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Game of Thrones' “The Door” was a meta-commentary on the whole series

The play's the thing.

The play that Arya watched in "The Door" offered commentary on the Starks, yes, but also Game of Thrones itself.
HBO

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up is gender issues writer Emily Crockett.

Emily Crockett: Before I was reduced to an inconsolable puddle by that final holding of "The Door," I kept thinking about just how much this episode was a meta-commentary on Game of Thrones as a TV series to date.

This idea was impossible to ignore during the very Hamlet-like "play within a play/show" put on by a Braavosi theater troupe, one member of which Arya has been sent to kill.

Just as in Hamlet, the real point of the production isn't the play itself but the impact it has on the character who's watching it — Hamlet stages a version of his father's murder to see if watching it makes his uncle Claudius act guilty enough to assassinate. In Game of Thrones' take, Arya, after watching a staged version of her father's execution and meeting the real-life players behind it, is forced to think about what her planned assassination means.

She might also be forced to think about what the Stark family, and the power it seeks, really means to the common people of Westeros — the people we don't typically hear from on the show. The actual style of the play didn't hew as close to Hamlet as it did to 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte, with its exaggerated, archetypical characters and rhyming verse, and commedia dell'arte's English relative "Punch and Judy," with its bawdy, violent physical humor.

Both forms were designed to appeal to the masses and to satirize those in power — albeit more subtly than this play did, using broad archetypes instead of actually naming and shaming current rulers.

To Game of Thrones' common people, or smallfolk, all the drama and trauma over who is or isn't going to be king is literally a joke. Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, who cares? They're all buffoons, probably, and none of them are gonna help the little guy.

And maybe the commoners have the right idea here, as Bran's epic escape from the White Walkers and their hordes of zombie wights reminded us. Remember the White Walkers? The guys who are a lot more like a force of nature than just another warring tribe? The ones who might totally annihilate humanity while humanity is too busy bickering over who gets to sit in the pointiest of pointy chairs?

That scene at the weirwood tree, with the White Walkers parting the ring of fire, feels a little bit like Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss waving their arms and shouting, "Hey! Hey, guys! Remember that this whole series of books is called A Song of Ice and Fire?"

Other parts of "The Door" felt like Benioff and Weiss responding directly to the show's critics. When the "nudity" warning appeared onscreen at the beginning of the show, people at my watch party joked about how it definitely wasn't going to be a penis, in reference to how Game of Thrones has long been criticized for its willingness to show full frontal female nudity but not full frontal male nudity.

And then, wouldn't you know it: Less than 20 minutes later, we got a close-up shot of a penis! But it was backstage, with one of the actors worriedly checking out his warts — right after a gratuitous onstage boob shot when stage Tyrion ripped stage Sansa's bodice. The play caricatures not just the Game of Thrones story but also the TV show's presentation.

Sansa's confrontation with Littlefinger also felt a bit self-conscious, but to the opposite, and very powerful, effect.

She just won't let him off the hook: "What do you think he did to me?" she asks. Littlefinger wasn't there. Neither were we, not really. As horrific as many viewers found Sansa's wedding-night rape scene, like Littlefinger we were only able to imagine most of the horrors visited upon Sansa. We didn't need to see them. But we did need to see Littlefinger confronted with the consequences of his actions, and that was grimly gratifying.

Sansa will always be haunted by the trauma, and nothing will ever change or redeem that. Yet it also hasn't broken her — and she is able not just to overcome her trauma but also to use it, in an impressive show of strength. Sansa has come a long way since she, too, was forced to watch a distorted version of her family history (at Joffrey and Margaery's wedding, when Sansa's recently murdered brother Robb Stark was the butt of the joke).

The play within a play in "The Door" is apparently adapted from a pre-release chapter of George R.R. Martin's upcoming sixth Game of Thrones novel, The Winds of Winter. But its dramatization here almost put too fine a point on the episode's meta-commentary. Indeed, sometimes all of season six — as much as I've enjoyed it — has felt more like extremely well-written Game of Thrones fanfiction than the series we're used to.

Then again, that's sort of the position Benioff and Weiss have been thrust into, lacking new source text from Martin to draw from. And maybe they've embraced that, and aren't afraid to draw our attention to it.

(Hat tip to all of my theater/performing arts nerd friends who helped me think about this, especially: Matt Jackson, Dante Atkins, Evan Tucker, Zev Valancy, Marley Jay, Stephen Benson, Alexandra Petri, and Ryan Taylor.)

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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