There’s no reason for this picture to be here but it’s Cersei and that’s reason enough for me
Given that I consume my TV in bulk these days (I genuinely don’t see the point in watching stuff week-by-week any more unless it’s some kind of competition—you can’t really binge-watch Bake Off or Strictly) I’m actually pretty proud that I’m writing the “what I thought about Season 7 of Game of Thrones” post barely a week after the season finale aired. I mean, I know a week is a long time in politics and six long times in Internet but, hey, I’m making progress here.
So, slightly too late to be topical: that raven was pretty quick, huh?
And, obviously, it is in fact too late to do an analysis of whether it makes sense for a raven to fly from The Wall to Dragonstone and for Daenerys to fly back on a dragon before four dudes can freeze to death on a lake because that kind of thing really does need to be part of the frenzy of in-the-moment internet pop culture discussion. But that isn’t going to stop me. Or rather it isn’t going to stop me using the somewhat infamous supersonic raven incident as a jumping off point for several thousand words worth of rambling about how recent series of Game of Thrones are different from old series of Game of Thrones.
I should also add that pretty much everything I say here is going to be staggeringly unoriginal. Observing that since the show started to outpace the books Game of Thrones has got more done but made less sense is about as insightful as declaring that some elements of the Star Wars prequels were quite disappointing. But I do think the raven incident was interesting and illustrative and so I thought I’d talk in this post about why I was interested and what I think it illustrates.
Spoilers for everything up to Season 7 of Game of Thrones, potentially including the books. Also subheadings because always subheadings.
Once Upon An Ice Floe Dreary
So for those of you who haven’t been following HBO’s Game of Thrones (which I suspect will be rather fewer of you than those who haven’t been following the things I usually blog about) the “infamous raven incident” I keep talking about is a sequence in the penultimate episode of Season 7 in which several characters are trapped upon an ice floe surrounded by an army of indestructible killer zombies and their blue-eyed super zombie masters with no possible hope of escape. Or rather, with one possible hope of escape which is to send one of their number running an unknown distance to the nearest castle in order that he might, from there, dispatch a raven (ravens are the standard messenger birds in Game of Thrones for those of you who haven’t watched/read it) to one of their allies in order that she might then fly on her dragon to rescue them.
The issue here is that the ally in question is in a castle approximately two thousand miles south of our heroes, the ice floe, and the zombies.
Now, of course, the show doesn’t actually say how long the characters in question are trapped in that perilous situation. The zombies are initially held at bay by a lake they cannot cross but which is gradually freezing over and so it’s possible that our heroes have, indeed, been waiting there for the several days it would take for a large and not especially fast-moving bird to carry a message from New York to Mexico City. And there are even people on the internets who will argue that it actually all adds up. There’s a Reddit thread somewhere in which somebody pulls together some slightly shonkily curated bits of Wikipedia data to argue that a raven can fly two thousand miles in about two days—the calculation here being based on the assumption that ravens fly at 50mph which is the top recorded speed of homing pigeons over much shorter distances, and fly 20 hours a day without rest, and that the four day round trip this calculation suggests exactly aligns with the time it would take for the surface of a lake to freeze over in sub-zero conditions. Another writer (I think in Forbes of all places?) argues that it should be even quicker on the somewhat spurious grounds that since ravens are the primary means of communication in Westeros they’ll obviously be better than homing pigeons and that dragons will obviously be able to fly at several hundred miles an hour (as you can plainly tell from their falcon-like aerodynamic build and the sense of unbelievable speed you get every time they’re on screen).
Now as it happens, I think these calculations are way off. The two day estimate, in particular, is based on the avian equivalent of assuming that because Usain Bolt can reach a top speed of 23 miles per hour that he could, therefore, run from Paris to Moscow in three and a bit days. This just isn’t how moving works.
