It’s very difficult for Game of Thrones to surprise us at this point. We get it: dark, edgy, faux-feminist. It’s not that deep. Yet, as we (Kylie and Julia, or “Julie”) have been working through our series of Season 6 retrospectives, it’s become increasingly easy to forget that this show is supposed to be an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire. In some ways that was a very good thing: it really allowed us to dig deep at the story showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) were telling, without it being biased from our understanding of the universe. Or the lens of coherency.
But it came at cost, because apparently D&D do want to adapt some of George R.R. Martin’s ideas, or at least use them as a crutch to make up for their shoddy worldbuilding. And they did this by just dumping random information into one plotline: Bran’s.
When it was peppered throughout the episodes during Season 6’s run, we certainly weren’t happy to see this almost-appropriation, if you will. But it was at least broken up by everything else. However, watching this thing straight through, with just a focus on Bran… Well, let’s just say that Julie had her hands full.
She also felt a lot of sympathy for the poor show-only watchers, and how confused they must have been.
So let’s crack this nut open, with yet another
Even though this plotline might have had fun ASoIaF winks in it, we are ever-vigilant to stop the conflation between the two narratives. As a result, we’ve come up with some handy names for the show characters to avoid any confusion. For fuller explanations, please refer to the Book Snob Glossary.
Don’t get us wrong, by the way: Bran, Meera, Leaf, and Summer have nothing to do with their book counterparts either. But there’s only so many characters we can call “cardboard”, right? On a slightly related note, if anyone can describe these show-characters’ personalities to us without talking about their plot-function or appearance, we’d love to hear in the comments!
Now that we’ve got the background work out of the way, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the story of Bran and Amazing Exposition Trees.
Home Is Where The Hodor Is
We’re going to do something weird and start off by saying something positive about Game of Thrones. We are reintroduced to Bran after a year on the bench with a very lovely, atmospheric shot of him and Max von Sydow in a cave. It’s all dark, and there’s roots everywhere, and there’s no music—just some creepy crows cawing in the background. (Or are they ravens? Apparently that’s synonymous on this show.)
We also have something nice to say about Leaf: she’s got bangin’ haircutting skills. Just look at this before and after:
She and Septa Spoonella should open a joint-salon.
Bran and Max von Sydow have their eyes all rolled up into their head, so it’s clear they’re in some kind of “warg” vision (this will not bother us…).
You know what we hope it is? Well, it’s just that… there’s this gaping plot-hole: how on earth can someone with a developmental disability exist? Hodor has been walking around for 6 seasons (minus 1) with a very limited vocabulary, and yet NO EXPLANATION? We don’t understand!!
To be perfectly clear, because this actually is something worth taking seriously: we are being sarcastic. Unfortunately, this may as well have been the earnest dialogue between D&D leading into Season 6. You see, the vision Bran and Max von Sydow are in is part 1/2 of the “What Happened to Hodor?” Chronicles.
We cut to a shot of them standing (that’s how we know it’s a vision!) in the Winterhell courtyard, while two boys train with swords. They are being watched by a third dude, who is either their brother, a very young Rodrik Cassel with the same hairdo as he has in his sixties, or Seth Rogen’s cousin.
We learn quickly that these boys are lil’ Ned Stark and his younger brother Benny. We also learn that D&D are super eager to draw parallels between lil’ Ned and Jonny Cardboard, since they have him tell Benny the exact same thing Jonny told Olly Chekhov last year. We’re sure this won’t confuse anyone later on in the plot when a certain parentage is revealed.
Hey book nerds, remember how Lyanna was the one dueling Benny in the books? Well whatever! Here she’s just showing off some fine horseman skills, which is also nod to the source material, we suppose, but a nod that doesn’t do a whole lot to paint this Rhaegar+Lyanna=Jon picture. Whoops, spoiler. Unless this is considered sufficient seeding for her impetuous nature?
Meanwhile, Bran, psyched from his Exposition 101 class, points at each character and names them for Max von Sydow, who definitely knows who these people are anyway.
“That’s my father. And my Uncle Benjen. …Lyanna! My Aunt Lyanna. I’ve seen her statue in the crypt. My father never talked about her.”
Yes. It is this bad. Max von Sydow doesn’t even dignify it with a response.
As emotionally impactful as Bran might have found seeing his dead father, dead aunt, and missing-presumed-dead uncle again, it all pales in comparison the second lil’ Hodor arrives on the scene. BUT WAIT! He’s called “Wylis” and he can speak in complete sentences.
Unfortunately for Bran, Max von Sydow read the script and knows that we have to leave that mighty mystery here for this episode. He pulls them both back out of the tree root (wait, where was the tree they were looking through?), and proceeds to talk in weebly wobbly metaphors that we suspect might be garbled future book dialogue. The gist is that Bran can’t stay in memories too long, because you drown under the sea, which is not a stupid concept at all. We can totally buy that part of this dreamy mysticism involves having to detach yourself emotionally. The problem is the plot-convenient moments in which leaving the flashbacks always happens.
Once again though, Hodor comes onto the scene and nothing else matters. Not even Bran asking why Max von Sydow bothered to show him this scene, nor any explanation of that they’ve been doing for a year with implied other visions… Just Hodor. Bran tells him that his name used to be Wylis and he could talk. Hodor, who probably knows this already, just kind of nods and says, “Hodor.”
Sidebar: what are the ethics of continuing to call this character “Hodor”? To be honest, calling him “Wylis” sort of makes our tummies hurt, but calling him “Walder” doesn’t really feel like a viable option—that is his name in the source material (as Bran always knew)—but it’s difficult in general to talk about character agency on this show when all we see are D&D’s decisions moving each character along. We know that simply because he responds to “Hodor” doesn’t mean this was a choice in self-identity, and in the books it’s clear that it was just what everyone began calling him because it was all that he said. So…Wylis it is? Please don’t make us. Can we just go with “Showdor” instead?
