This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 5
At the start of tonight’s Game of Thrones, I settled in with a group of faithful “A Song of Ice and Fire” devotees, a cup of coffee in hand (these reviews don’t write themselves), and prepared for what I presumed would be a morning after comedown after last week’s giddy highs. For last week was a definite showstopper from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that delivered a long sought-after Stark reunion, the highest of High Sparrow intrigues in King’s Landing, and a stunning replay of Daenerys Targaryen’s greatest hits from season 1. Surely such a deliberately paced show as Game of Thrones would thus relish in the aftermath through a gingerly paced follow-up, right?
Pfft. Five minutes into season 6’s “The Door,” my preconceived expectations were gone, coffee mugs were put away, and the edge of the seat was leaned upon with nary a break during the 60 minutes that were to come. Aye, for two weeks in a row now, we have had breathtaking showcases for Game of Thrones.
First, let me just say that that Lady of Winterfell opener represented the Sansa Stark I have always known George R.R. Martin and Benioff and Weiss were building toward over the years, and it’s everything that I wanted it to be. Sansa made many, many mistakes in the first season (and even more of them in the first novel). So, a certain persuasion of fan has used these blunders of a pampered youth as an excuse to at best condemn the character, and at worst take satisfaction at her suffering and degradation in the hands of sadistic, uncompromising, and male demons.
But where many saw a victim, the creators—and certain characters like Tyrion Lannister—saw a survivor who may yet outlive us all. Fed to the (Lannister) lions and forced to suffer their torments with little protection, save from the Hound’s creeping hand, she quickly learned to sink or swim and saw in Cersei Lannister the exact kind of matriarch she will hopefully not turn into… though she is still young.
Either way, she was forced to learn early, and thorougly, that there are no Prince Charmings or knights in shining armor, and if she wants to be more than men’s playthings, she would have to get some power and leverage it. Tonight, she wielded that proverbial weapon like Robert Baratheon’s hammer on the Trident. It is broad, it is unrefined and still very unwieldy, but it left quite the impact on both Petyr Baelish and the viewers at home.
Indeed, the scene at hand both felt like a vindication for the show sending Sansa Stark North far earlier than Martin has, as well as a thinly veiled response by Game of Thrones towards last season’s most problematic of problematic backlashes. While I am still a bit conflicted about the narrative choice of turning Sansa into Ramsay’s bedroom toy since it regressed her once more into being a victim—albeit I can simultaneously admit that there is no other possible truthful outcome to a Ramsay-[insert name] marriage under any circumstances—this scene went a long way to at least explaining Benioff and Weiss’ logic. Up until last season, Sansa might have imagined herself as a gameplayer after lying in the Vale on Baelish’s behalf, but she still rather girlishly trusted in the kindness of strangers, which in this case meant the deceiving Littlefinger.
In contrast, there were no such illusions tonight for the young woman that’s been hardened like steel toward the man who professes a dirty old man’s love. Sophie Turner’s performance, and Benioff and Weiss’ dialogue, so legitimately crushed this sequence with a creative dragonfire that I am even only going to slightly ding the egregious amount of glossing that occurred for this scene to happen… which was substantial.
Suffice it to say that even if we can accept that every character’s storyline moves at different pace—and that perhaps Littlefinger actually arrived in the Vale to speak with Robyn Arryn several months ago before his appearance in tonight’s episode—the thought that the Lord Protector of the Vale could smuggle his way into Mole’s Town without either the Night’s Watch or any major Northern family knowing about it is almost as asinine as the idea that the Vale’s forces would be camped at Moat Cailin during any of this. Because if the Knights of the Vale (and their combined armies) are that far North, it means that they had to cross the riverlands, which would not have escaped the Freys’ attention (even if they wouldn’t need the Twins’ bridge), in which case Walder Frey is siding with the Vale in unseating the Boltons from Winterfell, even though his daughter Walda Frey (as far as Walder knows) is the Lady Bolton of Winterfell. And we can suspect Ramsay is keeping it airtight quiet about how he killed his riverland ally’s daughter, because if Walder did find out, forget what he did to Robb Stark for breaking an oath; it would be scorched land in the North by the time Frey gets done with Ramsay, no Knights of the Vale need bother applying.