But to an extent I think getting hung up on the details is missing the point. The showrunners have been interviewed about the Infamous Raven Sequence and they’ve defended it in terms of “plausible impossibilities”. Their philosophy appears to be that it doesn’t matter if something couldn’t really happen as long as, in the moment, viewers can accept that it did. And from a certain point of view I think they’re absolutely right, although I’m afraid I would beg to raise two minor points of disagreement in this specific context.
Firstly, most obviously, but actually least importantly: that clearly wasn’t the case with this incident. The show has been so clear about the vast distances involved and the terrible urgency of the situation that even if you can run numbers that make it vaguely possible for a lady on a dragon to rescue some dudes on a lake before said dudes freeze, starve or get zombied to death, the prima facie plausibility of it is zero.
The second point, however, is the one that really bothers me. Which is, that this mode of thinking is, to me, kind of antithetical to what made Game of Thrones the series or A Song of Ice and Fire the books work in the first place.
Maps and Genealogies
A Song of Ice and Fire is in the fine old tradition of fantasy novels that could legitimately stop a bullet. Each one has the approximate dimensions and weight of a house brick and is full of appendices detailing the minutiae of invented histories and geographies that are really important to understanding how the story works. George RR Martin, as far as I can tell, is a genuine Medieval history nerd and while I’m sure an actual Medieval historian could shoot his world-building full of holes it has a tremendous ring of authenticity to it. Even the bits that are totally made up.
I’ve gone over a thousand words without a seemingly irreverent aside so here’s a seemingly irrelevant aside. The word mole, meaning spy or infiltrator within an organisation, especially in reference to espionage, was not real tradecraft terminology. It was invented by John le Carre explicitly for (I think) Tinker Tailor Solider Spy but it had such a level of truthiness to it that it felt almost realer than real spy language. And, as a result, it has now become real spy language, and that sense of that word has passed into everyday English almost without comment.
And Martin does something very similar. His world is full of terms and terminology and phrases that feel like they’re authentic medieval stuff when I’m pretty sure they’re just things he’s made up. Most obviously, the use of “[x]th of his/her name” as a way of describing someone’s position in a succession. Or his use of “knock, draw, loose” as a more archery appropriate substitute for the modern phrase “ready, aim, fire.” Or the phrase “to call one’s banners” to mean mustering your vassals your war. Or even, for that matter, the phrase “bend the knee” as a specific construction to mean swearing fealty. And I’d add that these are all so authentic-seeming that I’m a little bit uncertain about every single one of them. But I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy and a fair amount of history and I’ve only ever encountered these specific bits of language in Martin, but they work so well for what they’re used for that I forget that they’re just something some guy invented to sound medievaley.
And the point here is that (in, as always, my opinion) what makes the Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series compelling and absorbing is a level of attention to detail that not only makes them feel real but makes them feel like an evocation of a time that is noticeably different from our own. A time in which it is understandable that people would care more about their family’s name than their personal survival. That people would ride to war just because their father’s brother married someone else’s sister’s cousin. That the question of “do I kill the man I am sworn to protect or allow him to carry on roasting completely innocent people alive” is anything but a no-brainer. And, for that matter, that even the people whose relatives were being roasted would look down on you for taking option A.
tl;dr GoT/ASoIaF is a detailed-orientated fantasy setting. Its narrative and emotional weight comes from the reader’s investment in a set of assumptions that have to be supported by a consistent commitment to the integrity of its worldview. Probably the most infamous and most impactful event in the whole of GoT is the Red Wedding. Robb Stark, at the height of his military success, attempts to shore up a faltering alliance by marrying his uncle to the daughter of Walder Frey and his entire court gets slaughtered for their troubles. Everything in this scene relies on the viewer / reader having internalised some very alien, very medieval (or medieval-seeming … medeivish?) concepts. There’s the idea of political marriages being a real and significant thing rather than a plot device for a heroine to pull against. There’s the notion that even though somebody definitely hates you and would definitely benefit from your death it is not stupid to go unarmed into their house because people really strongly believe in hospitality. There’s the notion that these things are sufficiently complicated and sufficiently socially ingrained that a sequence in which:
- You agree to marry somebody’s daughter in order to secure access to a bridge for your armies
- You marry someone else while on campaign (and here there’s a book/show difference that I’ll talk about later)
- The other guy takes this as a sufficient insult that your access to this bridge is now in peril
- You consider offering up your uncle instead to be a sensible response to this
- The other guy remains insulted but pretends to be mollified as a result of having been subverted by your enemies
- He has you and your entire family murdered after you have put yourself in a situation in which it would be trivially easy for him to murder you
is at once emotionally plausible, easy to follow for a modern audience, and nevertheless utterly shocking. This is genuinely masterful and remarkable, but you can’t get there without doing the groundwork.