Showdor carries Bran outside the cave, which, from what we remember of Season 4, was the spot that the army of the dead was chilling under the snow, poised to attack. If you need a refresher:
However now, it’s totes clear so that Meera can sit without a hat or gloves (your Canadian mom is very disappointed in you right now) and mourn the death of her brother. We’re torn, because we’re glad that there actually is grief being depicted, especially in the season where Jonny Cardboard and Sandra Snark basically shrug after Rickon’s death, and this might be the best continuity between seasons we’ve seen yet. We mean, Jojen isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it’s obvious that his death is what’s upsetting Meera. However, at the same time, wasn’t the whole “dead things attacking the cave” kind of a crucial plot point?
Meera: You shouldn’t be here.
Bran: It’s not safe outside the cave.
Meera: It’s not safe anywhere.
Oh. Okay then.
In an effort to cheer her up, Bran decides to begin talking about the Great Showdor Mystery, and she makes it clear that she gives less than two shits. “Some people are just developmentally disabled, Bran. It doesn’t need to be treated as a mystery,” she says in a much better show. What’s weird is that we’re sort of given the impression that the bug up Meera’s ass has more to do with being bored in the cave and feeling useless, rather than any kind of sense of impending doom. Which isn’t an invalid frustration, but an odd tonal choice. This is reinforced when Bran, sad that Meera didn’t like the Showdor story, goes back inside, allowing the very-different-looking-but-it’s-better Leaf to yell at Meera for not being super supportive.
Leaf: Brandon Stark needs you.
Meera: For what? I sit in there and I watch him have his visions and nothing ever happens.
Leaf: He isn’t going to stay here forever.
We’d say this makes sense from a character perspective, but who even is Meera on the show? That chick that was catty with Osha once, almost raped, and then mercy-killed her brother, right? We guess it does make sense from that charming “support your man” pattern we’ve seen throughout the show.
It’s fine, really. Fine. Just…yeah, an odd way to go about getting the audience engaged, especially considering this is the one place where we see wights and White Walkers this season. Didn’t all the critics say that “Hardhome” did such a wonderful job of showing the real stakes of the series?
The TOWAH of Mysteries
Zoinks! Bran is sure on a zany adventure already, up to his ears as ever trying to solve the mystery of Showdor. But wait! Max von Sydow has another mystery for him, which we jump-cut into in the third episode.
It’s the Tower of Joy sequence, which is possibly our favorite sequence in the entire season. So much so, that Julia wrote a 3,000 word love note about it. For the purposes of this retrospective, we’re trying to be super duper fair and really view this scene through the lens of the TV-show only. Unfortunately, that just makes everything a lot worse. In a confusing and nonsensical way.
We’re dropped into the vision with a beautiful long shot of a tower, and again, credit where credit is due: this is stunning, and there’s a lovely foreboding tone established with the music. We then cut to a tight shot of a man polishing a very long sword. We think that maybe this sword is really significant, since the shot stays on it for some time.
We also see that sword-polishing man has a friend, who’s pretty easy on the eyes. A group of six riders approaches them. Lucky for us, Bran is still riding that Exposition 101 train, and decides to tell us who they are as they dismount.
He’s also got his jam bud Howland Reed with him, as Max von Sydow helpfully explains. Further in the background, a wild Theo Wull, dressing as the locals, can be seen.
Back to sword-polishing guy and his hawt friend, Bran immediately recognizes the latter as “Ser Arthur Dayne.” We, being smarter than that, recognize him as THE DAWNINATOR.
Bran: Ser Arthur Dayne.
Max von Sydow: The Sword of the Morning.
Bran: Father said he was the best swordsman he ever saw.
Wait…but he’s not the one with the sword… Which, we know it’s not just Dawn that needs polishing, but if they’re trying to establish him as this dude with a legendary sword, why didn’t they show… Ah, forget it.
Also, please, anyone with a show-only friend, ask them what they thought of “The Sword of the Morning.” What does this mean to a single damn person here?!
Then. The dialogue starts, guys. Maybe we only think it’s exceptionally odd because we know of the lyrical, dream-like context of the books. But like, these dudes are speaking in a decidedly poetic kind of way at each other:
Ned Patrick Harris: I looked for you on the Trident.
Dawninator: We weren’t there.
Oswell Whent (?): Your friend the usurper would lie beneath the ground if we had been.
The conversation amounts to, “what are you doing here?” To which Dawninator is like, “our prince wanted us to be.” Which is a perfectly reasonable thing for kingsguard to say.
Oh, and we forgot to mention this, but as the two groups of men begin speaking, Dawninator plants his sword into the ground. It’s got a cute lil’ sun emoji on the pommel, and the director takes time to focus on it.
Ned Patrick Harris, bored with the random poetry, asks where is sister is, and Dawninator decides it’s such a dumb question that he’s going to ignore it.
“I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.”
Oh. Thanks, Dawninator! How sweet of him. Less sweet is when he picks up his sun sword, and—wait for it—pulls out a SECOND SWORD.
Does that make him the “Swords of the Morning”? Or does the other sword have a lil’ moon emoji on it that we can’t see? Or is this excellent continuity about how all Pornishmen must dual-wield swords and daggers?
Don’t think on it, it’s fightin’ time!
Dawninator: And now it begins.
Ned Patrick Harris: No. Now it ends.
We could harp on the slightly smug delivery of that line, but why bother when we’ve got this to distract us?
Then we watch the world’s longest fight scene where you can obviously see the actors standing around, waiting for when they’re told to lunge, while Bran and Max von Sydow commentate as if this is some mildly interesting sport game.
Bran: [Dawninator’s] better than my father.
Max von Sydow: Far better.
Look, our previously linked piece by Julia covers this, but we can’t hold it in anymore. What the FUCK were they thinking with the dual wielding swords? It doesn’t make the fight look better (we’d argue the opposite), it makes very little sense from a Watsonian perspective since they established his super special sun-sword, and most important of all: why?
