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Fantasy Fandom: Hold the Door

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The rules of the Game of Thrones are forever altered.

The world needs more gentle giants.
The world needs more gentle giants.
HBO

It turns out Hodor's addled brain is Bran's fault. Everything, in fact, may Bran's fault. The rules of Game of Thrones' fantasy universe have always been rather malleable, but "The Door" delivered shocking, game-changing revelations. The HBO series at its best has surprised even those who thought they knew the story. Now it has stunned us all. The nerdiverse is boiling over.

Though the fifth episode continued season six’s pattern of ending with an enormous spectacle, the undercard advanced stories in important ways, as well. Let's save the juiciest for last, shall we?

Slavers Bay

In Essos Daenerys questions what she should do with Ser Jorah Mormont, who she has twice banished only to see him return and save her life. She cannot allow him to stay with her, nor can she send him away. Jorah says she must send him away, and he shows her his left forearm, now nearly turned to stone by the greyscale. He says he will "end things" before the disease causes insanity. He confesses his love for Daenerys and turns to walk away, but she stops him and reminds him of his oath to obey her commands. Then she commands him to find a cure so he can be by her side when she rules the Seven Kingdoms. If this is the end for Jorah, Dany has at least permitted him to save face. Given his propensity to turn up again and again, I suspect we haven't seen the last of Ser Jorah of the Andals.

Meanwhile Dany's council in Meereen assesses the fruits of their negotiations with the Slavers. The Harpies have murdered no one, and only two masters have perished since the meeting. None have died since that day. Noting that a tenuous peace has taken hold, Tyrion says that the people must know it is the work of their queen. To spread the message, they seek the help of Kinvara, a red priestess of great renown. After Tyrion extends the request Varys, who hates magic because of the sorcerer who mutilated him as a child, challenges Kinvara by recounting the failures of Melissandre, the "fanatic" who believed Stannis was the Prince who was Promised and steered him to his demise. Tyrion, like the guy trying to avert a fight at a bar, smooths over the confrontation by explaining Varys is skeptical of religion. After noting that people--even true servants of R'hllor--can make mistakes, Kinvara tells Varys that both good and bad things happen for a reason. Had he not been cut by a third-rate sorcerer, he would not have risen to power and would not now be in the service of Daenerys, who she sees as the Chosen One. She asks Varys whether he would like her to tell him what the mysterious voice in the flames said many years ago when the sorcerer threw his parts on the fire or whose voice it was that he heard. The normally unflappable Varys is flummoxed, even fearful, as he recognizes Kinvara must indeed possess great power. Clearly she intends to do more than spread the message; she has now become Dany’s Red Woman.

Braavos

Arya continues her training to become a Faceless Man, training which requires more beatings at the hands of the Waif, who abandons her own quarterstaff but still knocks Arya to the ground with ease. The Waif tells her, "You’ll never be one of us, Lady Stark," to which Jaqen H’ghar replies, "She has a point." Despite the apparent regression in her training, Arya receives an assignment to give the gift of death to Lady Crane, an actress in a production lampooning the death of King Robert, Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion and Ned Stark’s beheading. Arya at first enjoys the production, until Ned is portrayed as a crotch-scratching buffoon and the actors play hot-potato with a likeness of his head. Backstage Arya learns that Lady Crane is the only one who drinks rum. She reports to Jaqen that she has found a method for delivering the poison, but she betrays hesitation by noting that Lady Crane is a good actress who seems to be a decent person. Jaqen, who has already warned Arya that this is her last chance and that, one way or another, a new face will be added to the hall, asks her, "Does death only come for the wicked, and leave the decent behind?" Arya’s experience certainly teaches her that death comes for everyone. When Jaqen advises that the price for Lady Crane's death has been paid she knows that a rival actress has commissioned it. So it turns out that "the gift" is available for a price and the reason Arya had to become No One was so she could set aside all conscience and carry out orders. As Jaqen says, "A servant does not ask questions." The Many-Faced God is merely an assassin for hire. We will know soon whether Arya is capable of being the kind of automaton who can do his bidding.

