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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Climb” (for experts)

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Climb” (for experts)

This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

I have a terrible confession to make: I don’t really care about what goes on north of the Wall. Sure, there are stories up there that interest me—I don’t mind some of the stuff in book five, for instance, where some fans seem to find it terminally boring—and I get the idea of what George R.R. Martin is going for, but in both book and TV form, the Night’s Watch and most of the stuff it gets up to is so much white noise to me. I like Mance Rayder, and I occasionally like Jon and Sam (when they’re not being nitwits), but that’s about it. The stuff beyond the Wall is so often typical fantasy novel quest narrative stuff that I sort of tune it out. I’m much more into the series for the politics and the relationships between the characters. I could care less about the White Walkers.

So color me pleasantly surprised that I ended up quite enjoying “The Climb.” It does nothing more than get a bunch of pieces in place for the season’s final plunge—indeed, the central “climb” is literally just about a bunch of characters getting from point A on the ground to point B atop the Wall—but it also did a lot of necessary character work, like making the Jon and Ygritte relationship about more than just sex or beginning to really show the cost of Bran and Jojen’s visions. And everything is united by a pair of twin ideas. The first has to do with the increasing prominence of religion in the series, with the increasing sense that the battle between men is just a battle between the gods being reflected on this plane. The second is all laid out for us at the end, when Littlefinger tells Varys about his operating life philosophy: Chaos isn’t a pit; it’s a ladder. And climbing that ladder is all that matters. Granted, this is all juxtaposed against footage of the dead Ros and of Sansa watching her dreams dissipate, but I think we’re meant to find this all rather sensible, given what we’ve seen. I know I did.

Let’s return to the notion of religion, though, for just a second, because I have generally found the notions of the Lord of Light versus the Seven to be much more interesting on TV than I found them in the books. In the books, the various religions of the world of Westeros became sort of a fun morass to plow my way through, but I never really felt them on anything other than an intellectual level. By twisting things around—and, to be sure, simplifying them a bit—the TV series has found a way to present the conflict between these various belief systems in more nakedly emotional terms. That scene between Melisandre and Beric—an invented one—gets at how hard it can be to believe in something, then realize you perhaps didn’t believe in it enough. When Melisandre takes issue with the idea that Thoros is able to resurrect Beric over and over again, you can almost feel her envy.

In some ways, Melisandre and Littlefinger strike me as similar characters. Both are using the tools available to them to attempt to write the future to their own benefit. It’s just that Littlefinger is using the tools of politics, money, and power—the tools of men—while Melisandre is using the tools of magic and faith—the tools of the gods. When Littlefinger tells Varys that there is no realm, that it’s a lie everybody who lives in the realm has agreed to live under, until they even forget it’s a lie, that sounds almost like something Melisandre would say, only in her case, the ultimate goal wouldn’t be power for its own sake; it would be getting all men to bow to the Lord of Light (and has anybody on the show ever called him R’hllor and/or know how to pronounce that?). The climb is all there is, says Littlefinger, and that resonates with what’s going on with the Red Priestess. The struggle continues because the struggle is eternal. The men and women involved in it don’t really matter, because they’ll inevitably be swept away. It is the ladder that survives, the battle that rages on forever.

Of course, Littlefinger says that the gods, like most other things, are a lie, a distraction cooked up so that people may content themselves when they’re just tired of climbing the ladder. It’s certainly not hard to feel that that’s the case as Sam sings a song about the Seven to Gilly’s son, the cold night of the land beyond the Wall closing in all around them. (I love when Gilly thinks she hears something—that sounds very similar to the sound effects the White Walkers have had in the past—and keeps Sam talking, and eventually singing, that he might not hear it as well.) The Seven are a mere distraction at this point, a thing from Sam’s boyhood that he clings to because it’s the only song he knows to lull a baby to sleep. (Notice how the camera keeps cutting to farther and farther away, to underscore that these two are probably not safe in the slightest.) The true protection he is afforded comes not from the song but from the company he keeps—where Gilly seems to know more about the woods than he does—and from aspects of himself he may not even have considered yet, like his own bravery, which he does not yet believe to exist.