We suspect, as many book readers do, that Dawn will end up being quite significant to the plot of the books, so zooming on the sun emoji in the first place may have just been the checklist effect in action. But, for one, aside from the emoji there is nothing unique about this sword in the slightest (it’s not even a goddamn great sword), and for another, any significance that the audience might have attached to it went out the window the second Dawninator unsheathed Dusk. We know that in the scope of things this doesn’t matter, but this is one of those changes that we have absolutely no explanation for. The only thing we can offer is Rule of Cool: dual-wielding is Badass™!
Since we’re on a roll, time for our next issue. Well wait, let’s let the exposition bot explain it:
“I know [my father won]. Heard the story a thousand times.”
We could get our book-reader panties in a twist really easily with this one, given that it comes with the tacit suggestion that Show!Ned was a giant braggart, while what we know of Ned Stark is that he’s maybe the second-least likely person in the series to brag about anything. First being Samwell Tarly. *Ahem.*
And even if Ned was super into his sword fightin’ victories, isn’t this one that we know has at least a bit of sadness attached? Because spoiler: what’s in The Towah is his dying fucking sister, and he’s battling to the death to save her. So who would be all “omg but the victory was soooo sweet” in this context?
But even ignoring the source material, since it’s so unfair of us to bring it up in the first place, there’s the issue of context within the show. Like…Bran told us that Ned never talked about his Aunt Lyanna the episode before this. So what, was his pops just all, “Hey son, I was in this completely context-free battle where I had to fight Dawninator to the death once, and I WON! Aren’t I the most?” Were there no follow-up questions? Did his kids just assume this was on the battlefield during Robert’s Rebellion? Because we’re quite sure word would get out about how two kingsguard died in the mountains of Porne.
Anyway, it’s time for the SHOCK. As the fight unfolds, it ends up being one-on-one, Ned Patrick Harris versus the Dawninator, because of course it does. And just as it seems that Dawninator is going to kill him, a wild Howland Reed leaps up out of nowhere like a lil’ froggy (which actually makes sense) and stabs Dawninator from behind, through the neck. Bran is scandalized, and bemoans the dishonor of the kill to Max von Sydow.
Pause. We’re sorry, we’re really sorry. We will get through this scene. But we’re starting to suspect that D&D have no clue what the fuck “honor” actually means. This was not a one-on-one gentleman’s duel. This was a wild battle where Ned and his crew were desperate to get into the tower and the two kingsguard were desperate to stop them. Fighting broke out and it was a free-for-all, and six people have already died at this point. So why on Planetos is it suddenly dishonorable to kill your enemy who is about to kill your friend, in this context? Because he didn’t give him a warning first?
Also, back to braggin’ Ned. In addition to the absurdity of gloating about this situation where everybody is dying, including Lyanna, we now have Ned being so petty that he brags to his kids a thousand times about winning against Dawninator when Howland Reed was the one who finished him. In what’s apparently a dishonorable manner. Why would he tell this story at all? It’s almost like it’s something he’d never talk about, and would only maybe revisit in his dreams, especially if they were fever-induced.
Not to bring in our dreaded book knowledge, but this is what the real Ned had to say about the matter:
“The finest knight I ever saw was Ser Arthur Dayne, who fought with a blade called Dawn, forged from the heart of a fallen star. They called him the Sword of the Morning, and he would have killed me but for Howland Reed.” Father had gotten sad then, and he would say no more. Bran wished he had asked him what he meant.”
Yes, this is not a good adaptation. But this also just doesn’t make sense.
Luckily, Max von Sydow seems to realize that as well, and decides that he and Bran must leave the vision NOW, just as Ned Patrick Harris races towards The Towah, from which Lyanna’s screams are emanating. Spoiler.
It’s also possible that Max von Sydow does this because he read the script and knew this reveal can’t come until the season finale. But hey, what do we know?
Once they’re out of the vision, Bran starts yelling at him for stopping the home video at the best part. We agree. Why did he make you sit through that terrible fight? On the positive side, Max von Sydow is really emoting, apparently very attached to Bran’s interest in this. Which is a nice touch, but also a little confusing, since he chooses this time to reveal that he’s a thousand years old.
Actually, in the books—No. Just. Forget it.
Max von Sydow definitely has the hold of some script, since he assures Bran that he won’t be staying in the cave forever. But he has to learn “everything” before then. Um. Everything but what’s in The Towah? Or everything as in everything on the Stark’s Wackiest Home Videos reel? Either way, get on that, guys!
Hold The Heroic Sacrifices
We guess they do make some progress, since the next time we see Bran and Max von Sydow, they’re skipping through the Irish countryside together, walking up to a lovely spiral-shaped stone circle. Why they didn’t park their tree eyes closer is beyond us, but hey, if you have dream walking capacity, use it!
Under the tree, Leaf and her crew have a human tied up. They jam an obsidian dagger into his chest, and his eyes turn
bluer than mountain lakes White Walker blue. Which we’re told is a Crayola color now. This is…something!
Bran wakes up and starts yelling at Leaf, asking how the Children of the Forest could have done such a thing.
Sidebar: we’re calling this character “Leaf” more or less out of courtesy to Mr. Martin’s creative ideas that are clearly just vomited onto the screen here. She’s never actually called this, nor are we given any suggestion that she has a name at all.
Leaf very dramatically explains to Bran that the Children had to make White Walkers, since they were at war and needed to defend themselves. From who, you might ask?
Seriously, we don’t recommend watching this show. But if you do happen upon this scene and the way the Leaf-actor emotes through all that makeup, that wouldn’t be the least funny thing. Also, if you happen to have a show-watcher-only friend who felt this scene was actually meaningful or interesting in any way, please tell us.
We don’t want to be too negative: we found this information quite interesting, and began immediately rooting through our copies of The World of Ice and Fire to try and figure out how such information fit into The Great Pact and the timeline of the War for the Dawn (though Julia remains a cynic and insists that it doesn’t). But, going by show knowledge only, here’s what we’ve learned about the Children of the Forest:
- They throw fireballs
- They live in this cave
We’re not saying the creation of the White Walkers isn’t interesting on a theoretical level, but what is this actually supposed to mean to anyone? Okay, these chicks with long ears made them. The horror! We wonder what Max von Sydow thinks of it! Or is he a thousand years old and lost track of his moral code?
