Game of Thrones: All Men Must Serve

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Door,” the fifth episode of the sixth season.


Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Spencer Kornhaber: “Hold the door” are the words that will render this one of the most memorable episodes in Thrones history. But a more telling phrase might be, “A servant does not ask questions,” Jaqen H’ghar’s dictum to Arya.

Hodor, the ultimate servant, was denied a lot more than the ability to ask questions. Pressed into decades of thralldom thanks to the psychic wanderings of a boy he knew back in Winterfell, the stablehand Wylis now ranks as one of the most poignant characters in Thrones history. It’s tempting to say his sacrifice at the intensely dramatic end of this episode was a noble one. But for that to be true, wouldn’t he have had to have some choice in the matter? While the realm has people who want to serve—the Briennes and Jorahs, the Crows and the Maesters—it’s also full of people denied self-determination because of larger forces.

Those forces, whether magical or manmade, can have consequences that ripple across time. The revelation that “Hodor” is really “Hold-the-door” was the last of the episode’s many examples of how the past can boomerang into the present. Some of these examples were small: Sansa confronting Littlefinger for his recklessness as yenta; Tyrion summoning a sorceress based on what he saw in Volantis; Arya watching a warped version of her family tragedy on a stage.

But there were also glimpses of much larger and more overdue reckonings. Long-festering resentments against the rest of Westeros may steer the Ironborn toward Essos. The history of the North may determine the loyalties in the coming war between Starks and Boltons. And mankind’s ancient aggressions, it turns out, caused the invention of the superweapon that is the White Walkers—a neat allegory for any number of potentially apocalyptic problems facing the real world today.

All this stitching together of past and present resulted in an unusually satisfying episode, one that offered crucial context and invited viewers to game out the story’s future. The siblings Greyjoy are on the lam while the rest of the Iron Islanders work toward becoming one of the pinchers that may eventually clamp down on King’s Landing. Brienne was sent to do what she does best—move across the map—so as to bring the Tullys back into the mix. And while the outcome of Arya’s assassination homework is unknown, watching her get smacked up by her young Faceless rival was weirdly heartening because it hinted that she, too, will be soon be more than proficient in the exquisite art of karate.

Also heartening: Dany, when bidding farewell to her scaly Ser Jorah, reaffirmed her intention to pursue the Iron Throne. But how long is it going to take for her to get there? On one level, it’s fun to see the Lord of Light’s minion show up in Meereen because it makes for another intersection of far-flung storylines. But everything else about this new Red Lady screams plot drag. Why exactly does Tyrion need sorceresses for a propaganda campaign? We’ve seen the dangers of trying to harness religion for political means, both with Stannis’s disastrous campaign and with Cersei’s. This time, Varys’s distaste for magic may be the crucial power check needed, but then again, the priestess seemed to enchant him pretty easily with details of his childhood trauma.

The most tantalizing plotline is Sansa and Jon’s efforts to unite the North to take Winterfell, which promises the kind of politicking the show excels at and the good ole’ good-vs.-evil conflict it rarely offers. In other words ... be very, very worried. The last storyline like this was Robb marching against the Lannisters. The North and everyone else remembers what happened next.

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that the battle at the great tree felled a number of strong and frequently silent servants in addition to Hodor: Summer the Direwolf, Leaf the Child, and Max von Sydow’s unnamed character, who was dispatched in much the same slashing motion as his unnamed character in The Force Awakens was. Lenika, Chris, let me know whether you thought these characters got proper sendoffs—and whether you felt sparks from this bona fide ice-and-fire event.

Lenika Cruz: These aren’t tears—all this wetness around my eyes is from my recent Iron Islands baptism! “What is dead may never die!” Except, as you point out, Spencer, there was quite a lot of no-backsies dying at the very end of “The Door,” one of the show’s more beautifully directed episodes. The silent cut-to-black, used to punctuate harrowing final moments of the Red Wedding and the Hardhome battle, imparted proper solemnity to Hodor’s death, and to those of the Raven, Leaf, and Summer. These losses may have been inevitable in some sense, but they were accelerated by Bran’s unwillingness to follow very clear instructions. (Isn’t that how he ended up paralyzed in the first place? Because he didn’t listen to his mother’s instructions, “No climbing!”)

Spencer, I love that you brought up the themes of the past catching up to the present and of servitude. (Valar dohaeris, after all.) On the first note: I gasped during the opening scene, which showed Sansa at work with her sewing needle. It was a sweet throwback to when we met her in the pilot—smiling as Old Nan praised her stitching, while Arya fidgeted nearby, distracted by the sounds of arrow-shooting outside. For the first time since leaving Winterfell as a girl, Sansa’s enjoying something akin to freedom. (Her long-overdue, brutally candid confrontation with Littlefinger was one of Sophie Turner’s best performances. Never before had he seemed so, well, little.)

