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.”
- The Door
- Book of the Stranger
- The Red Woman
May 23, 2016 @ 7:15 am
“A liberal apologia for feudalism”: yes, exactly, that’s what a lot of very intelligent leftist Fantasy veers close to, I guess somewhat by necessity – i.e. in much the same way as some of the aesthetics of bourgeois emancipation and bourgeois “progress” under absolutism and in revolutionary times was a liberal apologia for slave-owning societies like the Greeks and the Romans. I’m not saying that to knock them down. You gotta use what’s available, and “closed for renovation until we come up with something unheard of” is simply not what happens when societies transform. The only way for Renaissance progressives to imagine a culture that was not feudal was to dress up their post-feudal longings in pre-feudal classicist garb. This might sound depressingly similar to a generalized statement like “any critique of something that’s bad and contemporary awakens, to some extent, the sleeping Monsters of something that ain’t much better and is just a whole lot older” – if not for the fact that sometimes stuff that’s “backward” serves as a decent starting point for attacking something that seems to be stuck with itself simply by way of contrast. That this may be useful, and even beautiful, stems from the fact that one of the most important ideological tools of every unjust Society mankind has ever suffered has been and still is the suggestion that “there cannot be any other functional way to run things”. To answer that with: “But they used to do things differently” means that all the contemporary shit that oppresses people, locks them in, keeps them out, abuses, controls and exploits them (or as is sometimes the case now: does not even do these things anymore but simply leaves people to physically rot and mentally die in utter anomie) is NOT eternal, it has NOT “always been thus” and therefore need not always be so. On the other hand: disputing the ahistorical claims of apologists of the present system by showing them how messy “history” actually is (instead of the streamlined & neat optimization legend they feed us) probably always results in the “moral ambiguities” that you mention, at least if it’s done lege artis. The only way to avoid these ambiguities, if your goal is to use your imagination in order to not get stuck in the self-evidence of the given and its established origin stories (a “goal”, I think, that GRRM and the GoT-people are shooting for, at least that’s what GRRM has always done, from Fantasy to Horror to SF, from “Wild Cards” to “Armageddon Rag”) could only be avoided entirely by switching to overtly utopian modes of speculation. But these often lack the power to really drive home the point that people’s decisions matter more than official stories of it-has-to-be-what-it-is give them credit for, because you can always fault utopian speculation for “just making shit up”. If you make shit up in order to come to grips with actual shit, then at least please do make up shit that’s not easily resolved, which is what GoT does, because that’s when the contrast is strongest: Official ideology (be it feudal: Roman Catholicism and “deus vult”, or globalist-capitalist: Neo-Liberalism) claims that stuff resolves itself if only the troublemakers would stop messing with it (“the housing crisis is the fault of meddlers who want to provide decent homes for poor people” etc.). Great Fantasy gets in your face with a good answer to that :”Don’t tell me the system works and takes care of itself, because it never did and no, it doesn’t, and what’s more: if you really believe it does, and act accordingly, everything will get a whole lot worse in spectacular ways” (Dragons, War, Financial Crises).
May 23, 2016 @ 11:32 am
As I say elsewhere:
That ending is a very powerful moment – and also rather Moffat-y, I thought. Which is surprisingly enough a reasonably welcome direction for this normally-quite-linear show. They really did right by the character there, it worked cleverly and was well shot/acted etc; a great sequence with Meera and the White Warriors too.
What with this whole new timey wimey element in Bran’s visions they’ve got going on, expanding the mythology by seeing the Children of the Forest “creating” the White Walkers and so on, it makes me wonder if when we see Bran seeing the second half of the Tower of Joy scene, he won’t in some way be responsible for saving or creating his father… again, a very Moffaty twist.
This season is really picking up. Loved the last two episodes, some of the strongest mid-season ones we’ve ever had. Just very, very dramatic stuff. My brother theorises this is because they’re not adapting source material awkwardly to fit TV pacing any more, so now they can just pace things as excitingly as they want… which occasionally leads to difficulty, like the Children of the Forest not getting much back-story (I was very bewildered for a moment there), but also allows you to have moments like “oh shit, the Night King is coming… oh SHIT, he’s here!!!!”
Iron Islands continues to get more interesting. Euron’s plan to seduce Daenerys and take her lands…well, he’s got another think coming I expect. Dunno about their version of a coronation though!
And that Dany/Jorah scene was hackneyed but rather sweet.
May 23, 2016 @ 1:32 pm
Of course this time-travel episode was directed by Jack Bender, the primary director on LOST.
May 23, 2016 @ 2:48 pm
Not only time travel, but one where a flashback to the past becomes immediately relevant for understanding a character in the present, and in which past and present literally touch and bleed into one another, which is LOST all over.
May 23, 2016 @ 10:28 pm
One thing that slightly took me out of the action this week was realising that the actor “portraying” Ned Stark in the mummer’s version was none other than The Actor Kevin Eldon… and that was topped by recognising who’d played Robert Baratheon only when he spoke in his own voice. They gave RICHARD E. GRANT such a small part… and one where he tells another actor “There are no small parts.” This episode did eat itself somewhat…
May 24, 2016 @ 12:18 pm
We’ve not seen the last of him, I’d wager.
May 25, 2016 @ 10:18 am
The ending is powerful for all the reasons Phil mentions, but for me the best and cleverest part of the episode was the play. Having seen these events as they happened, we now see how they are turned into stories – specifically, the kinds of stories that the people want to hear and that suit those in power.
This is most obvious in the actor Kevin Eldon’s glorious portrayal of Ned Stark as a generic Northern buffoon, but there are so many small ways in which incidents we have seen are distorted, transposed or recontextualised so as to give them radically different meanings.
What a splendid episode.
May 25, 2016 @ 5:20 pm
Certainly the strongest episode of the series so far.
the world building felt even more strained than usual (the iron islands, do they really have enough fiberous material for the sails of 1000 ships? if they do why didn’t they already make them? etc. etc.)
I would have liked to see Sansa make Littlefinger squirm for significantly longer, like really made that scene genuinely uncomfortable. All the torture and rape we’ve endured and it felt like the writers couldn’t acknowledge that even in retrospect.