Game of Thrones Recap: Learning the Beginnings of the End
Game of Thrones has always been a story about stories, and specifically about taking fantasy tales apart and putting them back together in cruel and fascinating ways. It’s interesting now, particularly in the political storylines, to see the characters themselves considering their own stories more carefully: the ones that other people tell about them, the ones they tell about themselves, and how they can change the former to the latter.
We finally get to hear several long-awaited origin stories in this episode, including Hodor, the Faceless Men, and the White Walkers, though their motivations end up seeming more opaque than ever. Partly, that’s because most of these tales more tragic than we anticipated. Crucially, neither Hodor nor the White Walkers became what they are by choice; instead, both were forcibly transformed by trauma— by people who assaulted either their bodies or minds.
In the case of the White Walkers, we learn that the deadliest threat facing the world isn’t simply a villainous, conquering race that suddenly “appeared” north of the Wall, but a living weapon engineered by the Children of the Forest thousands of years ago during their war with the First Men. If you’re wondering why the White Walkers are attacking Children of the Forest in this episode too: well, that’s what blowback looks like.
The dragons have always been the obvious analogue to nuclear weapons in Westeros, living armaments so great and terrible that the looming threat of deployment kept the Targaryens in power for almost 300 years. But now it seems the greater threat lies not in fire but in ice: the walking, talking biological agents unleashed by the armies of a very different war, the ones that are poised to sweep across a continent and claim every human body they touch.
It seems the Children of the Forest may have learned the same lesson as Cersei: Simply creating something dangerous doesn’t mean you can control it, any more than you can expect the fires you set not to burn you. (Unless you’re a Mother of Dragons, of course.) Cersei, after all, was the mother of a boy tyrant whose appetite for sadism almost turned on her at least once—and a queen who unwisely armed a religious zealot and almost immediately found herself in his crosshairs.
Although he prides himself on his intellectual superiority, her brother Tyrion seems poised to make the same mistake in Meereen that Cersei made in King’s Langing: assuming religious militants will serve interests that aren’t their own. He and Varys have been dialing in their political messaging: how to make the story of Daenerys more popular with the public than the xenophobic Sons of the Harpy.
In light of that, Tyrion’s decision to seek the endorsement of the High Red Priestess might sound like a good idea—why not harness a popular religious faith to shore up support at a politically precarious time? Look closer, though, and it doesn’t sound very different from Cersei’s ill-fated play with the High Sparrow. Here’s hoping things end better for Tyrion than it did for her.
We also see Sansa, after years of being a pawn in other people’s narratives, finally try to write her own story, rather than letting the men around her rewrite it for her. She wasn’t transformed by choice either; she’s been the puppet and plaything of sadistic jackasses for years on end now, and when she finally encounters the man who left her to the not-so-tender mercies of Ramsay Bolton, she demands that he not only acknowledge the abuse she suffered but narrate it himself.
“What do you think he did?” she asks Littlefinger. It’s not a rhetorical question: She leaves him twisting in the moment, forces him to name the traumas that still physically ache inside her, even holds the threat of Brienne’s sword to his throat.
One might recall a similar conversation between Littlefinger and Sansa’s mother, Catelyn, not long after Ned’s execution. Then, too, he claimed ignorance and innocence; then, too, Catelyn did not quite believe him. Last time, he tried to smooth over the betrayal by bringing Catelyn the thing she wanted most: Ned’s bones, so that she could put him to rest. This time Baelish brings Sansa something even more valuable: the knights of the Vale, ready to raise their banners for her cause. She refuses him anyway, and never even tells Jon about the offer. It’s a bold, self-affirming move, but one that puts their incredibly crucial campaign against the Boltons in jeopardy when they need support the most.
Although Arya still remains devoted to her daily ass-kickings at the House of Black and White—and the party line about being no one—regaining her sight hasn’t meant automatic acceptance by the assassins’ order. “You’ll never be once of us, Lady Stark,” says the woman who so often enjoys hitting her with sticks. Jaqen then gives a brief origin story of the Faceless Men, who were slaves in Volantis until they founded not just the House of Black and White but the city of Braavos itself.
Later, when told to assassinate a local actress—aka Miss Phryne Fisher—Arya balks and asks several questions. Jaqen simply asks whether or not she has decided to serve the Many-Faced God and when she says yes, he raises an eyebrow. “A servant does not ask questions.”
He’s right: deference is a basic tenet of their faith, and something that only the high-born would need to be reminded about. Much as when she was a cupbearer to Lord Bolton (remember that?), the confidence and entitlement of Arya’s childhood shines through. This time, though, it isn’t bringing her her opportunities; it’s blocking her path.
Arya gets her own lesson in the malleability of stories when she goes to see her quarry’s play, a retelling of the death of Robert Baratheon’s death and Ned Stark’s execution. Rather than the consummately honorable hero we know and love, Ned is portrayed as a bumbling and power-hungry usurper; the Lannister propaganda about Ned hasn’t only succeeded, it’s passed into common lore. There’s something of both class warfare and celebrity culture here in the joy his death gives the crowds: the thrill of coming close enough to grasp the hem of a famous person’s robe, and the perverse satisfaction of pulling them off their pedestal. Either way, it breaks Arya’s heart a little. Would it still break if she were no one?
Back in the Iron Islands, the kingsmoot to pick the new leader for the Salt Throne finally gets underway. It seems like Yara has the win locked down (with Theon’s endorsement) until Euron rolls in, admits he killed the king, and manages to take home the victory anyway. How? With a promise to make the Iron Islands great again—by heading east and marrying Daenerys Targayren, in exchange for carrying her armies back to Westeros.
It’s a good story—if somewhat unlikely, given how Daenerys spent a lot of the last episode literally burning mediocre men alive—but as Tyrion and Varys (and countless elections) have proved, a good story is often all you need.
And finally, there’s Bran who—like Arya—can’t seem to find the patience or deference required of his apprenticeship, and ends up venturing into flashback world alone because he thinks his mentor is simply going too slow. (A veiled dig at readers who constantly complain about George R. R. Martin’s glacial writing pace? Possibly.) He ends up facing a very contemporary zombie army and getting branded through the dream by the Night’s King, who promptly marches to the cave with his zombies and decides to kill them all. The siege kills the Three-Eyed Raven, Summer—who is unceremoniously fed to a meat grinder of zombies—and most tragic of all, poor, poor Hodor.
Not only do zombies end up tearing him limb from limb, but in the process we learn what transformed him from a relatively normal young man to a profoundly impaired one. Sadly, the answer does not involve Hodor secretly being a horse, but rather Bran reaching into the past and screwing up Hodor’s brain. His existence narrows to a single suicidal command that Bran desperately burns into his mind—to “hold the door” against the flood of zombies—a thought that crowds out every other word, every other opportunity, even his own name. His entire life becomes a slow-motion sacrifice, and not one of his choosing.
Despite how much we learn about Hodor and the White Walkers, it seems we’re still left with more questions than answers by the end, and the most interesting one suggests that our iciest villains may be less one-dimensional than they seem. After all, if so many of the characters we sympathize with have been victims of horrors inflicted upon them against their will, how should we feel about the White Walkers, who were apparently run through with large pointy stones until they turned into the thin white dukes of Westeros? Are they less deserving of empathy—or, even, of vengeance?