Following episode: season 6, episode 6, "Blood of My Blood."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
“We can go home now, Hodor”
Sarah: Aaron! What a spectacular hour of television! I’m not saying I think everything about this episode was perfect, but: I was riveted, and also, even while I was watching, I was excited for all the unpacking we were going to get to do later. Ownership, knowledge, loyalty, trust: this episode was really hitting on all the levels. Also: look, I’m just going to throw this out at the beginning, because it was so fascinating and I’m worried it might get lost: full penis! Genital warts!! Aaron, I sort of feel like that full-screen penis was maybe the punctum of this episode? Or maybe, in a Freudian sense, the interpretive center, the navel. Like: you can be holding the thing in your hand, the very thing, the object around which so much power in this world is imagined to circulate, and not even know what’s going on with it. Are those warts? Maybe? What even is that?
We don’t actually have to dive right into the full frontal nudity here, Aaron. This show was getting at bodies and power in all sorts of ways, metaphoric as well as visual!
Aaron: That’s a good place to start because, as with the warty penis, my first reaction to the episode was: Huh! What? But I guess that’s what a punctum is: it breaks your flow because you can’t “make” a totality out of it.
Sarah: Aaron, I have just gone to look up Barthes’s definition of punctum! Here we go, from Camera Lucida: a punctum, in a photograph, is a “sensitive point...A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” The punctum is the thing that binds you to the photograph, almost — later, Barthes writes, that one thing about the punctum is that “paradoxically,” while “remaining a detail, it fills the whole picture.” So, in one sense, I do think that’s a good way to feel about that poor boy-actor’s penis: this point of feeling, that can structure the whole effect of the episode. But then, on the other hand, the penis gets obscured by everything that comes afterwards.
Aaron: It’s the random thing, like “hold the door” becoming the emotional center of the episode, after having been a truly random-sounding Fantasy Name. Before, Hodor was kind of a funny name that we made jokes and memes about. Now… fuck, man. Hodor.
Sarah: Oh, Aaron. Hodor. Hodor!
Aaron: So much so that we didn’t notice SUMMER THE DOG getting killed!
Sarah: OH, AARON, I NOTICED! Do not for ONE MINUTE think that I did not DEEPLY NOTICE the sound design there, with Summer’s carefully painful growls and (oh my heart!) yelps! Basically I have a rule that I do not watch any shows or movies with dogs in them, and the misery of watching Summer just off himself so beautifully but also strangely casually was one reason why. But that’s exactly the point, and part of what makes this episode both thrilling and difficult to talk about. Hodor’s death tips the whole episode off balance! It just eclipses everything. What to make of an episode where the wrenching direwolf death just… fades?
Aaron: You know, if we’re bringing Barthes into this: those deaths at the end were so meaningless and accidental, and that’s the tragedy. Why did Hodor, Summer — or the main Child of the Forest — have to die? No reason! To delay the infinite horde a few minutes? It would have been much less poignant if those deaths had some clear and concrete meaning. But it all seems so… random, accidental. And thus, devastating.
Sarah: That is one of a couple of very pressing logistical questions about this episode. First: what’s the plan, Meera? (I mean, it’s not her fault she doesn’t have a plan. But really, it’s baffling from a viewer’s perspective: everyone’s dead but where are you going?). And second: where are all these trees the ironborn are going to cut down? And how are they going to cut them all down, when there’s only 15 of them? And, wait, one more: do Sansa and Jon really have time to go on a good-will tour before Ramsay shows up with the Bolton army for flaying time? I’m really confused about how all that’s going to play out. How long has she been here, anyway? Where in Castle Black did she find the velvet for this new dress? The embroidery floss? Let’s talk about all this, but not forget the warty penis.
Aaron: Sarah, no one is going to forget the warty penis. With Meereen, the internet has concluded that Benjen will rescue them, because otherwise none of it makes any sense, since they only gained about 40 seconds with that maneuver.
As for the Assholes on Dickhead Island, my god, they are the worst, the absolute worst. The plan is to build lots of ships? NO, MAKE ME KING, I WILL BUILD EVEN MORE SHIPS THAN YOU, I WILL USE MY PENIS AS A HAMMER AND MAKE SHIPS. I mean, Euron won the Kingsmoot by neutralizing Theon’s act of gender ally-ing: when everyone is like “Whoa, no way, not a woman, dude” he smooths it over by being all “No, actually, dudes, it’s cool” and that works right up until Euron reminds everyone that he doesn’t have a penis, and thus, cannot serve as her substitute kingship phallus or whatever. But Euron’s penis has its own logistical problem: he plans to “give” Dany his ships and also to “give” her his cock. But if he gives her his ships, then she will have them — not him — and once her army has ridden them over the ocean, she won’t need them or him anymore. Giving Dany his ship-cock will result in… him losing them. I think Euron also lacks an endgame here. (I did, however, appreciate that Game of Thrones gave us another “Awkwardly Waiting For The King To Wake Up From Being Dead, This is Gonna Be Awkward If He Isn’t Alive Again” scene, though).
