the lead director and one of the executive producers of the show. He’s responsible for most of the best episodes of that series, and the images that we remember most vividly from it. He directed the series finale, as well as every season finale that preceded it. He directed 30 other episodes, including “Walkabout” and “The Constant” — in other words, when you have a key episode that could change everything, you bring in Jack Bender.

And considering the revelations, lies, and that devastating ending, this was definitely a key episode.

We begin with Sansa and Brienne as they face Littlefinger, who has sent Sansa a raven to meet up with him in Mole’s Town. We last saw this place when the wildlings, led by Tormund and Styr, attacked the town and killed everyone in it. Gilly has been hiding out in the brothel with Sam, and she huddled in the back where Ygritte found her and told her to stay quiet. She survived (obviously) and escaped back to Castle Black.

Now Sansa, Brienne, and Baelish stand amidst the wreckage left behind, and she gets to confront him in a glorious scene of retribution we’ve been waiting for. With Brienne having her back, Sansa glares at Littlefinger and dares him to tell her if he knew what he was getting her into by leaving her there. Of course, Baelish wants to skip by the answer, so he stammers his way through a round of shrugging before Brienne holds her sword and says menacingly, “Lady Sansa asked you a question.” Sansa then helps him out: “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot,” she says, “And if you did know, then you’re my enemy.” We watch Baelish staring at Sansa, knowing he betrayed the daughter of the woman he’s loved his entire life, a girl who is the spitting image of her mother. Despite the fact Littlefinger’s heart is made of stone now, in this moment we catch a glimpse of him actually appearing to feel a tiny ounce of remorse for what he put her through.

She tells him she can still feel what Ramsay did to her, not just in her heart but in her physical body. She tells him over and over again to imagine exactly what Ramsay did to her: mind, body, and soul. He didn’t touch her face, because he needed that, but he destroyed every other part of her body that could be covered up. Sansa stands like stone, as Brienne looks more enraged by the second yet maintains that cold glare.

“I’m... so... sorry,” Baelish says with phony empathy, and says he had wanted to protect her, and will do anything to protect her now. “You wouldn’t even be able to protect yourself if I told Lady Brienne to cut you down right now,” she spits back.

“You freed me from the monsters who murdered my family, and you gave me to other monsters who murdered my family.” And in that one sentence, she sums up exactly the hell she has lived through for years. The Starks were just a quiet family living in the North who had the misfortune of being chosen to be the Hand of the King, and in doing so became the target for every other family jostling for position. Baelish saved Sansa from the Lannisters, who had murdered her father, and he handed her off to the Boltons, who had murdered her mother, brother, and a sister-in-law she’d never met. He tells her that he will do anything to undo what’s been done to her, but you can tell from the look on Sansa’s face, there is no undoing what’s been done to her. But what it HAS done is made her stronger, willing to fight. She’s a strategist now, now some girl doing embroidery in the background while the men do the real fighting.

And as he leaves, realizing she’s not going to come with him (not that he ever thought that — I always feel like Baelish is 10 steps ahead of everyone) he tells her that he’s been in contact with her uncle, Bryndan the Blackfish, and that he’s gathered an army that would be willing to fight with her. She says, “I have an army.” Oh right, he says sarcastically as he passes her in the doorway, “Your brother’s army...” and then he corrects himself, “Half brother.”

Someone needs to push this guy through the moon door.

Sansa was my hero in this episode. Of course, what she does with Littlefinger’s information is suspect, and I can’t help but picture Admiral Ackbar jumping out of a doorway and yelling, “It’s a TRAP!!” but let’s give her a round of applause for making Baelish pause for even three seconds to actually consider what he’s done to Catelyn’s daughter.

And from there we move over to Arya, where she’s forced to watch a rather difficult reel of “Previously, on Game of Thrones.” In verse. What did you think of our Arya this week, Chris, and that very brief but squee-inducing cameo?

Christopher: To be honest, I completely missed Withnail on my first viewing—it was indeed very brief, and I must have been looking at my notes. When I rewatched the scene, I was thinking “what cameo?” … and then I saw him. Good old Richard E. Grant—he never disappoints.

I loved the Arya scenes this week. She hasn’t had very much to do this season yet, so it was great to see her story moving along. What was interesting was the way in which her identity as a Stark continues to stick to her, however much she might protest that she is “no one.” What precipitates this uncertainty is her poor showing against the Waif in their fight training; indeed, the Waif is so superior to Arya that one wonders if she was feeling ill on the day when Arya bested her in spite of her blindness. Plot inconsistencies aside, however, the Waif’s insistence that “You’ll never be one of us … Lady Stark” segues into Jaqen’s acknowledgement that this might, in fact, be the case. “She has a point,” Jaqen says, and proceeds to expound on the history of the Faceless Men: that they were a society founded by former slaves, who fled Valyria after—he seems to suggest—they killed all their masters and overseers. “Where did they go?” Arya asks, and Jaqen reveals that the free city of Braavos was in fact founded by the Faceless Men.

Arya’s struggle to lose herself has become an interesting reflection of the significance of naming and names, especially when her scene is juxtaposed with Sansa’s determination to win back the North, and Littlefinger’s snide observation that Jon Snow is only Sansa’s half brother. It’s a seemingly throwaway aside that cuts as only Littlefinger knows how: at once reminding Sansa of how she mistreated Jon in the past because she didn’t consider him a true Stark, while also pointing to the issue of his legitimacy: he might putatively be Ned Stark’s son, but as a bastard he lacks the legal rights of a trueborn, and unlike Ramsay was never legitimized by his father or by a reigning monarch. While Sansa and Jon will struggle to assert the rightfulness of the Stark name in the North, Arya struggles to set her legacy aside, but it clings to her like a burr.

All of which is made even more glaring by the play she attends. Did Jaqen know what the play was about when he sent Arya off to reconnoiter her assignment? If so, it’s a cruel little twist of the knife and, I would assume, one more test for Arya. The recapitulation of the events of season one calls to mind Karl Marx’s assertion that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce: the tragedy that Arya experienced first hand is repeated for her as a crude pantomime replete with farts, slapstick, and gratuitous nudity (all right, so that bit was accurate). It would appear that the Lannister propaganda machine has worked well: Cersei and Joffrey are depicted as fair and generous, Ned Stark as an oafish usurper, and Tyrion as the ultimate villain of the piece who arranges for Ned’s execution in spite of Joffrey’s leniency, humiliates Sansa, and slaps the new king (which, I must admit, is still deeply satisfying to watch even though it’s a fake Tyrion and Joffrey).

Maisie Williams does some lovely face-acting throughout the play, communicating that, however much she has committed herself to the Faceless Men, she is in fact still Arya Stark—and seeing her father misrepresented on stage obviously pains and angers her. These events are still very much a part of her, and she is a product of her personal history. Shucking all that to become “no one” is not easy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this season is doing a lot of calling back to the first season, giving us echoes of where all of this started. “Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left?” Sansa asked Jon last week. “I want to scream at myself, ‘Don’t go, you idiot!’” Unbeknownst to Sansa, her brother Bran has been doing something close to that, momentarily distracting young Ned Stark as he starts to climb the Tower of Joy. It’s hard not to read Arya experience of this pantomime as thematically parallel to Bran’s astral travelling, especially considering the way in which the play shows history as fungible: it distorts the facts of Robert Baratheon’s death, Ned’s execution, and the Lannister seizure of power, but for all intents and purposes that has become the standard narrative as it is popularly understood. By the same token, we get confirmation this week of something only suggested previously: that Bran’s virtual travels are not merely passive viewership, but can and do affect and change the past and therefore the present. The broken-telephone telling and retelling of Ned’s execution that produces a comic play broadly correct in the narrative but profoundly wrong on the details presages the way in which an imperative given to Hodor in his youth transforms into his only word and, as it turns out, his one mission in life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The pantomime Arya watches is the most overt call-back of the season so far, and as anyone who has done Theatre Studies 101 knows, any time you see a play-with-a-play (or in this case, a play within a TV show), it’s a meta-theatrical gesture calling attention to the play’s very theatrical framing and artifice. And much like “The Murder of Gonzago” in Hamlet, this pantomime catches the conscience—not of a king, of course, and not just of Arya in her desire to dissolve herself into no one, but also that of the audience. I might be alone in this, but watching the play as Arya watches it, and seeing the distortions time and distance lend to the story, made me think of the increasing disparities between the novels and the series, and the ways in which the viewing experience is transformed for me now that we’re past the point where I, as an avid reader of the novels, had a narrative roadmap.

