“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” – Littlefinger
There are only two more episodes before the inevitable Episode 9 of the third season. As previous years have illustrated (with the beheading of Ned Stark and the Battle of Blackwater in Seasons 1 and 2, respectively), the ninth episode is the true climax of the season, with the tenth providing something of a resolution. Therefore, “The Climb” plays an important, if unexciting, part in the series. Here, the showrunners are moving all of the pieces into place, readying them for the eventual turning point. There is only one thing that is yet clear, as the strange torturer was kind enough to remind us: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
We start beyond the Wall, where Sam and Gilly are making a camp for the night in the midst of a very dark and threatening forest. Gilly’s slightest movements prove that she is more attuned than Sam to the telltale noises of the woods at night, but she doesn’t let on about her fear. Instead, she encourages Sam to sing a song to distract him, and he ends up singing “Song of the Seven,” which is dedicated to the old gods of the Faith of the Seven. Though we only hear the start of the song, it ends, “The Seven Gods who made us all, are listening if we should call/ So close your eyes, you shall not fall, they see you, little children.” Gilly and Sam find comfort in this faith, just as Littlefinger says: they cling to their gods for distraction from the chaos around them.
What Littlefinger does not acknowledge (or perhaps even understand), is the similar cause he shares with Melisandre– a woman who is highly motivated by the gods (or, more correctly, God). Melisandre herself is a great climber on the ladder of power that Littlefinger imagines. Instead of using carefully-orchestrated political moves to achieve personal gain, the Red Priestess uses her religion and magic to gain power by getting others to submit to the Lord of Light. Though she does use her God to her own ends, her belief appears to be genuine; as she meets with Thoros of Myr, the Red Priest traveling among the Brotherhood of Banners, she seems almost jealous to hear that he has been able to resurrect Beric Dondarrion six times.
In their conversation, we learn that Thoros was sent to convert the late King Robert, and that he and Melisandre seem to know each other. Clearly, there is a network of priests that has been waging its own coordinated attack on the lands of Westeros. If Melisandre, Thoros, and Littlefinger are any indication, the battle for the Iron Throne extends far beyond the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms. There is not just a war for the territory of Westeros, but for the minds of its people.
In the beginning of the season, when Melisandre bid farewell to her king, Stannis, she implied that she needed to seek something of greater power than the shadow baby she bore from her union with the king. She needed to make a sacrifice of king’s blood to the Lord of Light. She could not take it from Stannis, but at least, “There are others with your blood in their veins.” At the time, this was an allusion to any of Robert’s bastard children who happened to survive Joffrey’s purge. Though he is thought to have sired over a dozen bastards, the lone survivor of Robert’s litter seems to be Gendry– unbeknownst to the young blacksmith, of course. The Brotherhood trades him to the priestess for two sacks of gold. When he is outraged, Melisandre quiets him by assuring him that, “You are more than they can ever be. They are just foot soldiers in the great war. You will make kings rise and fall.” Little does he know just how she intends to have him be someone of such consequence.
Arya is right to feel uneasy about this trade, and is the only one who seems to understand the true implications of this transaction. (“You’re a witch. You’re going to hurt him.”) When she confronts Melisandre about it, the Red Priestess looks deep into her eyes and tells the young Stark that she sees a darkness in her. Darkness, of course, is the antithesis of light; Arya is a natural antithesis to Melisandre and the Lord of Light. The red woman alludes to the people Arya will kill in the future (the “eyes you’ll shut forever”) and promises that they will meet each other again.
Meanwhile, Arya’s younger brothers are still journeying towards the Wall. While Osha and Meera Reed bicker over who is contributing more to their survival, Jojen Reed has a vision in which he sees Jon Snow on the wrong side of the Wall. This news makes Bran Stark both concerned and confused, though the news is not as shocking as the toll that these visions appear to take on Jojen. As he experiences the vision of Jon Snow, he has something similar to a seizure and has to be physically restrained by his sister. Jojen and Bran may share a great power, but the premonitions come at a cost previously unseen.
North of that Wall in Jojen’s vision, Jon Snow is indeed “surrounded by enemies” but for one. Ygritte, his new wildling lover, admits that she knows that he is loyal to a fault; therefore, he must still be loyal to the Night’s Watch, despite what he’s said to the others. This terrifies Jon until he realizes that Ygritte doesn’t mean to slit his throat over it. Instead, she gives him the gift of a set of spiked shoes for climbing the wall and demands that, en lieu of being loyal to the crows or to the wildlings, that he be loyal to her above all else.
