The sixth season of Mad Men begins with an episode titled ‘The Doorway.’ Early on in the episode some lines from Dante’s Inferno occur:
‘Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.’
The episode itself is one haunted by images of death and the afterlife. Of finding oneself at a point of no return, at a place where one realises a door has closed and a path has been chosen.
The fifth episode of Game of Thrones’ sixth season is called ‘The Door’. It’s an obvious enough title given the climax and all its revelations, but – and this is not to belabour the point about the show’s use of symbolic titles this season – it’s also clearly a nod to the position all of the Starks find themselves in.
For the first time this season they jettison the frame of Jon Snow and instead delve into an episode that is almost wholly about all the Starks. Almost, because there is a bit of time with the Greyjoys and the various characters in Essos, but there is a unity around almost everybody’s trajectory that the show hasn’t had since the first episode when everyone was flung together in Winterfell. It also helps that no time was spent in King’s Landing this week, (though the kicker in that is we’ll undoubtedly spend more time there than usual next week).
Well, to Bran first. If we thought that his journey to the Tower of Joy was a mere suggestion that the characters were slowly separating themselves from the stories that define them, the showrunners take that idea and open it up with all sorts of messy implications. Bran doesn’t divorce his reality from the old stories, he creates his reality through an old story.
The revelation of Hodor’s name had the air of becoming a ridiculous fanservice gimmick that film reboots are constantly falling prey to – the kind of thing that plagues adapted revisions of material fans are already familiar with. There’s no knowing at this stage if George R. R. Martin intended Hodor’s backstory to be so fully entwined in Bran’s ongoing storyline, and there’s every chance there’s some extrapolation going on here to work as a much more realised symbol of Bran’s new gifts. Either way, it’s possibly one of the more emotionally impacting sequences in the series, and it manages that without any of the audience-baiting gamesmanship of the Red Wedding’s ilk.
It’s upsetting because of who Hodor is, and who he represents. He is a silent character, someone without voice and without agency. He carries Bran, he holds the door. But the realm is full of Hodors who allow others like Bran to live their own stories.
For his part, Bran is unprepared for this role – becoming the new Three-Eyed Raven – and is clearly entranced too much by the visits he makes to his father, and to young Wylis. But as we saw at the Tower of Joy, he isn’t just watching the past, he’s interacting with it. His presence is changing things, and the consequences of these changes triggers Hodor’s downfall, and potentially much more.
The White Walkers are revealed to be corrupted humans, engineered by the Children as a means of stopping the growing damage of humanity. So, Bran realises, who is bad here? The White Walkers? The Children for creating them? Or humanity? Again, looking at the past offers more obfuscation, and less clarity. History is problematic.
But Bran reveals himself to the Night’s King, and therefore this vision of the past unlocks their hideout in the present. A lot happens very quickly and it’s difficult to understand everyone’s motivations.
Meera wants to leave immediately, and though she wants to keep Bran alive she clearly sees less importance in his lessons from the Three-Eyed Raven than her brother Jojen did. The Three-Eyed Raven himself says Bran must leave and become his replacement, but takes Bran back into another moment from the past, seemingly in a last-ditch attempt to impart one final piece of meaning. But why this past? Why this moment?
So when Bran unwittingly triggers Wylis’ seizure, as a result of the White Walkers’ attack, and subsequently creates Hodor, we have to wonder if this was meant to happen. Was Bran brought here only to allow the past to occur as it should, and therefore get Bran back on the straight road? Or is this a new path, now that Bran has been marked by the Night’s King?
The Three-Eyed Raven has had to rush his teaching, but now Bran is alone and will clearly need more unguided explorations into the past. For that, he needs a weirwood and so a fast track to Winterfell seems likely, I imagine to time with Sansa and Jon’s reclamation of the North. More Stark reunions may be in store, though how Meera gets Bran to Winterfell alone and unscathed is beyond my speculation at this point.
There’s that Faulkner quote that turns up everywhere:
‘The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.’
And that line of thinking seems to hold the key to how Game of Thrones may move forward. As they grapple with bringing a rather sci-fi element to their revisionist fantasy, the showrunners have illustrated that defeating the coming Winter may not rely on some factor in front of the characters, but perhaps something behind them. Jon Snow has urged Sam to look more into the old books to see if there was some forgotten knowledge that could help defeat the army of the dead, but the fear now is what this might trigger.
