When I wrote about the Season Four finale, "The Children," I briefly discussed my discomfort with Bran's storyline. All this ethereal mumbo-jumbo about Three-Eyed Ravens and Children of the Forest, I argued, seemed at odds with the very humane and secular nature of Game of Thrones. The show, to me, has always been about how individuals make very personal choices that end up having far-reaching consequences, and therefore the concept of free-will was essential. To me, the show aggressively denied the presence of any divine influence directing events, so reducing the characters to mythic, predestined pawns in some kind of cosmic conspiracy made this story into a lesser—and less interesting—form of fantasy.
I still feel that way, a bit, but the truth is that these tensions have been intrinsic to Game of Thrones from the beginning. This is a story about realistically complicated human beings living out their lives within the trappings of a fairy tale, and the show has always played with the inherent contradictions of that combination. We expect the arc of stories, however long, to bend towards justice and resolution, but the show has continually thwarted those expectations. We know all too well, by now, that people don't always get what they deserve on this show. This is no morality tale, in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished: horrible things happen to good people, and wonderful things happen to horrible people, just as they do in life. Our notion of fairness—of a just and ordered storytelling universe—was the first casualty of Game of Thrones. ("This isn't happening to you for a reason," Ramsay once told Theon, as he tortured him. "Well, one reason: because I enjoy it.")
So perhaps all this sound and fury really does signify nothing. And yet there's been this other thread woven throughout the series, existing in taut counterpoint to the apparently indifferent cosmos of Game of Thrones. There has been magic, and prophecies, and predestination. There has been much discussion about the will of gods, and the destiny of heroes, and the inevitability of certain world-changing events. From this perspective—the one that incorporates Three-Eyed Ravens, and Children of the Forest, and the Prince That Was Promised—it seems there might just be a cosmic order at work in this world after all.
(Let me put it another way. By now, we are never entirely surprised to see a beloved character die, unexpectedly and unfairly: this show has immuned us to shock on that front. And yet we all knew that Jon Snow would be resurrected, didn't we? Even after watching Ned, and Robb, and Catelyn, and many other apparent heroes die, we absolutely knew that Jon's story could not possibly be over. So as much as we have tried to acclimate ourselves to a world without order—and to a story without storytelling conventions—we still feel certain that there has to be some point and purpose to it all that has not yet been fulfilled. No matter how many times we've been warned not to, we still trust the story.)
These tensions are inherent in Game of Thrones, as we struggle to understand both the workings of its fictional universe and the rules of its storytelling. At times, the show goes out of its way to demonstrate that everything is chaos, and that there is no will at work except human will. At other times—as it does this week—the show makes a point of showing us the clockwork precision of this story's machinations, and suggests that everything these characters endure is preordained and purposeful. Is the universe indifferent, or directed?
And which is the more comforting thought? Do we want to believe in the story, in the guiding hand of the gods, and in some inevitable restoration of order and justice at its end? Or do we prefer to believe in the freedom of individual humans asserting their messy and autonomous wills?
Or perhaps—the more difficult thought to grasp—the two views of the universe are not mutually exclusive. Albert Camus, in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," imagines a hero who is both condemned by the gods to a single inevitable fate and self-determined. In the hour when Sisyphus walks back down the hill to retrieve his rock and begin his predestined journey again, Camus says, "he is superior to his fate." "In that silent pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death." Camus writes of fate as "a human matter, which must be settled among men."
I don't know. I can't pretend to have answers yet, but I think these questions are crucial to Game of Thrones as the show moves towards its conclusion. The show sustains an exquisite and honorable tension between the demands of the story and the desires of the characters, between the designs of fate and the chaos of chance, between the wills of gods and the wills of men. I do not actually believe these inherent tensions will ever be resolved by this show, nor should they be: Game of Thrones, intentionally, keeps them all in play. As humans, we experience the apparent indifference of the universe to questions of fairness and justice. But this awareness lives alongside an uncertain but indelible feeling, which alternates between hope and dread, that there is some meaning and purpose to our chaotic lives that may—whether we like it or not— be revealed to us in the end.
"Does death only come for the wicked, and leave the decent behind?" — Jaqen H'Ghar
Arya Stark is reminded this week of the inherent unfairness of storytelling, and the callous indifference of the universe to questions of right and wrong.
After all, what does her story mean? As we've already discussed, the way people and events enter into history and legend is one of the themes of this season of Game of Thrones, and this week Arya sees how her family's story has passed into the public consciousness. "History repeats itself," Karl Marx said, "first as tragedy, and then again as farce." Here, history repeats itself, as Arya—for the second time—sits anonymously in a crowd to watch her father's execution. The first time it was an unspeakable tragedy, but now—performed by a company of actors—it has become the broadest of farces, a comic romp filled with nothing but sex and fart jokes.