And, just to play book nerd for a moment, I would point out that the books do a little bit more groundwork than the TV series in that Robb Stark’s reasons for breaking his proposed marriage alliances with the Freys are quite different between the two versions. In the TV show he meets Jeyne Poole and they fall in love and get married on account of what an awesome healer she is. In the book, he has a sexual relationship with Jeyne Poole that actually seems pretty casual (based on the second hand reports that are all we get because Robb isn’t a POV character) and marries her out of a sense of honour because to do otherwise would forever tarnish her reputation. These are very different stories, and, in hindsight, sort of illustrate the different between the type of show HBO is making, and the type of books George R. R. Martin is writing.
Let’s get back to the raven. The problem with the raven isn’t so much that is it implausible (or plausibly impossible) that a raven could fly from beyond The Wall to Dragonstone and that Daenerys could fly from Dragonstone to beyond The Wall in a small enough space of time that neither she nor the dudes she’s rescuing show any especial signs of suffering from starvation, sleep deprivation or hypothermia. The problem I have is that the showrunners clearly don’t seem to have thought it mattered.
To be glib for a moment you could say that the difference between writing horror and writing fantasy is that if you’re writing horror you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that mobile phones exist and if you’re writing fantasy you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around the fact that they don’t. Which is to say, if you are writer who has grown up in a world where instantaneous communication over vast distances is a thing, and where you find out pretty much instantly about any significant event that happens pretty much anywhere, it’s natural that the sorts of storylines you would think of are ones that assume sending messages is trivial. It requires conscious effort to be double-checking everything you write for the constraints imposed upon your world by the technology that exists in it. And in a lot of situations there’s no real benefit to doing so. If you’re writing a straight-down-the-line, high fantasy, coming-of-age about a farm boy who discovers he’s the heir to the throne you don’t really have to worry how he actually gets to the Dark Lord’s castle for the final confrontation. Or how his wise old mentor always seems to know where he is and when he needs help. Or why everyone has such damn good hygiene.
But if you’re writing a story in which a central theme is that high ideals often crumble when faced with the stark and banal necessities of reality you kind of have to pay attention to the banal necessities of reality. So much about what’s good about the series (both on TV and in print) is that, by and large, sympathetic characters don’t get handed free wins for being the heroes. They have to make compromises, make sacrifices, and deal with unglamorous things like how to actually govern a city after you’ve conquered it or where you get your food from or even how to get accurate information about something that happened three hundred miles away to a group of people who are now all dead.
What’s especially bewildering about the more recent series of the TV show is that they sometimes pay lip service to these ideas. There’s quite a cool bit in Season 7 where Daenerys’s armies under the guidance of Tyrion Lannister capture Casterly Rock (ancestral seat of House Lannister) thinking this will be a great blow against their enemies. But, in fact, the Lannisters have abandoned Casterly Rock and have taken their entire army south to capture Highgarden, seat of House Tyrell, thereby not only eliminating one of their rivals, but also securing control of House Tyrell’s lands, and more importantly, vast reserves of grain. It’s a call-back to the sensibility of the earlier seasons in which we are presented with something romantic (in this case the fall of the ancestral seat of a Great House) and are then reminded that it is meaningless when compared with something practical (in this case, actual food). But this only makes sense if this is the kind of story where that kind of detail matters. There’s another scene in the North where Sansa, having been left in charge of Winterfell by Jon Snow (who’s gone two thousand miles south on a supersonic ship to talk to Daenerys) is overseeing the castle’s preparations for the winter. And, again, she’s paying close attention to details, like how much grain they’ve got, and whether or not they’ve added insulation to their armour so they can still fight in the cold. But you can’t expect me to simultaneously believe that I’m being told a story where these kind of things matter while at the same time being asked to accept blacksmiths’ sons sprinting alone across zombie-invested wastelands without encountering any danger whatsoever and messages travelling at the speed of light just to set up a dramatic rescue scene.
