In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” George Washington tells his brilliant, frustrating secretary and surrogate son Alexander Hamilton, “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control: / Who lives / Who dies / Who tells your story?” “Game of Thrones” has always been George R.R. Martin’s effort to dismantle a certain kind of glorious story, to reveal the monsters who hide in knights’ shining regalia and honor the women who emerge from bloody, violent marital beds and fight for every inch of space to create their own stories within the public narratives of their lives. But tonight’s “Game of Thrones” was a particularly powerful exploration of how the people who live through great events begin to shape those narratives even before their stories are finished, if only to find a way to keep moving forward and avoid sucuumbing to madness or despair.
In Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) end is the beginning of our discussion, of course. The hulking stableboy’s nickname, the only word he speaks, has always been something of a genial joke for the characters in “Game of Thrones.” If not actively unkind to him, even the most decent of the Starks never bothered to break through their exasperation with Hodor’s repetitive, yet endlessly expressive, word of choice. And tonight we learned how he acquired it.
Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) has spent this season of “Game of Thrones” exploring his family’s history, from his early glimpses of his aunt Lyanna (Cordelia Hill) to the fatal, mysterious events at the Tower of Joy that sealed Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) reputation. If the first lesson Bran learned was that Ned’s heroic story was actually the result of a breach of knightly chivalry, tonight he learned a harder truth: that you can’t excavate the past without changing it, whether by letting go of the version of the story that you knew, or by literally altering history.
As Bran lingers in his trance while an army of wights advances on him, his protector Meera Reed’s (Ellie Kendrick) pleas bleed over into the past. And the young Hodor (Sam Coleman), who as an adult the Starks have treated as impenetrable but useful, proves more sensitive than anyone imagined. Meera’s words reach his ears, sending him into a seizure. He repeats her plea to “Hold the door,” a phrase that would become “Hodor” as the seizure takes him.
I’ve written before about the sheer depth of casting in “Game of Thrones”; with a few exceptions, Nina Gold and Robert Sterne, who handled the series’ search for actors, have done an astonishing job of finding very young actors and relative unknowns and placing them in parts where they would thrive. Nairn has done a remarkable job with Hodor’s limited vocabulary. He has a tremendously expressive face, and watching him hold that door, terror and tenderness written equally on his face, was a marvel of acting that served the episode’s larger point.
Last year, the “Hardhome” episode left me cold because the characters who died in the battle with the wights were almost entirely new to us. This year, showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director Jack Bender managed to find the quiet, deeply human, dignity and tragedy in the White Walkers’ march across the landscape, and “The Door” was a standout episode for it.
But Hodor’s death also worked as well as it did for its connection to the rest of the episode, which began with the same sort of personal, deeply painful confrontation between Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), who seduced her and then sold her “to other monsters who murdered my family.”
Sansa’s insistence that Petyr hear some small part of the litany of tortures Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) inflicted upon her is a striking moment of acting from Turner, and of how Sansa’s changed. If Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) taught her nothing else, he gave Sansa a bitter lesson in the truth that there is nothing ladylike in trying to disguise viciousness and abuse as romance, or to accept blame for violence in the hope you can mitigate it.
“Unharmed,” Sansa tells Petyr in disgust when he declares he’s happy to see her whole. “What are you doing here?…To come to my aid? Did you know about Ramsay? If you didn’t know you’re an idiot. If you did know, you’re my enemy. Would you like to hear about our wedding night? He never hurt my face. He needed my face, the face of Ned’s Stark daughter. But the rest of me? He did what he liked with the rest of me as long as I could still give him an heir. What do you think he did?”
The speech is the kind of moment that I suspect may make some folks who criticized the way “Game of Thrones” for showing Sansa’s brutalization last season feel somewhat differently about the show. But “Game of Thrones” has been speaking to audiences through its characters all season, and in Sansa’s exchange with Petyr, there is a measured defense of the decision to show Ramsay raping and terrorizing Sansa.
“I can’t begin to contemplate,” Petyr demurs when Sansa demands that he tell her what he thought Ramsay did to her. But because we’ve seen what happened to Sansa, he can’t lie to her, and we can’t tell ourselves that it wasn’t as bad as Sansa is making it out to be. We know she’s not hysterical, or that Ramsay is really someone with good intentions. “I can still feel it. I don’t mean in my tender heart what he did still pains me so. I can still feel what he did, in my body,” Sansa tells Petyr, mocking both the girl she once was and any efforts he might make to minimize her suffering. And because we were there with Sansa when it happened, we can feel it, too. If you want to testify to the horror of suffering, there can be value to witnessing that horror.
Not all stories are so easy to interpret though. In Braavos, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) tells Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) a mythic version of the history of the House of Black and White, suggesting that after the oppressed of Valyria began to rise up against their tormentors, “Soon all the masters and overseers were gone, and the Faceless Men fled…They founded the Free City of Braavos and built this House.” Yet however much Arya professes to be No One, watching her watch a bawdy stage version of her father’s death from the crowd suggests she knows that no version of any story is to be trusted.
As much as Ayra’s storyline sometimes seems to have stalled this season, there is some virtue — at least thematically– to that indecision in this episode. You can linger between versions of a story for a very long time, as Arya has and as Bran has through his lessons with the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow). But at some point, you have to pick a version of your story, or at least the bits and pieces of truth you find in all the retellings that loop around you over and over again, and choose a path down which to move forward.
Sometimes, the version of that story is flawed or broken. Even then, though, there can be dignity in the telling. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) may not have been able to win the Salt Throne for his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). But just as there was tremendous tenderness and honor in Hodor’s death, it was remarkable to watch Theon stand and tell a story about the best possible future for his country that he believed to be true, and to watch him stick to that story after years of damaging lies that destroyed others’ lives.
And when Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) reunited with the queen who had exiled him for betrayal, it was wrenching to watch Dany (Emilia Clarke) insist on giving him a command that would let him ride away from her with an honorable, legendary quest, even if they are both aware how little chance he has to fulfill it. “You pledged yourself to me. You swore to obey my commands for the rest of your life,” Dany told him, drawing on her strength to spin one more epic vision even as she left another possible home in ashes. “Well, I command you to find the cure, wherever it is in this world. I command you to heal yourself and then return to me. When I take the Seven Kingdoms, I need you by my side.”
Stories can wound, too. Varys (Conleth Hill) has made his living by knowing everyone else’s stories, and revealing his own selectively. So when Kinvara (Ania Bukstein), a priestess of the Lord of Light in Meereen who is dealing with the damage Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) misadventures have done to her own sect’s apocalyptic narratives, tells Varys that she could reveal more of the story than he’s wanted to admit, even to himself, her threat has a chilling power.
It’s fitting, I think, that the story in this episode with perhaps the greatest implications for the long arc of “Game of Thrones,” is told not with grandeur or bravado, but with fear and shame. Bran’s visions finally reveal to us the origins of the White Walkers: The Children of the Forest created them as a weapon against the men who were ravaging the land. “We were at war,” the Child (Kae Alexander) confesses to Bran when he accuses her. Sometimes, the truth doesn’t lead you to a solution, just something so terrible you can’t take it in all at once. And even if you live to see your story told, it may not save you even if you get the pleasure of being the hero.