… Point is that this is the kind of glossy and thinly-explained plot development that George R.R. Martin would abhor, yet on Game of Thrones, it at least works with the smooth efficiency of Valyrian steel since it allowed Sansa to finally say what so many needed her to say: she never wants to see Littlefinger’s face again and that she will never forget what the Bastard of the Boltons did to her.
But while Turner dominated her big scene, Sansa appears at a glance to be following in the footsteps of a true Stark: she will do what is right by her family and the North—and she will easily be manipulated by a man she knows she cannot trust, like Ned and Catelyn before her when they took Baelish’s advice and lived (and died) to regret it.
With his parting words, Littlefinger suggested that she join the Tullys to her cause, which seemingly sows the seed of discord between the newly reunited Jon and Sansa. It is important to note that what Littlefinger stresses in this moment is that Jon Snow has a wildling army, and he is her half brother. The Tullys would be more loyal to Catelyn Stark’s daughter than they ever would be to the bastard of her deceased, philandering husband. And Sansa’s head does appear to turn, because when she suggests this exact strategy to Jon Snow later in the episode, she chooses to lie about its origin, suggesting that she heard the Tullys had retaken Riverrun while trapped inside Winterfell.
I dread that the show might be having Sansa go down her parents’ doomed road. Could this be the beginning of a new, subtle conflict between Jon and Sansa since she, as a full-blooded heir, could in theory try to supplant Jon the Bastard once Winterfell is theirs?
That certainly would appear to be a possible outcome, as well as what I clearly believe Littlefinger is scheming for. I do not believe Brienne is being sent on a wild goose chase. Rather, Littlefinger knows that technically speaking, Tommen and Cersei have declared him Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North because the Boltons betrayed them by “welcoming” Sansa Stark into their family (Cersei still believes Sansa aided in the assassination of Joffrey).
If Sansa and Jon end up vying for power in Winterfell, Littlefinger has provided himself with an opening to swoop in with a legal claim to Winterfell where he could theoretically side with Sansa against the bastard’s claim. This would definitely blow a hole in my endgame theory for Jon and Sansa. Yet, I do not believe that this bit of misdirection is how it will play out. Sansa did (stupidly) lie to Jon Snow, which Brienne rightfully brings up. The fact that the question is left literally hanging mid-scene before a cutaway is meant to create tension and audience unease. But it is also juxtaposed by the sincerely sweet brother-sister moment where Sansa makes Jon Snow a wolf blanket just like the kind papa Ned wore in the very first episode of Game of Thrones season 1.
For now, I think this is one wheel-within-a-wheel too many for Littlefinger, and that by suggesting this insidious Stark vs. Stark scenario, the writers have telegraphed why it won’t happen (otherwise, we wouldn’t be discussing it right now). Instead, I suspect that once Winterfell is in Stark hands again, Littlefinger will materialize to make his Faustian bargain with Sansa only to discover that the North indeed remembers. Hopefully, it’s a lesson that could very well be Baelish’s end.
Now, as an aside for my book readers, Brienne heading back into the riverlands could possibly indicate that her major omitted scenes from A Feast for Crows might still happen, just much later now that Jon Snow’s resurrection has occurred. However, I really do not wish for that coldhearted storyline to be picked up in the series. While it made for a great epilogue in A Storm of Swords, that character who will not be named should not be join the TV show at this point, lest it take away from the far more intriguing drama that Brienne has found herself in on the show as a woman literally caught in the great struggles in the North (whereas in the books, she continues to aimlessly wander around the Trident).
Anyway, getting back to Game of Thrones, another powerful scene was the one where we got a better gauge of what the state of the arts is in this world, and it’s clear the Westerosi version of Shakespeare is still a long, long ways off. In fact, everything about the play-within-a-teleplay that Arya visited made me wish she had a carton of tomatoes nearby. Still, the moment led to a surprisingly visceral pain.
Within this bit of pre-murder reconnaissance for Arya, we discovered what the “official history” is about the earlier seasons in Westeros. Apparently, most believe that instead of fighting to support Stannis’ claim, Lord Eddard Stark was a Northern hick and buffoon that attempted to claim the Iron Throne for himself. Even more ghastly for Arya, I suspect this is the first she has heard of Sansa being forced to marry Tyrion Lannister, who is depicted as the legendary demon monkey that raped Sansa on her wedding night.
Watching Arya witness the dissemination of lies about her father, as well as horrors and indignities suffered by her sister, was a moment just as great for Maisie Williams as any other performer tonight. And unlike others, Williams did not have a fiery monologue to deliver her revulsion and sorrow. Her sadness, instead, boiled only behind the corners of her eyes, and the fury in her jaw.