And I suppose there’s an extent to which I’m looking at the series wrong. I watch Sansa patrolling the grounds of Winterfell, showing a detailed knowledge of the castle’s operation and defences, and read that as suggesting that details of the castle’s operation and defences matter. When actually that scene is just supposed to be a character beat for Sansa. It shows her generically being good at Lording. The Lannister army leaving Casterly Rock to take Highgarden isn’t making a point about food being more important than sentiment in a civil war. It’s just a fake-out or a plot twist, which is why nobody seems overly concerned when Daenerys’s dragons burn all the grain two episodes later. And why, somehow, the Lannisters were able to take actual gold from Highgarden of sufficient value to clear all their family’s, and presumably the Crown’s, debts to the Iron Bank of Bravos. And also hire the best mercenaries in the world with what was left over. As one recap video I was listening to put it, “I knew the Tyrells were supposed to be rich but I didn’t know you could just steal the rich”. I mean, I should stress that I’m not a medieval scholar but my understanding is that the vast majority of the wealth of major families in that era (or rather the era on which Game of Thrones is based, which actually covers everything from the Mongol invasion in the 13th century to the War of the Roses in the 15th) was not particularly liquid. And I always assumed that the wealth of Tyrells was in their lush arable land and diligent peasantry. Not in a big vault marked “Tyrell Fortune: Do Not Steal”, filled with easily transportable currency that they themselves for some reason didn’t use for anything.
Once again, contrast all of this against the Red Wedding which 100% revolved around Robb Stark’s need to use a bridge. That entire plot arc, including for that matter Walder Frey being such a dick because he was a feudal lord whose only useful resource was control of a strategic point that hadn’t mattered for a very, very long time and was, therefore, determined to leverage it for all he could get the one time it came up, evolves from a specific technical necessity and the choices and compromises the characters involved have to make to deal with that technical necessity. And it created probably the most iconic scene in the entire seven plus year run of the series.
Not only that but it was a scene that paid off everything building up to it and set up everything that followed in a way that was clear, plausible, natural and fully integrated into the established principles of the world and the story. Daenerys showing up at East Watch with a dragon was cool in the moment but it actually undermined everything had happened earlier (because if it’s that trivial for her to nip up and see the army of the dead, why didn’t she do that instead of insisting Jon go on this weird, roundabout catch-a-zombie quest and if catching a zombie was so important that it had to be done anyway why not send the dragons along to begin with because dragons are really useful and could surely just have grabbed one) and is likely to continue to undermine things that happen afterwards because there’s no point in paying attention to what’s going on now and where the armies are and who’s on who’s side and who’s running out of money or starving to death if what happens next is going to depend not all those things but on the Rule of Cool.
Which sort of brings me to my next point.
Having Your Grimdark And Eating It
I will admit that probably not everybody is as interested in the nitty gritty of moving large bodies of men around a war-torn fantasy kingdom as I am. I can completely see that for a lot of people a scene of Sansa counting grain shipments or inspecting armour really does only need to tell us that Sansa is good at being in charge of Winterfell and absolutely does not need to tell us that the length of time that Winterfell can withstand a siege is a specific issue that will be important later. I admit that, on some level, these are niche preferences (although I suspect they’re preferences I share with quite a lot of viewers and even more readers). What I think is less niche is related to this issue, although in a wibbly wobbly handwavey way rather than a down-and-dirty beancounting way. And that’s the tonal and thematic shifts when you allow dramatic rescues and heroic last stands in a story that has previously been about the merciless calculus of a grim reality.
