This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish.
There have been moments in the life of Game Of Thrones where book readers have been “surprised.” Between small changes from the trajectory of the books—a slightly different character arc here, a premature character death there—and some key mythology reveals regarding the White Walkers, it would be wrong to say that those who have read the books have only seen the show through the lens of moments they remember from the books come to life.
However, because of having read the books (and because I was writing about the show), I never felt like I was experiencing these small moments like those who hadn’t read the books were experiencing the big moments, which have come to define the show. When the show delivered huge emotional, series-defining moments, I knew too much about the series they were defining to tap into the emotions in the same way. I was rendered more of an observer, not unlike Bran watching his father’s battle at the Tower Of Joy—I might be surprised by some small details, but I know how the fight ends, and it’s hard to not feel like you’re missing out on something.
The show catching up to the books has obviously created the conditions for this to change (beginning with Shireen’s death last season), and we saw this continue last week with the reunion of Jon and Sansa. However, satisfying as it was to finally see a proper Stark reunion for the first time since season one, and as much as it tapped into the emotions I felt reading the books for the first time as major events occurred, I’m greedy. Jon and Sansa meeting was a small moment, one that we knew was coming: It was only surprising insofar as the show allowed it to happen, given how often they’ve kept us from such moments in the past. Going into this season, I wanted to experience a shocking moment with tragic consequences in real time with the rest of the show’s viewers, something that made me feel the way they might have felt during “Baelor” or “The Rains Of Castamere,” the episode of The Red Wedding.
“The Door” delivers such a moment. The setup for the final sequence is not particularly elegant: Bran’s journeys into the past are moving too slowly for him, with the exposition—like the fact the Children Of The Forest were the ones who created the White Walkers—failing to be as revealing as he wants it to be, and so he breaks protocol and journeys solo instead. The reason he travels to the present and a gathering of wights is unclear, and the logic by which him being touched by the Night’s King and then allowing the White Walkers to find out his location is never really explained. But it gets the job done by creating an assault on the tree, resulting in a chaotic battle wherein the White Walkers murder the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children Of The Forest and Summer sacrifice themselves to allow Hodor, Meera, and Bran to escape, and then the indefatigability of the wights forces Bran and Meera to make a tragic decision to leave Hodor behind.
Given the show’s body count of late, the very fact of Hodor’s death is not itself remarkable. While it is more significant than Osha (offscreen for too long) and the direwolves (who the show was never able to afford to show enough to fully capture their relationship with their respective Starks), Hodor’s speech condition hindered his ability to become a narrative in his own right. The internet’s love of Hodor played a huge part in expanding the character’s profile beyond what I recalled from the books, but the fact is that Hodor’s death in and of itself represents an easy decision. Sacrifices will always need to be made, and Hodor dying holding the wights back so that Bran and Meera could escape is the type of tragiheroic ending you would expect from a character whose loyalty never wavered, even when his courage couldn’t live up to it.
However, in a timey-wimey twist worthy of Doctor Who or Lost (fitting in an episode directed by Jack Bender), “The Door” puts the emphasis on the tragic in Hodor’s tragiheroic final moments. The mechanics, as with other parts of the scene, remain opaque—all we know is what we see, as Bran is warging into Hodor while simultaneously observing Ned’s childhood journey to the Vale as witnessed by Wylis. And then it all starts happening: Wylis starts seizing in the past as Hodor is being controlled in the future, and then a portal between two times opens as Meera’s cries of “hold the door” are screamed by Wylis in abject terror, eventually morphing into “Hodor.” And as a book reader, it was that moment I’d been waiting for—the show finally claiming its own moment of carefully constructed, emotionally devastating poetry as “Hodor” is born and dies in the very same moment.
As is so often the case, we couldn’t initially say for certain if this is something that Martin plans to have play out in The Winds Of Winter, and so designating authorship takes time: the “inside the episode” feature has since confirmed this is straight from Martin himself. But even though this is something that Martin intended to explore in the books in the future, Hodor’s death plays out visually in a way that the books could never fully replicate—the simultaneity that the “flashback world” gives the show access to is what makes the scene so powerful, beyond the simple facts of Hodor’s death and its relationship to his condition could have offered if revealed in the books. While I know there are many who worry about what impact the show “spoiling” certain broad strokes of the books will have on their experience with the larger narrative, on the surface this feels like a moment that I’m glad played out on the show first. I have invested enough in this show that it feels right for them to bring this character’s arc to its end in the medium that best enables them to explore the tragedy in his last, life-saving moments.