This is an odd, complicated moment for Arya Stark. "You will never be one of us, Lady Stark," the Waif has told her, after their latest sparring match. To become a Faceless Man, Arya must give up her identity, give up her personal quest for revenge, give up her story—and this is the story to which she's been clinging. Now, she sees how that story has been taken from her, its basic structure robbed of all meaning and significance, the truth of the people and their motives and their complex personalities stripped away. Is this all it was worth in the end? Is this insulting comic farce the way the Starks will be remembered? Her father—whom she loved, and mourned, and swore to revenge—has been reduced to a loathsome and bumbling villain. Her sister has been reduced to a simpering sex object. And Arya herself, of course, has been forgotten altogether.
Will this make it easier for Arya to let the story go, seeing it stripped of all its significance and turned into something worthless? Or will it cause her to double-down on her quest, and rededicate herself to righting the record of history?
And which outcome, we must wonder, did Jaqen have in mind when he sent her to see this? For the Faceless Men have embraced the indifference of the universe as a religion. Other religions have an expectation of fairness—they talk about the gods as moral judges and cosmic puppetmasters, and pray for their intervention—but the Faceless Men have no such faith. "There is only one god," Syrio Forel told Arya, a long time ago. "And his name is Death. And the only thing we say to Death is Not Today." Jaqen echoes the point here. "Does death only come for the wicked and leave the decent behind?" Jaqen asks Arya, when she gently suggests that Lady Crane (Essie Davis) doesn't deserve to die. To the people of Braavos, there is no order to the universe but death, and no expectation of fairness except that death comes to everyone equally.
Arya has tried—like we have done—to wrap her head around this concept: her attempt to join the Faceless Men hinges on her acceptance of a worldview in which the only fairness is the egality of death. But—like us—she can't quite do it: she still believes in justice, still believes she has a role to play in righting wrongs and punishing the wicked. She isn't ready to let go of either her place or her faith in the story. All of this had to have happened to her for a reason.
"Terrible things happen for a reason." — Kinvara
And maybe it did. That is the position argued, at least, by Kinvara (Ania Bukstein), the High Priestess of the Red Temple and the First Servant of the Lord of Light. Tyrion and Varys—picking up again on the theme of controlling the narrative—realize this week that they need a little P.R. help. "The Sons of the Harpy have a good story: resist the foreign invaders," says Tyrion. "Our queen has an even better story: Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and all that." It is not enough to have peace, he argues: they need someone to convince the people that it was Daenerys who brought them peace.
And so they recruit Kinvara, who is eager to help. "Daenerys Stormborn is the one who was promised," she says. "From the fire she was reborn to remake the world. She has freed the slaves from their chains and crucified the masters for their sins. Her dragons are fire-made and a gift from the Lord of Light."
Tyrion quite rightly points out that he has heard this story before: Stannis was supposed to be the Prince Who Was Promised, declared to be such by another Red Priestess, Melisandre. (Melisandre, of course, has since decided that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised.) This is one of the many ways Game of Thrones keeps both perspectives about how the universe works in play: there is magic, and there are prophecies, and there is even perhaps destiny, but we can't always trust all that. Or, as Kinvara says, "Everything is the lord's will. But men and women make mistakes." Fate is a human matter, which must be settled among men.
But even the mistakes, Kinvara argues, are part of the master plan. Varys has dedicated his entire life to defeating magic and gods, ever since a sorcerer castrated him as a boy. (This was the reason Varys gave for opposing Stannis and his Red Woman in "Blackwater.") But Kinvara points out that Varys would not be the man he is today, or where he is today, if he had not endured that terrible mutilation as a child. "Everyone is what they are, and where they are, for a reason," she says. "Terrible things happen for a reason."
It's a nice idea—one that has bolstered religions ever since religions have existed—and elsewhere in the episode we certainly see evidence that it might be true. But it's also a problematic idea, one that risks reducing each occurrence of human suffering to nothing more than a casual sacrifice in a complicated chess match. And we have seen what such a philosophy can do in the hands of a true believer: Melisandre burned an innocent child alive because she believed—wrongly, it turns out—that she was fulfilling the Lord of Light's design. The vision of the world Kinvara and Melisandre share is an ordered one, but it is hardly a comforting one.
The final thing I want to say about this scene is this: Tyrion is making me nervous. Last week I wrote about the mistakes I thought he was making in Meereen, and I'm not sure he isn't making an even bigger mistake this week. He thinks he can enlist the help of the Red Priestess, without necessarily buying into her faith and her agenda. (Note how he tries to remove faith from their conversation. "You want your queen to be worshiped and obeyed, and while she's gone you want her advisors to be worshiped and obeyed," Kinvara says. "I'd settle for obeyed," Tyrion says, for he is—like Varys—uncomfortable with all this talk of "worship.")
