So there was a commonly referenced trick in 2013's magician based crime caper, Now You See Me, by an older magician. When he was a kid, he got a young police officer to sign a playing card like it was nothing and placed it within the knot of a small growing tree in the local park. Then he waited a few decades for that tree to become a vast part of the scenery that people would walk past every day and take for granted. He tracked down that same police officer, now a lot older, worked him into a show at that location, made him sign a disappearing card only to magically produce inside the tree after cutting it with axes. He stunned everyone with nothing more than time, planning and a lot of patience. It’s the same trick many a good literary series can perform, by planning a big distant twist from the start, which makes it all the more rewarding for its lengthy teases and misdirection (the popular modern classic being Harry Potter’s Snape reveal). Game of Thrones has been no stranger to long-planned twists but this week, it delivers one, amidst an incredible episode that deserves a standing ovation. An answer so head-smackingly simple that nobody saw it coming.... well, maybe one person.
The Door – Jon and Sansa make plans for war and look to gathering more forces while in Bravos, Ayra is given a new mission and a second chance to become a Faceless person. The Iron islands contest a successor to the recently fallen Balon Greyjoy, Meereen looks to build upon its shaky truce and beyond The Wall, Bran has visions of the White Walkers that will change everything.
So in keeping with the show’s newfound taste for flashbacks, we get something not too dissimilar in the lengthy Bravos play about over the demise of King Robert Baratheon and its aftermath (based on a previously released Winds of Winter sample chapter). It’s incredibly effective by being simultaneously funny in its slapstick-like comedy, clever in its reworking of the true events and emotionally hard=hitting as Ayra watches them mock her father in life and death. It immediately resonates to prior taunts that “Lady Stark” could never be a Faceless Person. Her past of family ties is deeply wounded by what she sees whereas if “the girl is no one”, she would view it with indifference. She’s been shown the very thing she must overcome in an excellent spot of visual storytelling. You can also extrapolate some curious foreshadowing across to Westeros. Ayra is tasked with killing the actress playing Cersei apparently because her younger Sansa playing counterpart is jealous. This could be compared back to earlier seasons when the real Sansa was poised to succeed Cersei as Joffrey’s queen or into the future in indication of Sansa’s rise to power, which we see more of in The North. The new stronger Sansa (cue all manner of X-Men “a fire inside her” puns) continues to impress as we see her draw from past experiences and play the game of politicking and diplomacy evening, putting a former tutor Littlefinger firmly in his place. There’s a nice subtle hint of the ever devious schemer planting seeds of distrust and division and between Jon and Sansa, which could built to some good old pre-battle drama but for now, they stand united. In fact, together they have the happiest moment of the episode as Sansa makes Jon a replica cloak to their father’s, not even Brienne would have called him brooding in that moment. Speaking of the she-Mountain, she gets another gut-wrenchingly funny moment with Tormund. Please in the name of whatever God we’re focusing on now, let us see Tormund making his move; every possible outcome is a win.
One thing you always have to love about George R R Martin’s world is the way it always finds new ways to surprise you. This week, we see that the Iron Islands seems to be the most oddly democratic noble House in the whole of Westeros. While they have a line of lineage, it appears to be the people themselves or at least a large council in The Kingsmoot that decide who should succeed as the new King or in Yara’s case, their first ever Queen. This feels very in keeping with the Iron Born culture in being a similar system to historical pirates in which a crew would often elect its own captain. The contention between Yara and Euron is fantastic back-and-forth with both making compelling speeches to the point that even if you don’t agree with the victor, you can understand why they have been chosen. However, Pyke also brings with it a stealthy plot bombshell this week as it reconnects itself to the grand picture in rather unexpected fashion. Now we know why we’ve returned to the Iron Islands and it has little to do with Theon’s homecoming. However, the biggest thing to take away from all this is Pilou Asbæk’s performance as Euron. When he arrived and bridged the relationship with his brother, he was cool. Now he is a card-carrying badass; more of him please and be quick about it. In terms of un-cool, the only mild disappointment of the episode comes from Dany and Jorah in the aftermath of last week’s blazing glory. What should have been a tender and moving moment between them feels oddly staged rather than being natural. The message gets across but it’s a gentle pluck on the heartstrings rather than the power chord it should be.
Then finally, we have Bran and gang beyond The Wall and well... stunning, just stunning... that’s all there is to it. So far this season, Bran’s exposition-heavy story gap filling duties have been interesting and delivered the brilliant Tower of Joy showdown, but there was always a yearning for his own story to go somewhere, to find its own purpose. It appears it was merely sandbagging for this week and my God! It was worth it as we get in essence a spiritual successor/encore to Hardhome with the army of the dead on display in their full monstrous glory. It is hereby decreed that director Jack Bender (Alias, Lost) be elevated to rank of Lord for his services to viewers. From the moment the White Walkers show up, your face is glued to the screen like your TV has sprouting octopus tentacles. The CG and effects are jaw-dropping. The speed and energy of it all send your pulse into ludicrous speed (who has time for light?) with all manner of horror vibes as things get gruesomely brutal and a hat tip to James Cameron’s Aliens as they start coming out of the God dammed walls! Knives are jammed right in the feels and twisted for good measure as it all plays out (one genuinely made me give a whimpering child like “noooo”) topped off with an immensely satisfying climactic reveal that’s been setup since the very first episode and played here to outstanding effect. This door closes in unbeatable style.
It’s an episode that will leave you in a mild state of shock as the credits roll but unlike the last bigger shocker of Jon Snow being turned into a pin cushion, it comes with an overriding feeling of positivity rather than anger or frustration. The show may have taken from us but it has done so while giving so much more, and that is exactly what we want Game of Thrones to be. It’s a thrill seeker's paradise of a final act with no shortage of rewards in everything that precedes it. It is without doubt the best episode of this series and will feature on many an all time top 10 episodes list..... and from what we’ve been told, this won’t even be the biggest episode of the season! With 5 episodes down, this is now a serious contender for the best Game of Thrones season yet. It’s pure magic.