Iron Isles

Apart from giving us the most quintessential Game of Thrones line of the evening, the kingsmoot was an enormous disappointment. Yara states her case plainly, and Theon voices his support. Then Euron strides in, belittles his niece and nephew, boldy admits killing Balon Greyjoy, and apologizes for not doing it sooner. He proclaims that he will build a new Iron Fleet, sail to Meereen and seduce Daenerys with his ships and other assets, then return to take the Seven Kingdoms. Book readers surely hoped for much more. With the tide swung against them, Yara and her followers flee to the ships while Euron is being drowned as a way of anointing him king. Arising from his drowning, Euron shouts, "Where are my niece and my nephew? Let’s go murder them." Finding that Yara and Theon have stolen the best ships, he commands all men and women to set about the task of building the new fleet that he had promised to build. The Iron Island storyline suffers from the lack of a sympathetic character and because Euron is not larger than life, as he must be. He won the Salt Throne by claiming to have paid the Iron Price for his position. A gaudy demonstration of his power would have been more convincing. We all know the Iron Island folk are going to be pawns in the end, anyway. Right? History repeats itself.

The North

Last week Petyr Baelish announced that the forces of the Vale would march North to join the fray. Sansa renounces him and rejects his assistance, telling him that he saved her from monsters only to give her to different monsters. Littlefinger leaves shamed, but he does tell Sansa that her uncle, Brynden Blackfish, has assembled forces and retaken Riverrun. Later in a meeting with Jon, Davos and the others making plans for the assault on Winterfell, Sansa claims to have known this information from a raven Ramsay received before she escaped. Sansa sends Brienne to personally request the Blackfish’s aid, an unnecessary mission motivated by her own shame for telling the lie. She may also have betrayed her true colors in an awkward moment when she said people will follow their cause because she has the Stark name and that Jon is as much Ned Stark’s son as Ramsay is Roose Bolton's. Any hard feelings appear to be washed away when Sansa presents Jon with hand-made northern clothes tooled with the Stark sigil. Sansa’s understandable anger with Littlefinger, manifested in illogical and self-serving behavior, threatens them all. In season one Ned learned the hard way that Littlefinger is not to be trusted. Sending him away will not put an end to his influence. It will cause him to seek new ways of manipulating to his own advantage. And why send the forces of the Vale away with him? Surely Sansa could win Robin over, keep the forces, and dispense with Petyr in some more definite way. Arya’s way, perhaps.

Beyond the Wall

Bran’s story north of the Wall, the centerpiece of the episode, was presented in three segments. In the first Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven witness the creation of the Night’s King. Bran is shocked to learn that the Children of the Forest made him by inserting an obsidian dagger into a man’s chest. Leaf tells him they made the Night’s King and his minions, the White Walkers, to stand against men, who were destroying their forests and threatening their very existence. The White Walkers until now have been presented as a force of existential evil, necessary much like the dark side in the Star Wars franchise to bring balance to the universe. The story of their creation casts them in a different light. They were created to protect an ancient people but have now run amok, causing the Children to summon help from the very men they were trying to defeat centuries ago. Parallels to our own times abound.

In the second segment Bran is bored and returns without the assistance of the Three-Eyed Raven to the Heart Tree where the Night’s King came into existence. There he sees the army of the dead. Walking among them, it seems for a moment we might learn the fate of Benjen Stark at last. Instead the white walkers appear, and the Night’s King touches Bran’s arm, leaving a mark that breaks the spell protecting the cave where Bran and his companions reside. The Three-eyed Raven tells Bran they must all leave, but first Bran must become him, though he is not truly ready.