I’ve talked a bit about how the Red Wedding was one of the most iconic scenes in Game of Thrones and how it evolved out of the necessary consequences of a bunch of very boring details of the setting. Probably the second most iconic scene in Game of Thrones is the shocking-until-you-remember-he’s-played-by-Sean-Bean death of Ned Stark in the first season. And, again, this is an inexorable consequence of intersecting questions of character and circumstance leading to a genuine emotional sucker punch in which you wait desperately for a dramatic rescue or sudden reprieve that is never going to come. And the reason it’s never going to come is because Westeros isn’t that kind of world and Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story.
Except … now it kind of is.
I mean, wouldn’t it have been cool if just as Ned Stark was about to get his head chopped off, Robb had ridden in on a direwolf, stabbed Joffrey, grabbed his dad, and bounded down the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor in triumph? It would have been an exciting, dramatic scene that would have been a great emotional payoff for a tense build-up. It would also, of course, have felt incredibly cheap and changed the entire character and flavour of the series. And I’m sure if I’d gone onto a message board at around the time that episode aired and suggested that it would have been better for that scene to end in that way I would have been laughed off the internet. Because, after all, who on earth would think it was a good idea for a climactic scene in this grimdark, low fantasy, medieval setting to conclude with a character who, last time we checked, was two thousand miles away and who our heroes can contact only by slow-moving, unreliable carrier birds to ride in on the back of a quasi-mythological creature and save the day. D’you see what I did there?
Throughout Season 7 we keep getting scenes where Jon Snow will say or do something stupid but noble and people say to him “that kind of thinking got your father killed”. And yes. Yes it did. But so far there’s no indication that Jon is going to wind up the same way. I mean, he did once, but then he was immediately resurrected so it doesn’t count. And for that matter you can make a reasonable case that the only thing Jon Snow and Daenerys really have in common in this series (there’s this whole arc where they fall in wuv with each other which really doesn’t work because they have all the chemistry of a weak cup of herbal tea) is that people keep telling them that they run of risk of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers while the entire machinery of the narrative prevents us from remotely believing that they run the risks of making the same mistakes as their dead fathers. So Jon will rush pointlessly into danger or refuse to lie to prevent a war (check that: not even refuse to lie, refuse to break to an oath that he was only in a position to make because he’d already broken several other oaths by which he should still, in fact, have been bound) but we never really feel that this will be his undoing. Daenerys has her enemies burned alive by dragons and is told by her various advisors that she needs to stop doing that on account of that being what the mad king did but the audience never really gets the sense that Daenerys is anything other than a basically good ruler (not least because everybody who meets her is instantly struck by how amazing she is and convinced she’d be a good ruler, even the people who are also warning her that she’s going a bit Mad King Aerys).
Essentially the show is sort of resting on its earlier brutality. It’s relying on our memories of the terrible, shocking and harrowing things it did in earlier seasons to distract us from the fact that those sorts of things should by all rights still be happening but aren’t. And when I say “they should still be happening” I don’t mean because I liked all the tits, neck-stabbing and cock-chopping. I mean that all the bad things that happen to be people in earlier seasons happened because those people willingly or unwillingly found themselves in situations where bad things were very likely to happen. People who did dangerous things stood a really good chance of dying. People who took ill-advised stands on points of principle stood a really good chance of, well, also dying. But in Season 7 we have things like Daenerys falling on the Lannister army with three dragons and a Dothraki hoard, butchering basically everybody but, somehow, not killing any of the major named characters. They even introduce a new sympathetic character in just that episode so that she can roast him so that we can forget that she somehow failed to roast Jaime and Bronn. In the episode with the magic raven, the party going north of the wall contains a literal magnificent seven (Jon, Tormund, Gendry, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and a redshirt) who march out into the most inhospitable place in the continent, fight a gigantic near indestructible zombie-bear, a patrol of zombies, one of whom they are trying to capture without destroying, and whole of army of zombies led by the actual king of the zombies and who keep them trapped on a freezing lake for (as we’ve previously discussed) at least two days … and the only people who die are the boring priest and the redshirt. If those seven guys could face that much peril with that rate of attrition then Ned Stark and his mates should have been able to fight their way out of King’s Landing with no problem.
