A little while ago (okay, nearly a year ago) I played through and not so much reviewed as mused on Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series. I mentioned at the time that there was also a sequel called Unavowed and now a mere whole-lot-of-months later, I’ve finally got around to playing the darned thing and can ramble on about it at length for the three people out there who especially care what I think about point-and-click adventure games.

Quick recap for those who don’t remember/aren’t gamers/don’t care but are still reading for some reason. The original Blackwell saga was a five part series (pentology? pentalogy? quintet?) of games following a young woman named Rosangela Blackwell who discovers on the death of her aunt that she is a “bestower of eternity”, basically a fancy name for a spiritual medium, who goes around talking to ghosts and laying them to rest and stuff. They’re a good little series of games, with a nice overarching story that hints at a larger world.

That larger world is the setting for Unavowed.

Oh, spoilers coming as always, I’ll put some space before the major ones because this is one of those rare examples of a game/story/text where spoilers might actually spoil something.

Straight out the gate, Unavowed is more ambitious than Blackwell (or at least, more ambitious than any individual instalment of the Blackwell series), giving you multiple different options for the player character—you can be male or female, and start the game as a cop, an actor or a bartender, and each of these choices (well, the background choices, gender seems mostly cosmetic which is fair enough) appears to have a significant impact on the game (I should stress that I say this having only played once, but unless I got particularly lucky—I went cop—I felt my choice was very well integrated). You get a brief spooky intro during which your character has his/her first encounter with the supernatural, then gets possessed by a demon, blacks out, and wakes up a year later being exorcised by a half-djinn and a slouch-hat-wearing fifties fire wizard (Gilbert seems to have a thing for slouch-hat-wearing fifties guys, which is fair enough, I mean don’t we all). It turns out you’ve spent the year doing mass-murdery things and are very close to being arrested, but now you’ve been picked up instead by this team of mystical monster hunters called The Unavowed (which is the title of the game, d’ysee).

And before we go any further, I’ll say that I really liked this game but I have a serious love-hate thing going on with the name. Because it sounds super cool but … what does it actually mean? Like I’m used to avowed being used as a modifer for other adjectives, usually personality traits or beliefs like “an avowed cynic” or “an avowed atheist” but then does being “unavowed” just mean not being anything in particular? I suppose technically “avowed” means “publicly stated or admitted” and since the unavowed is a secret organisation then any member of the unavowed is, like a kind of recursive acronym, an unavowed member of the unavowed which is an organisation the existence of which is itself unavowed, at least to the general public. Although since they also do self-define as members of the unavowed to each other then that makes them avowed members of the unavowed…

I digress.

Anyway, you join the Unavowed which initially just consists of the half-djinn (Mandana), the fire mage (Eli), and the group’s leader, the full djinn Kalash, who is also Mandana’s father. They let you in because you save them from some kind of extradimensional thingummy called a “ligamental” proving to the group that while the ability to fight with a sword or conjure flame by pure force of will is useful, nothing can stand up to the adventure game protagonist’s power to combine arbitrary objects with other arbitrary objects. The team is soon rounded out with Vicki (a cop who’s also your former partner if you take the cop background) and Logan (who’s a “bestower of eternity” like Roseangela from Blackwell whose spirit guide is the child KayKay, who Rosangela helps to pass on in that series).

The continuity with the previous games is handled … okay-ish? There’s this whole plot point where they explain the Unavowed not getting involved in the events of the Blackwell series because they usually leave Bestowers alone on the grounds that death is part of life, which makes ghosts part of the natural world, while the job of the Unavowed is to deal with the supernatural. This distinction seems, frankly, a little spurious. After all, some of the entities you deal with are things like dryads and naiads, spiritual manifestations of natural real-world phenomena. Why would the spirit of a tree be “supernatural” but the spirit of a dead human not be? Part of me wonders if it wouldn’t have made more sense to just blank the whole thing and just accept that not every supernatural crisis would be directly handled by the Unavowed. It feels like one of those situations where the explanation is less plausible than the thing it’s trying to explain.

There are six missions in all in the game, spread around different districts of New York, and the whole thing has a certain love letter to the city vibe (there’s even a shoutout to the rainbow bagel craze from a few years back). Once you’ve picked up Logan and Vicki from the first two missions, you can complete the remaining four in any order. You can bring two companions on any given case (five’s a crowd I guess?) and each has unique abilities to help you solve the mystery—Mandana is good at fighting and can spot lies, Eli can burn stuff and also read any text that has been destroyed by fire (this happens a surprising amount), Logan can talk to ghosts and Vicki has the weight of mundane law enforcement on her side. The two-at-a-time thing is a bit artificial, but it makes the game feel very replayable (disclaimer, I have not actually replayed it). You get to the end of a scenario and—at least if you’re me—your first thought is “I wonder how that would have gone differently if I’d brought the other two.”

The basic premise is that while in possession of your body, a demon called Melkhiresa was running around the city stirring up supernatural chaos in order to create hotspots of mystical energy (this is a little vague) that she/he/it could tap in order to create a pocket reality. Which is a little bit phase three profit (I am aware that meme is super dated) but let’s just go with it for now shall we? Each mystical hotspot involves summoning up some mythological being, usually one of a fairly archetypal flavour—you have a dryad, a merman, some ghosts, a Chinese spirit called a ba jiao gui (somewhat cheekily, the entry on this spirit in the in-world text you consult to understand its nature is exactly the same as its wikipedia entry), a faerie and so on. Pretty much all of these creatures have been summoned into the world against their will, and while they’ve usually fucked shit up pretty bad, that’s usually not their fault (with a couple of exceptions). As a result, the moral dilemmas you get at the end of each mission feel genuinely dilemma-ey rather than the classic “kill the puppy save the puppy” non-choice you often get in this kind of game. Often you’ll have the option of undoing or reversing some of the harm that the creature caused, but at the risk of killing it, or you’ll be able to send the creature home but at some further cost to somebody else. On the occasions when the supernatural instigator of the chaos is just malicious, there are still usually reasons why killing it outright wouldn’t necessarily be the best call.

Structurally, the game borrows a certain amount (not necessarily directly or intentionally, I’m using “borrows” here to really more mean “resembles”) from Bioware’s classic RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You start off with a fairly linear segment while you get your core party together, then there are several hubs you can visit in whatever order you prefer, but before you get to the last one there’s a sudden dramatic development that recharacterises the entire game.

So yeah, this is where the heavy spoilers kick in.

