In “Oathbreaker,” after the vision in which Bran calls out to Ned and the man reacts, the Three-Eyed Raven gives a short speech about the past. “Maybe he heard the wind,” the old man says of Ned’s reaction. “The past is already written. The ink is dry.” At the time, this line was innocuous, and the back-and-forth seemed to be a distraction from what was inside the tower, as the show runners had just come as close as ever before (and, it turns out, as they ever would) to confirming without doubt one of the fans’ best theories. But in light of the final scene of “The Door,” the line about “time” is heavy with importance.
Yes, Game of Thrones has become a time traveling fantasy show. Long gone is the low fantasy tale built on political intrigue and brutal medieval traditions. We are now solidly invested in a story that will in all likelihood culminate with an epic battle between zombies and dragons as they fight over a throne made of swords. Priests in red robes will cut swaths through crawling masses of skeletons with fireballs while knights in full armor do battle on horseback with their frosty counterparts as a dwarf, a male model, and a (possibly topless) blonde teenager swoop about on giant fire-breathing lizards overhead. And it was all ushered in by a distractingly pubescent crippled boy going back in time to give a fat kid a stroke. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Look, we all knew things were going to go off the rails sooner or later. George R.R. Martin couldn’t even keep the quality up for five books: the first three were a great trilogy, while the second two changed the storytelling format, introduced a slew of half-baked new plots to replace the old ones, and ultimately petered out to the point that “The Winds of Winter” has become the Chinese Democracy of the literary world (we’ve been waiting for it forever, and even if it does come out some day, it will land with a thud). The surprising thing is that the show runners were able to keep the television adaptation on track through the amount of material that Martin had managed to squeeze out of his hilariously antiquated word processor. But the story as conceived after the events of A Storm of Swords simply has too large of a tonal shift to work in the long run. The very things that made those early seasons great are now not only lacking but precluded by the nature of the genre.
In theory, I’m not opposed to Game of Thrones becoming an epic high fantasy tale about good versus evil. After all, the show has been building to the coming conflict between Ice and Fire since its first season. But we need to consider what it is that made those first five outings as great as they were. Every series-defining moment in Game of Thrones has been the result of some kind of betrayal or double-dealing: Ned’s beheading, The Red Wedding, Lysa’s fall to her death, Joffrey’s wedding, Tywin’s murder; all of these came out of left field because the writers had expertly played the multiple interests of more than two parties against one another in such a way that the result was surprising and understandable in equal measure. When your enemy ceases to be a man and is instead an army of skeletons lead by Frosty Darth Maul, there is no room for intrigue. All men are brothers when the foe is inhuman.
Most importantly, none of these events felt predetermined. Ned’s death was a genuine shock because it was the result of a child’s whim; Robb's murder occurred because Walder Frey held a grudge. Contrast these with Hodor’s fate, which was apparently sealed decades before his actual death by a child who had not yet been born. The danger here is that in a world where time travel is not only possible but has incredible impact on the people in the past and future, all events are predetermined and therefore actions are as meaningless as they are fated. It takes a story that has been driven by mistakes and greed and love and hate and desire for petty revenge and makes it into a Calvinist parable about how the Light will always triumph over the Darkness. In this world, Danaerys does not free the slaves of Slavers Bay and lead the Dothraki from their ancestral home because she is a good queen but because it was fated before the first White Walker was created by the Children of the Forest to help them in their fight against gentrification. Once we sail too deep into the seas of prophecy and legends foretold, where there is a god who tells the future from the flames, there is no turning back for a good old fashioned wedding murder. After all, the ink of the future is dry.
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This is not to say that everything in the episode spelled doom. The mummer’s play in Braavos was perfectly executed, a great mix of humor and drama that referred back to why the first five seasons of the show were so strong. While Arya’s reactions might have been too on-the-nose, they do reinforce her identity as Arya and not “no one,” despite her dedication to playing that anonymous role. The Lena Dunham Waif can see through her guise, and even Jaqen is beginning to drop unsubtle hints about Arya’s wavering commitment to the Many Faced God. Sure, she can endure a lot of punishment, but taking a punch does not mean that she is ready to abandon her identity as “Lady Stark” altogether. As it is for Sansa, being a Stark is fundamental to Arya’s identity, and just like Needle lying at the bottom of a canal, her name is waiting for her right below the surface.