Sarah: Absolutely nothing about Euron interests me. What a terrible country; even the crown is a sucky crown. But hey, this is interesting: is Yara going to Meereen? Doesn’t that sound sort of pleasing? Yara and Dany: that is a conversation I would like to see. I imagine it would be a little bit like Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club, except that Yara would be like, Fuck you with the eyeliner; sweet dragons though!
Aaron: I think Pyke is just a park where all the worst people in the world go to LARP. There’s only like 40 of them, but somehow they’re going to build a thousand ships?
Sarah: Aaron, they have no trees! WHERE DO THEY GROW THE FLAX?! Nothing makes sense, except their dreadful coronation drowning zombie act. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Aaron: Euron even genders everybody’s labor. He will murder any men who spin flax and any women who cut down trees, like a North Carolina congressman policing a bathroom.
Sarah: Do you think he’d make Theon spin flax? I bet he would.
Aaron: OMG, I hate that we’re talking about those dickheads. Let’s stop.
Sarah: Let’s move on!
Aaron: I want to talk about ARYA.
Sarah: Isn’t it good that Arya is getting some training? I was worried, that she wasn’t getting enough training. So, thank goodness, that we got to watch that some more!
Aaron: Yes, the fight scene was super boring. BUT. I do think this episode did a lot to rescue (or at least theorize) the lameness of her plot, which is all about her becoming a nonentity with no personality (who can also be all personalities). It’s sort of like joining the military and the Screen Actor’s guild at once. We get to see her watching people watch her father’s death, just like we watched her watch her father’s death in season one! We get to see an underused actress watch an underused actress complain about not getting any good parts! (Also: “there are no small parts.”)
Sarah: “Small parts.” I mean, c’mon. Was he talking about the boobs? He’s right, those weren’t small! I’m really interested in your take, here, Aaron, because I thought the whole theater scene INCLUDING THE PUNCTUM WART PENIS was truly fascinating. Your friend makes the great point that one thing we’re seeing is the show comment about how history and fiction work together, and that seems very right. We’re also, of course, seeing this sort of meta comment about the spectacle of bodies; this is a repetition of Arya’s experience, and it’s a repetition of our experience of watching Arya, as well.
And that’s why one of the fascinating parts of this play was the way it staged viewership. As you may remember, Arya watching the play from the crowd, right next to two, rather unattractive, middle aged ladies (at least: I think the show wants us to find them unattractive). And the camera goes to them for the reaction shots! They are the ones who laugh at Ned’s country-bumpkin speech and ignorance, shocking Arya (and us); but also, they are a little shocked and horrified at the display of fake-Sansa’s (big)(fake?) breasts. I’m so intrigued that Arya’s emotional experience of this play is pitted against the gaze of these prudisn middle-aged women. And then, we go straight from these women to the punctum wart penis. Which, I think, puts us, as television viewers, on the side of the body-friendly theater, and against the crowds? No one ever wants to be an unattractive middle-aged lady, at least in this world. Of course, we are immediately on the side of the clever actress who is beautiful and witty and interesting, and thus clearly not long for this Game of Thrones world; no one new and awesome on this show (especially a woman: see Karsi, see Ros) ever escapes being brutally killed off, even if they didn’t have the Faceless Man after them for no apparent reason.Aaron: The mock play also links up nicely with the Bran and Hodor stuff at the end: Bran seems to think that what he’s doing is watching, an invisible eyeball that can voyeuristically see without being seen, the ultimate surveillance fantasy. But it turns out that seeing has consequences, and that there’s a kind of complicity between those who see and those who are seen. The audience’s desire for SEX BODIES AND VIOLENCE is part of why the show has shown us so much of it. But when we contemplate other people watching this show, it is easy to judge them for what they are watching: oh, those others watch this show for the wrong reasons, they just want to see breasts and gore. But what if the thing you’re watching reaches through the screen and TOUCHES you?Aaron: At the beginning of the episode, we see Arya watching those ladies without being seen, and that’s what Bran thinks he’s doing, until the moment the entire audience of zombies lifts up and looks at him. It’s intense.
Aaron: You know, I remember watching the episode where the Wildlings are trying to attack over the wall, and the whole thing is a Big Battle and it’s bloody and exciting and spectacular, and I remember thinking: I am over this show. It’s just empty spectacle and violence, and it sickens me, and I’m done with it. But now, I’m… not.
Sarah: That episode was the worst! Oh God, it was just Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. They managed to make mammoths boring, and I still can’t believe it.