This sense was only heightened by the fact that this episode offers a handful of revelations, and a man wonders whether these will be consonant with the novels, or whether the showrunners are taking liberties. The first of these revelations happens after Arya’s scenes. What did you think of the fact that the White Walkers were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon to fight humans, Nikki?

Nikki: That was certainly a shock. The Children of the Forest are far more fleshed out in the books, and have only been touched on in the show, occasionally mentioned by others as a race that had died out and has been forgotten. Now that Bran is with them, we see some of them survived.

I saw some confusion on social media the day after this episode aired, and some of it was directed at the Children of the Forest. Who are these tree women, and where did they come from? The Children of the Forest, according to the legend depicted on the show, were the first inhabitants of Westeros, and lived in harmony with the weirwood trees... until man came along. The legend that has been told to us so far is that they engaged in battle with the White Walkers, and were killed off, with this small handful of Children driven north to where Bran is. The White Walkers not only slaughtered the Children of the Forest, but the giants. The key figure you see with Bran is Leaf, and she seems to act as a de facto leader of the Children of the Forest. So when she reveals that the White Walkers — the enemies of the Children — were created by the Children themselves, it’s a shock. Think back to when Sam Tarly killed one of the White Walkers with that piece of dragonglass. He says in that episode that the Children of the Forest used to carry dragonglass daggers. Now his anecdote comes full circle and we discover that they are created by dragonglass, and it is dragonglass that destroys them.

I remember once visiting Barbados, and a local man was telling me a story of how settlers first arrived in Barbados and brought rats with them. Soon the island was overrun with rats so they brought in snakes to eat the rats. When the snakes got the rat population under control, the island suddenly had a snake problem. So they brought in green monkeys to rid of them of the snakes, but the green monkeys multiplied so quickly they were soon everywhere. They have yet to figure out how to get rid of the monkeys.

I thought of that anecdote when I was watching this scene last night. The Children of the Forest were living in relative harmony until man came along and destroyed that peace (typical). So they created a monster to eradicate the humans, but that monster ended up killing the Children of the Forest instead, then the giants, and then turned on man. It was a shock to learn, but in retrospect, it made total sense.

We shall return to Leaf, Bran, and Hodor. (sniffle... Hodor...) But now we turn to the Iron Islands, and Yara making a play for the throne. These men will not follow her, they say. They’ve never had a queen and they don’t plan to start now. She rolls her eyes and says no one pays attention to them anymore, and she will bring attention to them on a world stage. But they argue that they shouldn’t have to follow her as long as Balon Greyjoy’s male heir has returned.

Cue camera on Theon, who was gorging himself on the canape table and didn’t realize everyone was about to look at him — “ye mean me?!”... OK, not really, it’s more like Theon standing there hoping they weren’t going to look at him, because he knows what they must be thinking about him, and how it must look that Balon’s son has returned, and yet it’s his daughter who is vying for the throne. The newly shorn Theon steps up, clears his throat, and addresses them. “I am Theon Greyjoy, last living son of Balon Greyjoy... and she is the rightful ruler.” He tells them she is a leader, a warrior, and iron born. “This is our queen,” he says, on the verge of tears. Theon wanted to rule the Iron Islands, and Ramsay has taken away his dignity (among other things) and he can barely show his face here, but at least pushing his sister to the forefront might make up for his misdeeds.

And... then the dickhead shows up. Euron Greyjoy steps forward and says HE is the rightful ruler of the Iron Islands, and through his travels he has learned everything about this world and will help them rule it. Yara is shocked; the moment she sees him she knows he was her father’s murderer, and announces it in front of everyone — to which Euron basically says, “Yeah, what of it.” He points out how useless Balon was (no argument here) and that he was leading them nowhere. Theon speaks up and says Euron was gallivanting around the world while Yara and Balon were here ruling the Iron Islands and led them thus far. But Euron knows exactly what’s happened to Theon, and tells everyone, including the loss of Theon’s member. It’s a devastating moment — Theon is only just barely holding it together throughout this scene just with the thought that they might know something of what happened to him when he was Reek, but now there’s no doubt that they all know. The laughter and hissing from the crowd is like another finger being removed, and Theon winces at it. Euron turns to the crowd and says he will build a fleet of a thousand ships, and tells them of Daenerys. He says he will sail across the channel and give her the fleet, along with something else (he grabs his crotch) and in that moment I thought, “Ah. You are not long for this world, my friend.” If this show has taught us anything about women, and especially Daenerys, a cock who shows up waving his cock is swept away before you can sing the theme song (which, granted, is about half an hour long, but you catch my drift...)

And so, they make him king, baptizing him by killing him (this is clearly not a very advanced people) and chanting, “What is dead may never die” while Yara and Theon sneak off with Pyke’s best ships. Euron puts on his crown — which appears to be a piece of driftwood? — and announces that his first act as king is to murder his niece and nephew, before he realizes they’re already gone. And so he orders them all to build him those thousand ships, because he has some vengeance he needs to wreak.

I loved that Yara and Theon are now sticking together; we’ve seen them at each other’s throats so much, but if one tiny good thing came out of Ramsay’s abuse of Theon, it’s that Theon has been humbled by everything, and is finally following the right person. Though I do feel like Professor Marvel at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz film, looking off into the distance as the storm brews and saying, “Poor kid... I hope she’s all right.”

Before we move to the next scene, I just wanted to mention that the casting director for this episode was brilliant, especially with matching characters with their relatives. Euron looked like a dead ringer for an older Alfie Allen (Theon) — I couldn’t believe how much they looked alike. And when you see the flash of Ned Stark’s father, it looked so much like Sean Bean it was uncanny.

From the Iron Islands we sail to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys has a quiet and lovely scene of reconciliation that made me very happy. What did you think of the scene with her and Ser Jorah, Chris?

Christopher: It was a very sweet and powerful scene right up to the moment when Daenerys commanded Jorah to find a cure for his disease. And that last moment was made even more annoying by just how touching the preceding moments were: Daenerys’ affectionate frustration with Jorah’s stubbornness (“I banished you. Twice. You came back. Twice.”), giving way to concern and grief when he shows her his greyscale. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and we hear the tears in her voice. “Don’t be,” he replies. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was serve you.” At this moment in Jorah’s face we see regret eclipsed by a momentary happiness that shows the truth of his words: faced with certain death, he can take comfort in the fact that he has in fact served Daenerys, and served her well—and here, facing his end, he can admit that he loves her. He is ready to head off and face his fate. “Goodbye, Khaleesi.”

But she calls him back, refusing to release him from his vow to serve and obey her. Except, not really—he must still go, but with her command to find a cure and return to serve her.