If you’re leaving now, short version. Unavowed is a really good point-and-click adventure game. It’s very accessible (virtually all the puzzles are intuitive and none of them rely on the “moon logic” that so famously characterised the genre in the ‘80s), potentially to the point of being too easy if you’re a glutton for puzzle-themed punishment. You can get it on Steam right now for a tenner (and it’s the sort of thing that gets reduced fairly often if you’re phobic about paying full price) and is worth a look. You absolutely don’t have to have played Blackwell to enjoy it, and both work fine as an introduction to the world and, for that matter, the genre.

Okay, now that’s out the way. Spoilers.

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Do people even do that any more? I could probably set up some kind of funky tag where this is all just blanked out until you mouse over it. But whatever let’s just assume I’m being deliberately retro.

Anyway, the basic premise of Unavowed is that you’re following this creepy demon called Melkhiresa who is some kind of ancient spirit of knowledge who spent a year running around in your body doing awful things, all of which you have spent the rest of the game undoing. Just before the final mission, you wake up to find yourself no longer in control of your body, screaming inside your own mind while somebody else talks to your friends wearing your face.

There follows a long push-pull between you and the other presence where you say things like “give me my body back” and “go back to the void, demon” and Melkhiresa responds with things like “you have no idea, do you?” Which is all ominous and foreshadowy. Then your friends catch you again, and repeat the exorcism to cast the demon out into a magical circle where it can be banished. Only what comes out isn’t a demon, it’s a human spirit. And it turns out it wasn’t the demon Melkhiresa who caused all the carnage, it was you—or rather, the person you thought was you, because you are actually Melkhiresa, who had been summoned from the void and spent a year trapped in the body of a sociopathic magician, forced to tell her/him where she/he could find suitable sources of magical energy to power the creation of a pocket reality, which had been your plan all along.

Now … there’s quite a lot about this that is a bit fridge logicy. Like I seem to recall that you get onto the trail of Melkhiresa in the first place because you were using that name while you were running around being evil for a year, but since in reality the person running around being evil was you, and Melkhiresa was just an unwilling passenger in your mind providing you with information, it’s not clear why you would have used her name rather than your own. And it seems weirdly convenient, misdirection-wise, that Melkhiresa has such a specific personality and set of powers. She has access to the memories of your character, but can also modify those memories for her own comfort and also—despite being a demon and as far as I can tell therefore having no real notion of morality of any kind or any reason to value human life—specifically modifies those memories in such a way that she not only remembers murders you committed as having been committed by somebody else, but also remembers your life from the perspective of somebody who isn’t a high-functioning psychopath when it’s kind of clear that your character is in fact, a high-functioning psychopath.

On which subject … yeah I’m very much in two minds about that aspect of the twist. Basically it’s kind of the plot of that one episode of Angel where the little boy is possessed by a demon but it turns out the little boy is really the evil one and the demon is just trapped inside him. Like on one level I really dig the humanity is the real monster style twist. On the other hand I’m always a bit bothered by just a psycho as a motivation for a villain, partly because it lacks nuance and partly because it’s often a very unhelpful way to portray mental illness. Obviously your mileage here may be very different from mine, but speaking personally the reason it works so well for me is that the setup isn’t so much “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath” as “you did all this stuff because you’re a psychopath, and you’ve spent your whole life pretending not to be a psychopath and that had got to the point that it was so draining that you decided to build your own world that you could shape around yourself, which led to the summoning of Melkhiresa and the other events of the plot.” And that … actually makes a twisted sort of sense.

As a spiritual (put not intended but should have been) successor to the Blackwell series it works really well. It has the same core ideas (fairly pulpy supernatural mysteries, strong emphasis on relationships with NPCs, a lot of heart). As a literal sequel the seams look a bit rougher (the “ghosts are part of the natural world but dryads aren’t” thing really narks me—also the whole reason you meet Logan is that your evil alter-ego set up a specifically ghost related event as one of her sources of mystical energy, how does that work if ghosts are “natural”) but it’s fine. As an adventure game in its own right, it’s really well put together, the puzzles are fun and intuitive and involve the absolute bare minimum of combining everything with everything else. There’s a strong emphasis on dialogue with NPCs that makes it feel meaningfully like you’re investigating something rather than just clicking on stuff, and the party mechanics make you really care about your companions.

Some people will think it’s too easy. Then again some people thought Dark Souls was too easy.

Overall, though, I’ve yet to be disappointed with a Wadjet Eye game and if you feel that pointing at and clicking on some things is a way you want to spend nine-hours-ish then you could do a lot worse than Unavowed.

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This is going to be another long-form, well, I was going to TIL but TIL is Today I Learned, so … another long-form Things I Liked. And like the last long form Things I Liked it’s going to be long because it’s about a Thing I Liked way more than I expecting to.

That thing being Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Don’t @ me.

Obviously part of the reason I responded more positively to Season 6 than I was expecting was that it would have been very, very hard for me not to. I mean, I was seriously considering just not watching it on the grounds that Seasons 1-5 have such a beautiful and complete arc as Buffy goes from out-of-her-depth schoolchild to confident teenager to fully developed vampire slayer to decisive leader to straight up mythic hero. And having that crash back down to the Double Meat Palace is as jarring as shit. And don’t get me wrong, musical episode aside and to some extent musical episode included, there’s an awful lot to criticise in Buffy Season 6. It’s tonally inconsistent, the character work is uneven, it has very little of the sharp wit of the earlier seasons, and all the subtlety of an insult comic beating you over the head with a VHS recording of an after-school special. But there is something about it that feels … almost like it could have value. If you ignore all of the stuff that really doesn’t.

I suspect partly here it’s just about the way I react things. Broadly I like things that do what they do well, dislike things that do what they do badly, and get totally obsessed with things that do what they do in a way that almost but doesn’t quite come together. And Buffy Season 6 is the most like that a show could possibly be. Basically, if it was 10% better it would just be bad. If it was 10% worse it would be unwatchable. Instead, it’s just this weird, perfect storm of so many great concepts colliding with so many shit concepts in a vortex of distinctly variable execution. I mean come on, what’s not to love.

Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. In rough chronological order:

  • Giles leaving makes no sense and, yes, Tony Head wanted to go back to England but, bite the bullet and kill him. I mean, the character, not the Gold Blend Man. It just makes Giles look like an oblivious prick. Buffy has literally come back from the dead. Her feeling that she needs you around is totally justified. Also she did fine developing independence and self-sufficiency while you were actively her Watcher. Over-relying on Giles has never been Buffy’s problem.
  • Magic isn’t heroin. I can’t even be arsed to unpack this because it is so clearly awful.
  • I lied. If you are going to make magic heroin, keep it heroin. Don’t have some people taking heroin fine and being all like, “oh no, it’s cool, I’ll do the heroin so you don’t have to”. Also maybe don’t have people start experimenting with heroin at school, under the supervision of the school librarian who also does heroin.
  • Also also: maybe don’t pick the same metaphor for heroin and lesbian sex.
  • Wrecked. Gone. Although I will admit some of the invisible Buffy stuff is quite cute.
  • You can signal that being a teenager is difficult without making Dawn a kleptomaniac.
  • Why is a thousand-year-old ex-demon obsessed with the idea of a fairytale wedding to which she has had no cultural exposure? Bonus points for it flying in the face of a millennium-long career specifically based around the consequences of bad marriages.
  • Don’t randomly kill off half of your only gay couple. I seem to recall at the time, Whedon played the sexuality equivalent of the ‘don’t see race’ card here, insisting that it would be homophobic to decide against killing a character just because that character was gay. This was in 2001. We are still, as a culture, not in a place where that argument holds water. Twenty years ago it barely held air.
  • Going out on a limb here, maybe don’t put a graphic and realistic attempted rape scene into a show otherwise built around sanitised fantasy violence. Also maybe don’t spend the rest of the season and most of the next season setting up the attempted rapist as a romantic hero.
  • In-between the cliff-hanger ending of ‘Seeing Red’ and it’s immediate resolution in the start of ‘Villains’, Willow apparently bothers to source and put on a scary black outfit and Buffy gets her hair permed.

Not all of what I’m going to say next will be positive, but a surprising amount of it will be. (Editorial note: actually very little of it, which may nevertheless still surprise you, depending on how you felt about Buffy Season 6).

In a sense, Season 6 is a return to form for Buffy. It’s just that ‘by return to form’ I sort of mean ‘return to central narrative structure’ rather than ‘return to quality’. The formula of an early Buffy season was “take a teenage-type problem that teenagers have, then put a supernatural twist on it” and that worked for three seasons. Season 4 briefly tried applying the same formula to not fitting in at college, realised that didn’t quite work, and then developed into an almost explicitly science-fictiony adventure plot about a secret government conspiracy. And on a meta-level became really invested in the idea that Buffy was the best in the world at what she did, and this played off well against The Initiative because suddenly, instead of Buffy fighting demons and dealing with real world problems, the real world was trying to deal with demons and Buffy was showing them how it was done. Then Season 5 went full epic and had her fight a God, redeem an irredeemable character, lose her mother and take on a more adult role, and sacrifice herself to save the world.

Season 6 brings it all back to metaphors for real life problems, and in some ways that makes a lot of sense. I originally watched Buffy Season 6 at university, hating it along with the rest of the world, and part of me does wonder if I’d have responded to it better if I’d been just a few years older. Because weirdly it spoke to me quite clearly on this re-watch because I could look back with a lot of emotional distance on a time in my life when I’d got to the end of a journey and then hadn’t known what to do next. The season is a really good evocation of that point of becoming an adult when you’ve just got off the conveyor belt of school-adolescence-college-ohwhatthefucknow. I think at the time I was annoyed by Season 6’s assumption that Buffy wouldn’t know how to be an grownup because I thought it lost sight of the fact that everything Buffy had been through had been a metaphor for the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup. I think what I hadn’t appreciated was that the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup kind of doesn’t teach you how to be a grownup . And in that context the terrible decisions the characters make feel really grounded and real. The problem is, the (arguably) terrible creative decisions that went into framing the terrible character decisions made all of Season 6 into a bit of a hot mess.

For example, in a vacuum I really like Anya and Xander’s arc. I suspect we’ve all had friends who ran too hard at adulthood, trying to immediately get the job and the wife and the kids and the picket fence without stopping to thinking whether that was something they really wanted or could sustain. And I think Xander’s coming to the realisation that he has seen precisely zero good models of marriage (his parent’s relationship is clearly a nightmare, Buffy’s are divorced, and we know we nothing about the Rosenbergs) and that he is over-committing to an institution that he doesn’t necessarily have faith in is surprisingly nuanced and believable. And I can see why Anya is really hurt by that, because he does literally leave her at the fucking altar and is incredibly bad at talking to her about things (although, thinking about it, she clearly hears everything he says during ‘I’ll Never Tell’ in Once More With Feeling and, like, do they talk about that afterwards or just go back to ignoring it, which says other, deeper things about their relationship). But her reaction to the whole wedding arc is so Bridezilla-ey and gendered that it was really uncomfortable for me to watch. I suspect part of it was that the show was never quite sure where it was going with Anya. She’s always kind of been comic relief and, in some ways, it’s a bit weird that Xander winds up marrying the comic relief. Like, apart from the fact she’s quite conventionally attractive I’m not sure what you can say about Anya that would make you want to be in a relationship with her. And don’t get me wrong, I love quirky people and think quirky people are valuable. But I can’t think of a single personality trait she has that isn’t a joke: scared of bunnies, obsessed with money, strangely literal. The whole wedding thing is actually a fantastic idea for a storyline. It’s just Anya’s not quite a real person and her relationship with Xander is so lightly sketched it’s hard to know what it working or failing would look like, and so everything has to fall back on these very broad tropes about women liking weddings and men getting cold feet and women being cross.

Buffy’s money problems have a similar issue. The broad idea that Buffy is now wholly responsible for a family unit and that is too much for her because she’s just come back from the dead which, in this context, is kind of a metaphor for “has just got out of university or the equivalent”, is actually really smart. The problem is, it involves suddenly looking hard a bunch of questions the series has previously ducked. Like Giles does not have a job for half of Season 3 and all of Season 4 – we’re never asked how he pays for his flat and scones. And in Season 5 the Watcher’s Council re-hire him and give him backpay. They’re also apparently able to keep black ops teams on retainer, throw lavish retreats, and pull political and economic strings at the highest level. You’d think they could set up a trust fund so the Slayer—who is their entire reason for existing—doesn’t have to flip burgers to pay the bills. On top of which, Buffy had no trouble finding a job when she’s a teenager living alone in Los Angeles, and yes, it was waitressing but it’s not like Double Meat Worker is a step up from that. Again, in a vacuum, Buffy realising she now has to provide for herself and Dawn (and, also, weirdly Willow and Tara who appear to be living in the Summers’ house rent free) is a good arc. But it feels like the way it was executed relied on throwing artificial obstacles into Buffy’s path and deliberately humiliating her. Like the show deliberately had her wind up at a weird, parody fast-food joint with a comical uniform, and a greasy smell, because it would make her sadder. And the writers seem to subscribe to the notion that making Buffy sad is the key to good storytelling.