Jon proves his dedication to her almost immediately by saving her life on the Wall. When a layer of the wall crumbles under Ygritte’s pickax, Tormund Giantsbane and Orell are forced to bear the lovers’ weight. Orell, never Jon Snow’s biggest fan, determines to cut them loose. Jon acts fast to swing to another, more structurally-sound piece of ice, burying his ax deep just as the warg severs the rope. He saves Ygritte’s life and brings her to the top of the Wall. “I’ve waited my whole life to see the world from up there,” she told him earlier, and by the end of the episode, having survived the climb together, they share the view locked in each other’s arms.
Back south in the Riverlands, Black Walder and Lothar Frey have come to discuss the alliance between the Freys and the Starks. Lord of the Crossing, Walder Frey, the dirty old man with over a hundred descendants (none of them attractive), demands several things of Robb in order to ally himself once again with the Stark cause. Among his other demands, Walder has required that Edmure Tully marry his daughter, Roslin. After some debate, another marriage is agreed upon, and the list of weddings that must be attended by season’s end grows that much longer.
In Harrenhal, Lord Roose Bolton eats with Jaime and Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is clean and dressed in a beautiful pink gown. She looks very pretty, which is reason enough for her complete discomfort. She wears the femininity of the cut and color with an unease that is only heightened when she is told by Roose that she will be held at Harrenhal for aiding a traitor. Jaime, once again sensing the harm that might come to her, tries to convince their captor to let the two of them go in (relative) peace, but Bolton won’t hear it. It’s amazing that he is letting Jaime go at all; if he was truly loyal to Robb and his cause, he would be sending Jaime north, not south. Instead, he is protecting himself by sending Jaime to King’s Landing. He wants the Kingslayer to assure Tywin Lannister that Roose had no hand in him, well, losing his hand. Roose has clearly determined that the North is will fall– if not now, then eventually. If so, it’s best for him that he ends up on the right side of Tywin.
Roose is wise to be mindful for Tywin, for even the sharp-witted Lady Olenna Tyrell cannot outmaneuver the ruthless old man. When she hears that her marriage plot has been foiled, she is slow to give up her plan to unite the North and South by wedding Loras to Sansa Stark. She trades damning evidence with Tywin– Loras’s homosexuality is pitted against Cersei and Jaime’s incest– but eventually, Tywin is able to strong-arm her into breaking the engagement between her grandson and Sansa by threatening to make Loras a knight of the Kingsguard. This would mean that the Flowers’ most eligible bachelor would be unable to marry and continue the Tyrell name. With a calm resignation, Olenna accepts that Cersei will wed the boy, and Sansa will be given to Tyrion.
The behind-the-scenes plotting occurs unbeknownst to Loras and Sansa, who are busy going about the painful process of a loveless courtship. Loras appears to be more excited about the planning of the wedding than about actually marrying Sansa. Sansa clearly has a huge crush on the handsome young knight, but Loras is noticeably bored of her. They struggle through a conversation about their impending marriage, but end on a rather sweet note when they both find consolation in their shared disgust of King’s Landing. To the two of them, the town is “the most terrible place there is.” They take comfort in this commiseration without knowing that at least one of them has just been irrevocably tied to this place.
Overlooking the short-lived couple, Cersei and Tyrion discuss how the two of them are being “shipped off to hell together.” They share their typical thinly-veiled barbs, but come to some kind of understanding by the end. As it turns out, Cersei was not dumb enough to order hit on Tyrion during the Battle of Blackwater. It was Joffrey who commanded that Ser Mandon Moore to kill his uncle, because Tyrion was the only one who dared to stand up to him. The two siblings both seem equally miserable over the part they are playing in their father’s new marriage plot, and equally sorry to have to break the news to Sansa Stark.
Tyrion, of course, volunteers to speak with Sansa, whom he interrupts in her delight over the beautiful Highgarden gowns Loras has promised her. Making matters worse, he is unable to warn Shae ahead of time, who is also forced to hear this terrible news in the presence of her lady. Tyrion offers Sansa a great kindness by warning her of her new fate. By comparison, in the book, Sansa is simply dragged to the wedding ceremony under the threat of physical harm. However, the news is no less devastating. Shortly thereafter, we see a shot of Sansa sobbing as she watches Petyr Baelish’s ship sail away from King’s Landing. She had long dreamed of sailing away from the Red Keep, and managed to find happiness in not one, but two potential escape plans. In one move, Littlefinger has removed both hopes of flight. Sansa is plainly heartbroken. Shae, standing at her side, is unreadable.