Seriously? She is a queen with a whole host of new subjects, as well as her people in Meereen, and—I’ve got to assume—hundreds of message ravens they can send to all corners of the continent. What about, “We will send for the finest doctors in all the land to tend to you!” And yes, greyscale is contagious, but what about giving him a comfortable apartment in a remote part of the pyramid while healers are brought in to help him? She’s sending him off—alone!—in an inhospitable wilderness with what I’m assuming is not very much money, in an attempt to find a brilliant physician who can cure a deadly disease. And even if he finds it, the doctor will help him out of an overdeveloped sense of charity?

Nope. That didn’t work for me, and it was made worse by the fact that it was the one weak point in an otherwise wonderful espisode.

We shift from Daenerys riding from Vaes Dothrak, presumably toward Meereen, to Meereen itself, where Varys asks Grey Worm to recount the instances of violence in the city since their pact with the Masters. A fragile peace has taken hold, he observes with some satisfaction. “For now,” says Grey Worm darkly. “For now is the best we get in our profession,” Varys points out, but Tyrion is not satisfied: “It’s not enough for Meereen to have peace,” he argues, “They need to know Daenerys is responsible for it.”

What it boils down to for Tyrion is a question of story—the Sons of the Harpy have a good story, he says, a simple and straightforward one: resist the foreign invader. Daenerys’ is even better, more heroic and grandiose. But in and of itself, it is not enough. “The people know who brought them freedom,” says Missandei, obviously a little offended at Tyrion’s perceived slight to her queen. Tyrion, however, is more pragmatic: freedom needs to be coupled with security, and the newfound peace has to be indelibly associated with Daenerys. As we have seen, and as we have commented over the past few episodes, Daenerys is far better on the campaign trail than actually holding office—as a ruler she tends toward a top-down managerial style and is given to authoritarian tendencies at times. She makes for spectacular symbolism; Tyrion would like to see her associated with a few more humble but profound accomplishments, something best accomplished by someone perceived as honest and incorruptible.

There’s a lovely echo from last season when Tyrion is able to repeat Varys’ line—“Who said anything about him?”—and we shortly learn that he means to employ the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor as his propaganda outfit.

His decision to ally them with the Red Priestess Kinvara is shrewd, but risky. Kinvara is only too eager to take up Daenerys’ banner, as Tyrion knew she would be, having overheard (as she cannily observes) the street sermons being delivered in Volantis. Her speech about Daenerys, her accomplishments, and her dragons makes it clear that the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor see in Daenerys everything they could desire in a Chosen One: freer of slaves, born in fire, dragons at her (sort of) command to immolate unbelievers.

Her evangelicism, however, makes Tyrion somewhat nervous.

KINVARA: The dragons will purify nonbelievers by the thousands. They will burn their sins and flesh away.
TYRION: Ideally, we’d like to avoid purifying too many nonbelievers. The Mother of Dragons has followers of many different faiths.

Kinvara promises to send for her most eloquent priests, but Varys is skeptical. He reminds her of Stannis, of his failure at King’s Landing, and his most recent defeat in which he was killed. “It’s most hard for a fanatic to admit a mistake,” he says. “Isn’t that the whole point of being a fanatic? You’re always right. Everything is the Lord’s will.” I loved this little speech of Varys’—not least because it very pithily sums up my own dislike of fanatics, religious or otherwise—but Kinvara’s response reminds us that there is more at work here than mere power politics. There is also magic, ancient magic at that, and her offer to tell Varys who spoke from the fire that fateful day a sorcerer mutilated him says that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Varys’ philosophy.

A point that is brought home rather powerfully when Bran decides to go astral surfing without his guide. What did you make of his encounter with the Night King and his army of ice zombies, Nikki?

Nikki: I mentioned earlier that the casting in this episode was particularly excellent, and that includes Kinvara (or, as I think of her, Idina Menzel... or, as John Travolta thinks of her, Adelle Dazeem), who carried herself very much like Melisandre, right down to that very specific accent she uses when she speaks. I noticed Kinvara was also wearing the same necklace that Melisandre wears, so presumably she is also much older than she appears to be.

But now over to Bran, who wargs alone, and somehow turns into Carl on The Walking Dead (and should have just stayed in the fucking cave). This time, without his guide, winter has come. At first, as has been the case in his other warg adventures, he appears to be unseen, moving among the wights as they stand like statues and pay him no attention... 

Until, in one terrifying moment, the Night King spots him, and then suddenly, all of the wights turn around and can see him. The scene abruptly transforms into the “Thriller” video, with the camera swirling around him as he turns back to the Night King, who’s now standing right beside him and grabs his arm. Bran screams, and wakes up.

It’s too late. He has the silvery mark on his wrist, and they have seen him. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that the Night King knows they’re here, and the mark on Bran’s arm is their entry pass to the cave, which, until now, has magically kept them out. He, Meera, and Hodor must leave. Meera begins frantically packing, while Hodor sits, immobilized, just muttering, “Hodor,” over and over again, quietly. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that it’s time he become him, and when Bran looks at him and says, “Am I ready?” the raven looks at him, and quite matter-of-factly says, “No.” And with that, Bran wargs one more time.

I’m going to let Chris take that final scene when we get there, but I wanted to bring things back around to my opening bit, and say this episode felt more like a Lost episode than any other before it, not least because Bender is directing. In season 5, when the Losties travelled back in time to the mid-70s, it took a while for Hurley to come to grips with the basic concept of time travel that diverged from what he thought he knew in Back to the Future — when time travelling, anything that happens back then always happened. Keep that in mind when watching that final scene: on Lost, the Losties learned that they had always gone back in time, and that their actions always happened. They weren’t changing the past — they has always gone back to the past and had been a part of it. Lost was always about love, loss, connections with people, and a general WTFness pervaded every episode, and this episode of Game of Thrones carried with it that same sense of an emotional rollercoaster.

But before I sent Chris into the fray to dissect that moment (I don’t think I’d be capable of doing it without dissolving into tears), let’s stop over at Castle Black for a second, where Jon has a map on the table and says they must take Winterfell and they need more men. The Umbers and the Karstarks have aligned themselves with Ramsay, he says, and he also mentions the Mormonts and the Tullys. The Tullys are Catelyn’s family (who would certainly help Sansa, but it’s unclear if they would help Jon) but I was more intrigued by the mention of the Mormonts. Could this be the tie between Jon and Daenerys that I’ve been waiting for?

Sansa tells the table that her uncle, the Blackfish, has an army, and then lies about where she got the information. Brienne immediately shifts in her seat and looks uncomfortable (it won’t be the last time in this episode that Brienne makes that face), because she knows exactly who gave them the information, and she doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw Tormund. Brienne confronts Sansa outside, and Sansa sends Brienne to Riverrun so she can check things out.

But Sansa...

Sigh. Brienne isn’t worried about her own safety, but is more concerned about leaving Sansa behind. “With Jon?” asks Sansa. “Not him. I think he’s trustworthy. A bit... brooding, perhaps.” It’s Davos and Melisandre she’s concerned about. We can’t forget that for as much as we love Davos, she saw him help Stannis cut down Renly, whom she loved as a knight and perhaps as a woman. She cut down Stannis herself, but he was alone, already abandoned by Melisandre.

“And that wildling fellow with the beard...!!!” she adds, with a look of disgust on her face.

But Sansa knows Jon, and she reassures Brienne that he will keep her safe. “Then why did you lie to him when he asked how you learned about Riverrun?” she asks. Sansa has no answer. Out in the courtyard, the sister gives her brother a coat that was modelled after the one Ned used to wear, while Tormund gives Brienne the eye in an instantly gifable moment that is equal parts hilarity and awesomeness.