Of course, the other big thing that goes on with Buffy this season is the Spike arc. And there is so much with this that nearly works and so much with it that really, really doesn’t. Oh, where to begin. Like, in some ways Buffy’s boyfriends have always existed to reflect on where Buffy is in her life. Angel flat out makes no sense outside the context of a melodramatic teen romance, but works perfectly in the early seasons because, well, Buffy is a teenager and Angel is what you want love to be when you’re a teenager. Season 4 Riley is a really interesting portrayal of a more adult relationship: he and Buffy are genuinely interested in the same things (admittedly, those things are fighting monsters but at least he’s not going to buy her a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese), he’s supportive while finding it non-trivial to come to terms with the fact that she’s better than he is at the stuff he values about himself, and they kind of learn from each other about how to communicate and support on another and, um, kick demon ass. Season 5 Riley is a total dick and largely just a way of dealing with Riley’s poor audience responses. But Season 5 Spike really interestingly demonstrates Buffy’s growth into an almost archetypical figure. Spike’s arc in Season 5 is about him wanting to be the kind of person who is worthy to be in Buffy’s life. And Buffy’s arc is about accepting that but not reciprocating it. Which, y’know, I think is about right because Spike is a monster. Because, as Xander reminds us, vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them.

Season 6 Spike is, well, that’s the problem. It could be a couple of different things, and most of those things are bad either from an in-world or or out-of-world perspective. No matter how you look at it, Buffy’s relationship with Spike in Season 6 is definitely not supposed to be a healthy one. The issue is you can interpret that unhealthiness in a variety of ways, some of which are ever-so-slightly victim blamey round the edges. The way I read Buffy’s relationship with Spike on the most recent re-watch is that his behaviour towards her is fairly uncomplicatedly emotionally abusive. Yes, he listens to her, and is there for her, but he repeatedly reinforces to her that she is broken and wrong, and he is the only one who understands her. It is not okay to treat someone like that, even if you’re in love with them. And this is where we get into difficult L-word territory (in the love sense, not the early 2000s show about lesbians sense) because I think my attitude to love is a bit … uncommon, in that I view it as quite a morally neutral thing. Probably not want you to hear from a romance writer, but stay with me.

I personally feel that it’s important to recognise that you can love a person but still ultimately be harmful to them. A lot of people find that notion really, really offensive for reasons I do understand. They will tend to take the line that if you’re abusing someone, you don’t love them, you just think you love them. And I think this is one of those situations where both ways of looking at it are true and have value, depending on what outcomes you’re looking for. The issue I have with the “you can’t love someone if you’re harming them” line of reasoning is that, to me, that makes it very easy for people to justify their behaviour: I love [x], therefore the way I am treating [x] cannot be harmful. The strength of that line reasoning, I think, is that it can make it easier to encourage people not to justify the behaviour of other people who are harming them. I think it’s probably a lot cleaner to sit someone down and say “if [x] really loved you they wouldn’t be making you feel this way” than it is to say “yes, [x] might love you but independently of that, [x] is also making you feel bad and the one doesn’t justify the other.”.

And this is where Buffy/Spike gets messy because while I am okay simultaneously entertaining the ideas that Spike loves Buffy and Spike treats Buffy abusively for a lot of other people those two concepts are mutually contradictory. And this gets really tough because the show sells the notion that Spike loves Buffy incredibly hard. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen both possible interpretations of that dynamic in the fandom. There’s “Spike treats Buffy badly, therefore he can’t really love her which makes sense because he’s a demon and doesn’t have a soul”. And I’m okay with that one because it at least acknowledges Spike’s mistreatment, although it does mean that his (spoiler for a 20 year-old TV show) getting his soul back at the end of Season 6 erases a lot of the frankly unforgivable stuff he did earlier in the season. Which, thinking about it, is kind of the standard Angel gets held to but we’ll come back to that if I ever write about Season 7.

Then there’s “Spike loves Buffy, therefore he can’t be treating her badly”. And this is a little bit problematic on one level, although if I squint I can see how you might emphasise the supportive elements of his relationship with her and downplay the negging her, deliberately isolating her from her friends element of the relationship. Where it strays into super not okay for me is when it gains the corollary “and therefore she is treating him badly” which I feel does cross the line into straight up victim-blaming, although it’s not helped that the show sort reinforces this interpretation by having Buffy say “I’m using you and it’s killing me.” And, to be fair, there is a way of way looking at that line which is more nuanced, since it’s about how Buffy feels about herself, and her own behaviour. i.e. that she is not comfortable being in a relationship where she is getting what she needs, and the other person isn’t—and that arguably reflects well on Buffy, if you are willing to overlook some of the statement’s more difficult implications. Like, you shouldn’t have to have sex with someone just because they’re in love with you. But it’s also okay to have sex with someone who is in love with you when you’re not in love with them as long as you’re both aware of that, and consenting to it. And, obviously, the power dynamics in the Spike/Buffy relationship are really difficult because they’re both in their own ways very damaged people.

As a coda to the Spuffy ramblings, because I do view their relationship as abusive (and pretty uncomplicatedly so) I’m left in this odd place where, on the one hand, I think it kind of has value as exploration of that dynamic, and has some genuinely interesting moments when it’s not smashing a symbolism house, but on the other hand it’s just not what I’m expecting to see in my escapist feminist power fantasy. Which is not say that an escapist feminist power fantasy can’t explore those themes, and Buffy often does, but not normally through the character of Buffy herself. And maybe it is important to point out that even a kickass super-heroine can find herself trapped in an abusive relationship. But I think it needs to be done in a world where Buffy already exists. This is sort of like if Jessica Jones had come out in 1996. You need to do the thing, before you can deconstruct the thing. Otherwise you’re just taking away some people’s thing.