This scene provides one of many devastating visual backdrops to an important Littlefinger monologue. Petyr Baelish is found staring at the iron throne when Varys arrives on scene. Littlefinger reveals that he has uncovered one of Varys’s spies, Ros, who was given to a “friend” looking for a “new experience.” As he warned Ros herself long ago, Littlefinger has made a habit of searching for otherwise unsavory investors to recoup the losses of what he deems to be “bad investments.” Ros, who was spying on Littlefinger for Varys, was the very definition of a bad investment, and so she was sold to the boy king, who put the bolts of his crossbow through her body. Though Arya performed the same routine on a straw man earlier in the episode, practicing her marksmanship in order to get revenge on those who have done her family wrong, Joffrey does this only for some kind of sadistic pleasure. Like the Mad King before him, Joffrey’s descent into madness is terrifying for the position of power he currently holds.
But, for how long will Joffrey’s power endure? Not only does he have to worry about the contending kings, but also the shadow players like Littlefinger and Varys. Earlier, Varys showed himself to be more powerful than originally assumed with his connection to Daenerys’s uprising. The shocking reveal of this episode is when Littlefinger pulls the curtain back on his own machinations.
Like any nation, Westeros relies on a carefully-constructed mythology to legitimize its unified rule. For the Seven Kingdoms, their national myth is founded on the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies that were forged into the Iron Throne. Naturally, a realist like Littlefinger has counted all the blades and finds the tale wanting; the blades total no more than 200. He knows that the story of Aegon the Conqueror is nothing but state-sponsored propaganda, used to legitimize the power of the man who sits on the throne. Liberal and tyrannical governments alike use national myths to many different political and social ends, but primarily they are used to maintain stability and order.
Littlefinger is interested in neither, because a man like him has no place of power in a stable regime established by a strong familial dynasty. Littlefinger has come from nothing, and he stands to gain little in a system where a relative order is maintained under the rule of great families. He needs chaos to disrupt the rigid social order in order to find himself a place at the top, and no one knows how to orchestrate chaos better than Littlefinger.
Despite the war and the bloodshed of the past few years, Littlefinger has found Westeros to be far too orderly. Powerful families still rule and scheme together to keep the power among themselves. As Henry Adams, great-grandson to John Adams, once said, “Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” Littlefinger initiates creative destruction by directing small or seemingly unnoticeable changes behind the scenes, only then to turn the entire system on its head. In the physical sciences, chaos often emerges when something’s condition is sensitive enough to have small, unnoticeable causes produce large effects. This is Littlefinger’s modus operandi in the game of thrones.
People falsely define chaos as random or uncontrollable. However, the chaos theory in nature is not caused by random events. Chaotic systems may be unpredictable in the short term, but in the long term, certain trends emerge. Littlefinger has always played the long game.This does not make it random, but hard to predict. In a chaotic system, new forms of order are produced because it is not, in fact, random. Unlike instability, chaos itself is a creative force because it exists within parameters, and those parameters are being deliberately influenced by Littlefinger.
But there is a flaw in relying on chaos as a means for personal advancement. The very nature of chaos is one in which seemingly unimportant causes produce effects that are almost impossible to predict. So far, Littlefinger’s efforts have played right into his own hands, but according to the theory, it should be impossible for him to play the long game to perfection. After all, Littlefinger knows less than Varys about the forces gathering to the east. If the butterfly effect is to be believed, the flapping of dragons’ wings in Slaver’s Bay will have consequences yet unseen on the trajectory of power in Westeros.
Other thoughts on “The Climb”:
- Many people were upset that this feature did not head east to Daenerys. I believe that is a real testament to the show’s treatment of Dany’s storyline; around this time in the books, most readers were not so heartbroken to go a little while without checking in on her. This season, Daenerys’s storyline has felt very fresh, even to longtime book fans.
- I think I omitted only one major scene from my discussion of this episode, and that was the one with Theon and his unknown torturer. To be quite honest, I find these scenes not only disgusting, but also infuriating. Without giving away anything, the torture porn seems as gratuitous as the sexposition this series was known for in Seasons 1-2. They’re hardly worth commenting on. If you still don’t know who the torturer is, there is another major clue in the episode, which you can see by clicking here and looking in the background of the scene.
- In the books, Melisandre never meets the Brotherhood Without Banners, nor does she meet Arya. She also doesn’t take Gendry hostage. Gendry has apparently been combined with a character in the books named Edric Storm, who is another one of Robert’s bastards living on Dragonstone. This is yet another instance of the show needing to cut from a huge cast of book characters in the interest of simplicity and time constraints.
- Here are some amazing links for more reading on Game of Thrones from this week: “What is Going on with the Accents in Game of Thrones?” by Max Read of Gawker; the Game of Thrones Lady Power Rankings: Week Six, by the amazing Alyssa Rosenberg; and Economics of Ice and Fire, Part 4: The Link Between Bad Weather and Economic Equality by Slate’s Matthew Yglesias.