Because the rules of time and travel are suspended this season, the White Walkers and their horde of undead, who have been on an inexorable march to the Wall for at least four seasons, arrive at the cave entrance almost immediately. Bran is in a trance as the Three-Eyed Raven imparts the last necessary knowledge to pass his role on to him when the army of the dead attacks. Meera and the Children of the Forest try to fight them off, and Meera attempts to wake Bran, who is witnessing another scene from the past in Winterfell, the day that Ned departed to live as Jon Arryn’s squire in the Vale. In the vision Bran hears Meera’s voice saying they need Hodor. The Raven tells him to listen to his friends, and Bran wargs into Hodor, who begins dragging the litter down a cave passage to an exit. Summer perishes trying to slow the zombie mob. Leaf does, as well. Hodor stuggles to open the exit, then obeys Meera’s shouted command to "Hold the door" while she drags Bran away. In the vision we see Wylis, the youthful version of Hodor, lying on the ground in a spasm, repeating, "Hold the door! Hold the door! Hold door! Hodor!" In the present world the Undead splinter portions of the door and tear at Hodor's flesh as he selflessly heeds the command so his friends might escape. He, along with Leaf and Summer, is now gone. Unless they all reappear as zombie soldiers in the army of the dead.

What does it Mean?

Retelling the episode this week is not enough. As suggested in the introduction, at the very least we learned that Hodor’s reduction to a simpleton was the result of Bran invading his mind across forty-odd years of time. "The past is written; the ink is dry," the Three-eyed Raven said. But Bran somehow distorted the rules of time. He had not even been born when Hodor lost his mind, yet Bran was the cause of him being a simpleton, uniquely lovable but something less than whole. Game of Thrones and its source material have differed from much of hardcore fantasy by trafficking foremost in human troubles, complete with complicated back-stories and human motivations. From the prologue, of course, we know that supernatural forces among mortals will play a role. Along the way hints of the mystical are sprinkled in, such as the birth of the dragons, the altogether different and horrifying birth of Stannis’s murderous shadow, and the revelation that some characters can warg into other creatures and exist temporarily through them. The magic in Game of Thrones until now has been used sparingly enough that it has resulted in some of the show’s most shocking moments.

This week’s moment outstrips them all. Dragons and shadowbabies and fire-retardant flesh are all fantastic. Returning from death after drowning or stabbing is remarkable, too. Being able to manipulate the past from the present, though? That’s a completely new step up the ladder of supernatural powers. Like balefire the power must be used judiciously or, better yet, not at all. Bran discovered the power only because he was bored and being irresponsible. Now the irresponsible boy possesses the power. Setting aside the obvious fact that Meera and Bran should be overtaken by the horde of undead in a matter of moments, what is Bran likely to do with this newfound knowledge? Saving Ned seems the most obvious answer. But what repercussions would that have? Could it be that Bran’s own well-intentioned meddling (yet to occur) affected the events that led to Ned’s beheading in the first place? Looking back even further, is it possible Bran will try to warn King Aerys of the troubles to come and, in the process, drive him Mad and thereby bring about the troubles of the entire kingdom? (Incidentally, this all reminds me of the Big Bang Theory episode where Leonard and Sheldon are talking about time travel and can’t decide what should be the correct verb tense for the discussion. Roll with me here.) This opens up breathtaking possibilities, to be sure. It also raises the very real danger of making the already fantastic seem utterly silly. If Bran succeeds in thwarting the show's events, will he wake up and reveal that none of it ever happened--that the entire series was merely a product of his dreams? Imagine the fury that would cause.

This fun new fantasy tool in the hands of the showrunners changes the game. It could explain much. It could alter the outcome. It could provide the ramp that causes the show to jump the metaphorical shark, too. Fantasy requires suspension of disbelief. For some it skirts too close to the border of ridiculousness, even without adding time travel to the mix. For one week, at least, the mystical has provided the latest unbelievable moment in what, midway through, has been a redemptive season of Game of Thrones.

Scenes not Seen

  • The Lannister and Tyrell assault on the High Sparrow
  • Loras's descent into madness
  • Margaery's atonement trudge
  • The Dornish Knot
  • Sam and Gilly's voyage
  • The flight of Qyburn's little birds