When I first watched season 3, I was absolutely impressed by how the writers were able to salvage some of the stuff that went wrong in season 2 (like Jon’s storyline) and put it into a coherent new storyline (Jon’s changed reasoning for joining Mance). It seems like season 6 is aspiring to so something similar. At least this episode could be titled “A Game of Payoffs”, because there are a lot of them. It is very concise, concentrated and thematically coherent, provides emotional high-points and incredible tension while also providing some character development, world-building and logically sound time-travel. What’s not to like?
Said time-travelling business takes place in the Two-Eyed Raven’s cave, as per usual. Bran is led to a giant and menacing heart tree that gets one of the most beautiful top-down shots I have ever seen, its red leaves like a shining beacon in the mellow northern summer. Of course, the beauty of the moment is deceptive, as the ageless Children of the Forest turn a captive First Man into the Night’s King, thereby showing that it was them who created the scourge. This is a classical trope, of course, deployed to great effect: the spirits which I called, I cannot undo them. Like Goethe’s wizard apprentice, the Children find that the weapon they created took on a life (or un-life) of its own and comes after its former masters.
But this reveal is only the first of a series of hammer blows, as Bran betrays his un-readiness for the task that he is being prepared for by connecting to weirwood.net (Weirnet? Interwood?) on his own, trying to find out more of that sweet, sweet knowledge that man strives for. As is to expected, this quest for magical knowledge backfires brutally. After traversing the site of the weirwood again, but this time in the Long Night, where ice has destroyed it and an army of zombies is standing there in eerie silence, Bran is getting a bit too close to the Night’s King and learns that he also has an account on weirwood.net the hard way. Again, there’s incredible filmography at work. The zombies all standing there are looking eerily marvelous, and when the Night’s King grabs him by the arm and all the zombies face him at the same time…oh boy, that was just perfect. It also shows that the White Walkers are also ageless, just like the Children, and have been around since then, nursing old grudges. And yes, that’s different from the books but who cares, it’s executed extremely well and provides a coherent narrative background here.
Following this, Bran is told that he needs to leave asap, but for reasons of narrative convenience, he’s taken for a last walk into Winterfell, watching young Ned sent off to the Vale for fostering, being told that he should never strike first but if he has to strike, win. That’s a nice callback to the pilot, when Eddard told Jaime that he never fights in tourneys because he doesn’t want the adversary to know what he can do. Rounds a character who’s been dead for five seasons. No bad work there, Game of Thrones!
But of course, you can’t have nice things. The Others are arriving, attacking the cave in force. The Children try to defend it with their custom made explosive balls, but the Night’s King and his cronies ignore the fiery obstacle put in their path and march straight into the cave, where a desperate last stand takes place and Meera is once again unable to wake Bran up, but at least she breaks through so he can take control of Hodor. And, obviously there’s no way of knowing whether or not that will become book canon as well, but this scene is incredibly strong and for me, it is easily up there with the Red Wedding in terms of emotional impact, so indulge me while I’m staying with it a bit before mourning the demise of Summer.
The feedback loop with Hodor is great for several reasons. One, it provides us with context for Hodor himself, providing rapid character development in only the two episodes we saw his younger self. When people die, you should care for them. The death of Brynden von Bloodraven didn’t provide much in terms of emotional impact; it was only logical. But Hodor’s “Hold the door!”-moment carried a real emotional punch because of the stakes that became clear immediately in that scene. This is one of the major themes of both book and show: magic comes at a cost. It is important, especially back-to-back with Dany’s ascension last episode, to reinforce that. The colleagues over at Filmschool Rejects (https://filmschoolrejects.com/game-of-thrones-explained-hold-the-door-answers-are-trying-to-break-through-417175040410#.qlgxinc3k) argue that this is a nice thing, showing that it was always Hodor’s destiny to “hold Bran’s door” and protect him, but for me, this reads differently. Bran’s magic here, his time-travelling and possession of Hodor come at a terrible price. Bran destroyed Hodor’s life, he transformed him into the gentle and mindless giant that he was. This isn’t a question of destiny; this destiny was forced onto Hodor by Bran. He paid the terrible price of Bran’s curiosity in all things magic. No safe hilt to grasp that sword, indeed.
The flight also has other great pieces. The fight in the confined space of the cave is frentic and very well paced, and Summer’s death felt like a real and worthy sacrifice by the wolf and not just trying to get him out of the picture. The Child of the Forest sacrificing herself with her grenade – a classical trope, the only thing missing was her hand releasing the safety ring in death – provided yet another of those hits of stacked sacrifices so Bran, now the last hope of all that lives, could escape. And above all that hovers the revelation that Bran is not ready. These are some quite dramatic stakes indeed.
With that, we’re at Castle Black, where Littlefinger shows in Mole’s Town. This is what I was talking about earlier; salvaging the stuff from earlier seasons and using it in coherent ways. Sansa confronting him about this stupid-ass plan to marry her to Ramsay, about the cost it inflicted upon her personally, was incredibly well done, and Littlefinger opted for the “sorry, I fucked up”-approach, which of course didn’t work. So far, so good.