Which kind of leads us into Willow/Tara. The thing is, Season 6 is absolutely Tara’s best season. Up this point, she’s just kind of been Willow’s girlfriend, or a fairly generic helpless bystander. There’s a bit of development of her relationship with Dawn and the Scoobies in Season 5 but it’s mostly highlighting the fact that they don’t really have one. But in Season 6, because her relationship with Willow is falling apart, and also perhaps there’s a greater emphasis on small-scale domestic storytelling, Tara really comes into her own. We see being a friend/parental figure for Dawn, a non-judgemental, non-negging, non-trying-to-get-in-her-pants confidante for Buffy (she’s the only one, in my never terribly humble opinion, whose response to Buffy sleeping with Spike is remotely appropriate or supportive),  and obviously this feels a bit manipulative because you’re kind of watching it going “oh Tara’s having a really good arc in this season, this is just so we’ll feel sad when she dies” but it’s actually really … nice. And well-done. And, I’m aware I’m saying this a lot, nuanced. The thing is, Tara’s defining characteristics have always been that she’s steady and sweet and reliable and nice, which don’t come across well in a high-drama show about government conspiracies and fighting gods. But once Giles leaves and everything starts to fall apart and you need someone to, say, deal with the teenage girl who’s starting stealing shit or listen to you talking about your destructive relationship she really shines. And, actually, this watch through has been the first time I’ve been able to look past the series’ many flaws and my general distaste for the Killing The Gays trope to actually feel sad for the loss of Tara as a person. Which is ironic, in a way, because Tara’s role in this season is very much as a plot device.

The thing is, I do see the appeal of Evil Willow as an end of season bad guy, and I do see that killing off Tara was an obvious way to get her there. It’s also kind of the only obvious way to get her there. I mean, you could have killed Xander who was technically her best friend since childhood but, firstly, we have this difficult cultural thang that means we assign far greater weight to romantic relationships than non-romantic relationships and, secondly, Willow and Xander have barely interacted since, well, kind of since they stopped making out. You could do some wobbly plot device where she gets gradually taken over by dark magic although that’s not really her. Then again, it’s kind of debatable the extent to which Scary Magic Willow is Willow either. And the turn comes very late in the season because she has to have her temptation-redemption-fall arc all kind of from nowhere. Which, when you think about it, is peculiar because it’s not like they haven’t done Willow drawing more and more deeply on darker and darker magic before. It was quite a big theme in Season 5 as well, but turning it into a drugs metaphor meant you couldn’t readily build on what happened previously. And, in fact, actively detracts from it. I mean, we see Floating Black Eyes Willow in Season 5, and it was so much more interesting when it was a choice, rather than “oh noes, now she is hooked on the bad magic smack.” And I do appreciate that I started this discussion of the positive bits of Season 6 by highlighting that Buffy was kind of always about taking a real world issue and putting a supernatural twist on it but magic has been used constantly throughout the series, and it’s never been drugs, man, drugs. At no point has it been suggested that you can buy magic as a substance from shady dealers—but apparently Amy was doing that while she was trying out for cheerleading at the age of 16.

I think what I’m trying to say is that Willow Going Evil, or being tempted by darkness, works for me emotionally and thematically. Her whole identity has always been that she’s been an outsider, and she kind of racks up marginalisations as she progresses through the series: in Season 1 she’s too nerdy, in Season 2 she’s too nerdy and too smart, in Season 3 she’s too nerdy, too smart and too magic, in Season 4 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic and too gay, in Season 5 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic, too gay and too powerful. The whole thing is really well set up for her to go evil in Season 6 if they hadn’t crowbarred in this totally out-of-left-field drugs metaphor that taints every other instance of magic being used in a show that, let’s not forget, is about magic. Yes, there’s one line from Riley’s wife about how they knew some shamans who, like, got addicted, man, and one of them ate his face and the other one microwaved a baby. But there is no literally no other example anywhere in the extended Buffyverse of it being at all a thing that this is a thing. And this is beyond annoying, because without this bullshit, the arc is really good.

Dark Willow is exactly the right villain for Season 6: it’s just they needed to get her there in a way that set up the themes she talks about in the final episode, when she has a big verbal sparring match with Buffy about how Willow was a loser and an outcast instead of having her taste like strawberry. In this very mundane “we are in our early twenties now” season that is about questioning yourself and your choices, and wondering Where Do We Go From Here (ah, d’you see) “your best friend has gone evil and you didn’t quite notice because you were too distracted with your own shit” is perfect. And, again, it fits wonderfully with the villain progression of previous seasons. Season 1 Buffy fights a vampire that’s slightly more powerful than some other vampires. Season 2 Buffy fights her own boyfriend. Season 3 she fights the mayor of her town. Season 4 she fights the actual government. Season 5 she fights a God. There’s nowhere to go from there so you have to bring it back down to the personal level—and what could be more devastating than the loss of someone who has always been there for you.

I guess since I’m on villains, I should probably mention the trio. Again, in some ways they’re the perfect choice for the season where, ah d’you see, the real world is the real enemy. Y’know, because the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. And in a strange, I think perhaps unintentional way, it’s almost affirming of the first 5 seasons. The biggest supernatural danger Buffy faces in Season 6 is three guys who aren’t really particularly good at being a supernatural danger. They see themselves as Buffy arch-nemesises but she finds them annoying at worst, and when she needs to take them out she can, almost trivially. All of which suggests that Buffy has, actually, done the job she gave her life to do: which is save Sunnydale. When she rocked up, the town was a nightmare hellscape, with dead bodies showing up in highschool lockers, and the whole place at a constant risk of being sucked into hell. Now the biggest thing it has to worry about is three dudes with some wacky plans because Buffy has stopped everything else really effectively.

The thing about the trio is that they engage in some really interesting themes, in ways I don’t always agree with, and that sometimes come across as a little bit hypocritical. Like Warren is noticeably much eviler than the others, and part of me is like “fair enough, you often have one person who is the ringleader in the kind of dynamic” but part of me says that because the trio are really specifically engaging with questions about real world misogyny and male privilege, pinning all that on one objectively evil guy is … awkward? Like the bit where they get the mind-control orb and they’re all completely up for using it to turn a woman into a their willing sex-bunny, and then Warren uses it on his ex-girlfriend and Jonathan and Andrew are impatient for their turn is really nicely observed. And then it wears off and she’s all “guys, you realise this is rape, right?” and part of me like the fact that Jonathan and Andrew are shocked by that, and I think Jonathan even begins trying to deny it. But I feel like it kind of lets them off the hook because they blatantly would have gone through with it if Warren hadn’t been so selfish and the machine hadn’t worn off. Also, not inconsequential point of order. In the episode of ‘Superstar’, Jonathan does a spell that makes everyone in Sunnydale (possibly the world, it’s never entirely clear) think he’s super awesome and he definitely has sex with two hot blonde women while they are under the influence of this spell and it is played for laughs in the moment and it is not called back to here. And, I mean, if you want to get really technical you could argue that there’s a difference between straight up mind-control and altering reality so that you occupy a more prestigious position within it, which independently causes some other people to want to have sex with you. But firstly the Superstar spell does seem to affect people’s feelings directly and, secondly, you don’t want to be playing with technicalities when you’re talking about, y’know, consent.