Another place where I feel the show has improved on the books quite a bit comes in the pairing of Jon and Ygritte. In the books, it’s a romance tossed at the one character who’s not supposed to have a romance, and while it’s nice and all, I wasn’t terribly invested in it. Here, because of the chemistry between the actors and the way that their jostling and sexual compatibility seems to have given way to something like true love and respect, I’m greatly hoping both of them can find their way toward some sort of dual happiness together. On the page, Ygritte is a means to an end, a chance to explore some of Martin’s ideas about the ineffectiveness of oaths when confronted with something like genuine affection and love. On screen, as embodied by Rose Leslie, with that lightning-fast rapport she has with Kit Harington (at least, on her end), she becomes something more, and it’s all the easier to buy that Jon might not be a Wildling at heart, but he will do what he can to not betray her. (I also like how she correctly figures out that he’s still with the Night’s Watch, then proceeds to tell him that information to make the bond between them even stronger. Crafty.)

I’ve been toying around with this idea that one of the major thoughts in both versions of this story is that oaths are largely pointless. To ask a man to swear off anything fleshly, to ask a man to swear off who he is, in some sense, is to be doomed to failure. The Seven Kingdoms are filled with orders that ask the men in them to stay chaste, to never wed, to attempt to live virtuous, honorable lives, and as in our world, those orders are filled with men who simply can’t live up to those orders. Even Jon, as good a bet to live up to those virtues as you might find, ultimately crumbles in the face of Ygritte. And you can argue that’s because he needs to keep his undercover game going, and this is the best way to do it, but the look on both of their faces when he narrowly saves her from plunging to her death seals the deal. It’s impossible to ask someone to be something that they are not, yet the many orders of the Seven Kingdoms keep doing just that. You need look no further than Jaime to have evidence of that.


Jaime, for his part, is still hanging out with Roose Bolton, who’s prepared to cut him loose and send him on his way toward King’s Landing, so long as nobody ever finds out about Roose’s part in Jaime’s capture and maiming. Jaime seems okay with this plan, until Roose says that Brienne will not be accompanying him. She’s wanted for her assistance in Cat’s treason, and she’ll be sent back to Robb and his men immediately. Jaime seems as reluctant as any of us would be to break up Westeros’ own Sam and Diane, and it’s been nice to see this relationship build so skillfully and organically. It’s sort of an adjunct to Littlefinger’s closing speech. One gets the sense that Lord Baelish finds a certain amount of weakness in loyalty, yet the series presents us throughout with these strange little friendships, where said friendship ends up making both participants in it all the stronger. The climb is all there is, maybe, but it’s so much easier when you have someone there to help you cut your meat.

As we’ve seen time and again, however, there’s a line between loyalty and loyalty that curdles into co-dependence. Cersei balks at marrying Loras Tyrell after her father arranges for the match with Lady Olenna (in a scene that was just a delight and suggests Diana Rigg and Charles Dance should ask HBO to create a TV movie version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf just for them). She’s waiting for Jaime to return, and Tyrion says that when said event occurs, Loras is likely to die of a bad case of sword through bowels. Neither realizes (and how could they?) that Jaime’s sword-fighting hand is gone, that he’s increasingly unsure of his own identity in the wake of that, that he’s struck up this odd friendship with a woman from Tarth. What they know is that their father has given them impossible tasks, and they keep waiting for others to swoop in and save them, instead of taking control of their destinies.


Just as making the climb with another person can make that climb easier, having to keep yourself yoked to them—or to a whole family—can make it that much harder, can create a distraction from what your true task should be. Tyrion doesn’t want to marry Sansa. Cersei doesn’t want to marry Loras. But they’re both bargaining chips in Tywin Lannister’s increasingly strained attempts to keep the Lannister name on the throne. (As Tyrion points out, the people’s love of Margaery will eventually mean that the Tyrells will hold far more sway over the kingdom than the Lannisters, and the latter family will fade more and more with every history book that’s written.) An oath, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Loyalty can be wonderful as well. But when either is perverted and warped beyond its true purpose, when either is used to clear up unspeakable acts or force someone to live as someone they are not, it becomes a monstrosity, forcing people into more and more desperate positions.