This scene is doubly important, and not at all for the reasons the immediate plot would indicate. On the first count, this is unequivocal proof that Arya is still Arya, and not fully the brainwashed Manson girl that the House of Black and White is trying to turn her into. This is the sliver of hope that I, and anyone else who counts Arya as their favorite character, has been looking for. It is almost certain that she will break away from the House of Black and White this season now, and the sooner that happens the better—this is also further indicated when Arya shows reluctance at the thought of killing a “good person” for money, which is what Jaqen commands.
But also, much more subtly, this sequence might have set up the death of Tyrion Lannister. Pay attention to Arya’s surprised and righteous anger at the perceived treatment of her older sister at the Imp’s hands. Granted, everything else about this play was grossly inaccurate, but to Arya this is the deformed brother of the woman who participated in Ned Stark’s execution, and whose own father masterminded the Red Wedding. Arya isn’t into nuance, and the moment she finds out that Tyrion is on the same continent as her… well, I’d be concerned that she is about to have a new name for the Many-Faced God.
Speaking of Tyrion, he and Varys had a nice little moment that felt as though Game of Thrones was speaking directly to President Obama: you have to take credit for your successes, lest your opponents use it against you. His stalling tactic with the Masters of Astapor and Yunaki seems to be a success (for now), so he has rounded up a red priestess from Volantis to spread the good word. Many of the red cult already worship Daenerys as Azor Ahai (their messiah) returned, so this should be a PR win-win.
On the surface, the scene mostly served as a nice moment for Conleth Hill, whose Varys got to reiterate his disdain for magic, magic practitioners, and even bunnies popping out of hats. But the long and short of it is that if he wants to support a woman who has dragons in her army, he better suck it up, because they’re in this together now.
More interesting, however, is what this might suggest about Daenerys’ own endgame. The red priestesses in Essos clearly believe Dany is their messiah and will feed that narrative all the way to the shores of Westeros, but Melisandre is depicted as adamant in her belief that Jon Snow is both Azor Ahai and the Prince who was Promised (different messiah, mostly the same results). Ever so quietly, this reveals Melisandre to be a loner and outsider even in her own kooky religion.
And more acutely, it sets Daenerys and Jon Snow on a more direct collision course. While Jon Snow is not likely to believe his own press about being the Second Coming of anything (meanwhile, Dany is just a brand name-claiming machine), they both cannot be the messiah. And it only takes one of them being crazy enough to believe it for it to mean bloodshed could follow when their armies meet—a likely outcome that I explored in this article about Daenerys’ endgame.
Meanwhile, Dany herself had a bittersweet farewell to Jorah Mormont, the thrice banished—though he is invited back for a potential fourth go-round. Daenerys confronts Jorah, making a show about how like any good Gyllenhaal, she wishes she could quit him, particularly since his romantic devotion is now explicit. Nevertheless, and at the end of the day, he is still her friend, still her wisest counselor, and still enjoys a much, much, much better actor playing him than the rather dull Daario. Alas, then that this pesky greyscale continues to afflict him thusly, keeping them apart once more. It is for that reason she must send him away with the impossible mission of finding a cure for greyscale. Once he completes that miracle, he will be welcome by her side as she roasts the Southron lords alive in Westeros.
Seeing Daenerys and Jorah part again is surprisingly still moving, and most of it is a testament to Iain Glen, who makes a potentially sad sack, and rather pathetic, character compelling. Jorah may very well be the last romantic knight, in the grandest of poetic senses, within this whole saga. More than ever, his relationship with Daenerys must remain unrequited, yet all parties have come to accept that is A-OK if he still serves her well. And Emilia Clarke also deserves kudos for playing this bitter sendoff so sweetly.
However, there was little sweetness to be found in the Iron Islands where the Kingsmoot was finally held, and we were again reminded why this seventh kingdom is most definitely last in every regard. A showcase about why these mouth breathers are the eternal black sheep of Westeros, we discovered that despite having rudimentary democratic proceedings with their gatherings, it amounts to little more than a mob mentality caucus while squabbling in the dirt. And if you get these knuckleheads to vote you king, your inauguration amounts to being drowned in saltwater before performing CPR on yourself. Um, yay?
