Hello hello once again friends, and welcome to this installment of the Chris and Nikki co-blog of Game of Thrones. This week, believe it or not, brings us to the mid-point of this season. Halfway! And episode five is easily on the best so far–though as we all know, Game of Thrones is a fickle mistress, and is not about to deliver an excellent episode without also ripping us apart inside.
Hold the door. That’s all I have to say. Nikki?
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.
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).
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:
- 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.
- Bran hears her voice in this midst of his vision of Winterfell, and the Three-Eyed Raven says “Listen to your friend.”
- Bran looks over at young Hodor; in the cave, present-day Hodor’s eyes go briefly milky.
- Hodor stands and grabs Bran’s sledge, and they start to make their escape.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!”
- 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.