And as they all leave — Brienne to Riverrun, and the others to find Houses that will pledge fealty to the Starks — Edd realizes he’s suddenly the de facto Lord Commander, and immediately embraces the task.

And with that, we go back to Bran and the others at the cave, and the part you’ve all been waiting for. And with a gentle “Hodor,” I pass the reins over to you, my friend.

Christopher: You night have had your Lost moment with this episode, but afterward I couldn’t help imagining the whining, grinding noise of the TARDIS appearing, either back at Winterfell, or as Meera runs with Bran off into the winter storm … because at this point in my life, anything involving time travel invariably makes me think of the Doctor. “Can we go back … and save Hodor?” “Fixed point in time and space. Nothing I can do. I am. So. Sorry.”

I’ll get to Hodor’s final act of heroism in a moment, but first I want to just run through a few details from this final scene.

First: knowing that the Night King is on his way, why are Bran and the Raven lost in visions of Winterfell past? (Possible answer below).

Second, I can’t say I’m entirely down with the Children of the Forest’s weaponry. They made for some impressive explosions, but I couldn’t stop thinking of them as Holy Hand Grenades. Also: while they were only moderately effective against the ice zombies (and totally useless against the Walkers), they would have been devastating against the bronze age humans they were ostensibly fighting when they created the White Walkers to begin with. Or was this weapons technology they devised in the interim years?

Third: R.I.P. Summer. Barring some unseen deus ex machina, this episode saw the death of yet another Stark direwolf. This means that, of the original six, there are only two left—and of those two, only one, Ghost, is still with his human (Arya having chased Nymeria off to spare her Lady’s fate).

OK. Now onto the main event.

I rewatched this scene about five times (and cried each time) just to make sure I got the sequence of things right:
  1. After seeing the Night King and his hordes, Meera tries to wake Bran from his reverie, saying “We need Hodor!”, as Hodor has fallen into a panicked, very nearly fetal paralysis of hodors.
  2. Bran hears her voice in this midst of his vision of Winterfell, and the Three-Eyed Raven says “Listen to your friend.”
  3. Bran looks over at young Hodor; in the cave, present-day Hodor’s eyes go briefly milky.
  4. Hodor stands and grabs Bran’s sledge, and they start to make their escape.
  5. The Night King walks up to the Raven and swings his scythe; at Winterfell, Bran sees the Raven’s demise as him shattering into a thousand dark shards and swirling into nothing (at a certain point, it becomes hard not to start making analogies to The Matrix).
  6. Hodor, Meera, and Leaf—with Bran in tow—are now basically in the midst of a zombie chase, replete with sound effects that sound like they were lifted from The Walking Dead.
  7. Hodor, Meera, and Bran escape through the back door (Leaf having sacrificed herself), and Hodor hauls it shut. As she runs off with Bran, Meera cries repeatedly, “Hold the door!”
  8. At Winterfell, Bran hears Meera’s entreaties. Looking over at young Hodor, he sees his eyes roll back and he falls into a seizure, all the while crying desperately “Hold the door!” Which becomes … well, you know the rest.

The main question, as I ask above, is why were Bran and the Raven warging right then, when they knew full well the Night King was on his way? And why were they in so deep that Bran couldn’t bring himself out, even after he’d been parted from the tree roots? Why didn’t the Raven send him back before he died?

I wasn’t being entirely glib when I brought up the Doctor Who chestnut of a “fixed point in time and space,” as it strikes me that a possible answer to this question is that it was necessary for Bran to be virtually at Winterfell as all this went down. What becomes painfully, heart-wrenchingly obvious in the final moments of this episode is that Hodor’s entire self has been focused on this one act of heroism: that the hijacking of his mind, his agency, his very capacity for speech—and as we saw in Bran’s earlier visions, though he is big and humble, he had a nimble mind and a wry sense of humour—occurred so that one day he could save Bran Stark.

It is a heartbreaking moment, not least because Hodor has always been the embodiment of the gentle giant, guided by little other than simple love and loyalty. The two instances of him being possessed in this episode—in the present and in the past—made me think of season four, episode five, “First of His Name,” which featured Jon Snow’s attack on the mutinous watchmen, who had killed the Lord Commander and taken over Craster’s Keep.  If you’ll recall, the mutineers had also taken Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor captive—and while Jon’s men carried out their attack, Bran warged into Hodor when Locke (Roose Bolton’s agent) tried to carry him off. (There’s a link here to the video—unfortunately, embedding was disabled). Possessed by Bran, Hodor breaks his bonds and gives chase, running down Locke and killing him with his bare hands. He then comes to, seeing the dead body at his feet and the blood on his hands; as you put it in our post, Nikki, “Bran turns Hodor into a killer, which resonates so deeply as Hodor stares at the blood on his hands in confusion and heartbreak.” It resonates so deeply because we know too well what a gentle soul Hodor is, and in that moment the liberty taken by Bran in possessing him is deeply discomforting.

As it is in this episode—but even more, by a magnitude more, because it isn’t just a few moments of possession in this instance but the better part of a lifetime. One of the things I love about Game of Thrones and its source material, as I love about other contemporary fantasists like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Lev Grossman, is that the standard fantasy trope of fate and destiny tends to get upended. And in those cases where we see a certain determinism at work, as in Hodor’s death, it upsets the apple cart. We see Hodor’s end not so much as a grand fate, as his subjugation to forces we might otherwise consider benign—in this case, Bran’s fledgling flights of vision, which accidentally appropriate young Willas’ life and turn him into Hodor.

None of which detracts from Hodor’s final act of heroism, or the sorrow with which we bid him adieu.

So that’s it for this week, friends. Be well, stay warm, and hold that door.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Game of Thrones 6:04 Book of the Stranger

And it’s another week of mayhem in the Seven Kingdoms, and we’ve written almost as much as GRRM would this week, so without further ado, I will get my trusty cohort, Christopher Lockett, to begin!!

Christopher: While there have been a handful of gasp-worthy and/or fist-pumping moments in the first three episodes, the consensus thus far on the interwebs seems to have been that this season started slowly. More than a few reviews I’ve read have been chomping at the bit for some of Game of Thrones’ patented operatic moments.

Well, now we know. The last three episodes have been building to this one.

Or not entirely. But mostly. Or at least, that’s how it felt watching this episode.

Am I not making sense? That might be because I’m writing this mere moments after watching that final, climactic scene. Let me take a deep breath and focus.

I had a couple of friends over to watch tonight’s episode, and we were speculating about what might transpire based on the trailer, which suggested strongly that Brienne and Sansa would arrive this week at Castle Black. As we’ll recall, last week’s episode ended with Jon Snow handing over the mantle of Lord Commander to Edd Tollett, saying “My watch has ended,” and seeming to walk out through the main gates. Did that mean he has departed? Would Sansa come looking for sanctuary from her half-brother, only to find he had deserted? It was, we decided, precisely the kind of thing Game of Thrones would throw at us.

With that in mind, the first shot had me confused: Jon’s sword Longclaw, given to him by his predecessor Jeor Mormont, sitting in the foreground. It is picked up by Edd Tollett. My first thought was that Jon had been wearing the sword as he seemed to leave Castle Black, but seeing Edd holding the sword made me wonder for just a second whether Jon had left it with Edd as part of the Lord Commander’s outfit. But no—a moment later we see Jon, and Edd grills him about what he means to do, and where he means to go. Jon’s answer is at once glib and heartfelt—he means to go south, so he can get warm again—but Edd is having none of it. He reminds him about Hardhome, saying, “You know what’s out there. You know what’s coming here. How can you leave us now?”