We suppose Bran found this incredibly disillusioning, because the next scene we get is everyone sleeping but him, and he decides to rebel and chuck lil’ pebbles and bones and Max von Sydow. Once it’s clear the dude is unconscious, Bran touches a root near him, and slips into vision-vision!
He goes back to the same tree, only now it’s…now. Like, now now! It’s all snowy and night time and stuff. Also the entire army of the dead is just chilling twenty feet away. And we mean this literally. No one is moving. It’s a zombie mannequin challenge. They could give those Pornish guards a run for their money!
We’re being jerks because the vision logistics make little sense, but this scene is actually well done. The tone is quite creepy, and there is a building sense of horror. Bran walks in and amongst the wights, and there’s even a cool little detail where we see that a good amount of them are wearing the Official Outfit of the Wildlings that we saw during “Hardhome”.
In the back of the infantry is the cavalry, aka four White Walkers. Just four. But they’re on horses and wearing those stupid samurai outfits still. Unlike the wights, they do give a fuck that Bran is just there. Shogun, the head samurai, turns his head to look at him, and it’s the first time anyone moves. It actually is really effective, we promise.
Less effective is what happens next. Bran tries to run away, but the Shogun sort of…we don’t know how to describe this. He’s in front of Bran, Bran looks back to the army, and then when he turns again Shogun is just there. Hello!
Then Shogun proceeds to reach out and touch Bran’s arm, just as Bran pulls himself from the vision. When he wakes up back in the cave, he has a glittery mark where Shogun grabbed him in the vision. According to Max von Sydow, this means that Shogun (and his army) can enter the cave now.
And if you thought we were actually going to get an explanation as to how this works, you haven’t been paying attention. Magic, right?
No seriously, we’ve thought about this probably longer than was worthwhile. (Certainly longer than D&D did.) At the end of The Towah sequence, Bran yells out to Ned Patrick Harris and there’s an indication that he’s heard. So, it’s not like it’s unseeded that the vision-traveler can manipulate/change things. And with Hodor-gate (spoiler) coming up, that’s definitely the case.
But this is something different. This is somebody in the vision proactively interacting with the visioner, all in present day. So, the visioner is physically there somehow, to be interacted with? And this breaks the magic sealing the cave (that Meera ignored in “Home” anyway), which was never explained in the first place? There’s magically plausible situations, and then there’s just pure lazy writing. This falls firmly in the latter category.
But what is clear: the army of the dead is coming. NOW. And Bran needs to become the Three-Eyed Raven. NOW.
Meera and Showdor immediately begin futzing with the sleds and stuff. We ask you to please keep this immediate and incontrovertible sense of urgency in mind. And also to appreciate this amazing dialogue:
Max von Sydow: The time has come.
Bran: The time for what?
Max von Sydow: For you to become me.
Bran: But am I ready?
Max von Sydow: No.
To be fair, Max von Sydow really does try to do something with this. We actually think he deserves his Emmy-nod just for how badly he wanted this to be meaningful.
The episode cuts to some other fantastic action (hint: it involves Edd forgetting that the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is an elected position), but when we pick up back in the cave, Meera is merrily packing up her goods and joking with Showdor about all the bacon they’re going to be eating soon. In the wilderness. As they’re running to narrowly avoid the encroaching army of the dead. We suppose there’s something to be said for her “whistle while you work” attitude? But she soon clues into the severity of the situation and runs outside to see the entire army of the dead.
This isn’t new information. We knew they were coming, and now they’re here. So when we cut to the shot of Bran and Max von Sydow with white irises because they’re off in Vision Land, we can assume that what they’re doing is super-duper important with regards to Bran finally becoming the Three-Eyed Raven.
Possible visions Max von Sydow might deem important enough for him to complete this training:
- More lore on the Children and the White Walkers that perhaps hint at a way of beating them
- Visions of some Targaryen and dragons
- The Battle for Dawn (perhaps featuring Dawn?)
- Max von Sydow first becoming the Three-Eyed Raven or any explanation of those powers and how to use them
- A vision of Benjen Coldhands, or any future ally
- A vision of Jonny at Hardhome killing the White Walker with his sword
- A vision of Sam digging up daggers in the Fist of the First Men
- A vision of Sam reading a book about the White Walkers or the Children of the Forest
- The “Stakes” miniseries of Adventure Time to explain the cyclical nature of mankind’s problems
- A vision of George R.R. Martin methodically writing The Winds of Winter with two fingers, before pausing to comment on the Giants’ wide receivers
- Literally anything that relates to Three-Eyed-Ravendom or the upcoming battle with Shogun
What we did not consider, however, was the end of the “WHAT HAPPENED TO SHOWDOR” mystery extravaganza. But lo and behold, we are back in the damn Winterhell courtyard, as lil’ Ned prepares to go off to the Eyrie.
No seriously. The army of the dead is right there. This is what Max von Sydow deemed so important to show at the last minute? Even the conclusion of the “what’s in The Towah” mystery spectacular would have made more sense (though not a ton), because at least that’s about Jon’s parentage (spoilers) and it may have significant implications for who is going to be leading this upcoming ultimate battle.
And even honeypotting to say that Bran is the one picking where they’re going, wasn’t he super desperate to find out what was in The Towah? Like, we joke about him caring more about the Showdor mystery than his family, but the actual suggestion that he does is a bit much. Unless this is instead the suggestion that to become the Three-Eyed Raven, one must read the scripts ahead of time and figure out which Shocks™ are the most dramatically satisfying for each episode.
The only, only possible way this makes sense is if Max von Sydow foresaw what was about to happen to Showdor, and felt that Bran doing this stupid time paradox thing was crucial to him finally realizing the powers of the Three-Eyed Raven. Even though he already fucked with things when Shogun touched him.