So what this leaves us with is a situation where Jonathan, like Warren, has a history of doing this kind of thing and he and Andrew are both completely on board with doing it in the moment, but only Warren is held accountable for it. Essentially we’re invited to see Jonathan and Andrew as two nice guys who are a bit lonely and a bit nerdy and have been led astray, whereas Warren is, as Xander, ever the moral mouthpiece of series puts it, a cold-blooded killer of women just warming up. And this is … complicated? Like in a lot of ways, I find the alpha-nerd dynamic in the Trio really interesting, and I find the way that Warren lets that power go to his head quite well observed (for example, in the second episode, they each—when asked—identify themselves as the leader, but by the end of the series, Warren has clearly taken that role and the other two acknowledge it) but there’s a difference between being the most toxic and dominant guy in your friendship group and being responsible for all misogyny. In a similar way, I find Andrew’s gradually building hero-worship of Warren kind of fascinating because, on one level, that feels very real to me as a way that nerdy men interact. In my experience, geek social dynamics develop those kind of hierarchies quite quickly and you often see it played out in fandom in a number of different ways. Where it bothers me a lot more is that they also make him ambiguously gay. It feels really regressive, especially for a show that was quite lauded in its day for having a lesbian couple in it, to fall back on having him say things like “he never really loved … hanging out with us”. The whole thing is just played for laughs in a way I’m not super comfortable with.

Basically, although I like the Trio in concept I think their portrayal is problematic insofar as it engages with some quite important gender politics issues but then takes what you might call a really Captain Planet approach to them. Which is to say, it takes a complex sociological phenomenon and boils it down to individual bad people being bad, usually deliberately. And part of me says that this is necessary because you need Willow to be able to horrifically torture a guy to death without the audience completely losing all sympathy for her. But another part of me says that the issue isn’t so much that Warren is too evil so much that Jonathan and Andrew are too good. They both willingly participate in a group project that rapes and kills women—and, yes, they grumble bit, but they’re quite enthusiastic about at least half of that (and, in Jonathan’s case, have done similar things before). They just don’t like being confronted with the reality of what they’re doing. Having Warren going full “by the way, I also hate all women now, you’re all bitches and deserve to be murdered” isn’t actually necessary (I really think killing Tara is enough to make Willow going House Bolton on him understandable) and just flattens out something that was previously quite complex.

Which is sort of Season 6 in a nutshell really. And I’m starting to realise that as defences of cultural artefacts go this has very much been praise with faint damnation. All of which said, despite its many, many, many flaws Season 6 did actually do a way better job of giving me things to think about any of Seasons 1 through 5, possibly even Seasons 1 to 5 put together.

Also: musical episode was fun.

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So, I didn’t Like anything in April because I spent the whole month watching, and writing a novella’s worth of blog posts about, Game of Thrones. But now we’re out the other side and so I can start enjoying things again. Having said that, let’ start with:

Game of Thrones Being Over

I don’t mean this to come across as negative and, ironically, I mostly mean it as a defence of the criticisms that were made of the last season  but I probably wouldn’t have bothered with Game of Thrones Season 8 if it hadn’t been the finale. I realise this is a somewhat controversial opinion but I very much don’t think that the journey is more important than the destination. I mean, if it was people would take holidays in airports. And obviously some series (both in visual and print media) are essentially just a sequence of self-contained episodes that don’t really need to go anywhere (it’s fine to jump into a series of Friends for example). But GoT was always telling one, over-arching story and sometime around 2016 I was very much feeling that the story not being finished and not looking likely to finish any time soon was making the story worse. Was it a perfect ending? No. Was it better than the series dragging out for another five or six years? Definitely.

Also, now I can do other things.

Shirley Curry

This is kind of late to the party thing—in the sense of me being late to mention, rather than me being late to discover. I’ve been watching this 79 year-old-lady play Skyrim for, honestly, probably about as long as I’ve been playing Skyrim but I mention her now because I found a thirty-minute documentary about her while I was idling on Youtube. And even if you’re not the sort of person who’s into Let’s Plays (which I’m actually not, unless I really like the player) I really recommend watching the documentary. It’s really encapsulates how charming and … like it’s really hard to observe that a person who might not be expected to know their stuff knows their stuff without coming across as patronising … but how like that she is. I think there’s always something really important about being able to see someone who doesn’t fit the expected demographic for a hobby engaging with that hobby in basically the same way as everybody else. Plus, it’s nice to be reminded that the internet can be a good place as well as a horrible pit of shit and vitriol.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 5

This one of the those things that I thought was amazing the first time I watched, then thought wasn’t as good as I remember it being when I went back to it, and now I think is amazing again. It’s particularly interesting when you look back on it in the wider context of TV before and since because it stands right on the transition between the episodic television that dominated the late 20th century and the long-form or arc-based television that dominates the 21st. And on one level I’ll always feel a bit disappointed that Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 contains very few memorable episodes (unless you count the one where Joyce dies) since virtually all over it is about the Dawn/Glory/Key/Death-Is-Your-Gift thing and there are perhaps two monsters of the week if you’re being generous, and one of those is some people from the South.  And that’s partly my bias because I really like monster-of-the-week type shows but it’s partly that I’m always a bit uncomfortable citing Season 5 as the best of Buffy when it’s actually so very different from what Buffy was both before and afterwards. What is, though, is an absolutely brilliant end to Buffy’s five season arc.

Slight aside—and I will stop talking about GoT in a second, I promise. One of the criticisms that often gets made about the later seasons of GoT and, often, the later seasons of a great many TV shows is that it “feels like fanfic” and that always bothers me because I think it’s very easy to shit on fan-fiction when, firstly, it’s actually a really interesting social phenomenon and, secondly, especially when things like TV and comics are concerned it’s not like any of these properties are designed by a single creator to begin with. And what I like about Buffy Season 5 is that it kind of feels like fanfic when fanfic is doing one of the more interesting things that fanfic does. Which is, taking the source material and thinking about it more deeply and more seriously than it ever has been in canon (in the same later seasons of DS9 read like fanfic of Star Trek and much better than the earlier seasons of DS9 which read like, well, Star Trek).