With King’s Landing on the bench, “The Door” is primarily focused on the remaining Stark children, with only brief forays into Meereen (Tyrion reaches out to the Red Priests for public outreach on behalf of Daenerys), Vaes Dothrak (Jorah revealing his greyscale and Dany ordering him to find a cure), and Pyke (Euron wins the Salt Throne in the kingsmoot, leading Yara and Theon to run off with his best ships) as potential distractions. The centrality of the Stark children is not a mistake: they are where the show began, and the characters who have been most changed by the broader narrative strokes of the series. While Bran is literally journeying into his family’s past, Arya witnesses a farcical reconstruction of the events of the first three seasons in a Braavosi play, and Sansa reconnects with her stitching days by reconstructing Ned’s finery from memory for Jon (along with a new dress for herself). With each of the three Starks at turning points in their respective journeys, reconnecting with who they were tests the paths they’re about to embark on.
Bran didn’t really have a choice: Once the White Walkers had his location, it didn’t matter that the Three-Eyed Raven said he wasn’t ready—Bran is now the new Three-Eyed Raven, being dragged out into the snow by Meera. For Arya, meanwhile, the test is literal: after being distracted by her quest for revenge on Meryn Trant last season, Arya being asked to kill the woman playing Cersei in a play that features her father’s tragic death is no coincidence. Jaqen is testing whether or not she is capable of committing to the Faceless cause and serve the Many-Faced God instead of herself. He says “a servant does not ask questions,” but Arya has always seemed ill-suited to any type of service. The show has consistently placed her in servant roles—as Tywin’s cup boy at Harrenhal, as The Hound’s “squire,” and now as a servant of the House Of Black And White—but she has always failed because she was built to be her own boss. The Waif tells Arya that she should “go home before it’s too late,” and while it’s intended—and received—as a taunt about Arya’s inadequacy, it’s also how I feel about the character. It’s created a productively frustrating scenario where I want the character to achieve her goals, and yet the path I want the character to take—back to Westeros—would mean abandoning them. The play seems constructed in order to pull this scenario to the surface, so I’m curious how this target plays out in the weeks to come.
For Sansa, meanwhile, “The Door” is a crucial turning point in achieving a degree of independence from those who seek to use her. The confrontation with Littlefinger serves two functions. First and foremost, it represents welcome follow-through on Sansa’s treatment by Ramsay, allowing her to actively frame herself as a survivor of rape and abuse in ways that acknowledge its long-term impact. When the show initiated that storyline last season, I expressed my concern that the show’s breathless pacing might not leave room for this type of reflection, and so I am heartened that Benioff and Weiss took the time to let Sansa articulate the effect it had on her to the man who knowingly put her in that position to begin with. Sansa’s confidence in her Mole’s Town rendezvous with Littlefinger does a lot to make what happened to Sansa at Winterfell a meaningful and resonant engine for her present and future growth.
What it also does, however, is stress how much Sansa wants to dictate her life on her own terms. It’s not surprising that she would turn down Littlefinger’s offer of support from the knights of the Vale: In a time where she is trying to reclaim her identity as a Stark, why would she accept help from the man who stripped her of it in the Vale, and who knowingly used her for her name in his own quest for power? However, it’s more surprising that she chooses not to tell Jon and Davos about his offer, believing they might pressure her to do the pragmatic thing and give up her principles in the interest of securing forces in the coming war against Ramsay. Sansa may trust her brother, and to a lesser extent Davos and the wildlings, but she has learned from past experience that it is only too easy for her to be stripped of her agency in this and any other future situation.
I know there’s a vocal contingent of commenters who are convinced that TV reviewers discuss agency too often, but it’s only becoming more integral to Game Of Thrones as the series continues. Arya, Sansa, and Bran were all young when this show started, and they have for a variety of reasons been forced to rely on the help of others in order to move forward. But Arya and Bran have now reached the end of their training, and Sansa has pulled herself from under Littlefinger’s control in the interest of taking a more active role in her future. The Stark children are living up to the example set by their father, brother, and mother, which is both intensely satisfying and worrying given what happened when those three committed to their respective paths.