And, actually, I should step back here and say that I don’t think this problem is entirely the showrunners fault. I’ve read a fair few articles about this season of Game of Thrones and at least one of them referred to the Jon/Daenerys relationship you get in this series as “fanservice” which, well, strikes me as odd because “Jon is going to wind up marrying Daenerys” has been a pretty respected fan theory since about 1998. And a lot of the tonal difficulties that you get in the more recent seasons of the TV show actually seem likely to stem from the structure of Martin’s story, rather than decisions made by the showrunners. I don’t think I know anyone who read the books back in the late 90s /early 2000s who didn’t broadly agree that the most likely ending for the series was that Jon would turn out to be the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, that he would marry Daenerys, ride into battle on a dragon and wind up ruling the Seven Kingdoms alongside her. Of course, the problem with this ending is that it’s a completely generic fantasy novel ending. It’s just “nobleman’s bastard discover he’s the true king and becomes king”. It’s so generic that by its very genericness it fights against the entire structure of the story to date. A world in which the man who rebels against a tyrannical king becomes a terrible ruler because he’s more interested in fighting than governing, in which holding heroically to your principles gets you beheaded, in which the greatest fencing master on two continents can be easily killed by some dickhead with a better sword and better armour, in which your heroic war to avenge your dead father just gets you killed as well, is not a world in which the plucky but honourable bastard grows up to be king of everything.
And maybe the intent for both the books and the TV show is to pull the rug out from underneath us one last glorious time. To have Jon and Daenerys unite, defeat the dead in the north, defeat the Lannisters in the south, and march into King’s Landing only to realise that half the people they now have to rule fought against them, that she knows nothing about Westeros and he knows nothing about governance, that the army of horse nomads with which they took the Seven Kingdoms are still here and still fundamentally survive by pillaging farmers which isn’t great when you’re trying to rule a primarily agrarian society, and that re-building an empire the size of western Europe after a decade of civil war and supernatural conflict requires goodwill that they have squandered, men they’ve already led to their deaths, and money that they never had to begin with. But that wouldn’t just be an unsatisfying ending, it wouldn’t be an ending. The thing that’s really appealing about Game of Thrones is that in many ways it feels like real history. But the thing about real history is that it doesn’t stop.
So instead it seems very likely that the TV show and the books are going to conclude the only way they can: by bringing Westeros to a point where we can at least be reasonably certain that things will be reasonably boring for a reasonably long time. And that isn’t compatible with a grimdark look at the very real problems of governing a medieval fantasy kingdom.
Essentially there are two possible outcomes to the series that will leave Westeros in a stable state. The first outcome is what I understand some people refer to as the wincest ending (that’s wincest with a small ‘w’ as in ‘incestuous and winning’ as opposed Wincest with a big ‘w’ which is Supernatural fanfic involving an incestuous relationship between the Winchesters): Jon marries Daenerys, they become king and queen, and crucially the narrative contrives to ignore all the ways in which Jon and Daenerys being king and queen would be a terrible thing for Westeros. The second outcome is what you might call the status quo ending or more simply the Cersei Wins ending (and it occurs to me that this means that we’re now down to a duel between two incestuous power couples like a really weird reality TV show). If the series ends with Cersei on the throne that will mean acknowledging that the people of the Seven Kingdoms will carry on having shitty lives but they will at least be shitty in the way they’ve always been shitty to date. Which means we can at least assume there will be stability without also having to assume that the new rulers will have magical good guy powers that allow them to circumvent the very real problems that have led to the Seven Kingdoms being in the state they’re in to begin with. An ending where Cersei wins would be miserable but satisfying because we know the Seven Kingdoms under Cersei would look like (we’ve basically seen it for the last seven years and, actually, civil war aside it’s not been that bad). By contrast an ending where Jon and Daenerys win would be upbeat but ultimately unsatisfying because, unless we assume the aforesaid good guy powers, we have no idea how their governance will actually look. Presumably he’ll act like a fool and she’ll roast people but the details of how Westeros will react to that are complex enough that they can’t just be taken as read.
