3.6 “The Climb”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Commentary by Alik Sakharov, Rose Leslie (Ygritte), and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow)
This is another episode whose title works on two levels—the literal and the figurative. The literal is obvious: the Wildlings and Jon are climbing the Wall. The figurative is also obvious because the writers bludgeon us over the head with it in the form of Petyr’s speech at the end of the episode:
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are 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.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great speech. But it makes the theme of the episode a bit obvious. (Despite Benioff’s claim that “themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” these episodes do have themes, and for the most part they do hang together. I’m only in season three, though; we’ll see if I still think this in season six.)
There are three things going on in this episode that are really terrible—one for its sheer shock value, one for its misogyny (and shock value), and one for its problematic portrayal of homosexuality.
Because you’d better believe we’re going to talk about Ros’ death. Alik Sakharov didn’t in the commentary, and Benioff and Weiss didn’t in the “Inside the Episode” follow-up, and I haven’t found any interviews (yet) where anyone talks about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and they don’t deserve to be held to account for how blatantly, horribly awful the whole 30-second scene was.
Ros has spent the better part of this season working with Varys to help hold Petyr back and stop some of his plans. Varys and Petyr have played a bit of chess with Sansa, the Tyrells, and the Lannisters, and Petyr won. Sansa’s not leaving with Petyr, but she’s also not marrying Loras. More importantly, Petyr’s discovered Varys’ mole and taken care of her, by handing her over to Joffrey, who wanted to “experiment”—read: kill a person. The reveal of Ros’ fate is equal parts kind of a throw-away scene and incredibly disturbingly voyeuristic. The scene cuts away from Petyr while his voice-over about “the climb” continues; the bit about those who try but fail and never get to try again occurs over this scene. We see Joffrey sitting on a bench in his room, his crossbow on his knee. He looks pretty pleased with himself. He gets up and walks across the room and out of frame; the camera follows him as far as the bed, where Ros is tied to the canopy-rail, four or five crossbow bolts in her body. There’s a long-shot, where we see her entire body for a couple of seconds, and then a closer-in shot that starts at about waist level and pans up to her face, across her nearly-bare breast and the bolt that’s lodged there.
Narratively, Ros’ death is disturbing to a feminist like me, because it’s not only sexualized (as will be discussed more below) but it isn’t about Ros. It’s about the men. Ros dies because she dared to have agency, to work against her “master,” to help protect another girl (Sansa). She dies to reiterate that Petyr and Joffrey are awful, which we already knew. Her death isn’t about the consequences of her own actions, but the machinations of men. She doesn’t earn her death the way Ned, Robb, Tywin, Jon Snow, and even (to an extent) Catelyn do. She’s fridged after two seasons of being used and abused by the men on the show and just over half a season of trying to stop being used and start dictating her own worth. Rhiannon Thomas has done a much longer and more articulate write-up on this scene, and I pretty much agree with everything she says.
Cinematographically, the scene is beyond disturbing—it’s absolutely disgusting. Apologies for the next couple of screenshots; they’re horrible, but they’re necessary to help make my point.
The long-shot on Ros’ body is understandable. She’s dead; they have to establish that she’s really most sincerely dead and how exactly it happened. The disturbing part about this is the number and placement of the crossbow bolts; we’ve already seen that Joffrey’s a crack shot with that thing, so presumably he put those bolts precisely where he wanted them, and it appears that he played with her a bit before killing her. There’s three bolts in the bedposts, one in her hair, one in her upper thigh, one in her forearm, one in her lower belly very close to her crotch, and one in her chest just to the right of her left breast—through the heart, presumably. I’m assuming that’s the one that killed her and the rest were for torture—unless Joffrey decided that using her body for target practice would be fun. All of the wounds appear to be bleeding, so I’m going to assume that they occurred while she was still alive.
They could easily have stopped here, but they didn’t. The next shot pushes in and up from about waist level to just over Ros’ head, passing over her chest and face. Her dress is torn, but her breasts are still covered (this rant would be a lot more strongly-worded otherwise), and her eyes are open. It’s a relatively quick pan, taking only about six seconds, but it covers so little actual space that it feels a lot slower. And it feels voyeuristic and titillating. This shot goes beyond establishing her death and into torture-porn, this woman’s dead and mangled body on display for the enjoyment and/or horror of the audience. There’s no narrative reason for it; we know she’s dead. We don’t need to see that death this up-close. If they insisted on a close-up, they could easily have just done her face. The pan up across her breasts is extraneous and horrifying.