It’s a powerful question, as it goes right to the heart of Jon’s reasoning behind the very actions that got him murdered, that is, granting passage south of the Wall for the wildlings. Everything he did in the final episodes of last season was in the name of drawing a line between whom he saw as the true combatants in the wars to come: between the living and the dead.

It strikes me that this episode is very much about the drawing of battle lines. Later we see an uneasy truce between Cersei and Olenna, drawing a line between their houses and the High Sparrow; Theon pledges himself to his sister in her bid for the Iron Islands’ throne; and the spectacular ending of this episode is essentially Daenerys drawing a line between herself and the world.

Jon Snow, by contrast, is initially reluctant to re-enter the fray. When Edd asks him, “How can you leave us now?” Jon reminds him that he was murdered by his brothers. “You want me to stay here after that?” he demands, but once again Castle Black offers up a very timely knock at the door—though instead of a furious giant this time, it is a horn announcing the arrival of visitors, as my and my friends’ dour speculations are very happily proven wrong. For Brienne and Sansa (and Pod, of course) have arrived, and they ride into Castle Black’s courtyard to stares of consternation—some, we assume, directed at Sansa, but most at the tall and imposing figure of Brienne. Tormund in particular seems quite gobsmacked, something that will be played to comic effect later in the episode.

Like a cracker given to a starving man, the scene of Jon and Sansa’s reunion is overwhelming. Game of Thrones consistently offers action, thrills, triumph, and not a little bit of humour mixed in with what is more often than not an onerous and cripplingly dire set of circumstances. Tyrion and Varys’ banter leavens the mix; Brienne riding to the rescue makes us cheer; and sometimes there are dragons, and sometimes Joffrey dies. But there are precious few moments of genuine love and joy: the moment of recognition when Sansa looks up to see Jon, and their subsequent desperate embrace, was a balm to the soul of this show that, at this point, I didn’t realize it needed—so inured was I to the bleakness. And full credit to the actors: Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington so inhabit Sansa and Jon now, that their reunion is genuinely a thing of joy on the screen.

But to return to Edd’s question: “How can you leave us now?” he asks, and Sansa is, if not the answer, certainly an answer. “Where will you go?” she asks Jon, and he corrects her, “Where will we go?” They are family, they are reunited, and the argument that ensues—in which Jon professes his battle fatigue and unwillingness to fight any more—is understandable but perhaps somewhat disingenuous in the circumstances. We can certainly empathize with Jon’s fatigue, but Sansa—who, incidentally, in spite of not dying, arguably suffered far more than Jon—sees things more pragmatically. She tells him that Winterfell is their only home, and that she will take it with or without him, but the gist of what she says is plain: there simply is no way forward without fighting.

And as we sense battle lines being drawn, we begin to see factions emerging. Melissandre, we are utterly unsurprised to learn, will follow wherever Jon Snow goes. As will Davos, probably, but he has some questions he wants answered. What happened to Stannis? It seems odd that he has waited this long to ask her, but then perhaps her prior moping precluded such discussions. What happened to Stannis? He was defeated, she replies. What happened to Shireen? he then demands, a somewhat trickier question for her to answer … and she receives the mixed blessing of an interruption from Brienne. “I saw what happened,” she says, in a little moment of misdirection, as what she has to say is about Stannis and the battle, and not Shireen. But really, Brienne is there to say that she served in Renly’s Kingsguard and saw him killed at the hands of “blood magic.”

Uncomfortable silence. “That’s … in the past now,” says Davos. “Doesn’t mean I forget,” Brienne replies. “Or forgive.”

BRIENNE: He admitted it, you know.
DAVOS: Who did?
BRIENNE:  Stannis. Just before I executed him.

Brienne turns and walks away, and in my notes I wrote MIC DROP. Battle lines are being drawn, but on this front we’re looking at some strange bedfellows. Jon and Sansa are now together one way or another, but Brienne, sworn to Sansa, has more or less thrown down the gauntlet to Melissandre, who will walk into fire for Jon (perhaps literally). I suspect we will see some tension in this northern alliance down the road.

But then we turn to the Vale and—finally!—the return of everyone’s favourite sleaze, Littlefinger. Were you happy to see Mayor Carcetti again, Nikki?

Nikki: Ha! I loved your opening because I thought Jon had walked out on Castle Black, too, and was confused about that opening. It’s like having a huge argument with a boyfriend and going, “That’s IT! I am OUT OF HERE!!” and slamming the door and leaving the house dramatically... only to realize you left your shoes, coat, and car keys inside. And for a second I thought, Did Jon just storm out of the place and then go, “Oh crap, forgot me clothes” and have to sneak back? It was definitely a bit of misdirection at the end of last week’s ep. I also thought it was very strange when Davos asked after Stannis and Shireen. Wha?! How is it bloody possible that the ravens deliver news of everything from imprisonments to the latest euchre results in King’s Landing and yet he hasn’t yet heard what happened to Stannis and Shireen? What the hell did he think Melisandre was all mopey about? It seemed a bit of a blunder on the part of the writers.

And now over to Brave Sir Robin, the sweet little inbred imbecile who runs the Vale. Throughout his scenes I was thinking he reminded me of someone. And then, dear readers, our Christopher went and posted something on Facebook that had me HOWLING with laughter, and 100% nailed exactly whom I’d been thinking about:


Anyway, Lord Baelish is back and showing that just as Tywin stepped in, put his arm around Tommen and immediately began teaching him how to be a king, Littlefinger has shown up, handed Brave Sir Robin a falcon, and won him over. On a whim I googled, “Falcon symbolism,” and got this back: “In Christian symbolism, the wild falcon represents the unconverted, materialistic soul and its sinful thoughts and deeds. The tamed bird symbolizes the Christian convert pursuing his lofty thoughts, hopes, and aspirations with courage.”

And from what we know of Brave Sir Robin and Littlefinger, they would definitely fall under the second category.


So! A wild falcon, then. Ahem.

Littlefinger’s arrival interrupts an archery lesson Robin is having with Lord Royce, where Robin is showing some keen marksmanship... if his target had actually been the ant in the grass about three feet in front of him. If so? NAILED IT. As Baelish begins immediately manipulating the stupid creature, Royce instantly gleans what is happening. He wants to know where Sansa is, and Baelish plays dumb, saying they’d been attacked on their way by Bolton’s people and no matter what he did, Littlefinger simply couldn’t stop it. Royce immediately adopts a “Dude, I’m not Sir Robin so you can cut the bullshit” look on his face and tells him that sounds about as plausible as Brave Sir Robin being a Rhodes scholar, but Baelish doesn’t back down. 

He says actually, only one person knew exactly where they were going, and that was Lord Royce. Then he stands back and twirls his evil villain mustache while a couple of neurons spark in Sir Robin’s head, and a dim lightbulb switches on (before immediately cutting out again) registering with Robin, “Waaaaitaminute, you is traitor?!” and Baelish helps the poor creature out a bit more, and says, “My goodness, Robin, what shall we do with someone like this?” Robin, whose maturity hasn’t inched forward one iota since his mom was still breastfeeding him (which, granted, was when he was like 17 or something, but anyway...), repeats the same mantra he did back then: “Shall we throw him through the moon door?”

Despite the underlying hilarity of the scene, it’s actually quite serious and ominous. Baelish can’t control the Lannisters or the Starks, so he’s come at this a different way. Make Brave Sir Robin an orphan, and then control the poor idiot boy and essentially take the Vale. Meanwhile you see the look on Royce’s face, where he realizes his life of fidelity to the Arryns will end in betrayal. But that would be too easy for Baelish, so instead he says to Robin that if they could trust Royce’s loyalty, he would make a capable commander, and maybe they should give him a second chance. Robin agrees.