I feel a lot like the show is heading for the wincest ending, which is why it feels to me like that they’re going down this weird tonal road where they’re trying to pretend that everything is as dark and gritty and complicated as it ever was whereas as actually we have people who are basically honest-to-god heroes flying about on honest-to-god dragons fighting honest-to-god monsters and never having to compromise their principles. And, on the flipside, Cersei’s behaviour becomes increasingly evil for its own sake when two or three seasons ago she was being ruthless because she lived in a society where you would die if you weren’t ruthless. On which subject…
The Quality of Cersei
So. The last three episodes of Season 7 of Game of Thrones pretty much revolve around Jon Snow’s efforts to persuade the other belligerents in the increasingly inaccurately named War of the Five Kings to put their differences aside and team up with him to fight the army of the dead in the North.
I don’t talk much about American politics on this blog because I think it’s not my place but one of the things I have noticed not just under the current Presidency but for the best part of the last decade is an increasing condemnation of partisanship. My limited understanding of the American political system is that there’s an expectation (outside of the Presidency, which is one person) that stuff will only get done if people from both sides come together and cooperate. The thing about partisanship, though, is that it’s a lot easier to identify in your political opponents than in yourself. Because when you take a partisan stand on something you’re being principled about an important issue. But when you’re opponents do it they’re just being difficult.
And the army of the dead works basically the same way.
At this stage in the game, there are only three players who matter. Jon, Daenerys and Cersei. Jon wants people to fight the army of the dead but doesn’t want Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Once he moves into a state of pre-boning with Daenerys he would quite like Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys very much wants Daenerys to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and, once she moves into a state of pre-boning with Jon, would quite like to stop the army of the dead (once the Night King kills one of her dragon babies, “defeat the army of the dead” and “become queen of the Seven Kingdoms” wind up pretty equal on her list of priorities). Cersei wants Cersei to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms and would slightly prefer if all life in Westeros wasn’t exterminated if that’s all the same to everybody else.
Not a single one of these fuckers will budge on anything in order to get the Stop the White Walkers Bill through Congress. Which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the show seems to think that Jon and Dany were being perfectly reasonable, while Cersei was being completely unreasonable.
At the start of the last episode Jon, Dany and Cersei and also basically every other important named character in the whole damn thing have a big sit down meeting somewhere near King’s Landing. Jon and Dany show Cersei a captured zombie so she’ll realise that the army of the dead is a real thing and then Jon and Dany propose an armistice whereby they will go North to fight the White Walkers and Cersei will not stab them in the back while they’re doing it. Cersei’s response to this is to say “okay, but I want you two to guarantee that you won’t just gang up on me when you’re finished.” And now maybe I’ve just had my head turned by Lena Headey but this seemed like the fairest counteroffer she could possibly have made. It’s not like she even asked Daenerys to give up her claim on the Iron Throne. She just wanted them to back down from their initial position of “we’re going to kill the Night King, then we’re going to come back south and kill you, are you fine with that?” Yet from the way they reacted it’s like they were on Dragon’s Den (which is kind of ironic considering the meeting took place in an actual dragon’s den) and she’d come back with “I’ll give you the money but I want 50% of your company.”
This, by the way, is the bit where Jon digs his heels in on the Stark honour thing. Cersei asks him specifically to sit out the war between herself and Daenerys and Jon says he can’t because he’s already sworn fealty to Daenerys. Which is news to basically everyone, including both his and Daenerys’s closest advisors. I also find it a little bit annoying that the show (through the words and actions of pretty much every character we’re supposed to respect) frames this as Jon, like his father, being too uncompromising and honourable for his own good, given that—as I briefly pointed out earlier on—he’s only in a position to swear fealty to Daenerys in the first place because he has violated all of his oaths to the Night’s Watch. Which, for what it’s worth, he also broke originally because of he met somebody he wanted to bone down on. He’s not honourable. He’s just horny.
