Note: I’m reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, while my colleague David Malitz, who hasn’t read the books, will be writing straight recaps. His write-up of episode 6, “Beyond The Wall,” will appear at The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of the Aug. 20 episode of “Game of Thrones” in detail. You can find my recaps of every prior episode of the show here. Readers have reported some problems with the links from ThinkProgress. We’re doing our best to get them fixed. Can’t get enough “Game of Thrones”? My Washington Post chat here will return after the finale on August 28; I’m on vacation, but reviewing “Game of Thrones” for all of you as usual, because who am I kidding? Am I going to miss an episode of this show even while on a beach preparing for an eclipse?
“We both wanted to be other people when we were younger. You wanted to be a queen, to sit next to a handsome young king on the Iron Throne. I wanted to be a knight, to pick up a sword like father and go off to battle,” Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) tells her sister Sansa (Sophie Turner). “The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they’re going to be. But I can now. With the faces, I can choose. With the faces, I can become someone else: speak in their voice, live in their skin. I could even become you. . . . I wonder what it would feel like to wear those pretty dresses, to be the lady of Winterfell. All I’d need to find out is your face.”
Unless there’s more to the magic of the House of Black and White than I’m aware of, Arya’s wrong. Arya is strong in ways that Sansa isn’t, but she also has never been tested in the ways that Sansa has. The House of Black and White could be harsh, but unlike Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) rule in King’s Landing or Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) mad charnel house, it had rules. Arya has been stabbed and beaten, but she hasn’t been raped or tortured. She thinks she can imagine what it is to be Sansa, but Sansa is more than her face. And this episode of “Game of Thrones” was about more than an undead dragon with icy blue eyes.
One of the running themes of “Game of Thrones” and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels is that people don’t always understand the past the way they think they do.
Catelyn Stark’s (Michelle Fairley) marriage to Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was marred by her belief that he had fathered a bastard child, Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Jon chose the Night’s Watch out of belief in his illegitimacy. But the truth is that Jon is the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi). At the beginning of the series, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) believed she knew her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) to be the stuff of kings, though the history they both revered had only accentuated the madness and weakness in their family line. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) thought he was a simple blacksmith’s apprentice. Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) believed that Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) was all the God he’d ever need.
And everyone thought the White Walkers were no more than legend, or at least that they had vanished long ago. Instead, they’re the very real creation of a desperate people, the Children of the Forest, struggling to free themselves from the invaders who now scrap and brawl over the Iron Throne as if it’s natural that they should, as if one of their claims to it can be more legitimate than another.
Yes, the Magnificent Seven’s battle beyond the Wall and the death of one of Dany’s dragons were the splashy elements of this episode. But, though they may prove strategically important in the clash to come, they weren’t the heart of this hour of television. Instead, “Game of Thrones” took its penultimate episode of the season to remind us just how little any one person can see of the past, and how important a whole portrait is. And the show did it with a series of character moments that felt like both elegies and revelations.
One complaint about this season of “Game of Thrones” has been how quickly the characters have moved around the map, and how the show hasn’t given them enough time to develop as people as a result. But Jon’s march beyond the Wall was full of those moments, and all for the better.
Jon finally got to meet Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), the true-born son of his mentor, the long-dead Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo). To Jon, his Valyrian steel sword Longclaw is Jorah’s by right: He sees Jorah’s legitimate birth, while Jorah sees the shame he brought to his father, and the joy that Jon, Jeor’s adopted son, gave the old man. Their exchange over who really owns Longclaw was a subtle renegotiation for each man, with Jon learning to accept his role as Jeor’s son even as Jorah relinquished that part of his identity for the last time.
Sandor Clegane’s (Rory McCann) exchange with Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) over Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) reminded us just how many ways it’s possible to see the knight who was once scorned as “Brienne the Beauty” in Renly Baratheon’s (Gethin Anthony) short-lived court. To Sandor, Brienne is a fellow freak, the woman who beat him in combat and accidentally ushered him into his new life. To Tormund, Brienne is the possible mother of his children, the “great big monsters” he dreams of who will “conquer the world” as a family. Both men are right, of course, and there’s a loveliness in seeing Brienne loom large, not as an awkward, ungainly girl with an unrequited crush on a king, but as a figure of mythic stature, fearsome and romantic both. It’s as if all of Brienne’s possible futures coexist at once.
Gendry and the members of the broken Brotherhood Without Banners argue about the Brotherhood’s decision to sell Gendry to Melisandre (Carice van Houten), an act that was to Gendry a primal betrayal, and to Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and to Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), an act of survival, even of sacrifice. And in Jorah and Thoros’s brief conversation about Thoros’s grand performance at Pyke during the long-dead Balon Greyjoy’s (Patrick Malahide) rebellion, Thoros is a drunk and a legend all at once. Even if Thoros doesn’t embrace Jorah’s version of events, Jorah’s judgement that “you were the bravest man I ever saw” is a gift to Thoros before his death.
Arya and Sansa’s disagreement about the letter Sansa wrote at Cersei’s behest so long ago is the most substantive of these disagreements about the past — about these moments when it’s impossible to make someone who wasn’t there understand what happened because you don’t understand it yourself. Though it doesn’t end in bloodshed, at least not this time, their exchange adds a visceral urgency to an idea that shows up in every storyline this episode. If you can’t make someone else understand the past, or if you refuse to interrogate the past, you can both end up victims of your misunderstanding.
I’m past the point of trying to anticipate what’s going to happen on “Game of Thrones”: Like Beric and Jon after their resurrections, I’m pretty much along for the ride, and I’m definitely so foolish to go tossing rocks at ice zombies just because I’ve gotten impatient.
But I do feel confident enough to say that we shouldn’t let ourselves get distracted by any single glowing blue eye, no matter how big it is. This season of “Game of Thrones” has been dedicated to Jon’s efforts to get the other characters to accept that there is a true and dangerous story behind the fables they have been taught to disregard. Next episode will be a test of his skills in diplomacy, though whether he can get the huge remaining cast of characters on the show to cast aside their differences and pursue the truth remains a very open question. The most tragic conclusion to the show might be for Jon and his allies to succeed in that quest, but to fail in the end because they cannot discern a deeper truth beyond even the parts of the past that they’ve unraveled. Whatever happens on “Game of Thrones,” it will grow from seeds sown so long ago that no one living remembers there were fields there.