If good and evil are disputable in Game of Thrones, and Bran brought about Hodor’s downfall, then there’s no knowing if those who have long held our sympathy – all the Stark children in particular – are going to be on the side of good come the end.
Sansa for her part has fully embraced her role as the defacto head of House Stark, which may be cemented even further if she picks up on the hints Littlefinger continues to leave about Jon’s parentage. It’s a pleasure to see all these disparate individuals group together and form a House without a castle, without a banner or words or lineage. What’s more significant for Sansa is that she doesn’t let Littlefinger – or the series, for that matter – off the hook about what happened to her last season.
The bonds are still tenuous, though. Brienne warns Sansa that Davos was instrumental in Renly’s death through blood magic, unaware of our knowledge that he once tried to kill Melisandre. There’s the potential here for characters to believe the stories all over again, and forget the reality. This is why the characters in Game of Thrones need Bran, and why it’s important he interrogates the past in a way that illuminates the present, rather than corrupting it. Lives are at stake, and his one slip-up in the past came at enormous cost.
Arya, too, is grappling with this, encountering a gross representation of the past on stage in Braavos, and in a position where she can immediately see the difference between her presence in the crowd at Ned’s execution, and her presence in a crowd at this corrupted vision of that moment. Now, people laugh. Comedy is tragedy plus time, and Arya possibly hasn’t grasped until now just how much time has past since the tragic events that hurtled her to Braavos bent on revenge.
The Kingsmoot and subsequent baptism of Euron Greyjoy as the new king serve only to underscore the building idea of old thrones and old practices becoming increasingly out of place. Euron takes the throne in a coup, but it’s hard to see how there’s any future for his vision for the Iron Islands. He may bring the Ironborn and their ships to Daenerys come season’s end, but it’s probably only the ships she wants.
Yara and Theon make like the other children of old, dead kings and flee. Surely they too will find new meaning and new allies elsewhere, and there’s every chance Theon may find he feels more aligned to the Starks than at any time before. It’s also hard to not see some of the big movements this episode as cleaning house: Theon and Yara may disappear for a while, just as the Sand Snakes have done, and Jorah Mormont is about to do. Their absence is acknowledgement that Game of Thrones needed to pare its various plots back to focus them, and in doing so we can spy their connections more strongly.
The flipside to this is that King’s Landing may become even more irrelevant. As it stands, the Lannister-Tyrell-Faith Militant storyline is tracking to crescendo around the same time as the new northern allies try to reclaim Winterfell, and as Daenerys potentially consolidates her power to head to Westeros.
Daenerys and the north make sense – both contain characters touted as the one who was prophesied – and it’s long seemed logical that Daenerys and Jon hold the key to defeating the White Walkers. But the characters in King’s Landing seem to be suffering from a slow death of redundancy. Most of them are grappling with the aftershocks of old conflicts, and as the High Sparrow constantly reminds them, they’re part of the old establishment. There is no place for them and – Margaery Tyrell notwithstanding – they all seem to lack the ability to adapt.
Right now their absence in this mythology-heavy episode only proves how meaningless the Iron Throne now is: none of the Stark children care for it, and it can’t be long before Daenerys, as breaker of chains, realises the folly of trying to install herself as new regent to a kingdom that doesn’t want a ruler anymore.
And that’s the point for them all. Are they fighting for themselves, or for the realm? And is the realm the old structures? Or is it the people?
To bring it back to the key moment: the true test of Bran is whether Hodor’s death resonates with him beyond the impact of this episode. For Bran, as a lord and as someone seen as a potential saviour in the coming war, he needs to recognise the impact of his actions on those who live in the realm. As everyone absconds from thrones and laws and the nobility, Bran can either continue as a pawn in the game, or as someone who can actively change people’s lives for the better.
For Bran, Arya, Jon and Sansa – and even Yara, Theon, Daenerys, Tyrion and Varys to an extent – they’ve all had someone to hold the door for them to get this far. But just as Meera and Bran disappear into the darkness, these characters are realising they’re alone in their own dark wood, astray from the straight road, and they’ve only got each other to find their way back.