We kind of like the script explanation the best.
Oh, and the army of the dead attacks the cave while Max von Sydow and Bran are just watching a bunch of nothing. No seriously, is Rickard Stark giving lil’ Ned some questionable advice.
The Children of the Forest spring into action with their napalm, but to be perfectly honest, this is not a fight worth recapping in a shot-by-shot. The wights look terrible here. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons all over again, along with their stupid clacking gargling noise. They break into the cave, Meera freaks out and tries to wake Bran by telling him to skinchange into Showdor (for the fightin’), and oh yeah! Remember that Summer is Bran’s wolf? He’s awake and growling.
The wights are back to being able to be killed by arrows and smashing, so that’s nifty. The long and short is that the cave gets quickly overrun. Bran and Max von Sydow can ~sort of~ hear Meera screaming for help, so Bran does skinchange into Hodor, but his consciousness is more focused on the all-important “Dad going on a fieldtrip” scene. Why Max von Sydow doesn’t put a stop to this is anyone’s guess. Other than, again, he read the script.
So, we’ve got Showdor fighting, and at some point a White Walker comes in and Meera kills it with obsidian, but we already knew that… Good on her for remembering something Sam said a few seasons ago? More than D&D have managed.
Meera and (warged) Showder get Bran loaded onto a sled, and Leaf tells them that they need to start running for it. Summer interprets this to mean that he should throw himself at some wights for literally no reason. And die.
Speaking of dying, Shogun wanders into the cave, and he and Max von Sydow exchange Eye Contact of Extreme Significance. We think? It’s also weird, since Max von Sydow is unquestionably next to Bran in the shots of Winterhell!vision that we’re shown, but yet he’s totally staring at Shogun in the cave and 100% aware of his presence.
Magic, we guess.
Do these two have a history? The dude is over a thousand years old. Do we ship this? There’s at least little time to ponder such important questions, since Shogun just up and murders Max von Sydow. Bran, still in the vision, sees him turn into a meaningful cloud of smoke. But he’s too far under the sea to pull himself out after this happens. Or maybe he’s just too enthralled with lil’ Ned getting on a horse. We mean, it is a talking Showdor scene, so who can blame the guy?
Meanwhile, Meera, Showdor, and Leaf are racing to the back door, Bran in tow, and Leaf up and decides that she should have a heroic death, just like Summer! So she whips out one of her stupid grenades, then just stops fucking moving. It blows up and she dies, along with a handful of wights, buying them a total of five seconds. Why she couldn’t have just thrown the grenade, like she did the past fifty times, for the same effect, we don’t know. But it’s tragic. And heroic.
Finally, we get to the end of the cave where there is a literal door. Meera, pulling Bran on the sled, tells Showdor to hold it shut, so that she and Bran can put more distance in between them and the wights that are now slammed up against the other side. We could point out that if Showdor was pulling the sled, they could probably move a lot faster, but hey. It has been a whole thirty seconds since the last heroic sacrifice.
However, we know shit is about to get real, since the Stark Cello of Extreme Emotional Significance™ starts to play. Inside the Vision Land, we still hear Meera’s screams of “hold the door.” Then the camera begins zooming in on Vision Showdor, who can hear her too, or something? This makes a lot of sense to us, especially contextualized by everything Max von Sydow had previously taught Bran.
Bran: [Ned Patrick Harris] heard me.
Max von Sydow: Maybe. Maybe he heard the wind.
Bran: He heard me.
Max von Sydow: The past is already written. The ink is dry.
Perhaps this is meant to show us how special Bran is? Or Showdor? Or Meera? Or it’s only possible because of Real!Bran warging Real!Showdor while still in Vision Land? Which was possible how exactly?
Again. Plausible magic vs. lazy writing. It’s not that we can’t at least pick a rationalization and run with it, but there wasn’t even an attempt to explain how this happened, and what was told to us before hand directly contradicts the events that are going on here. Though who knows? Maybe Max von Sydow once skinchanged into a raven while he was in Vision Land and it’s never crowed right again.
But ignoring pesky worldbuilding details (like always), it happens. Vision!Hodor, hearing real!Meera through real!Bran and vision!Bran (somehow), collapses to the ground in what looks like a seizure. He begins shouting “hold the door” over and over again, until it becomes jumbled into “Hodor.” And real talk: both Showdor actors did a fantastic job here.
Then, the wights break through the door and murder real!Showdor, while Meera pulls the sled with no gloves (still) into the distance. The episode cuts to black.
Okay, there’s a ton to unpack here. First, the elephant in the room. Sensing potential controversy, D&D bravely explained in their Outside the Episode interview, that “this” was George R.R. Martin’s fault—just like burning Shireen! Martin, being asked about it later, confirmed simply that the “Hodor” does come from the phrase “hold the door,” but said “while the name will still mean the same thing, it will be very different from the show’s reveal.”
However this may or may not happen in the books, we feel, is irrelevant to the discussion, since a large conclusion we’ve reached after writing eleven (now twelve) retrospectives is that context in a story is kind of…everything. “Ramsay rapes his bride on his wedding night” changes just a wee bit if we compare the contexts of the books and show. So, we look forward to having a spirited discussion about Martin’s handling of “hold the door” when the time comes.
How the show handled it…we have a lot of discomfort.
For one, and we already hinted at this, we find it really disturbing that Showdor’s condition was treated as this giant mystery needing to be solved. It’s not to say that people can’t have some kind of accident that damages their brains, or grow into a developmental disorder. The problem, however, that we struggle with, is that on Game of Thrones, Showdor is the *only* character with a developmental disability.
Remember Bronn’s hilariously witty wife, Lollys Stokeworth? Yeah, in the books, she also is described as somebody with a developmental disorder might be described in a pre-medical world. And we’re not saying her treatment by the narrative is 100% peachy keen, but we are saying that the choice to make her into someone super ditzy, especially after Saint Tyrion called her “simple-minded” in Season 4, never exactly sat right with us.