Enlisting religious fanatics to control a city, with the assumption that you can ignore their religion and contain their power: Tyrion might want to ask his sister how well that worked out for her.
"I don't believe you anymore." — Sansa
The best counter-argument to Kinvara comes—albeit indirectly—from Sansa Stark.
For what Kinvara is really arguing is that the gods will use us as they see fit, and—no matter what suffering it entails—we should just be grateful to be of service to the divine plan. Littlefinger—in his small and petty way—is the secular personification of this same callous use of human beings. He has no faith that we know of—one suspects that Littlefinger's only god is Littlefinger—but he has his own plans and he will use anyone, in any way, to fulfill them. Whether there are divine puppet-masters pulling human strings has yet to be definitively determined, but there are human puppet-masters, and Littlefinger is one of them.
And here Sansa confronts him with his unforgivable use of her. "You have no idea how happy I am to see you unharmed," he says, in his usual oily, sycophantic manner. "Unharmed?" she spits back at him. She is alive, but she is far from unharmed, and she rightfully demands that he acknowledge this. "What do you think he did to me?" she asks him, forcing him to imagine it: not in some abstract way, but as a very real thing that happened to a very real woman. "I can still feel it," she says. "I don't mean in my tender heart: what he did still pains me, so I can feel what he did in my body, standing here right now."
Sansa's rape was a controversial event among fans and critics, and rightfully so. I thought—and still feel—that it was a creative mistake. But the best thing I can say about it now is that the show is dealing with it, in scenes like this, and granting Sansa a voice to articulate her own experience. And Sansa's accusation here is a justifiably angry response to the puppetmasters—whether they are human, divine, or authorial—who argue that such horrors are necessary.
For isn't the defense of Sansa's rape—as a plot device—that it was necessary for her character development? Aren't we tempted, looking at her now, to recognize that she is a far stronger woman for what she's been through? And isn't that, fundamentally, the same deeply problematic argument Kinvara makes to Varys? The unspeakable suffering you endured was worth it, because it turned you into the person you are now. Everything happens for a reason: that's the defense of both gods and storytellers, and it's used to excuse all the evils they inflict.
But Sansa Stark—however fictional—is asserting her rights as a person, and insisting on the authenticity of her experience. She is not a device in anyone's plot: she is a young woman who suffered unspeakable abuses. Yes, terrible experiences change us, and sometimes—when they don't kill us—they make us stronger. But that doesn't mean we have to be happy about it, and it doesn't mean we have to be grateful, and it certainly doesn't mean we have to accept our place in someone else's story. Sansa's rejection of Littlefinger here—and her refusal of his new offer of help—can be read as a wholesale refusal to accept a role in someone else's design. Sansa had put her faith in Littlefinger, as she had put her faith—all her life—in other people's grand plans for her. She won't do it anymore. "I don't believe you anymore," she says to Baelish here. "I don't need you anymore. You can't protect me anymore." Sansa is determined that the only person steering her destiny now is Sansa.
"Hodor." — Wylis
I think what I'm ultimately asking—in my own vague, fumbling, circuitous way—is this:
Given a choice, wouldn't Wylis have preferred to have been happy?
He looked like a nice boy. Plump, cheerful, gentle, with an easy smile and a quiet sense of humor. He was a person, with a family and a home, and a promising future as a stable boy. He probably would have fallen in love soon, and married, and had lots of children. He might have been a wise and witty conversationalist, quick with a joke, or an insight, or a sympathetic ear. I bet he'd have been a good father, and a good husband, and a good friend. He could have lived a long, sweet, honorable life at Winterfell, unremarkable and undisturbed. He could have been happy.
But Wylis was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so Wylis got used. In a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey Möbius strip of cause-and-effect, a vision-walking Bran reached out to young Wylis for desperate help, and planted in his mind one single phrase, one single purpose, one single destiny: Hold the door. And so, instantly, a real person with a full mind and a full life ahead of him became nothing more than a necessary plot device in someone else's story.
It's terribly clever, on the parts of Messrs. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss. But it's also terribly, terribly sad. It's a person reduced to a function, a man with individuality and agency transformed into a mindless pawn. And the darkest interpretation is that he retained just enough of his mind to know this, and that his constant repetition of a single phrase was proof that he never didn't know that his life would end this way. That Hodor lived in constant, pained awareness of what "Hodor" meant is the saddest possibility of all. ("If this myth is tragic," Camus writes of Sisyphus, "that is because its hero is conscious.")
"Terrible things happen for a reason," says Kinvara, the voice of her god. And Wylis's fate is seemingly proof of that: the gods work in mysterious ways, but there is a cosmic purpose and a divine design to everything. We are supposed to trust that, even if we can't always see the pattern.