Baelish is officially ruling the Vale now. Surmising that Sansa is heading to Castle Black, he declares, “Gather the knights of the Vale — the time has come to join the fray!”

Meanwhile, over in Slaver’s Bay, Tyrion is negotiating with the slavers, something that has made Grey Worm and Missandei very uneasy. The slavers want their old lives back, and they explain Daenerys is no different than they are; she’s simply the new master of Meereen, and slavery will never end. Tyrion lobs back that he’s not here to change the world, but that, interestingly, there haven’t been slaves in Westeros for hundreds of years. So he comes up with his compromise: slavery will cease effective immediately in Meereen, but will be allowed to carry on for seven more years as they gradually end the practice in other areas. The slaveholders will be compensated, and need to cut off ties with the Sons of the Harpy.

Grey Worm and Missandei are saddened by the turn of events, but when challenged by the former slaves in the Hall, Grey Worm simply says he wants peace, and Missandei quotes Tyrion: “A wise man once said, ‘We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.’” Tyrion smiles to think they both have his back, but as they walk away from the slaves, they tell him what they really think: that seven years might not seem like a long time to him, but it’s an eternity to a person in chains. Grey Worm explains, “When they look at me, they see a weapon. They look at her, they see a whore.” Tyrion counters, “They look at me and they see a misshapen little beast. Their contempt is their weakness.” Tyrion is confident that once again, his intelligence will get them through this. But Missandei and Grey Worm have been enslaved their entire lives, and they see it very differently. Tyrion thinks he has the upper hand, but Grey Worm warns him, “You will not use them: they will use you.” Tyrion was able to use his knowledge to trick his own family and throw all of King’s Landing into turmoil, but that’s because he understood the politics of the Lannisters. This is a very different situation altogether.

And then it’s off to Jorah and Daario, who actually seemed like a more entertaining duo this week. What did you think of their discussion in the hills overlooking Vaes Dothrak, Chris?

Christopher: I think the most telling line in this scene is Daario’s resigned, “We’ll all disappoint her before long.” I found his fairly constant needling of Jorah about his age revealing; he doesn’t want to fight him, because he loses either way, either the guy who kills an old man or is killed by one; and he taunts Jorah over the fact that he has slept with Daenerys, suggesting that, however much Jorah loves and desires her, that the sheer exertion of her carnal attentions would likely overwhelm him. “It was hard enough for me,” he says, “and I’m a young man.” There has always been a rivalry between these two men, but Daario’s need to taunt Jorah, to constantly point out the disparity in their age, and to remind him that he’s known Daenerys’ bed, gives the lie to his cockiness—and shows the pathos of a man who loves a woman he knows has limited use for him. It’s less a matter that he’ll disappoint her than that she’ll ultimately need something far greater than he can offer.

His macho braggadocio thus comes across as somewhat pathetic, and when the time comes to surrender his weapons, the knife hilt carved in the shape of a wanton, naked woman has an adolescent quality to it. I cannot remember now if we’ve seen that dagger hilt before so clearly, or if such attention has been drawn to it. Certainly, the Daario of the novels frequently has his sword hilts described, but there they are very much of a piece with a character who is far more flamboyant, dangerous, and mercurial. Michael Huisman’s Daario retains elements of the novel Daario’s audacity and recklessness, but is ultimately more muted, and actually rather more nuanced.

We also have a moment in which Daario sees Jorah’s greyscale, which I thought was handled with a deft hand—very few words, and the expression on Huisman’s face was a lovely, subtle recognition of the fact that his cracks about Jorah’s age were perhaps a bit close to the bone, as the older man’s days were numbered.

I wonder, too, if they’re making Jorah more vulnerable and fragile as a function of his affliction: we open the scene with him panting and wheezing, only keeping up to Daario with difficulty; and in his fight with the Dothraki, at no point does he have the upper hand, ultimately needing rescue from Daario and the dagger he decided to bring after all.

Adding insult to injury (for Jorah, at least), is the fact that their “rescue” of their queen was, if not strictly unnecessary, was at least redundant, as once again Daenerys demonstrates her own ingenuity. I don’t want to steal your thunder, Nikki, as you’ll be playing us out this post with your discussion of the final scene, but I do want to raise one of the show’s more problematic issues, which starts to show itself in the Dosh Khaleen scene: namely, its racial politics. Sitting with the other widows, Daenerys listens to the elder who had been so stern with her on her arrival, now speaking in more conciliatory and friendly tones, trying to make her feel welcome by dismissing the belief of some that Dothraki should only marry Dothraki. She suggests a sort of melting pot view of their history, though hardly in utopian or even positive terms. She introduces her to a Lhazareen girl who survived the slaughter of her village only to be taken by a khal at twelve, who then a year later gave birth and was beaten for the sin of having a girl. Moments later, Daenerys finds out the girl was widowed at sixteen—not soon enough, Daenerys observes, eliciting a sad laugh from her.

In contrast, the elder tells her, the widows of the Dosh Khaleen have a better and more meaningful life than many, as their wisdom is valued. Here, we might surmise, is where Daenerys has the first stirrings of her plan: acknowledging that their lot is better than most, but with the unspoken sentiment that (a) their lot is still pretty dire, as they are literally prisoners to a patriarchal tradition, and (b) that this speaks to the brutal injustice experienced by the vast majority. “That is more than most have,” Daenerys agrees with the elder, though the word she elides in this sentence is “women.” The Dosh Khaleen are afforded respect and something resembling a comfortable life, but only within very strict parameters, and only as the widows of powerful men, and only in the service of powerful men. Daenerys is a revolutionary: as she said last season, she wants to “break the wheel,” to destroy the set of assumptions and practices on which life in the Dosh Khaleen can be seen as an honour and privilege.

In this, her motivations are admirable. But here also is where it gets somewhat cringe-worthy, in that she steps into the all-too-familiar role of the white saviour: the hero who not only liberates people of colour from their chains, but also from their ignorance, who tells them that there is another way to live because they cannot be expected to arrive at such thoughts on their own. The story told by the Lhazareen girl reminds Daenerys of her revolutionary instincts, but also serves to characterize the khals as essentially bestial and savage, the better to prime us for Daenerys’ fiery retribution in the end.

There is a degree to which both the novels and the series work to undermine this mythos, by having Daenerys play the role of the white saviour with lofty ideals and high-handed tactics only to become mired in the practical imperatives of ruling in the aftermath of her conquests, in which arrogance and ignorance of local nuances prove pernicious. But this episode feels a little like the showrunners are hitting the reset button: while Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei struggle to deal with the mess that is Meereen, Daenerys gets to start over with a new mass of non-white people in yet another spectacular display. The apt analogy of the moment would be to say that she campaigns brilliantly, but is utterly unsuited to ruling.

I think that in some ways, Game of Thrones—both the novels and the series—has become something of a victim of its own success. When he started writing the novels, GRRM was actually doing a number of innovative and progressive things in the context of the fantasy genre, which by the late 1980s had become somewhat moribund and regressive. A Song of Ice and Fire introduced a far more nuanced conception of power and politics into a genre that, as I commented in a previous post, tended to equate virtue with birthright and depict monarchy as a perfectly fine system provided the right arse is on the throne. Further to that, he broke down a lot of the genre’s clichés, and peppered the voluminous character roster with complex, strong, three-dimensional female characters. If the books had been merely successful, their more regressive tendencies would not, perhaps, have rankled quite so much. But in becoming an international phenomenon—coupled with the fact that the television show’s visuals make the racial dynamic that much starker—these elements become inescapable.