It also unfortunately means that the show’s treatment of Showdor is all we have to go off of in understanding how D&D explore developmentally disabled characters. This is a problem, kind of like if the only prominent gay character on the show had spent the entire narrative fulfilling promiscuous stereotypes, was punished and suffered to compel other characters into action, and then died. Oh wait.
To be perfectly honest, Showdor’s treatment by the show, and the fandom at large, has been increasingly uncomfortable. At this point, he’s basically just a meme (and one more popular than Bran…he has a Funko Pop doll where Bran doesn’t), because it’s super hilarious that he says “Hodor” all the time. There’s been no exploration of the dark side of Bran skinchanging into him, especially since it’s to the point where Meera is encouraging this behavior. And worse, there’s been no particular effort to give Showdor any agency of his own. This “heroic sacrifice”, even, is completely out of his hands, since he’s being controlled by Bran. Which is tragic, sure. Maybe that’s the point.
But what we’re left with is the story a boy who was perfectly content and able to communicate in full sentences (even joke around/flirt, apparently), who went through a traumatic and unexplained magical experience that injured his brain and limited his capacity to explain himself, who then went on to become the perfect mule for the same dude who injured him to skinchange into, who then ultimately died to buy Bran and Meera like 5 seconds, when he had no say in the matter.
And there’s zero exploration of this, at all. The episode ends, and Showdor isn’t fucking mentioned again for the rest of the season! Bran doesn’t even have a throwaway line like, “oh I have to be really careful when I go to Vision Land because of what happened.” ANYTHING.
So really, there’s two major sources of discomfort here. One is that the only representation of a person with a developmental disability on the show is treated as though it were something that needs to be solved. Something that can’t just be, because of course there’s a reason everyone is the way that they are. This would be akin to if they had thrown in a randomly traumatic experience for Loras to “explain” why he had the gay, or something.
The second source of discomfort, and this goes well beyond a tone, is that the tragedy of Showdor—the narrative we just laid out—was done in such a way that felt voyeuristic. We were supposed to be horrified and sad when it happened, but then never think on it again. His experience in Vision World was meant to serve a shock. There could well be a follow-up to this involving Bran’s visions next season (though as in most cases, we’re not holding our breath), but especially having no comment on it at all, even if it just was Meera saying sadly, “I guess I’ll be eating all the bacon now,” pushes beyond uncomfortable into outright unacceptable. This is ableism. In a season that’s already chock full of it.
And not to be terrible people, but
No, seriously. We’re not saying that Mr. Martin is perfect, though it is clear that he tries to give Hodor as much personhood as possible, while also refusing to shy away from the incredibly dark implications of Bran skingchanging into him. It’s framed as being wrong, exactly because it removes Hodor’s personhood. This isn’t a “oh man how fucked up!” moment for us to consume, but to dwell on.
“Hodor won’t …Go down into the crypts. When I woke, I told him to take me down, […] only then he wouldn’t go down. He just stood on the top step and said ‘Hodor,’ like he was scared of the dark, but I had a torch. It made me so mad I almost gave him a swat in the head, like Old Nan is always doing.” [Bran] saw the way the maester was frowning and hurriedly added, “I didn’t, though.”
“Good. Hodor is a man, not a mule to be beaten.”
Other times, when he was tired of being a wolf, Bran slipped into Hodor’s skin instead. The gentle giant would whimper when he felt him, and thrash his shaggy head from side to side, but not as violently as he had the first time, back at Queenscrown. He knows it’s me, the boy liked to tell himself. He’s used to me by now. Even so, he never felt comfortable inside Hodor’s skin. The big stableboy never understood what was happening, and Bran could taste the fear at the back of his mouth.
But hey, the show gave us some nifty and not-at-all offensive memes, so…worth it:
Thank You, Uncle Benjen
Meera’s gloveless sled-pulling is really damn impressive, since by the next episode, she’s at least made it to the tree line. However, the speeding skeletons have basically caught up with them. Oh, and Bran is still in Vision Land, but for some reason he’s now flashing really quickly through the seasons that were watchable, along with shit that D&D forgot to foreshadow.
Pause. Why are the visions flashing? They weren’t flashing when Bran was being pulled towards the door in the cave? Is this what it means to be too much under the sea? Is this what it means to be the Three-Eyed Raven? Is this Bran learning “everything” now?
But yeah, we’ve got the whole combo package here: Bran falling from the tower, Ned dying, the Red Wedding, and Aerys II Targaryen ordering Carol’s Landing (she’s that impactful) to be burned down, along with shots of wildfyre being all green and scary. This plot is SO CONVENIENT for seeding things! We also get a ton of lingering shots of “Hardhome”, because who didn’t think that episode was awesome?
Meera collapses into sobs because she’s so weak for not being able to indefinitely outrun the sprinting army of the dead while pulling a sled through the wilderness, and begins apologizing to Bran for failing him. Yeah, go sit in that shame corner, girl!
He finally snaps out of Vision World and is like, “they found us.” But in a really, really chill way, so we suspect this means that he is now the Three-Eyed Raven. Max von Sydow certainly gave no shits about his own death.
However, fear not! They are saved at the buzzer by none other than Benjen Coldhands! The noble Stark nuncle swoops in on a horse and offers to scoop them up, away from the zombies. For reasons we can’t fathom, Meera hesitates, but you know, death vs. stranger danger, and the latter wins out.
We are thrilled though, because Benjen Coldhands remembers that fighting wights with fire is a thing. So even though the damn sequence goes on for an eternity, we can let it go, since this is one of the only attempts at continuity we’ve seen from this plotline.
Then we cut away to a bunch of A+ scenes, including the Horn Faire Dinner Drama, Larry planning a revolution without securing his king or checking where the other kingsguard is, and Bryan Cogman not-subtly crying for help through Braavosi muses. (“Blood of my Blood” is the best, you guys.)