Anyway, the whole “let’s maybe not have a civil war while monsters are eating the world” thing goes south so Tyrion has a private meeting with Cersei in which there is some cool character work and after which Cersei returns to Jon and Dany and tells them that she’s changed her mind and that she will not only respect the armistice but that she will send her armies north to help them fight the king of the dead.
Later in the episode, we discover that she is, in fact, planning to betray Jon and Daenerys: that instead of sending her armies to the wall, she will … not send them to the wall? And also that, although it seemed like Euron Greyjoy stormed out of the “let’s prevent the apocalypse meeting” this was actually a work and he was, instead, taking the Iron Fleet to Bravos or somewhere in order to hire a load of mercenaries with which Cersei could carry on pursuing her war. She explains this to Jaime who is so outraged by her perfidy that he at last abandons her having stuck by her side through child murder, civil war, and the blowing up of their culture’s most important religious building.
But let’s just think about what Cersei does here.
Two people come to her and say they want a temporary cessation of hostilities so that they can go and fight a war somewhere else. She tries to extract concessions from them: fair enough. It then becomes clear she’s not going to get those concessions and so she is faced with four choices.
- Agree to the armistice anyway and use the time when her enemies are off fighting an unstoppable army of zombies that definitely exist to consolidate her position in the south. Remember at this point she basically controls everything south of The Trident, leaving her opponents with the Vale of Arryn and a snowbound wasteland that can’t grow anything. Remember also that she can be pretty damn certain that her enemies are completely sincere in their intent to go north and fight an overwhelmingly powerful army of the dead, and their doing this will almost certainly weaken them massively.
- Agree to the armistice anyway but lie and immediately attack Jon and Daenerys when they head north.
- Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight, send your armies north with them and use the opportunity to ambush them when they are at their weakest or, alternatively, simply assassinate Jon and Daenerys.
- Tell them you are so moved by their entreaties that you intend to join them in their fight but then don’t send your armies anywhere so that they immediately know you’ve lied, even though the thing you lied about was something they weren’t even asking you to do in the first place, and by lying all you’ve actually done is do the thing that you wouldn’t originally agree to do which is leave your armies where they were while your enemies march north to fight the zombies. So you’ve essentially put yourself in a position that is exactly like situation 1, except you’ve clearly signalled to your enemies that you plan to betray them and finally alienated your own brother, who is basically the only person in your corner who isn’t a mad scientist or a re-animated corpse.
This is pretty much where I think the show’s lack of attention to detail gets fatal. I’ve given about three or four conflicting theories about what I think the key to the success of the series is and, if you put me under oath, I wouldn’t swear to any of them. But I think you can make a good case that, at its heart, Game of Thrones is a character driven drama. All of the world-building detail needs to be there because it’s necessary to underpin the characters’ motivations. We can’t understand the Starks unless we know what it means to be a Stark of Winterfell. We can’t understand Catelyn unless we understand that being a Tully of Riverrun is different from being a Stark of Winterfell but that their and interests are compatible in these ways and incompatible in those ways. We cannot understand Cersei unless we understand the history of Lannisters and the history of Robert’s rebellion, and the nature of her father, which itself is a reflection of the nature of his society. If you let the world stuff slide, you will inevitably start letting the character stuff slide because people can’t exist in a vacuum. If you allow your hero to be rescued from a fundamentally ill-conceived plan without any thought as to how his rescuer found out he was in danger or knew where he was or got to him in time—without on some level thinking about how long it would take a raven to fly somewhere—then you’re only a short step away from allowing your main villain to pointlessly sabotage her own position just so you can have a scene where it turns out she’s betrayed someone.
And that’s not the show I started watching seven years ago.