Aaron: There’s this amazing Amitav Ghosh line, from an essay about 9/11, where he argues that: “the thickening crust of our awareness is both a sign and reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence.” I feel like that: as I watch this show, my tolerance for violent spectacle is increasing which — if you extend that to all viewers — necessitates MOAR VIOLENT SPECTACLE. How are they going to top the ending of the last episode? How are they going to top the death of Hodor?
Sarah: I’m not sure I agree! This episode was most wrenching in the smallness of its vision: the tiniest snag at Hodor’s chest was worse than anything in the wall battle. I don’t feel desensitized, here: maybe I did while the dog’s went after Lady Walda? At that moment, I was just so glad it wasn’t worse, and as we discussed that’s a fairly dreadful position to be in.
Aaron: Right, but that’s what I take Bran’s arm scar to represent: he thought he could just watch and be unaffected, but watching turns out to have its own power. But this is also the show’s way of thinking through its own spectacle-making, and what it means to watch, or to watch others watching.
Sarah: But I do think that here is where we have to come back to Sansa! Her truly amazing demand, in the opening scene, that Littlefinger witness her suffering, and her insistence on its continued realness was just phenomenal. It worked particularly well as a response to Ramsay’s repeated line in last week’s horrible rape letter: “Come and see,” Ramsay wrote. Sansa’s question, “What do you think he did to me?” takes Ramsay’s imperative, his belief that he owns spectacle, and remakes it in her favor.
Aaron: Right! It makes him complicit! Her insistence that he not simply see and hear — because apologies are cheap and easy — but that he say, himself, what he sees in his mind’s eye (and thus reveal himself), was such a power move from Lady Stark. (Also, a slow clap for “The Lady Stark Asked You A Question.”)
Sarah: Slow clap for every Brienne moment this episode. “Rather brooding!” But let’s not get distracted! Sansa!
Aaron: But can we separate Brienne from Sansa? Eever since those two got together, they became whole persons: without a liege lord, Brienne doesn’t work. And without a family, Sansa has been at the mercy of a very cruel world. But together, they suddenly become the best versions of themselves. Becoming yourself is not something you do on your own.
Sarah: Aaron, that is an amazing truth.
Aaron: I stole it from a podcast on Tagore. But it also helps rehabilitate Old Terrible Sansa, in a way; her goal was to be a lady, yes, but it was also to build family and weave things together; now that we see her making a nice wolf outfit for Jon — literally giving him Their Father’s Clothes, as best she can remember them — she is re-creating her family, in exactly the way she was trained to do. In the way that we — when we were watching Arya scoff at all that tedious Dull Lady Embroidery stuff in season one — were very quick to dismiss. But I feel like we’re seeing Sansa do a lot of really crucial (and feminized) labor, bringing people together again: starting with her and her brother, but — eventually — the whole north.
Sarah: Oh man, do I have some strong hopefulness about this allegiance building Sansa is doing. Also, can we note: this episode was really interested in the word “Lady!” “Lady Sansa” is the first thing said in the episode; the Waif spits the name “Lady Stark” at Arya. It made me really notice that the new Red Woman (sigh) is a “woman” not a “lady.” Not many other uses for that word in this show! Ladies and whores, sure: slaves and mothers. “Women”: do we hear that very often?
Aaron: Not much room for women in this world, no.
Sarah: The most important, moment, of course, was when Sansa said to Littlefinger: “The other things he did to me, ladies aren’t supposed to talk about.” Her sense there is exactly right: that being a “lady” partly means being forced out of some crucial parts of story making: by propriety, by being, as she says with wrenching irony, “tender hearted.”
Aaron: I wonder if Littlefinger sees what she has become, and thinks to himself “I have done a good job of making Sansa very strong”? Because I think he still believes that he is helping himself by helping her — always his MO — and I also think he knew Ramsay’s deal. Sansa shook him a bit in that scene, but he got away from it annoyingly unscathed.
Sarah: If he does, he is very wrong. Sansa became strong, but it’s not because of him, and not because of Ramsay. If anything, it was because of Theon and Brienne. Which takes us back to your excellent point of becoming ourselves together. Let’s think of some of the relationships this episode is parsing: Sansa and Brienne, Yara and Theon, Jon and Edd, Dany and Jorah, Arya and the Faceless Man, Bran and Hodor especially. In some ways, this was an episode “about” loyalty, the different forms it takes, the way it changes us, the ways it can be corrupted. I appreciated very much that the episode managed, I thought, to make many kinds of self-sacrifice seem beautiful, even necessary, without flattening obedience into a necessarily good trait. Brienne is a very different — and much better — kind of servant, for example, than Arya is being trained to be: Brienne asks hard (excellent! unaswered!) questions, and Arya is reprimanded for doing so. Man, remember back in season three when Arya’s relationship with Jaqen H’ghar was really fun and entertaining? What happened?