When we cut back, Benjen Coldhands is squeezing blood out of a rabbit into a cup. Could he have, you know, told them who he was first? We all need our iron, sure, but come on buddy, they are reasonably freaked out here…
But yeah, he removes his scarf and reveals that he is Benjen Coldhands, the mostly-dead and not-alive Stark nuncle. You see, back in Season 1 when he went on that ranging mission to look for White Walkers (is that what his assignment was? Not scoping Mance?), he accidentally got stabbed by one “in the gut.” So the Children of the Forest saved his life by stabbing him more, this time in the heat with dragonglass.
We’re quite confused why stabbing people in the heart with obsidian both cures people and turns them into White Walkers, depending on plot demands, but hey. Maybe the Children are into homeopathy.
But this is fine. We’re at least somewhat glad Benny is alive, as is Bran. And he seems to be really full of useful information that could be crucial to this war. Like, he knows Bran is the new Three-Eyed Raven without being told, and he knows that Shogun is going to be making a move real quick. This is helpful! We hope he doesn’t just fuck off.
The Towah of Dramatic Satisfaction
In the final episode of the season, Benjen Coldhands fucks off.
Okay, to be perfectly fair, this is what he says:
“The Wall is not just ice and stone. Ancient spells were carved into its foundations. Strong magic to protect men from what lies beyond. And while it stands, the dead cannot pass. I cannot pass.”
This does make sense, and we guess it means that Bran and Meera are just about to cross The Wall and be safe from the literal army of the dead.
Also this happens, and it’s hilarious:
However, once Benny-boy leaves, Meera turns to Bran and is all, “are you ready?” Ready? I’m sure he super wants to get south of The Wall! I hear they have great onion soup.
But no, apparently Meera was referring to Bran entering Vision World again. Right here, right now. Bran assures her that he’s got this:
“I’m the Three-Eyed Raven now. I have to be ready for this.”
As the Three-Eyed Raven, and given Benny’s warning about the Shogun, we have to assume what he’s going to take a look at is very crucial to the encroaching army of the dead. Especially since he’s willing to take the risk of entering Vision World still north of The Wall, with only Meera to defend him (in all of her questionable sled-toting ability).
Visions we think would be handy-dandy for him include:
- More lore about the Children or the White Walkers, along with some way to beat them
- A Night’s Watchmen in the past figuring out some of the raised-dead’s weaknesses
- A closer look at Hardhome, since he had a lot of flashes there anyway
- A closer look at Aerys, since he had a lot of flashes there, so maybe it’s important
- Some backstory on Shogun, perhaps something that explains how the White Walkers are no longer in the Children’s control
- Some backstory on Max von Sydow
- More about the war between the men and the Children for some context
- A vision as far north as his little vision-feet can carry him
- The Steven Universe episode “Mindful Education” so that he can learn de-stressor techniques that will carry him through this war
- George R.R. Martin still typing The Winds of Winter with two fingers
Don’t get us wrong, what he does find out is important, probably to the outcome of the war, but he has literally no way of knowing this. The point was that the haps in The Towah was a mystery to him. Unless he has the scripts now, because that’s what it means to be the Three-Eyed Raven.
So, with the knowledge of what will please the audience best in-hand, Bran touches a nearby tree and goes back…TO THE TOWAH! We blame Max von Sydow.
We pick right back where we left off, with Ned Patrick Harris about to run up The Towah steps as Lyanna is screaming. Presumably because there is a human coming out of her vagina and there won’t be chloroform until Jo[h]n Snow figures out its use as an anesthetic.
However, Ned Patrick Harris must really have spent his energy on the fight with Dawninator, because by the time he reaches the top of the stairs, the baby is already cleaned up and wrapped in a blanky.
Lyanna is not at all in good shape, and the sheets are just soaked in blood. Too bad Nurse Wylla didn’t watch Call the Midwife and learn those tricks for changing them while the mother is still lying down. Maybe she’s still hemorrhaging or something. It’s also clear that her fever has set in and is basically killing Lyanna NOW. Which is…we guess it’s too nitpicky to get into the timing of puerperal fever, and maybe she was screaming from fever delirium while Wylla counted Jonny’s lil’ toesies or something. Though seriously, those sheets! To be fair, it’s equally weird fever/soiled sheets timing in the books. But maybe that’s because it’s a fucking fever dream of Ned’s and these events shouldn’t be taken completely literally.
Ned Patrick Harris, before anything, sets down Dawn, and we get a significant shot of it. Because it’s so important.
Lyanna is pretty happy to see him, but she’s also dying and junk, so that takes away from the moment. Her broseph yells to get water, because apparently this didn’t occur to Wylla (she is so incompetent), but Lyanna is all like, “nah I’m out of here anyway.”
This isn’t poorly done, by the way. Lyanna’s actor is great, and clearly scared to be dying, while also urgently trying to ask her brother to do something. In fact, she calls Ned Patrick Harris closer, and this is what we can make out:
“If Robert finds out, he’ll—you know he will. You have to protect him. Promise me, Ned. Promise me.”
Guys. It’s an iconic line from A Song of Ice and Fire that D&D didn’t change. Do you know what a rare, rare gift this is? Forget Olly fetching a sword… we actually have the characters who are supposed to be saying this doing so in somewhat of the same context. Minus the whole fever-dream aspect.
In the middle of Lyanna’s dying request, Wylla decides to shove the perfectly clean baby into Ned’s arms, and Ned Patrick Harris has this really adorable expression on his face. Kind of like a man who’s never held a baby before, but really wants to protect the thing:
Oh, also Bran’s here. We get like, two reaction shots of him looking sad, but they are sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss it.
And then. We zoom in on the little baby’s face, potentially with Photoshopped eyes, and the scene crossfades to JONNY CARDBOARD! The baby is Jon! Jon is the baby!!
And then it’s over!
Now, before we jump off of this scene into our concluding thoughts, there is something we feel the need to point out: Bran never found out whose kid this is, or who the kid becomes. He could easily infer, since it’s clear Sansa knew [Robert’s version of] the story of Rhaegar kidnapping and raping Lyanna, and “oh hey if my dad is protecting a baby, it’s probably that one he came home with and said it was his bastard.” But this could have at least been explicated in some way, especially since the show-watcher-only audience was so confused by this that HBO had to release a flow chart explaining it.
