We learned no less a secret than the origin of the White Walkers, but tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones had an even more gut-wrenching revelation in store. When Bran Stark discovers that the benevolent Children of the Forest created the army of ice demons as a doomsday weapon against the human beings who were slaughtering them in turn, it’s a first-hand lesson in blowback. Little does he know he’s capable of a similar moral blood-sacrifice: It’s his own psychic abilities that turned a towering teenager called Willas into the mentally disabled man he knows as Hodor. Mentally time-traveling to the past even as he and his companions flee the Night King and his undead army in the present, the boy burns the defensive command “Hold the door” so deep into his companion’s brain that a truncated version of the phrase becomes all he can say.
The message of tonight’s instalment (“The Door”) is that this is the cost of war, even if it’s a battle against pure evil. Half a world away, Daenerys prepares to ride;Tyrion makes alliances with the Lord of Light’s High Priestess; and Euron Greyjoy preps the Ironborn to conquer the world by the Dragon Queen’s side. But even supernatural saviors leave broken bodies in their wake. Hodor’s crippling — along with the loss of the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children, and Hodor himself — shows that the ends may justify the means, but the means are all but unbearable.
Behind the camera, the episode marked the Game of Thrones debut of Jack Bender, who as lead director on Lost gave TV’s previous zeitgeist-capturing fantasy its visual signature. His ability to convey the sweep and grandeur of that show’s tropical landscape bore fruit here as well, as his camera captured the natural splendour of the Northern highlands, the icy wastes beyond the Wall, and the cliffs above Vaes Dothrak alike. Bender once again balances action sequences and intimate character moments with aplomb; here, he cross-cuts between the wall-crawling zombies and the fleeing humans like the second coming of James Cameron onAliens.
Indeed, for all the supernatural spectacle on display tonight, the human moments are what linger in the mind. They weren’t all morbid, for that matter: Tormund Giantsbane‘s giant-sized crush on Brienne of Tarth pays comedic dividends every time he lays eyes on her, while the close-up on the scrotum of a Braavosi actor with an STD was the show at its bawdy best. It also went a long way to offsetting the bare breasts on display in that same sequence. You want equal opportunity nudity, folks? You got it.
But the sad moments carried the real weight, and seared this episode into the pantheon of the series’ best. For example, Arya laughs it up at the raunchy reenactment of King Robert’s death she witnesses at an outdoor theater in Braavos while preparing for her next assignment. She then grows horrified, however, as her father Ned is made out to be a moronic bumpkin who loses his head while her sister Sansa is stripped and groped by a randy faux-Tyrion. This echoes her elder sister’s experience at Joffrey’s wedding, when the cruel young king had a troupe of dwarves play-act the War of the Five Kings, complete with their brother Robb’s Red Wedding murder; in both cases, there’s a palatable version of events for public consumption, belied by the horrors lived by those who actually experienced it. See also Bran’s vision of how his father Eddard backstabbed his way to victory over Ser Arthur Dayne a couple episodes back — an ugly bit of business that could have earned him the infamy of Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister’s similar killing of the Mad King had it ever gotten out.
The Game, after all, has a tendency to repeatedly make the same plays. Consider the very similar scenes between Sansa and Littlefinger and, later on, between Daenerys and Jorah. Both involve young women who find themselves finally able to pour their hearts out to the older men who’ve positioned themselves as their protectors, to decidedly mixed results. Dany can tell her oldest companion how much his loyal service means to her, despite the betrayals and banishments that came along the way, while in turn he can confess his feelings for her while finally letting go of the idea that they will ever be returned. When he reveals his greyscale infection and sets off to die, the Khaleesi instead orders him to find a cure and return to her. Neither of them, it’s safe to assume, have much hope of this happening, but it’s a way for them to cement their mutual love and loyalty in the face of impossible odds. A beautiful, bittersweet scene, it’s Emilia Clarke’s most moving work on the show since her second-season vision of her late husband Khal Drogo and the child they never had.
For her part, Sansa bears no such affection for the man who “freed me from the monsters who murdered my family, and … gave me to other monsters who murdered my family.” She uses her unexpected reunion with Petyr Baelish to force him — repeatedly, and with the implicit threat of Brienne’s sword — to confront what was done to her by Ramsay, the maniac he married her to. “I can still feel it,” she says of the sexual assault to which she was subjected. “I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart it still pains me so,'” she continues, mocking the infantilizing ideas of femininity that have been used to keep her prisoner at least as much as violence itself. “I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now.” Littlefinger may be a power-hungry sociopath, but this woman pulls off a rare feat: By making him face the reality of rape in the life of someone he’s close to truly caring about, she momentarily leaves him at a loss for words.
Previously: Feel the Burn