I’ll throw that particular ball high in the air for you to dunk, Nikki, when you deal with the episode’s final scene. For the time being, what did you make of the King’s Landing scenes this week?

Nikki: You commented last week on how beautifully the High Sparrow’s dialogue is always written, and this week was no exception. Margaery is taken before him, where she sits at his feet as he tells her the story (which may be true, may be a parable, it’s never clear with him) of how he had once been a shoemaker, creating the most beautiful pairs of shoes for the highborn. He explains that people are always in pursuit of finery, money, and power — and that by saying she wants to see her brother and family, she’s pursuing exactly those things — but the real precious commodity each of us has is time. And it took so much time to make a single pair of shoes, and then the highborn wore his time on their feet. They wore someone else’s time on their backs, drank the wine of another’s time. It’s a beautiful conceit, and beautifully told, and one that makes you seriously think about what your time is worth, and is anyone taking advantage of it? And then he tells her how he had wine and pretty girls, and one night was with friends at a rather bacchanalian gathering, where they all ended up naked and drunk, lying amongst one another, next to the fine clothes that represented the time and hardship of someone else. And in that moment, he saw all of them naked, and realized without our clothes, without our fine shoes and robes, without the time of others that we wear, we are no different than they are. And with that he turned and walked out of the place, barefoot, and has remained so ever since.

He took on the mantle of the beggar, realizing that beggars are closer to the truth than he was. And with that, he offers his hand to Margaery and says he will take her to see Loras. She has listened to his story, interjecting only once to demonstrate an understanding of the stories the High Sparrow and his followers believe (and then explaining that it’s because Septa Unella likes to read them at her), but when he proffers his hand, she looks at it with astonishment. For all the ways she thought the story was going to end, finally going to see Loras — the pinnacle of decadence and depravity, as far as the Sparrows are concerned — was not one of them.

Not surprisingly, Loras is broken, an empty shell that has been no doubt mistreated and tortured, his immorality questioned and dissected for weeks, his very character degraded over and over again. If Margaery had to put up with Septa Unella reading at her, one can only imagine what Unella did to Loras, what she said to him, told him. In many scenes with Cersei and Margaery, the Sparrows have said they should be ashamed of themselves chiefly for caring about Loras.

And by the looks of it, it’s worked. Margaery remains strong and determined to cut down this new obstacle, but Loras has nothing left. He begs her to just give in to them, make it all stop, just let them win, take what they want, and let him go. She reasons with him and tells him that he’s the future of the family, and he says no, he just wants it to stop. As she embraces her brother — the only person for whom I believe she has ever felt even a modicum of fondness — there’s a look on her face much like the one Melisandre has been wearing all season long. Maybe she’s been going about this all wrong, and protecting Loras to help further her own cause, when in fact, if proving that she no longer has any fidelity to Loras will help her position with the High Sparrow...

Meanwhile, Pycelle continues to not die, which is surprising in itself (I swear he will outlive everyone on this show) and is attempting to windbaggingly advise Tommen. As usual, he gets caught talking about Cersei just as Cersei enters the room, and she tells him to leave. He takes three years to finally get out of there, and then Cersei turns to her last remaining child, who tells her that they must be careful around the High Sparrow and confesses that he’s spoken to him, and that he told her something. He asks if she even likes Margaery, and Cersei tells the truth: that it doesn’t matter whether or not she likes Margaery, all that matters is getting rid of this infestation that she herself brought to King’s Landing. As the mournful cello sounds of “The Rains of Castamere” begin to sound, Cersei tells him that whatever the High Sparrow told him, he can tell her: “I am your mother — you can always trust me.”

Cut to Cersei marching into the Small Council, where Olenna rolls her eyes as only Olenna can do, where she has finally figured out the card she needs to play to win over the head of House Tyrell: Margaery. She tells them all that while they might have been rather thrilled by Cersei’s own Walk of Atonement, Margaery is set to do the same, and they are scheduling the walk to happen immediately. And like that, Olenna forgets how much she despises Cersei and the Lannisters and says NO, she will not. She orders the Tyrell army to King’s Landing, and will join forces with the king. Ser Kevan (Cersei’s uncle, Tywin’s brother, for those keeping score at home), says the Kingsguard cannot be seen entering the fray with the Sparrows, and Cersei, like she just did with Olenna, appeals to his own filial ties. “Don’t you want to save Lancel?” she asks (Lancel being his son, Cersei’s cousin that she was sleeping with in season one — as one does in this family — and the one who administered the wine who killed Robert Baratheon... and now one of the High Sparrow’s chief Sparrows). She explains that the king can’t do anything against the Sparrows, but he can do nothing. He can let the Tyrell army overrun King’s Landing and take out the Sparrows. As she speaks and Kevan listens and Olenna agrees to support her, the strains of “The Rains of Castamere” get louder and louder, until it’s almost overpowering the scene. Once again, Cersei proves she won’t stay down for long.

And speaking of families coming together to find strength, Theon has made his way back to the Iron Islands and to his sister. What did you think of the scenes in Pyke this week, Chris?

Christopher: This episode was a whole lot of brothers and sisters, wasn’t it? Jon and Sansa, Margaery and Loras, and then Theon and Yara—three very, very different reunions, to be sure, but a persistent enough motif that it puts family at the heart of the story.

The Pyke scene wasn’t much in itself, beyond being a setup for what is to come—namely, the Kingsmoot at which the Ironborn elect their king (which is a very progressive political system for a society whose economy seems largely based on looting and pillaging). But I appreciated the way it worked thematically with the other two scenes that come before our return to Daenerys. All that really happens here is Theon apologizing, Yara telling him to stop apologizing, Theon crying, Yara telling him to stop crying, Yara being suspicious of Theon’s motives and the serendipity of his return on the eve of the Kingsmoot, and Theon finally pledging himself to her cause. But the callback in this scene to Yara’s failed rescue attempt—which failed because Theon was too broken to go with her—and all that Theon suffered at Ramsay’s hands gives a thematic bridge into the next scene, at Winterfell.

From the moment we saw Osha and Rickon unhooded last week, we knew their lives were about to get really shitty really quickly. My stomach sank when I saw Osha ushered into Ramsay’s presence; to be honest, my stomach sinks whenever Ramsay’s on screen, but the dread he evokes is vastly worse when he’s in the company of a sympathetic character.

The scene begins well for Osha, as she actually seems to give Ramsay momentary pause:

RAMSAY: You’ve seen my banners?
OSHA: The flayed man.
RAMSAY: Does that worry you at all?
OSHA: Do you eat them after?
RAMSAY: [pause] No.
OSHA: Then I’ve seen worse.

Both of them are putting on a show here: Ramsay mentions his banners as he peels an apple, a bit of business meant to be intimidatingly suggestive. Osha’s no fool and most likely sees through it, but she makes a mistake in thinking she has the upper hand. Ramsay puts down the knife and the apple. Is the knife a deliberate temptation for Osha? One way or another, her eyes briefly flit to it before she begins her attempt to seduce Ramsay.

OSHA: I can give you what you want.
RAMSAY: And you’re sure you know what that is?
OSHA: Same thing men always want.

Oh, Osha. You should have listened more carefully to the rumours about this monster.

The way these scenes are linked provides a subtle and cruel irony. We have just come from hearing Theon talk about Ramsay’s torments; we know Osha is willing to strategically seduce men, because we have seen her do it before—with Theon, as a means of distracting him so that she, Bran, Rickon, and Hodor could escape. Theon was an easy mark back then, easier than most because of his preening vanity. But Ramsay, as we know all too well by now, is not so simple. He has set a trap: he knows that Osha was instrumental in Bran and Rickon’s escape and that her pretense of self-interested cynicism is a façade, precisely because he broke Theon and learned these details from him.