The scene itself provides a terrific brother-sister trust building exercise since Theon stumped for Yara, forever ceding his claim to a throne he once coveted to apocalyptic results. I even half-expected the endorsement to work until someone mentioned that it’s apparently common knowledge that Theon lost his favorite toy. And like that, he lost a voice amongst his kinsman forevermore.
This is confirmed when Euron Greyjoy returns to deliver what is likely the final book spoiler on Game of Thrones. It must be since this was the very last storyline that Benioff and Weiss got to from the books (having skipped it last season), and tonight the shoe was lowered when Euron Greyjoy stole the salty crown right out from under Yara. For those who have never read a George R.R. Martin novel, Euron’s reemergence probably was promptly followed by a head-scratching, “Huh?”
Luckily, the show makes explicit what the book only implied: Euron is the young brother that murdered Balon Greyjoy on a windy bridge. He even confesses it… at the kingsmoot and in front of everybody!
And with that, it can now be safely confirmed that kinslaying is not a big deal on Game of Thrones like it is in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” In the books, murdering a blood relative is viewed as every bit as horrible as slaughtering your king. It is why Tyrion is so reviled after being publicly blamed for the murder of Joffrey, and then earns that infamy and scorn officially by murdering his father. Yet, we have now seen Jaime boast about murdering a cousin to indifference throughout the realm, including while in the presence of the High Septon; Ramsay murdered his father in front of a maester and Lord Karstark, the latter of whom reacted with all the outrage of the slogan, “Shit happens when you party drunk.” And now Euron Greyjoy admits to killing his brother and his king at the kingsmoot. And what do these blokes say? “Four more years!”
Still, I cannot entirely blame them. When Euron exclaims, “He was leading us nowhere, and we’d still be heading there if it weren’t for me,” I almost thought he was about to say “He led us into two seasons where no one watched or cared.” I’m still not sure any of us should though, especially since while Euron was getting Little Mermaid’d, Yara and Theon basically stole his scheme right out from under him by commandeering the Iron Fleet and heading to Essos (providing Dany with an easy route back to her homeland). The weakness with which Euron suggests that they’ll build a thousand ships and catch up with them is a beauty to behold. Oh sure, Euron, that will only give Yara a 50-day head start! And I thought Theon was supposed to be the ineffectual Greyjoy?
But if there was one storyline that really made the night’s episode rise from excellent to tremendous, it was the one that involved our ice cold friends, the White Walkers. And before we get to that stunner of an ending, let’s not skip over a startling revelation made this week: the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers, and they created them with blood magic involving Weirwood trees and a healthy dose of prejudice. As it turns out, this apocalypse isn’t about a primal force of nature, at least not entirely; the White Walkers were a weapon of mass destruction engineered by the Children of the Forest against the encroachments of the First Man, made of blood that mingles with their old gods in the white bark. In essence, the White Walkers have an almost identical origin to the “xenomorph” in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus since they’re bioengineered creatures made of alien (or magical) properties and our own blood. Our annihilation, made explicitly to destroy the World of Man, was born from our own flesh.
The show spends far too little time considering the major ramifications of this shock. It also might indicate the Night’s King is not the mythologized Stark who took a White Walker as his bride, but rather a guinea pig for the Children. One wonders if he might even be related to the Three-Eyed Raven? They certainly seemed to know each other well during that jaw-dropping stunner of a climax.
More than even Dany emerging from the flames for a second time, this was a high fantasy set-piece that really is a testament to how successful Game of Thrones has been at its realpolitik and emotional world-building. Unlike almost any other classical fantasy fiction on record, Thrones grounds its world in a startling verisimilitude through the influence of history, literature, and ancient religion…. And then it tosses in Ice Zombies, some Neverending Story-looking lizard babies, and mind-bending uses of time travel via uber-dramatic eye rolls. If this were any nerdier, Bran would have pulled out a 20-sided dice to defeat the Night’s King.
And yet, it worked to tragic effect. When the White Walkers were first glimpsed in merely a vision by Bran, it could be assumed this was yet another harbinger of doom with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse imagery used more effectively in one shot here than in the entirety of X-Men: Apocalypse; and their Wight Ice Zombies looking like the extras from The Walking Dead finally relieved to be on a good show.
Things quickly spin out of control, however, and the results are deadly. By sneaking a peak into the Three-Eyed Raven’s reconnaissance mission, Bran inadvertently got himself marked by the Night’s King’s touch, which apparently means the White Walkers will now know where Bran is at all times. If ever there has been a need for a really big Wall, with a great big beautiful door, this is it.