Rhaegar wasn’t even mentioned in this scene, and there was not an insignificant number of people that assumed this meant Jon was an incest baby between Ned Patrick Harris and his sister. We can’t even blame them for that? The vision in the Winterhell courtyard very intentionally paralleled lil’ Ned with Jonny Cardboard. Which yeah, isn’t stupid because of course adoptive parents have influences on their kids. But then coupled with the reveal that Ned Patrick Harris is secretly sooooo dishonorable, bragging about that Dawninator kill that involved sneaky backstabbing, it could easily be inferred that the point of Bran’s arc this year was at least in part to reveal the hypocrite that Ned is. And what better way than to give him an incest baby after his reaction to learning the truth about Carol and Larry.
Even ignoring D&D’s mysterious need to tear down the reputation of a character who’s been dead for five seasons, there’s the fact that Bran—ya know, the protagonist of this plotline—didn’t get a damned reaction shot to this reveal. We saw him looking vaguely sad that his aunt was dying, but nothing after the baby was brought onto the scene. Supposedly this is his first step as the Three-Eyed Raven. And it was just…what? To finish watching a home video?
What makes this worse is that then the episode proceeds to do absolutely nothing with this reveal. Unless it’s trying to imply that Jonny is truly the rightful king? But, this actually gives him even less claim as King in the North (not that it matters, since it’s not like the Northern Lords were privy to this crossfade).
There is just absolutely no reason why this scene should be in this episode, especially when it would have made a lot more sense for Max von Sydow to want to show him this back during the army attacking the cave sequence. Since you know, they had time for one more crucial piece of information, and Jonny’s parentage would have significant implications for the “war to come”.
And actually, if Bran’s first solo act as the Three-Eyed Raven had involved creating a time paradox that injured someone he cared about, it would have at least made a little more sense in the context of his arc. Like…he’s being thrust into this position before he’s ready, and the consequences are too much to handle, so moving forward into Season 7, it will be an ongoing struggle for him. Not that it wouldn’t erase the ableist implications of what happened to Showdor. It’s just more, if they were going to for it anyway, might as well have it in a more logical context.
We’re also mystified why this Jonny reveal needed to be saved for the final episode. Wouldn’t it have allowed for a bit more dramatic irony when he faced off against Ramsay, being called a “bastard” when this is the dude who might have the best claim to the Iron Throne? Or it would have allowed for a moment where Deadpan bemoans her status as last Targaryen (maybe in that Hand of the Queen conversation with Saint Tyrion), and the audience is like, “oh girl. We know things!”
Is it just this weird rule D&D read once that Shocks™ must occur in either the ultimate or penultimate episode of a season? Which to that we say…yeah. Their obsession with preserving the mystery of Jonny’s parentage explains their entire approach to this plotline, which is why we were treated to a goddamn straight reenactment of a fever dream, along with a split sequence that only served to muddy the already opaque Rhaeger + Lyanna waters. At least the dude had been mentioned by name to Dawninator in Episode 3!
We normally begin these concluding sections with some brief recap of the main character’s sloppy treatment. But truthfully…what even is there to say about Bran? What was his arc? He becomes the Three-Eyed Raven, but how? Actually how? What did he do to earn this, and what obstacles were in his way? (And no, zombies are not an obstacle in his arc. They’re just a complication in the plot.) And if we’re seriously supposed to conclude that Max von Sydow brought him to the Winterhell courtyard-vision so that he could create that time paradox as the final steps in becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, then that makes Showdor’s treatment even worse. Because why the fuck was his suffering a prerequisite? Also, nothing about this was ever explained, so they could have had a sequence where Bran levitated a rock with his brain, and Max von Sydow declared him the Three-Eyed Raven, and we’d be none-the-wiser.
Bran was treated as a convenient window. The most we ever saw from him was his one scene of impatience when he chucked little bones at Max von Sydow. And once he was mildly upset that he didn’t get to watch the end of a home movie. Seriously, Areo Hotah is way better developed than this.
We mean, to be super, super generous, Bran did have a moment of saying that he didn’t want to be like Max von Sydow. And then he went from that to saying “I am the Three-Eyed Raven” in the final episode. So…growth? We still have no idea what the fuck this means on any level, but we should just take it at this point.
It’s not like there’s other contenders for protagonists here either. We struggle to list over three adjectives that describe Meera, and one of them is “brown-haired.” She’s kind of moody? Or it could just be D&D literally forgetting how they scripted her from scene-to-scene.
No, instead it’s just that there seems to be no effort put into these characters beyond their exposition potential. A lack of reaction-shot by Bran in his final scene rather proves this point. The focus is on what he’s seeing, not why, and certainly not what it means for him.
Though little problem: it doesn’t mean anything for anyone but the audience. Assuming they can figure it out. These reveals had no effect on anybody else’s arc this season, though we’re sure it’s going to be awesome when Bran gets turned into a human encyclopedia for the rest of the series. Because we seriously can’t think of how else they’d use him, but to pop up in conversations to provide some handy knowledge. Poor Batfinger will be out of a job!
We’ve certainly expressed our discomfort with hold-the-door-gate (hold the gate?), but it does also deserve mention that Bran has a physical disability. And while he isn’t stripped of his agency in the same way as Showdor, there’s clearly a lack of interest that D&D take when it comes to his character. In the end, how is he less of a prop than Showdor? It’s just that he’s a Doylist one, rather than Watsonian.
If you enjoyed Julie’s thoughts on this plotline, then be sure to check out the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire podcast starring Julia and Kylie, Unabashed Book Snobbery! You can subscribe/listen on iTunes, subscribe to our RSS feed, search for “Unabashed Book Snobbery” in any podcast app, or find a complete list of UBS episodes on Kylie’s personal blog. The episode on Bran’s Season 6 plotline is available here.
Images courtesy of HBO