Game of Thrones: The Climb

“If you think this has a happy ending, you’re not paying attention.”

I’ve written before about how Game of Thrones excels at heteroglossia: many, often contradictory, voices coming together in a massive chorus of mimesis. No one character—not even Tyrion—speaks for the author or for the show’s message. Because there is no “message” to reality or its skillful imitation. There is just the drama and chaos of existence.

Varys: “I did what I did for the good of the realm.”
Littlefinger: “The realm? Do you know what the realm is? It’s the 1000 blades of Aegon’s enemies, the stories we agree to tell each other over, and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.”
Varys: “And what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”
Littlefinger: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

The conversation between Varys and Littlefinger made that clear, as many of their conversations do. It was really a conversation in two parts: first, the idea that the nation requires representation. Benedict Anderson talks about this in Imagined Communities. We are only our nationality because we agree that “the United States” (or wherever) is a place with shared meaning; national identity and stability rests on much more than shared laws, language, or even custom. Tyrion isn’t wrong in thinking that the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros have a common fear of Tywin Lannister, but there is more to it than that—as Robb knows, and as Robb is counting on in his continued quest to become the King in the North.

The second part of the conversation was, of course, about power. Varys sees chaos as a pit: something the nation must avoid falling into, something that is hard to climb out of. Littlefinger disagrees. He sees chaos as a ladder of opportunity, which made me imagine a ladder of corpses in the style of Hieronymus Bosch.

Is it that climb that the title refers to? Or the more obvious climb—Jon, Ygritte, and the wildlings climbing all 700 feet of the Wall? They were cut loose (a very Littlefinger move), but Jon saved Ygritte, and she saw the world from the Wall. Both worlds, in fact: the land beyond the Wall that she has always known, and the land south of the Wall that Jon wanted to show her.

Jon, Ygritte, and the Wildlings are at the Wall. Bran, the Reeds, etc. are coming towards it from the south. Will they meet up, perhaps with Sam? He is headed there from the north, toting an obsidian dagger that must be subject to Chekhov’s Dagger Law: if a dagger glints in the firelight in the first act, it must be used for some yet-unknown purpose by the end of the season.

Chekhov’s Dagger Law (aka) applies to every scene in this show, of course. Melissandre’s departure from Stannis a few episodes ago? It wasn't random. She was off to look for Gendry. (And those of us who have read the books should talk about that in the spoiler thread.) Gendry hates that the Brotherhood let him go for god and for gold. As much as I like Gendry’s and Arya’s friendship, and as much as I distrust Melissandre, I was so moved by Thoros’s speech that I understand his decision. Paul Kaye did a phenomenal job with that monologue, and “they were the only words I knew” perfectly sums up the agony of disbelief. In fact, let’s just take a minute and enjoy the monologue again:

“By the time I came to Westeros, I didn’t believe in our Lord. I decided that he, that all the gods, were stories we tell the children to make them behave. So I wore the robes and every now and then I’d recite the prayers. It was just for show—a spectacle for the locals. Until the Mountain drove a lance through this one’s heart. I knelt beside his cold body and said the old words. Not because I believe in them, but he was my friend, and he was dead, and they were the only words I knew. And for the first time in my life, the Lord replied.”

Of course—as Theon’s torturer reminded him—if you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention. Beric Dondarian says there is no “other side,” just darkness, which might mean that even those who worship the Lord of Light don’t completely understand the nature of the universe.

And who does? Even in a land like Westeros, where magic is slowly coming alive, most people are too caught up in themselves to ask those larger questions. Take Theon, who has been reduced to begging to be mutilated. Such is the power of pain, misery, and torture. Or take Edmure Tully, who wants to haggle for a prettier wife from the Frey clan, even if the delay means that Robb loses the war. Pinky fingers, wives—those little distractions make up the excitement, happiness, and sadness of everyday life.

Especially for people like Tyrion, Sansa, Shae, Cersei, and Loras. The nightmarish marriage pact is slightly hilarious, since Sansa didn’t know Loras was gay during their conversation, and now doesn’t know that Tyrion is in love with Shae, her maid. Tyrion said that would be an “awkward” conversation, and that doesn’t begin to cover it. Cersei is still miserable without her true love Jaime, but at least she and Tyrion are bonding (sort of) over their shared misery. Cersei even revealed that it was Joffrey who ordered Tyrion killed during the Battle of the Blackwater.

Ugh, Joffrey. He got a chance to try a “fresh experience”: shooting Ros with a crossbow while she was tied to a bed in what I thought at first was skimpy lingerie, and then realized was blood. Lots and lots of blood. What a horrible fate. Joffrey…shudder. And Littlefinger mentioned he was grateful. How grateful? Joffrey aligned with Littlefinger is a horrible idea.

Although last week’s episode left me a little cold (I just didn’t love it as much as I usually do), this week delighted me. Quite a few conversations were more fun than they should have been: Lady Olenna and Tywin Lannister trading barbs and threats. Jaime, Brienne, and Lord Bolton. (I loved Brienne helping Jaime with the steak.) Loras loving gold and green brocade. (“I’m sure he does,” says Shae.) Varys referring to the Iron Throne as “the Lysa Arryn of chairs.” So, without further ado:

Three and a half out of four sword swallowers.