The episode ended with Sansa riding off with Jon to raise the support of the smaller houses—a move that immediately conjured images of the pair doing door-to-door canvassing. (“Good morning, do you have a minute to talk about our ‘North Remembers’ campaign?” “Hi there, do you support a ban on flaying?”) I love it whenever the show shifts its attention from the usual, highly concentrated loci of power to the “regular folks” that populate the edges of Game of Thrones’s world. Your point about servants on the show, Spencer, brings me back to this idea of the gulf between the rulers and the ruled and how disastrous it can be to miscalculate that divide. After years with the Starks out of the game, how eager will bannermen like the Cerwyns and Mormonts be to pledge their support to a bastard and a runaway bride? I, for one, am glad Jon and Sansa are willing to find out in person rather than relying on ravens.

Speaking of the Mormonts—one member of that house is again wandering Essos for his queen. “I can’t take you back, and I can’t send you away,” Dany told Jorah. Then she smashed her own catch-22 and did both, sending him away so he could eventually return to her. Which Jorah, Dany’s human boomerang, will almost certainly do should he find a cure. His is that purest, most doomed kind of loyalty, as he proved when he finally confessed his love for Daenerys in a voice so sad not even Daario had the heart to smirk. While I enjoyed this tender scene, I was also surprised the episode offered no read on the mood of the Dothraki. Dany just metaphorically cut off the collective braid of their khals—a respected move—but I was mildly disappointed that the show seems to be turning the Dothraki into yet another faceless force that’s acquiesced to Dany’s increasingly dramatic displays of power. She may be a benevolent ruler, but as one of the Slaver’s Bay leaders said to Tyrion last week, she’s still a master.

In Meereen, Tyrion’s attempts to tap into the power of the masses revealed the limits of his quasi-theoretical brand of pragmatism. Amid a “fragile peace,” Tyrion made a curious gambit to cement the successes of his recent deal with the masters. (I wouldn’t mind if “Who said anything about ‘him’?” became a recurring line on this show.) But Tyrion’s alliance with Kinvara, the Volantene red priestess, began splitting at the seams before he’d even fully stitched it together. He balked when Kinvara referred to how Dany’s dragons will “purify the nonbelievers by the thousands.” When she proposed that her plan will make the people “worship and obey” him, he said sheepishly that he’d settle for “obey.” In believing he could use Kinvara to deliver some kind all-purpose “support” for the queen, Tyrion made an uncharacteristically foolish mistake—he forgot how highly specific “self-interest” is as a concept. In asking Kinvara to help sell the story of Daenerys as the Lord of Light’s Chosen One, Tyrion gave her permission to help in her own way—and may have inadvertently fanned new flames while attempting to put others out. Again, it doesn’t help that he’s so removed, geographically, culturally, and experientially, from the people he’s trying to govern.

This issue also played out notably in Pyke, where both Euron and Theon saw challenges to their relevance because of their perceived distance from the concerns of the people. But nowhere did this unfold more tragically than in the Bran storyline, where the Stark’s closeness with the Raven, Leaf, Hodor, and Summer wasn’t enough to save them. Meera Reed saved Bran, just as her father had saved Ned all those years ago, but the four sacrifices that allowed them to get away revealed how the cruelty of hierarchies endures even thousands of miles from King’s Landing. How is it that a powerful and gentle giant, an ancient prophet, a mystical beast, and a magical sprite could all die within minutes of one another, all to serve a boy who’s not even ready for the tasks that lie ahead? Simply, their lives were less valuable.

Chris, what did you make of the “time-travel” mechanics of Bran’s visions with Hodor and the White Walkers? And did you feel that the latest direwolf death was a symbolic way for the show to declare that Winter has finally arrived?

Christopher Orr: I definitely hope we get at least a bit more explanation of the mechanics that led to tonight’s fascinating temporal Mobius strip: Bran peering back into the past, sees Wylis traumatically succumbing to his own Hodor future...

But whether or not that particular tragedy is ever further unpacked, this was an episode that offered a lot of long-awaited backstory, especially the Frankensteinian revelation that the White Walkers are a Children of the Forest defense system gone badly awry. (Consider them a medieval Skynet.)

Like last week, I felt this was another that pushed the plot forward in satisfying ways. Plans for a multi-front assault on Ramsay continue to evolve: In addition to wildlings from the North and knights of the Vale from the South, we now have the potential addition of Northern families still (hopefully) loyal to the Starks (the Manderlys, some lesser houses) and the Tully army reassembled by the Blackfish at Riverrun. I love me some Blackfish—again, for those who may have forgotten, the sole survivor of the Red Wedding, thanks to history’s most well-timed potty break.

Last roundtable, I mentioned that the show seems to be trying to tie up some badly frayed narrative threads, and that continued tonight. Perhaps the most dubious plot twist of last season was Littlefinger’s decision to engage Sansa to world-famous sociopath Ramsay Bolton—and the master plotter’s apparent, supremely un-Littlefinger-like, lack of awareness of said sociopathy. Tonight Sansa asked him directly: “Did you know about Ramsay? If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot. If you did know, you’re my enemy.” Littlefinger pleads the “idiot” case—but then, he’d have to say that either way, wouldn’t he?