“The Door” also creates complex questions about Hodor’s agency in its final scene. What we see unfold is a heroic moment, but it’s one that is undoubtedly framed by tragedy, and complicated by the fact that Hodor didn’t actually want to participate in it at all. I believe that Hodor would have wanted to protect Bran, but I also know that he was a scared pacifist, who would never fight of his own volition. And I also know that—however exactly the time travel situation worked—he lived a life of ridicule because of this sacrifice, and because of a situation that Bran created when he brought the White Walkers to their doorstep. It’s messy, no doubt, but it reinforces that what’s unfolding at this moment is not going to be without consequences. Whatever these characters decide is going to ripple through the storytelling, and we are past the point where things could theoretically course correct down the line. The end is nigh, and Hodor’s tragic end is unlikely to be the last time the show surprises us in the weeks to come.
- Obviously, the reveal that the Children Of The Forest created the White Walkers in order to fight off men is significant, but also something that doesn’t really change the conflict in any meaningful way (especially since I don’t know if the show has really done much to establish who the Children Of The Forest are to non-readers, although maybe I’m wrong). It’s one of those reveals that’s more satisfying in the sense that it’s been said, versus actually offering dramatic significance.
- The Braavosi performance of the narrative so far was all sorts of fun—yes, it’s there mainly to watch Arya’s reactions change as Ned becomes involved (she’s loving it so much before that, but boy does she turn sour after), but the production design is lovely, and it’s a nice bit of levity.
- RIP Summer. While the show’s budget may have expanded, it was too late for the direwolves to be a significant presence early on, and so it’s only too easy for the writers to pick them off one-by-one as the show nears the end. However, let it be known that if they kill Nymeria I will not be so understanding.
- Lots of nice work from director Jack Bender, although his most memorable shot might end up being a cut to a close-up of a dude’s penis. The shot doesn’t serve any particular function outside of responding to ongoing commentary, but I like it: turnabout is fair play, and I take great comfort when showrunners actively troll segments of their viewership. It lets me know they’re human.
- Kingsmoot Korner: That went about how we expected, although Euron doesn’t have his fancy dragon horn. That said, though, Victarion’s absence makes it superfluous: Theon can’t marry Daenerys and give her heirs, and thus if the plan is to find and marry Dany, Euron is the best option regardless of whether or not he has a horn. (More on this below.)
- It doesn’t really make sense for Tormund to go with Brienne to Riverrun, but I’d bet on it given how much fun all are having with lovestruck Tormund and disgusted Brienne.
- We’ve talked about whether or not Littlefinger might be someone who could push “R+L=J,” but he pretty pointedly calls Jon Sansa’s half-brother here, and I didn’t read any weird undertones.
- Dolorous Edd’s first act as lord commander: forgetting he was lord commander. Bless you, Edd. I’m curious if and when we’ll return to Castle Black—he’s the only character left that we realistically care about, and even then he’s a minor one at best.
- I appreciate Kinvara’s sparring match with Varys—religion kind of ebbs and flows as a central thread in the show, but it’s always been more prominent than I found it to be in the books, and this scene with the Red Priestess reiterates that.
- “A bit brooding, perhaps. I suppose it’s understandable, considering”—we discussed this in the comments last week, but while I continue to contest that we deserved to see Sansa work through the insanity that Jon’s been through rather than just hearing and accepting it off-screen, this joke does absolutely confirm that they are all aware Jon died and was resurrected. Case closed.
The Night Is Dark And Full of “Spoilers” (Explicit Book Spoilers)
Lots of space for conversation this week, so let’s take them one by one.
- The return of the Blackfish and Riverrun confirms the show’s interest in returning to that story, although so far only Brienne is on her way there. I’m interested in the specific utility, and reading others’ speculation suggested that Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner might deserve to be reactivated. I am not yet willing to raise such hopes.
- I’m wondering if they might be giving Quentyn’s story to Euron—the show chose not to give Victarion’s story to Yara and Theon, making them fugitives instead, which for me makes it possible that Euron will just steamroll ahead and end up dragon food. But we’ll see.
- It makes sense for Brienne to head off on her own, given that we know characters where she’s going, and it’s likely that other characters will converge there. But Jorah’s solitary journey into the East to find the cure for greyscale seems more problematic—is there anything else he could find there? And what exactly does the show want to say about greyscale, and its relationship to the larger conflict? Whatever’s worth sending a character on a tangent has to be relevant in a bigger way. (I speculated last year that dragon fire could cure greyscale, but not sure that’s likely.)
- “Boy, how are Meera and Bran ever going to survive on their own when she can’t realistically pull that sled like Hodor could,” we asked. And a man with very cold hands answers?