More than at any other point in the show, Buffy Season 5 gets really interested in what it means to “be the slayer.” And not in a wanky S6 “well logically if you’d spent your whole life fighting vampires you wouldn’t have learned any skills that are useful in the real world” way. Viewing the five series as a whole there’s this really satisfying arc where Buffy grows from being a slightly shallow, relatively ordinary teenager in season 1 to a competent fighter-of-evil in seasons 2-3 to a leader in season 4 to an actual mythic hero in season 5. Then it’s musicals, the Doublemeat Palace, and speeches. But I’m trying not to think about that.

I might come back to this later because I can say about lot about Buffy but for the sake of brevity in what’s supposed to be a summary post here are some bullet points:

  • Unpopular opinion: I actually think Dawn is really important and works really well. Now Willow and Xander are more competent on their own Buffy has no-one else she cares about who needs her protection. Dawn does that job—and I like the fact she’s annoying a lot of the time because, hey, kid sisters are.
  • Semi-popular opinion: I don’t mind that Buffy winds up closer to Xander than Willow. They’ve always actually had a lot more in common—they’re both kind of goofy, and not especially academic, and have the same sort of troubles reconciling who they are with their place in the world. Willow, on the other hand, is this intense-as-fuck genius who, had she not been born on a hellmouth, would have left Buffy and Xander behind, and gone on to be, like, Speaker of the House or something.
  • Moderately-popular opinion: Spike/Buffy in S5 actually works really well if you forget the fact that the writer’s forgot the fact the whole point is that it would never, ever work and she isn’t interested. I think it reflects well on Buffy that she inspires something like nobility in a someone fundamentally irredeemable and it reflects even better on her that she never loses sight of the fact that he’s still a bad person and there isn’t any expectation that she’ll reward his devotion with, um, sex or, for that matter, approval. Again, trying hard not to think about S6 here.
  • Highly-popular opinion: Giles is awesome.
  • Just sort of generally an opinion: Glory is a great villain, and the actor is clearly having the time of her fucking life, which just sort of infuses the character with this kind of unholy joy.

Videogames From Ages Ago

I picked up the most recent piece of Crusader Kings II DLC in a Steam Sale and have been happily watching my mighty Viking rulers die ignominiously of diseases that would be wholly curable in the 20th century. This is what makes Crusader Kings II fun. Take my word for it.

I’ve also got back into Stardew Valley. I … don’t know why. I just love this game so much. It’s basically a Skinner Box but it’s a really, really good Skinner Box.

And I’ve been playing Skyrim again. Which, weirdly, I have enjoyed a lot more this time round than the first. I think the problem with videogames, over any other creative medium, is that they have a very difficult relationship with expectations because you sink so much time and effort them (and, actually, I really will stop talking about GoT soon, one of the things big problems with S8 of GoT is that, for a lot of people, it’s the culmination of something they’ve been invested in for twenty fucking years). After all, if you read a book (apart from, say, epic fantasy septologies that aren’t finished yet) and it’s not what you hoped it would be you’ve only wasted a few hours. If you watch a film you don’t like, you’ve wasted even less. But if you spent 160 hours playing a videogame that never quite takes you where you want to go then … you can really fucking resent that. And I think my issue with Skyrim was that, as a diehard Morrowind fan, it felt and I apologise for this because I hate the phrase “very dumbed down” at the time.

But going back to it with a clearer of what it is and isn’t actually trying to do, I’ve been able to appreciate the streamlined design, and the gorgeous world. So basically I’ve had a blast.

And finally…

Having failed dismally to stop talking about Game of Thrones, here is a picture of Bran Stark and the Night King sharing an umbrella.

  1. I have a book coming out soon.
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I was honestly intending for my last post on this topic to be, well, my last post on this topic. But then I realised I hadn’t actually talked about the political situation at the end of the series.

Oh, but before that, one other totally unrelated thing that’s bugging me. A lot of people are comparing the death of Qyburn in episode five to Frankenstein being killed by his own creation. Except … I mean … I’m pretty sure that Frankenstein isn’t killed by his own creation. Doesn’t he die of exposure at the North Pole? Like I seem to recall that’s up there with “the creator not the monster” in terms of fairly commonly known things about Frankenstein.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. The weird link I made in my head that took me there was that people keep making throwaway comments about Qyburn’s death being Frankenstein-like, and I keep going “hang on, wut?” And I keep tripping up similarly over people’s responses to the political resolution we’re offered for Westeros at the end of S8E6. Because they tend to fall into two categories: “this is a step towards democracy, which while incremental is a step in the right direction” and “this is too small a step towards democracy, which means it doesn’t go far enough in the right direction.”

And people sort of toss this into their discussions like it’s a given—they just blithely refer to the situation as “quasi democratic” when it’s … not. People also sometimes make throwaway references to Magna Carta which … well … it’s sort of a complicated document and something people talk about in the abstract a lot more than the specific. And if we assume that the Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be roughly analogous to the Wars of the Roses (roughly 1455-1485) then we should be well past the era of the Magna Carta (1215-ish depending on which version you’re talking about). Not that it’s particularly clear what the laws of Westeros even are, especially with reference to the kinds of things that real social reform would require in a medieval setting which is … not of interest to the general public. Magna Carta, for example, includes such thrilling clauses as “All fish-weirs are in future to be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea-coast”, and “There is to be one measure of wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn, namely the quarter of London, and one breadth of dyed, russet and haberget cloths, that is, two ells within the borders; and let weights be dealt with as with measures”. Plus some parts of Magna Carta were deeply regressive, like  “no man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband.”

The problem we have here is essentially that Game of Thrones very effectively challenged the fantasy tradition of treating monarchy as an unproblematic system of government, but never really did the groundwork for exploring how it could be replaced. And this isn’t because the show was rushed, it’s because the show always kind of had its cake and ate it on the whole “monarchy is shitty” thing. Varys rather sanctimoniously wonders “why is it always the innocents who suffer when you high lords play your game of thrones” but the show isn’t really interested in what’s going on with the smallfolk, or really with the machinery of governance at all (also it is fucking called Game of Thrones). Dany’s “Break the Wheel” rhetoric is actually a perfect encapsulation of this—both the characters and the show only ever really pay attention to the commoners when they’re making grand abstract points about freedom, but that’s not what makes a kingdom better. What makes a kingdom better is somebody sitting down and saying “you know, it’s pretty annoying that ordinary people don’t have standardised weights and measures for things they use in their daily lives”.