Reminder: Book-related spoilers and discussions live in the discussion thread.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Morgan India said...

Holy cow you got this out quickly.

I've seen a lot of people hating on this episode because of what Joffrey did to Ros. But were we really expecting anything other than sadistic sexual violence from him? A bouquet of roses and a sonnet, perhaps? Yes, he's had a slight emotional changeabout when it comes to Margaery, but the truth remains that Joffrey is indeed one of the "monsters" of the series.

And I swear to god I will throw a phone at whoever sends Jack Gleeson threatening messages.

Mark Greig said...

The Theon/Ramsey (we know who you are, you little creep) scene really made me squirm. More than when I read about them in the book.

Jess Lynde said...

I was rather struck by the focus on the "monsters" of the show this week. I've been telling my husband for months that there are two characters from the book who are the absolute worst monsters --- neither of whom is Joffrey or Littlefinger (even though I dislike them intensely). But for the show, my list has expanded. Littlefinger and Joffrey are so much more vile on the show than in the book.

I was entirely unprepared for what just happened to Ros, and that image of her is going to be burned into my brain for a long time to come. It was a closing shock that rather eclipsed my reaction to the rest of the episode, and made me entirely forget the sweet scene of Sam singing for Gilly and her baby at the beginning until you mentioned it in your review, Josie. I guess having all that in one episode fits well with your opening statement that "reality or its skillful imitation" encompasses all shades of existence, from the sweet to the horrific.

Suzanne said...

Even though I enjoyed the show, especially the scene with Tywin and Ollena, I am getting uncomfortable with the Theon torture scenes. I don't care for his character so seeing him being tortured for unknown reasons for as long as we have been seeing this is getting really frustrating. I am sure there will be a good payoff eventually, though.

I agree that the scene with Joffrey and Ross was shocking and horrifying. It will be awhile before I can get the image of that scene and the prior scene of him and the prostitutes out of my mind.

Juliette said...

I keep thinking of this episode as The One That Comes Between Last Week's And Next Week's but it didn't half make a good effort to get me to appreciate it for itself! That final shot of Jon and Ygritte on the Wall was just beautiful.

I felt like the whole episode had a much more menacing tone than last week's. As a matter of personal taste, I prefer more soppy (i.e. last week), less terrifying and horrible (even Jon and Ygritte's interactions were soft and romantic last week vs edged with potential doom due to their differences this week) but I thought this episode was brilliantly put together.

Also, Sansa and Loras were hilarious. What a shame Tywin had to ruin it. I bet poor Sansa would make a really good beard.

Juliette said...

Oh yes, and I'm sort of glad we didn't actually have to see Tyrion telling Sansa and Shae, since we'd had enough torture already this episode...

Freeman said...

Great episode! I guess i don't have to complain about Ros anymore. Though she actually was wearing a sheer orange dress and not covered in blood. Geez Joffrey's a little impotent imp man.

I can still complain about Theon though! I suspect they're trying to make him a more sympathetic character with his scenes considering he spent the earlier seasons being purely a buttface. It won't work, I'm still gonna hate him! But boy was that brutal. I was cringing throughout.

I enjoyed Littlefinger and Varys' exchange. I love that Littlefinger is getting more and more bold with his actions. Great villainous character.

Man, no one can get one over on Tywin. The dude is unstoppable.

celticmarc said...

Brilliant (and riveting) episode AND brilliant review as well Josie. Wow. I'm a fan for Life ! Beautiful final scene.

Shame on me; I've been watching since the beginning, but haven't commented all the time. Oh heck.

celticmarc said...

Quoting Morgan India :

"Holy cow". Indeed ! Josie, you blow our minds !

I'm with you ladies and gents : those torture scenes are difficult to watch.

Morgan India said...

Josie, they're torturing our chihuahua and I don't like it. I mean, I like it because it gives Iwan and Alfie something to do, but not because, you know ... sad chihuahua.

Henrik Bennetter said...

Wow, that was a really comprehensive review. Thankyou.
I can't but help feel that it's sometimes very hard to keep up with all the storylines. Does anyone know of someone who's done like a chronology cut-together of some (or several) characters storyline?

Suzanne said...

Freeman, I agree with you. No amount of torturing will make me sympathetic to Theon or care about his fate in the least. I just find his story annoying.

topher darling said...

Joffrey's scenes with Margaery earlier in the season had almost neutered him in my eyes and made him somewhat acceptable but that last scene...Ugh, I cannot wait to see his head on a spike one day (or him burned by a dragon!).

Overall, it was a great episode. I like Jon Snow thanks to Ygritte. I was disappointed that we didn't get to see the conversation between Tyrion and Sansa with Shae watching. I love Tyrion and Shae in any scene and I feel cheated.

topher darling said...

One last thought, how sadistic does a show have to be where it can show someone getting their pinky deboned and that's still not the most sadistic scene in the episode?

I would like more dragons, please. :)

Paulo Brabo said...

As a non-reader-of-the-books, I think the showrunners are making some risky narrative choices this season. Some lingering questions seem to be... lingering for too long.

In particular: who the hell is torturing Theon and why? Do we know the torturer or whose party he represents? If we don't, why don't we? If we do, why should we care? In fact, it probably doesn't matter: it's probably too late for anyone to care.