I am uncomfortable with this idea. I think we're supposed to be uncomfortable with this idea. I believe Game of Thrones is uncomfortable with this idea. From the beginning this show has insisted on the value of individual subjectivity and agency, and depicted the fight to sustain and protect those things from the forces that would deny them. Characters rebel against being used, by gods, and by people, and even occasionally by the authors. We can recognize that Sansa's experiences were necessary for her story, and share in her anger and outrage. We can be grateful that Varys is the effective force for good that he is, and respect the fact that he would almost certainly have preferred to keep his balls. We can honor Hodor's necessary role in the cosmic conspiracy, and mourn the victimization of the man called Wylis. We can acknowledge the apparent power of prophecies and destiny, and still recognize that "fate" plays out—as it does here—among men, among real people like Bran making small, stupid, selfish choices. These are not contradictions: these are generative tensions that are inextricable from Game of Thrones.
It would be nice to think of Hodor—Wylis—as a hero. It would be nice to believe that he had some agency in the end, some conscious, willing participation in his own predestined sacrifice. It would be nice to think that, however it happened, however it had to happen, his love for Bran made him decide to hold that door, and gave him the strength to hold it just a little bit longer. It would be nice to think he was a person after all, and not merely—in every sense of the word—a prop. It would be nice to imagine Wylis—as Camus finally says we must imagine Sisyphus—happy.
I like to think of the door as more than a door. There are real people—normal human beings—on one side of it, and all the mythical creatures of magic and gods and destiny on the other. Can we read Wylis's fated effort as a courageous stand for simple human freedom against the pressures of fate? We fight for our free will, against those who try to deny it. We fight for our subjectivity, against forces that try to turn us into objects. We fight to maintain authorship of our own stories, even when we sense the invisible hand that really holds the pen.
We experience our lives from within, knowing that, outside, there are all manner of forces that want to try to direct us, control us, use us. All we can do is try to hold the door.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Apologies for the extreme delay in posting this week. (My wife and I are in the process of moving, and it has put me behind on pretty much my entire life.) But it's a three-day weekend here in the states, and I'm hoping having Monday off will enable me to get the next post up fairly quickly.
- I skipped over the goings-on in Pyke again this week. (Pyke, to me, is this season's Dorne: a place the show has decided to focus on too late for me to really get invested.) There is a thin thematic tie-in to the story this week, in the peculiarly brutal coronation ceremony a new king must undergo in the Iron Islands: Euron must literally give his life to the Drowned God, trusting that the god will spit him back as proof of his role in the divine design. (How many kings, I wonder, have failed this test?) Mostly, this storyline ties into the ongoing theme—which we hit on last week—of women struggling for power in what is still a man's world: Yara's gender is ultimately what loses her the gig. (And note how Euron denigrates Theon's masculinity in making his argument.) And Euron is determined to secure his power by subjugating the only woman who has achieved real power: Daenerys Targaryen.
- I'm aware that, in my conversation above, I fuzzily conflate magic and providence: the two are not necessarily the same thing. As proof of this, it turns out that the Children of the Forest are not necessarily any more wise or prescient than human beings: they created the White Walkers, as a stupid and short-sighted attempt to gain power over the humans. (I like how this echoes other stories—like Cersei's, and perhaps Tyrion's—about giving power to someone you then can't control.)
- Has there been a more gratuitous shot in the entire series than the dick shot we get backstage in the theater scene? It's no doubt deliberately gratuitous, a self-aware attempt to address the gender imbalance in the show's gratuitous nudity. (Benioff and Weiss may be telling us that we think we want gender parity in nudity, but we really don't.) And while we're here, I should say it was startling to recognize the Player King as Richard E. Grant: is this just a cameo, or will that character have a role to play worthy of Grant's considerable talents, I wonder?
- Summer is over: our dire wolf count is down to two.
- The sound effect the show is using for swarming wights sounds like bats, and never fails to slightly undermine their threat for me: every time I hear it, it evokes the original title sequence of Scooby-Doo.
- I don't have much to say about Jorah's departure from Dany, except that I keep wondering if some Walking Dead rules might apply to Jorah's greyscale: maybe the cure is to chop that arm off, or cauterize it with a little dragonbreath. We may never know, because I suspect that—despite Dany's ordering him to return—Jorah's part in the story might be over. If so, fare thee well, Iain Glen: you made what could have been a thankless role into one of the few truly decent men in Game of Thrones.
- And fare thee well, too, to Kristian Nairn, who had one word of dialogue and used it create a sweet, beloved, absolutely unforgettable character. We shall raise a glass to you in Valhalla, and honor you by crying out in one unified, reverential voice: "Hodor!"