I’m hoping that it is rather the “enemy” explanation—Littlefinger being so ill-informed about Ramsay would basically suggest that showrunners Benioff and Weiss have no idea what they’re doing with the character—but it’s still awfully hard to envision why he would have knowingly engaged Sansa to a sadistic lunatic. (In the books, he involves her in a different plot altogether.) In any case, here’s hoping he has an unexpected card up his sleeve.

Regardless, the scene between Sansa and Littlefinger in Moletown was a powerful one—perhaps as you note, Lenika, Sophie Turner’s best on the show to date. After an eternity of watching Sansa be a hapless victim, it’s nice to see her all grown up and seeking retribution. Remember, this is the daft fool who not that long ago (in the show’s timetable) got her father, Ned, killed by blabbing to Cersei because she was afraid he was going to take her back to Winterfell and away from her dream wedding with (presumed) boy-hunk Joffrey. Oops.

When it comes to unanswered questions, however, nothing quite compares to the fact that Ser Davos still hasn’t asked Melisandre exactly what happened to Princess Shireen. If memory serves, the trailer for the season showed Davos standing by the spot where Shireen was burned. But here we are halfway through the season, and the question still hasn’t been raised. C’mon, guys. Enquiring minds want to know.

I confess I found the Kingsmoot scene on the Iron Islands to be a disappointing mess. This was a big plotline in the books much earlier on, and I—like many readers I suspect—didn’t miss it at all. Benioff and Weiss have brought it in not only late, but halfheartedly. Yara makes her case to be queen, supported by Theon, and everyone assembled seems almost instantly supportive of the (previously unimagined) idea. Then her uncle Euron stakes his claim, confesses to killing his brother the king (!), and everyone immediately switches to his side because he promises—based on no evidence of any kind—that he’ll be able to win over Daenerys and her dragons. He’s like the Donald Trump of Westeros. Next thing you know, he’ll be pledging to build a new Wall, 10 feet taller, and make the White Walkers pay for it.

And then, while Euron is getting his waterboarding/coronation, Yara and Theon steal the entire Ironborn fleet and no one notices? There’s so much wrong with this, it’s hard to catalog. If Yara had enough supporters to steal the whole fleet, she would’ve presumably won the Kingsmoot. And given that Euron’s explicit argument was that he would seduce Daenerys with the (now-stolen) fleet, on what possible grounds does his claim now make sense? Plus, while I don’t know—and can’t immediately find—an estimate for the population of the Iron Islands, they’re known to be small, sparsely populated, and highly infertile (i.e., not a lot of trees). The idea that Euron can just summon up 1,000 (!) new ships seems more than a tad ridiculous—especially given that most of the nation’s sailors seem already to have left. In the broader scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. But it’s exactly the kind of extreme narrative carelessness to which Benioff and Weiss seem to be succumbing more and more. (Speaking of which, what happened to the violent overthrow of the Dornish government by concubines and bastards in episode one? I don’t really care, but I assumed the showrunners did.)

One more bit of slipshod narrative: Sansa doesn’t want to send a raven to Riverrun because she’s afraid Ramsay will intercept it? How? Has he stretched out a trans-continental net? An armada of NSA-trained gyrfalcons? And why are we supposed to believe that, as a messenger, Brienne is less likely to be noticed than a raven? (For that matter, if Ramsay’s net is so fine, how did Littlefinger make it up to Moletown?) Again, small beer, but needlessly frustrating—especially in an episode that was otherwise so strong.

A few last thoughts:

  • Was anyone else struck by the extreme dude-ity of the young actor in the play Arya watched (“two warts!”)? It seemed to me like both a retrospective makeup call—See? We’re not just into showing naked lady parts—and a down payment for whatever unnecessary female nudity Benioff and Weiss feel inclined to throw at us down the road.
  • Seriously, Tormund, tone down the Brienne leers. They’re getting unseemly, no matter how much we may root for you two as a couple. (Side note: In the books, he claims to have bedded a she-bear.)
  • You make a good point, Lenika, about Meera saving Bran, much as her dad saved his at the Tower of Joy. This can’t help but add fuel to a prominent R+L=J sub-theory: that R+L (also)=M.
  • And finally, yes, the killing of Bran’s dire wolf, Summer, does seem like a pretty clear announcement that Winter has arrived. The death of Hodor was obviously a terrible shock. But let’s not forget to pour one out for Summer. When this season began, four of the six Stark dire wolves were still alive. The last few episodes have knocked off two of them—Summer, and Rickon’s Shaggydog, currently serving as a rug for Ramsay—leaving only Jon’s Ghost and Arya’s long-missing Nymeria. Nymeria has shown up occasionally in the books long after her early disappearance on the show. (The latter has always downplayed the wolves, evidently due to the animal wrangling challenges.) Here’s hoping Nymeria eventually makes a reappearance, and that when she returns she is as hungry as Duran Duran long ago promised.