Less good is the contrivance of Sansa rejecting the help of the knights of the Vale that are ostensibly knocking on the gates of Moat Cailin, instead opting to seek out Brynden. Ehm….ok? I hope that this won’t be the end of it, because the knights of the Vale don’t really deserve this. Perhaps it’s Sansa emotionally manipulating Littlefinger into coming to her rescue later, but why, when she can have it now? Perhaps this will make more sense in the episodes to come, I’ll reserve judgement until then. For now, Brienne is on a quest to the Riverlands, so que Sandor and Septon Meribald! Can’t wait for that.
Meanwhile, Jon, Davos and Sansa are making war plans. They dismiss the Umbers out of hand as Bolton cronies who gave them Rickon, so I guess I was right in that department. There is some weird stuff about the Karstark loyalties where I feel Davos is making much more sense than Arya, and they talk about quite another few houses, so for now it seems like Jon and Sansa will tour the west to get the smaller houses and Davos needs to seek out White Harbor. However, three episodes isn’t that much time to achieve this – although it’s possible, of course – so I’m not quite sure how this will end, especially given the idea of the Blackfish having retaken Riverrun for some reason and possessing an army. The more you think about the logistics, the more likely it seems that Littlefinger just pulled another weird stunt. We’ll see, I guess.
On the Iron Islands, the Kingsmoot is taking place. By “kingsmoot” I mean some beary guys standing around in a circle, but you can’t have everything, I suppose. The dialogue is pretty good as Yara’s victory speech is cut short by the guys from the audience with the killer argument that she’s a woman, which is of course Theon’s big moment. It’s really played as that big temptation, and there is a suspense in the air that really killed me while watching, until Theon declared for Yara, and it was all fistpumping. I’m sad that we don’t get to see the differing ideologies – Asha’s reformist ideas from the book!kingsmoot versus the Old Way versus Euron’s Make The Iron Islands Great Again – as the show chooses to boil it down to the personal level, but it works well enough, so that’s allright. I’m not so much sold on his plan to marry Dany, because his main argument why this would work is that he has a cock, but for this audience, it suffices, as it seems.
Euron shows up – again, a poor man’s version here, but budget constraints reign supreme, I guess – attacking the two of them right where the Ironborn culture is most vulnerable – by appealing to their effeminacy. Because, Yara is a woman and Theon has no penis, you see, and that self-evidently makes them bad rulers. Euron sweeps the Kingsmoot by appealing to the baser instincts of his audience, their long-held, stupid misogyny, their biases and boneheadedness, and he carries the day. I loved his smile after the drowning: “Where are my niece and nephew? I want to murder them.” Euron Greyjoy, people. Luckily, they already fled.
With that, we’re leaving Westeros already and jump over to Braavos. “Please, give us more scenes of Arya training with a stick and getting whacked”, said no one ever, but here you are, being obliged. The scene serves as important buildup, though – the waif’s rather random accusation that she “is still Lady Stark” provides the needed preparation for the play later, and Jaqen telling her the story of the Faceless Men and threatening her with death is she fucks up her next assignment is raising the stakes to the appropriate level. I’d say Arya will bolt the Faceless Men before long.
The play itself, a slightly changed version of the “Mercy”-chapter that was released by Martin last season, is really well done as well. In the beginning, it’s fun for Arya, as it pokes fun at Robert being killed by the boar, Joffrey being slapped by Tyrion, all the good stuff. But when the play’s version of Ned stumbles upon the stage, behaving like a total idiot, the show is really going to the meta-level a bit. This is of course nothing like Eddard and distorts the facts beyond recognition, but it’s a criticism often brought up against him, and when the whole thing ends in a pointless scene in which Tyrion strips Sansa so everyone can see her breasts, it’s almost commenting on itself. I see what you’ve done there, “Game of Thrones”. All the while showing us tits. Ah, commentary inside commentary. Anyway, we get a good look at some syphilis infected penis (who didn’t want to?) and a look in the actor microcosm, and Aryas gets her first healthy doubts about the Faceless Men’s mission, doubts that Jaqen cannot really dispel.
In Meereen, meanwhile, Tyrion is still trying to sell his new peace which has ended the killings – for now. Aware of the fact that it’s problematic if he and Varys are the poster boys of the new regime, he tries to prop up the absentee queen. His solution is not half bad, trying to recruit the R’hollorian faith. I’m a bit at a loss about the actress, though. Last season, she was Asian, and she was the one spotting Tyrion. Is it the same woman? Is it a different one? It’s all a bit weird. However, the cost of magic becomes clear once again, as the priestess knows some stuff she really shouldn’t, shutting up Varys and really unsettling him. That’s a first, and it worked pretty well. I’m wondering what will come out of it. For now, Tyrion’s main method of operation seems to be to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.
We end in Vaes Dothrak, where Dany has a heartfelt goodbye with Jorah. It starts off as a generic rehash of the “what do to with you”-routine, but Jorah cuts it short by revealing his love and his greyscale, riding off in the sunset. Dany orders him to find a cure and return to her side, which is a really heartwarming and tragic moment as they both know this will never happen. Farewell, Jorah.