Let’s start with the ending, simply because it’s shocking in such an unusual way for Game of Thrones - the death of what is by literally any standard a minor character elevated to a point of unparalleled cruelty. Bran’s warging into Hodor has always been presented as a slightly upsetting thing - using him to kill Locke in Season Four is a particularly striking example. But here it is used, in effect, to order him to his death. And this is in turn presented, in a fucked up invocation of Moffatian time-wime, as the origin story for the character - an order that gave a perfectly innocent young boy a traumatic brain injury. Which we are then forced to linger on at extensive length so that what is basically a pun can be unfolded in all its horror.
A claim that’s been echoing in my head the last few weeks is that the most interesting thing about Game of Thrones is that it’s a liberal apologia for feudalism that thinks it’s doing a materialist critique of history. (Only with tits and dragons.) Which isn’t the whole truth, but is at least something I haven’t managed to figure out how to write about yet. And I mention it only because it’s essential to this ending, which is after all only a season-midpoint - a still lowballed gambit in the structure of escalating set pieces that defines the latter portions of a Game of Thrones season. It is, in other words, our authorized moment of reflection on the cruelty of aristocracy. Bran is literally one of the magic important people, and so Willis has to go to his awful death for him. The cruelty of this is milked, the credits roll, we move on to speculating about next week.
And yet it is constructed at such meticulous length - the “everything is going very badly now” structure of “Hardholme” accelerated into a ten-minute scene, with a neatly timed progression of deaths that starts at “fucking hell another wolf” and ends at climactic revelation. It is allowed to have the full weight of what Game of Thrones does well, including its most tits and dragons instincts. They’re determined enough to earn that final scene that they dispose of “the origin of the White Walkers” in a daft little two minute scene early on just to set it up. (The “Inside the Episode” featurette has them speaking in awed tones about learning the twist from Martin, going out of its way to spoil the books in doing so.) In much the same way that the show was deliberate in starting slow, it is deliberate in letting the full perversity of this moment play out. And the result is genuinely interesting. We’re getting to the point in Game of Thrones where it has to finally start resolving its moral ambiguities, or at least where its statements on them begin to feel definitive. This scene - in all its cruelties and resonances, is a compelling one. If I had to award Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) for 2016 today, “The Door” would probably be my pick, largely on the back of that scene.
The episode also works up to this moment with a high focus on magic. I mentioned the throwaway of the White Walkers origin, and it is a nothing of a scene, but it’s satisfying that the idea of the White Walkers as a failed weapon is put into an episode that also emphasizes the relationship between Daenerys and the Lord of Light, and doubly so that the episode has time for the Drowned and Many-Faced Gods as well, all of them shown in ways that actually emphasize their power. Even the absence of King’s Landing speaks to this theme, the fact that the Faith of the Seven has no magic whatsoever attached to it being one of the show’s most clever conceits. (Although even that is tacitly and intriguingly paralleled as Tyrion makes his own version of Cersei’s dangerous alliance with a fanatic.) There really hasn’t been an episode of Game of Thrones quite so emphatically based on its fantasy aspects as this to date. The only two scenes with no overt supernatural content were the Sansa/Littlefinger scene and the Daenerys/Jorah scene, although Melisandre didn’t actually get any lines.
Speaking of the Daenerys/Jorah scene, it’s the weak link of the episode, although it’s really not that bad, with Glenn and Clarke just about carrying off some very overwrought material that’s been shoved into a runt of a scene. Put another way, when that’s your weak spot it’s a hell of an episode. The other bit of damning with faint praise to do, of course, is Pyke, which is far better than a scene where Theon is the only credited regular has any right to be. Euron’s ascension is played with the same sort of condescending acceleration as the Dorne wrap-up in “The Red Woman,” but Pilou Asbæk is quite good, delivering finely modulated bites to the scenery as needed, but remaining naturalistic the rest of the time. And while the Arya scene was too long, Maisie Williams’s acting during the scene where she watches the play is absolutely astonishing, and in an episode shaped like this communicates a welcome promise about her trajectory. (Conelith Hill is the other person to make a really strong bid for “best silent acting,” playing Varys’s reaction to Kinvara beautifully.)
So yes. A phenomenal episode, and phenomenal in really interesting, meaty ways. I’d be tempted to call it the “Kill the Moon” of Game of Thrones for its strange and angry use of the medium, but there’s literally an episode where the moon’s an egg, so that doesn’t quite work. Still, it’s a great piece of television.
State of Play
The choir goes off:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Bran Stark
Mockingbirds of the Wall: Petyr Baelish
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Melisandre
Butterflies of Meereen: Missandei
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Spiders of Meereen: Varys
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Kraken of Pyke: Theon Greyjoy
Swords of Vaes Dothrak: Daario Naharis,
Shields of the Wall: Brienne of Tarth
Coins of Braavos: No One
With the Bear of Vaes Dothrak, Jorah Mormont
Winterfell and King’s Landing are abandoned, Vaes Dothrak is excluded.
The episode is divided into eight parts. The first runs five minutes and is set at the Wall. The opening image is of Sansa sewing.
The second runs nine minutes and is set in Braavos. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Arya Stark.
The third runs two minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Bran Stark.
The fourth runs nine minutes and is set on Pyke. The transition is by hard cut, from the Three-Eyed Raven to a wide shot of the Kingsmoot.
The fifth runs three minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is by dialogue, from Euron speaking of his intentions to Daenerys.
The sixth runs six minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by faction, from Daenerys and Jorah to Tyrion and Varys.
The sixth runs four minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Kinvara walking away to Bran playing with the dirt.
The seventh runs six minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran to Sansa Stark and Jon Snow.
The last runs ten minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow and Sansa to Bran Stark. The final image is of Willis convulsing and repeating “Hodor.”