If only the Three-Eyed Raven had meant it when he said that Bran and company need to leave at once. Before even knowing it was due to great danger, Meera was already packed and jazzed to get going. Unfortunately, Bran just continued to dream about his dead father’s childhood, rather pointlessly for the time being, as the Army of the Dead approached.
That climax inside the tree is the stuff that nightmares are made of. We learned rather brutally that White Walkers can walk through flame unaffected, which is going to be quite problematic for Daenerys’ dragons. At least, the Wights are still terrified of fire and had to burrow into the top of the tree to get to our heroes. And at that point, the sequence further went down the xenomorph rabbit hole with a chase scene that felt right out of Aliens, complete with the main Child of the Forest going all Vasquez on us with her magic grenade in a moment of self-sacrifice for Bran.
But that is not wherein lies the rub. Magical creatures will always be a bit of a shrug for even the most dedicated fans, and like all ancient wizards imparting wisdom to boy sorcerers, the Three-Eyed Raven’s death was a foregone conclusion as soon as he was first gleaned. The only thing missing from his demise at the Night’s King’s hand was a chessboard between them and the words “checkmate” whispered to Max von Sydow.
Nay, the real tragedy first occurred when Bran’s direwolf Summer was cruelly, monstrously, and unnecessarily slaughtered by the Wights.
Seriously, Benioff, Weiss, and Martin: Stop. It. I’m not kidding either. Kill whoever else you want; feed the Starks to Dany’s dragons. Just no more dead direwolves!
The death that probably affected fans even more greatly was that Hodor in all likelihood died protecting Bran and Meera from the Army of the Dead by holding the backdoor while Bran and Meera escaped into the fog. Compounding the heartbreak, especially for Bran, is the revelation that he is responsible for Hodor being a one-word simpleton. Since Bran was forced to warg into present day Hodor’s brain while he was traveling back in time with the Three-Eyed Raven, it apparently crossed the streams for magic in this world, forcing adolescent Hodor to be mentally scarred by his future death.
Hodor dies repeating Meera’s command: hold the door. And it is so traumatic that this knowledge scrambles young Willas’ brain to the point where he can only say “Hodor,” a slur of “Hold the door.” Hence, Bran turned a young boy into “Hodor.”
This raises the question of whether Hodor knew he was always going to die holding that damned door. In which case, did he have a choice in the matter or was it preordained? And if he knew he would die holding a door north of the Wall, does that not make him the biggest damn hero in Game of Thrones history?
It is a stunner of a closer that leaves you exhilarated, incensed, and toying now with the idea of time travel. Apparently, you can change the past if you at least warg into someone in the present…. So theoretically, Bran Stark could X-Men: Days of Future Past the entire Game of Thrones saga if he’s ever in the same room with Cersei. Think about it: he could then travel to the day his family met Cersei and Joffrey in Winterfell, and warg into Cersei, forcing her to kill Joffrey. Cersei would be considered mad and probably executed, and Joffrey would be unable to at the very least execute Ned Stark if all other events transpired the same way (which they would not). Seven Hells, the whole Stark family could laugh on the strange day over drinks and mutton!
… But can the past ever be truly changed? Because “Hodor” has always been “Hodor,” it means this time paradox always happened in a loop, and that Bran must always go back in time to fry Willas’ brain, and thus he didn’t really change anything but rather participated in one lap of a never ending quantum loop through the fifth-dimension… meaning Bran shouldn’t feel guilty at all for Hodor’s condition since he was always “Hodor,” and that any future time travel is incidental because nothing can be changed if it’s already happened. Hence why we’re really in more of a Terminator analogy, as opposed to an X-Men one, right?
Honestly, right now I have no idea, but that was an episode so shockingly good that it made Bran Stark’s storyline compelling for the first time since season 2. It also capped off an hour where every scene moved the narrative in dramatic fashion, and kept the wheels turning as we drive toward the proverbial Wall (which is now in Dolorous Edd’s hands, so I’m not too worried).
In short, that was another five-star episode of Game of Thrones. This also keeps the bar raised in a big way for next week. Can they go three-for-three? Hint: a good place to start is by promising that Ghost will make it to the series’ final credits.
You can cheers to the memory of Summer and Hodor with me on Twitter @DCrowsNest.