And with that, Osha joins the ranks of GoT’s butcher’s bill—a mercy, in some respects, as a quick death under the Bolton roof is preferable to the alternatives (in my notes, I’ve written “Tonks had to die AGAIN?”). It was still shocking and had the same feel as the Sand Snakes’ murder of Doran and Areoh—that is, that the writers are seeking to cull the flock somewhat.

At the same time, Ramsay’s casual brutality and his mention of his banners links to the episode’s penultimate scene, as we see the Bolton sigil on the back of a messenger arriving at Castle Black under a flag of parley—an ominous sign, though before the message is received we are granted a few moments of levity. Sansa and Brienne appear mildly unimpressed (which is to say, revolted) by the food before them and the table manners of the wildlings and Night’s Watch, but make a herculean effort to be polite. This effort is not made easier for Brienne by the scrutiny of Tormund, who if we remember was visibly gobsmacked at the sight of her in the episode’s opening moments.

If this episode provided a close-to-tears moment with the reunion of Jon and Sansa, it also provided my biggest belly laugh of the season so far with the image of Tormund the Giantsbane making googly-eyes at Brienne of Tarth. I’m not the only one to think so, as GoT fandom has already started ‘shipping these two, speculating about whether they’ll get together and make huge babies.

Of course Tormund would be rapt at the sight of Brienne. All of her qualities that make her undesirable among genteel Westerosi—her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear.

I do so hope we have a scene of Brienne handing his ass to him in the training yard, and him falling ever more deeply in love because of it.

Our moment of levity is broken however by the arrival of Ramsay’s letter to Jon Snow, and it is just as awful as we all assumed it would be. Its tone is taunting and arrogant, but is also literally apocalyptic. The refrain “come and see” is a direct allusion to Revelations 6:1-8 in the King James Bible, in which the four seals are opened and St. John the Divine sees the four horsemen of the apocalypse emerge:

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see.
And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

Whatever Jon Snow’s reluctance prior to receiving Ramsay’s missive, he is now committed to the fight—not least because Ramsay’s arrogation of the titles of Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North to himself.

As I said before, this is an episode of battle lines. Before you get into the episode’s final scene, Nikki, what did you think of this moment at Castle Black?

Nikki: First, this — her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear — might be my favourite thing you have ever written.

The scene of Thormund looking at Brienne like she was a juicy steak after years of porridge was hysterical, made better only by the WTF look on Brienne’s face the entire time. She looked like she’d just smelled a bad smell (and considering the conditions at Castle Black and the fact these are all a bunch of bachelors with no actual showering area, that could very well be the case) but I was instantly shipping them in my head, too. Brimund? Thorienne? THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Mostly just so we can watch her utterly dominate him to the point where he has little Looney Tune pink hearts in his eyes.

And now back to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys is about to stand trial and they’ll decide what to do with her. They keep saying the best-case scenario would be for her to live out her days with the other khaleesis in the temple, and haven’t exactly articulated the worst-case scenario: until now.

And then it’s a whirl of insanity for the next few minutes, the Cliff’s notes version being: blonde hair, Dothraki talk, angry guys, macho threats, fire fire fire, people bowing, boobs.

But if our readers know anything about us, it’s that we don’t resort to Cliff’s notes (as much as they probably would like us to at times). I really liked your assessment of the issues with the scene at the end, Chris, where you talked about how there’s this sense of colonialism that we can’t exactly avoid when watching or discussing it. On the surface one can read it as: white person comes in, kills the bad brown men, tells the other brown people they will from now on be ruled by the white person.

But in another sense, I don’t read this scene that way. This isn’t about colour, this is about gender. Daenerys, despite her very white skin, is an outsider, alone, the last of her kind. Her people have been conquered and wiped out, and now she walks among the other races and people, other languages and customs. She has seen the worst that the world has to give to people — she has seen Grey Worm and Missandei mistreated by slavers who have whiter skin than they do. But more than that, she has seen what the world does to women. She has seen them beaten down, raped, dismissed, killed. She knows that Sansa could be the head of her household, but that’s not going to stop some bastard from raping her. She knows that Brienne could knock down any wildling, and yet even she is now seen as a piece of ass. Jaime Lannister will never be stripped down, beaten, and forced to walk in shame down the street: that honour is reserved for his sister. She was nothing but a bartering chip to her brother, and the books of legend and history are filled with the names of men, not women. She knows that she will have to work twice as hard to earn half as much, and she’s pretty pissed that Hollywood actresses aren’t being paid as much as their male counterparts. She is woman, and you will fucking hear her roar.

And roar she does.

She reminds them of the great plans her husband once had, and how he was going to do the things she’s now doing. She reminds them that while the world is in turmoil, and evil people are on the throne, the “Great Khals” all sit together talking about what little villages they will raid, what women they will rape, and what horses they will plunder. “You are small men,” she says to them, standing confidently among the firepits as they stare at her, gobsmacked that this little girl is actually trying to take on an entire room of men. Every word she says to them is true, and true not only of this series but everywhere. How dare these men decide the fates of the women? How dare they suggest the wives of these great leaders — wives who are every bit as brave and strong as their male counterparts — get shoved into a temple to live out the rest of their days? Why should the world of men continue to decide the fates of the world of women? She holds up a mirror so they can all see exactly how small they are. “None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki,” she says. “But I am.”

She smiles. “So I will.”

And they laugh. And he tells her that the Khals will take turns raping her, and the bloodriders will rape her, and then when they’re all finished, they’ll let the horses have a turn.

And Daenerys’s smile just gets wider and wider. Look at these little men, she thinks. I’m showing them that they need to start thinking with their heads and not their dicks, and they respond by telling her how they will think, act, and live by their dicks. You can just see it in her eyes. They are so puny, so insignificant, and yet have somehow convinced everyone that they are the leaders and they must be obeyed. He tells her he will not serve her.

“You will not serve,” she says. “You will die.” And with that, she turns the firepits over, setting the temple on fire. The Khals all run, screaming, trying to escape, but the doors have been locked from the outside. Daenerys stands, unharmed, in the centre of the fire, and turns the last of the firepits over to incinerate all of them.

Outside the temple, as the bloodriders and their long-suffering women all rush to see the carnage, the door caves in, and Daenerys emerges, naked and unharmed. Even her silver hair is inflammable. The Dothraki all fall to their knees, as well as the widows, and she stands there, nose in the air, staring at all of them as they worship her. As Daario and Jorah approach, her face doesn’t change. Daario looks at her, mouth agape. He’s heard the stories, but now he sees it. He thought he’d been sleeping with a queen, but now he realizes she’s a god.

It’s a glorious scene, beautifully filmed and scored. On the one hand, Daenerys has pretty much proven 100% that she’s not one of the people, that she stands above all mortals and is not killed by fire, by cleansed by it. But on a symbolic level, she’s done it as a woman. She’s shown them that women are to be honoured and respected as much as the men, if not more. They are the bringers of life, they weather emotional and physical storms that the khals can’t even imagine, and they are the mothers of dragons. Some dragons literally fly and breathe fire; other dragons have so many soccer, baseball, and fastball practices that they make Mom late on her blog post every week. But on a show where we have seen women beaten, raped, degraded, and murdered, Daenerys is that woman who shows it doesn’t have to be that way. And she stands there before men, fully naked, as if daring them to suggest there’s something wrong with doing so, the way women have been told that since the dawn of time.

And now that we’ve written a post longer than all of the scripts this season put together, I shall stop here and thank you very much for having read so far! We will see you next week!