Which is why in this episode, I keep coming back to Ros. She’s entirely an invention of the TV series, initially just someone who was there to be around as other characters delivered exposition, then, increasingly, someone who seemed to have learned a little something from her time around Varys, Littlefinger, and Tyrion, someone who was going to play the game of thrones in her own small way. Yet now she’s dead, at the hands of Joffrey, who found a need to show his power and strength after being coddled his whole life. Yes, I’m interested in the White Walkers and the dragons and all of the show’s fantasy elements, but for me, they’re a means to an end. At its best, Game Of Thrones tells the story of the people who live behind all that history and behind all that fantastical grandeur. It tells the story of people like Ros, who tried to make a slightly better life for themselves and ended up dead at the hands of a king who should not be king. Her death is treated as a throwaway—as it would by all in the Seven Kingdoms—but in her life, she became an unlikely window for the audience into a foreign world, and that gives her death a resonance it wouldn’t have had if she were a random extra. Ros, too, attempted the climb, but she learned too late that it’s just as easy to fall and snap your neck, especially if you have no one there to catch you.


Stray observations:

  • That scene between Dance and Rigg is really just the greatest thing since sliced bread. It should be inscribed on Mt. Rushmore, particularly when Olenna tries to get Tywin to say that, sure, he might have had the odd homoerotic jostle, or when she admits that Loras is a “sword swallower” through and through.
  • The amusing comedy interplay of Sansa not realizing Loras is gay—even in that brooch!—and Shae knowing exactly what’s going on but having to keep her mouth shut eventually gives way to a surprisingly brutal scene where the writers contrive a way to have Tyrion tell Sansa they are to be wed in front of Shae. Well-played, show, particularly for cutting away when you do.
  • We get even more of Theon’s torturing this week, and it continues to be a fairly one-note story, though I do like the notion of Theon’s torturer pitching this all as a game. I suspect the full purpose of this is to make Theon more sympathetic in light of where he ended season two, but I’m still the least invested in this story of any on the show.
  • Adaptation choice I liked: I whined about this a bit in the “Here be spoilers” section the past couple of weeks, but I ended up liking Tywin playing Loras on the Kingsguard as a trump card in his scene with Olenna. (In the books, he has an older brother, who doesn’t seem to be in the series. This makes any threats of moving him to the Kingsguard much less pressing, as you’d imagine.)
  • Adaptation choice I’m less sure about: Melisandre is dragging Gendry off to Dragonstone, something that doesn’t happen in the books. I suspect I know what this is all about, but can’t say for obvious reasons. Regardless, it seems a very strange choice to me. We’ll see what it’s all about.
  • Edmure doesn’t want to be told what to do by Walder Frey. Robb, who knows a little something about breaking oaths himself, all but informs him that he has to do it or all is lost, then doesn’t seem to realize the irony of him putting his uncle in this position.
  • It’s nice to see that sexposition has taken on a new aspect, as now we have Ygritte and Jon offering us exposition, while fully clothed, that’s all about sex.
  • Here’s a discussion question for you that should be of interest to both experts and newbies: What real world analogs do you see for the religions of Westeros?
  • The popular theory about the various demonic possessions of ancient times is that they were simply epilepsy or other forms of mental illness. That makes it kind of cool to see that when Jojen is in one of his visions, his sister cares for him like you’d care for an epileptic in the throes of a seizure.
  • Arya Stark: developing badass, solid swordsman, not so great at archery just yet.

Here be spoilers!:

  • But speaking of Arya, seeing her get early training in archery just reminded me how awesomely her whole “becoming an assassin” arc culminates in book five, and I liked seeing the earliest suggestions of that here.
  • After whining about it all season, Sam pulls the Dragonglass out of his pocket to show both Gilly and the audience, as if insistent on reminding book readers that, yes, it’s still there, and he’s still going to get his moment of heroism.
  • They’re really laying the Red Wedding foreshadowing on thickly. If you know what’s about to come, it gives all of the scenes featuring Robb and his cause that much more in the way of portent and doom. (My wife was unable to watch the scene where he insists Edmure marry Roslyn Frey without making a high-pitched whining noise. Don’t worry, hon! Maybe everybody will live happily ever after!)