May 5th, 2013
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
“The Climb” begins with three groups of characters who share a common goal: reaching The Wall. While Jon and Ygritte are with the wildlings as they prepare to scale it, Bran and Sam are moving toward the Wall from opposite directions.
For viewers, The Wall has been a prominent object for the series, one of the first images we saw to introduce a sense of the scale of Westeros. It’s a prominent part of the credits, sure, but it was also key to the series’ prologue. When Jon Snow saw the Wall for the first time, it was a formative moment for the character, just as it’s foretold as a prominent moment for Gilly, who can’t even imagine the stories Sam tells her about the structure. It’s something so large that it persists even for those who have never laid eyes on it, something that holds power even when the vast majority of its expanse lies unguarded. The Night’s Watch may be in charge of protecting the Wall, but the Wall does most of the protecting itself, a single crack in the ice capable of nearly killing the entirety of the Wildling party.
The “Game of Thrones” would be difficult enough if its only threat were static obstacles like The Wall (or the threat of the White Walkers beyond it, which is ostensibly still the most prominent threat to the entirety of Westeros). But “The Climb” isn’t a solitary activity, something that you can survive on your own: there’s always someone there to cut your rope, or stand in your way, or give your life new—often less—meaning at the drop of a hat. With its central metaphor, “The Climb” reminds us that no climb is without the threat of not simply missing a foothold but someone doing everything in their power to make sure that no foothold even exists, a dark and often foreboding episode that despite closing on a hopeful moment offers little evidence of hopefulness overall.
Theon’s torture was always going to be a dark turn, one that Iwan Rheon managed to make both engaging and yet also excruciating through his performance. But “The Climb” isn’t content with the image of Theon’s finger getting cut open, doubling down on torture with Littlefinger literally giving Ros to Joffrey as a target for his crossbow practice. The camera doesn’t linger on Ros’ prone body as it does on Theon’s screams of pain, but the image is even more striking, a case of collateral damage where her betrayal to Varys not only cost her her life but also any sense of humanity she had left. It’s a sickening sequence, one which emphasizes Littlefinger’s fundamental lack of human decency and which reinforces a parallel between Rheon’s character and Joffrey that reminds us that there is evil in this world that does not exist beyond the Wall.
And yet these characters are far from the only ones who are part of this larger suffering. Locke isn’t pure evil for cutting off Jaime’s hand, for instance, but rather someone whose own suffering at the hands of Lannisters and their ilk gave him reason to want vengeance (and despite whatever sympathy we might have for him, Jaime himself is not innocent in such affairs). Similarly, the Brotherhood without Banners may sell Gendry off to Melisandre, but it is not as simple as cruelty: while they acknowledge they are doing it in part because of their faith, they also admit the gold is central, for it is the gold that will allow them to continue forward in their mission. The end result, to Arya, is an immense cruelty: Gendry wanted to be a part of them, wanted to be connected to a group of people in a way he never was as a bastard, and yet in the end the only connection that matters is that he carries the Baratheon blood Melisandre needs for her sacrifice.
Are we supposed to see this as an abject cruelty? Obviously, the idea of a character we like being sacrificed by one who the show has often treated as a villain is far from ideal, but Melisandre doesn’t consider herself evil. The choice to bring Melisandre into this part of the story calls attention to the shared religion with Thoros, and by making this explicit we’re asked to confront the truth of the matter: do we celebrate Beric’s continued life while simultaneously vilifying Melisandre’s motives? Can we comfortably fit Beric into one category or another? Can Melisandre be classified by this point in the story? Or are all of these characters those figures who do not simply act out of malice but who rather share a belief system distinct enough from a more basic sense of morality and honor that we have come to understand as the default through characters like Ned and his children?
We’re horrified by what Littlefinger did to Ros, but does this make Varys a hero by comparison if he tortured his own tormenter—someone who betrayed him—earlier this season? As Meera and Osha are fighting over their rabbit skinning techniques, Bran makes a fair observation: while Osha is right that their first meeting involved Meera’s knife on her throat, that was how Bran and Osha met as well. Jon was about to kill Ygritte when they first met, and yet it is ultimately Jon who saves Ygritte’s life as they’re able to fall to their deaths on the Wall. Is Orell evil for being willing to kill them, or practical for privileging his life over theirs?
What can you do to protect yourself in this environment? What can you do when human agency is your greatest threat to your existence? Tyrion was in the midst of a battle where he could be killed at any moment, but it was Joffrey’s order—or what Cersei suggests is Joffrey’s order—that came the closest to ending his life. And while Theon and Ros were tied up, unable to protect themselves against horrifying torture, Sansa Stark is more or less imprisoned in King’s Landing, a victim as two powerful families wage war over her future. Tyrion at one point asks who is getting the worst bargain in the marriage plot Tywin is perpetrating: we discover the answer is Ros for her role in Varys and Littlefinger’s battle—which the older Lannisters don’t even seem aware of—but Sansa is the person who was never prepared for this, and who isn’t surrounded by a family to protect her (not unlike Gendry, who is equally powerless and a victim of his blood rather than his actions).
How does one survive this struggle? Ygritte, acknowledging that she does not believe Jon to have truly cast off his affiliation with the Night’s Watch, puts it simply: “It’s you and me who matters to me and you.” But that’s something Wildlings are able to argue because they often don’t have families to protect, or laws and customs to follow. Robb has to ask Edmure to help pay for his hubris in marrying Talisa, just as Robb has to pay for the Karstarks’ murder of the Lannister boys, just as Robb has to pay for Catelyn’s decision to let Jaime and Brienne free, just as Brienne has to pay for her affiliation with Jaime after being captured. These people are not just victims of abjectly cruel people like Ros and Theon’s torturers, but they are nonetheless victims of a system that Littlefinger suggests is chaos but could just as rightfully be understood as order.
“The Climb” is liberal in its adjustments to the book, but in the process it heightens the stakes at a point in the season where the stakes needed to be solidified. It’s an interesting case study in that no storyline really reaches its resolution: the additional Lannister/Tyrell marriages are confirmed but not completed, Gendry is taken away by Melisandre without actually being sacrificed, Jaime and Brienne’s future is discussed without being seen, and Robb and Edmure make a deal with the Freys without having to actually follow through on it. And yet the foreboding nature of all of those decisions is nonetheless very clear: although the episode ends on the skies parting and the sun shining on the North, the episode as a whole suggests such calm skies are both fleeting and, in this case, a misleading moment of calm amidst the chaos of order (and vice versa).
- I know that it wasn’t actually something that they shoehorned in as a result of fan complaints, but Sam’s “Hey look at this dagger I found on the Fist of the First Men” moment nonetheless reads as an on-the-nose response to fans angry he didn’t discover the dagger earlier.
- “A sword swallower, through and through” – we had to know our first Olenna/Tywin scene would be a delight, but those are two characters who play off each other well, and who make determining the fates of entire families both harrowing and hilarious. Any time someone tries to tell me something about myself, I’m breaking out “As an authority on myself, I must disagree.”
- As noted, for non-book readers, the show is now in uncharted territory with Melisandre and Gendry, which caught me off guard in an interesting way: the logic of Melisandre’s plan filled in for me immediately, but I’m not sure if this is because I knew very clearly that Melisandre’s plan involved sacrifice or whether the show actually did a strong enough job of foreshadowing this in the dialogue before she left Dragonstone. Curious how non-book readers responded to “You have something he needs.”
- I hope everyone else wrote their weekly reviews while cranking Miley Cyrus. And if I’m not linked to a Jon/Ygritte fan video set to that song in the next week, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, Internet.