Aaron: Watching Sansa sew her life back together has been amazing; from the moment she and Brienne linked up, she has been the driving force of that entire plot. The same with Theon, in a way: he meets up with his sister — and now that he’s not trying to be Dickhead King of Dickhead island — he’s suddenly a whole person again, able to act and do and be. But to your point: loyalty in both cases — Brienne-Sansa and Theon-Yara — actually makes both of them whole; it isn’t a hierarchical relationship, but a sustaining, complementary loyalty.
Sarah: Well then, I guess that brings us perfectly to the end! It’s seeing these relationships play out so beautifully that primes us, in a way, to both appreciate and be appalled by Hodor’s sacrifice. When Bran wargs into Hodor, it’s a different kind of symbiosis, one that Bran could kind of justify by believing Hodor did not quite have a real, human, consciousness, maybe? And that sense evaporates in the final scene, as Bran realizes that his warging is the cause of Hodor’s diminished life.
One thing I’ll add: I only noticed as I was looking for pictures that in the courtyard, before his fit, Hodor is grooming a white horse. And Aaron, this is a show, that despite its protagonist-killing, believes in the iconography of the white horse! Sansa and Dany both ride them, in this episode. So associating Hodor with the white horse is one way this show, visually at least, is marking Hodor truly as a hero. He may not get to ride the horse, but we seem standing along side it. Or maybe: he is the white horse? He is the trusty steed!
Aaron: Okay, here’s the question for me: is Hodor the one holding the door closed at the end (and not Bran controlling him)? If so: what does his choice to do that mean? Does he understand his fate? Does he choose it? Has he embraced it? I mean, the character has a lot of personality — he loves blood sausages! He cowers! — so what are we to understand about how he understands the world? You’re absolutely right about the unconscious “Oh I’ll just take over his body because he doesn’t have a mind” attitude that Bran (and we?) have tended to adopt, and the devastating realization that he is a person. So what is Hodor on the inside?
Sarah: That is exactly the question.
Aaron: Maybe the tragedy is that we can’t answer it. All he can ever say is Hodor, so we never learn.
Sarah: The end of language! Oh Aaron. Let’s stop there I guess? Best and worst!
Aaron: My worst is going to be Tyrion and the gang in Meereen, who we haven’t talked about because it was such a deflating come-down from last week’s wacky festival of political allegory.The only interesting thing about those scenes is how hard they work with tricks of perspective to make Tyrion as tall or taller than the other characters. Which is not, actually, that interesting. But, well, that happened.
Sarah: Ugh, Meereen! Zero interest over here in watching Tyrion wrangle a new Red Woman. How unfortunate, that as soon as they let Melisandre become a person (sort of: she was on stage a couple of times this episode, but never given anything to say. Small parts!) they have to bring in a new cliché vampy sex witch. Why can’t this new actual character have even half of the personality of doomed-for-sure Lady Crone?
Aaron: Also, the “why does it have to be a man?” line made me think the show was going to give Missandei something interesting to do.
Sarah: No! Nope. Terrible head fake. This was definitely one of my worsts, too. I also was pretty uncompelled by Dany and Jorah. Like, they were really milking that, and all I could think about was how Sansa had just freaking demolished this sentimentalized idea of “ladies” having feelings in their “tender hearts,” and here was Dany being all “I need you by my side!” while the strings on the soundtrack swelled. So boring.
I did really like her outfit, though! Good belt, Dany! I really think it says something that Dany’s clothes are so much better when she’s hitting the road, all “Ride or Die!”, than when she’s actually trying to wear queen clothes. Those never fit her right.
Aaron: It was strangely bad acting, too, I thought. Especially after Emilia Clarke burned us to the ground last week, the whole scene felt… flat. And yeah, totally reliant on the soundtrack to force us to have feels.
Sarah: My Best: well, beside Sansa, my favorite small detail was the opening shot of Sansa’s needle. I can never get enough of the sewing in this show. (WHEN IS ARYA GOING TO GET HER NEEDLE, I ASK YOU AARON? IT’S STILL HIDDEN, RIGHT?!) Also, I really loved Meera kicking some ass. I’m hoping we get some more of her from here on out!
Aaron: Meera needs to have her “Sansa Takes Charge” moment. As for me, my best is Arya watching a play. I want to see her have some fun, just once, and, ok, that wasn’t quite it? But the more we see her out in the world watching other people — observing and thinking and growing — the more it feels like she’s actually finding a space in the show to be a person, which is exactly what the Many-Faced God threatens to take away from her. There’s real suspense in that, and I’m digging it.
More like IRON BORING, amirite?
Sarah and Aaron
Previous episode: season 6, episode 4, "Book of the Stranger."
Following episode: season 6, episode 6, "Blood of My Blood."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Imma Let You Finish But Don’t Drink That, She’s Trying to Kill You...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.