So much abuse of women is focused on this one character that the death is unsurprising, but still really disturbing. By combining several prostitute characters into one and then visiting all the abuse that happens to them, or showing us the aftermath of abuse (the slaying of the Baratheon baby) through Ros, and then killing her in a throwaway scene that yet manages to linger on her sexualized dead body, Benioff and Weiss (and Sakharov and the director of photography) have created a perfect storm of misogynist portrayals and treatment of women characters.
In contrast, Theon’s torture is shown on screen with similar close-ups on Ramsay flaying his finger. These close-ups are no more necessary than the close-up on Ros; they’re only there for shock value. We know what Ramsay’s doing to his finger; we don’t need to see it, and we don’t need to see it in that much detail from that close of an angle. So far, none of the torture has added anything to the story; only the fake-escape has really done that and it was all in Theon’s character development and admitting something out loud that perceptive audience members already knew. So again I argue that there was no reason to change what the books did with regard to Theon and the suspense over whether he’s alive, where he is, and what exactly is happening to him until he shows up again as a broken man. All it really does is introduce Ramsay early—or late, considering they didn’t bring him in disguised as Reek when Theon was holding Winterfell, but gave the role of getting Theon to be an idiot to Dagmer. There were lots of other ways they could have handled this whole thing, and they went with the one that gave them the most blood and shock value.
I might be able to get behind keeping Alfie Allen and showing his ordeal rather than shelving him for a season if they weren’t so insistent on zooming in on every injury inflicted as it’s being inflicted. What we know of Ramsay in the books we get from secondhand gossip that doesn’t fit in the show and from Theon’s thoughts, so bringing him in and showing him to be awful makes sense. It establishes his character. However, I don’t believe we need to watch the skin being peeled off Theon’s finger at close range to get that character establishment or development.
Finally, let’s talk about Loras. Torben Gebhardt has a pretty thorough exploration of the way the show treats Loras in particular and homosexuality in general, but since that’s in a book rather than something easily accessible through a website, let me kind of sum up what he has to say about this episode in particular.
In his relationship with Renly, Loras was shown to be dominant, even aggressive. He’s a fierce warrior who uses the trappings of chivalry to disguise a Machiavellian willingness to do what’s necessary to win. Renly is the one who’s depicted as obsessed with clothes, food, and all things shiny. After Renly’s death, Loras is feminized, never shown fighting again, and in this episode argues with Sansa over the correct name for a brooch; gushes about the food, guests, tournaments, and bride’s gown (the bride is an afterthought) at his dream wedding; and shows himself much more interested in clothes than he ever was in season two. As Gebhardt points out, this scene and this characterization are unique to the series; they don’t exist in the books.
Likewise, his proclivities are used as a barometer for other characters; “good” people (Olenna) are perfectly fine with it (although she does talk as though it’s a phase and asks Tywin if he never messed around with the other boys when he was a squire), while “bad” people (Tywin, Cersei) see it as gross and abhorrent. Gebhardt argues that this repositioning of Loras’ character is a way of maintaining 21st-century straight American views of gay men and keeping him from “threatening heteronormative values,” while the sex itself is there for “provocative entertainment.” Loras’ clear discomfort with Sansa and his obsession with clothes are obviously meant to be funny, as is the way everyone talks about him, from Olenna calling him a “sword-swallower, through-and-through” to Shae’s “I bet he does” when Sansa mentions that he likes green-and-gold brocade. The reduction of his character to a cliché is really insulting (in my opinion as a straight woman).
Bunch of unnamed Wildlings
Next week: Dany tries diplomacy. The Arya- Clegane shenanigans begin. More grossness at the Dreadfort. Jaime steps up.
Gebhardt, Torben. “Homosexuality in Television Medievalism.” The Middle Ages on Television: Critical Essays. Ed. Meriem Pagès and Karolyn Kinane. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 197-213.