And of course we aren’t going to get that. Nobody would watch a long-form fantasy TV show in which after a long and bloody civil war, a climactic battle against death itself, and the destruction by dragonfire of a major city, the highlords gather together and say “this is terrible, we must make certain that nothing of the kind ever occurs again, and also I HAVE SOME STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT FISHING WEIRS.” So instead we get a set of slightly peculiar markers that are designed to signal progress to a modern audience by pushing buttons that we ourselves associate with modernity in ways that would be wholly different in a Westerosi context.

We start off with Sam’s attempt to full on invent democracy, which is laughed down by the assembled lords. And that whole sequence feels misjudged to me. For a start, I know there was a time skip but we’re at most a couple of months away from the complete destruction of the capital and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now isn’t the time to be cracking wise. And the whole way the idea is introduced just feels massively metatextual. The framing is that we, the audience, are supposed to know that full participatory democracy is the “right” answer but that the lords of Westeros are too backwards to realise that. This ignores … so much. I suppose there was no Athens analogue in the World of Ice and Fire (which is somewhat facetiously known in the fandom as “Planetos”) so it’s not like in the real world where democracy would be a very well documented phenomenon. But why doesn’t Yara Greyjoy stand up and say “actually, that’s how we do it in the Iron Islands” (following the real model of Nordic countries, the kings of the Iron Islands are elected at something called the Kingsmoot, which is a much bigger deal in the books than in the show where, like, ten people show up to it). It’s not like anybody voices any of the thousands of very reasonable objections one could have to participatory democracy in a world where communicating from one side of the kingdom to another takes months, where most people are illiterate, where wealth and landowning are still entirely hereditary and, let’s not forget, people are still allowed to maintain private armies.

They eventually settle on the idea of a king being chosen by … well it isn’t really clear and obviously isn’t clear to the actual people present at the actual event (Davos even expresses uncertainty about whether he gets a vote) but essentially a small clique of powerful noblemen. And actually that is at least a fairly reasonable and stable system in the sense that, going forward, it can be fairly easily defined: give one vote to each of the constituent kingdoms except the Crownlands, and you have a nice small electorate who you can bring together fairly conveniently. Basically they transition the kingdom from a hereditary monarchy to an elective monarchy, which is … fine in a sense. Except that the show frames this change as (a) a step towards democracy, which it isn’t and (b) a clear improvement on the previous system, which it also isn’t.

I’m going to start with point (a). One of the biggest mistakes we make (and we make it because it is made so easily) when looking at history (disclaimer, I am a world away from being a historian) is to view it as having a single clear trajectory. You start with all the power in the hands of one king, and then you gradually transition that power to the nobility, then the middle classes, then the working classes, then you get universal suffrage by way of a single clear path with no deviations. The thing is, that isn’t actually how it works. Some monarchies have very centralised power, some are very decentralised, some democracies are actually deeply unjust (Athens had, like, a lot of slaves as for that matter did the early USA) and some monarchies are actually quite progressive. It’s especially noteworthy that the big selling point Tyrion pitches for the new Westerosi government is that it eliminates dynastic rule, but there’s no indication that dynastic rule is at all the problem with Westeros.

I’m not particularly pro-monarchy, I think it’s at best an irrelevance and at worst a symbol of entrenched inequality. But every year the Economist magazine (through the EIU, the Economist Intelligence Unit) publishes its annual Democracy Index, in which it rates the strength of democracy in every country in the world and it’s really interesting to notice that four out of the top five countries have a hereditary monarch (Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have their own, and New Zealand still recognises the Queen of England as its head of state) while none of the five least democratic countries do (unless you count the Kim family in North Korea, which wouldn’t be totally unfair).

Point being, moving from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy doesn’t actually make the Seven Kingdoms any freer or more democratic, it just slightly changes the kind of feudalism it operates under.

Even worse (and bringing us to our part b) it arguably changes the kind of feudalism it operates under to a type of feudalism that will exacerbate Westeros’s main problems. We’ll ignore for the moment the whole supernatural angle (the show certainly seems to want us to) and assume that Bran isn’t going to suddenly become the God Emperor of Dune but that instead the system is going to work roughly the way Tyrion says it will: Bran will be king, but on his death the High Lords of Westeros will come back to the Dragonpit and choose a new king from amongst themselves.

This is … kind of a recipe for disaster? My inspiration for the post was a twitter thread from Brent Sirota of NC State University laying out in detail why, if we assume the War of the Five Kings is nominally the War of the Roses it follows that what Westeros really needs is actually a far stronger centralised monarchy. Robert’s Rebellion and everything that followed came about (much like the real Wars of the Roses) happened because individual noble families got powerful enough that they could challenge the monarch, and that led to decades of strife and chaos. I mean think about it—how can it ever be a good thing stability-wise for the king to be profoundly in debt to one of his own subjects (for those who haven’t recently rewatched the first series, remember that the crown owed the Lannisters millions).

What I found particularly interesting about this analysis was that, when it popped up on reddit one commentator, by way of rebuttal, posted the following quote from George R. R. Martin himself:

“The Kingdom was unified with dragons, so the Targaryen’s flaw was to create an absolute monarchy highly dependent on them, with the small council not designed to be a real check and balance. So, without dragons it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos.”

 And this leads to a fascinating tension of duelling authorities. On the one hand you have a legitimate historian with real-world sources and on the other you have the person who designed the world. Being a fully paid-up death-of-the-author type, I’m very much of the opinion that GRRM’s interpretation of where the Targaryens went wrong is no more valid than anybody else’s but I do think it’s fascinating that Sirota draws attention to the “weird Americanism” of the way we are invited to rally behind Dany’s abolitionist agenda, while Martin himself sums up the problems with the Targaryen regime using the characteristically American language of “checks and balances”.

Also, looking at that quote afresh, I can’t quite tell if it’s meant to be sarcastic. Because “…it took a sneeze, a wildly incompetent and megalomaniac king, a love struck prince, a brutal civil war, a dissolute king that didn’t really know what to do with the throne and then chaos” actually describes a really long sequence of events so (especially with the quote out of context) it’s hard to be sure exactly what point Martin is making. Because I suspect tipping most medieval societies into chaos would have required way less than two wildly incompetent monarchs with a civil war in the middle.  Hell there was a civil war in England so chaotic it’s literally called “The Anarchy” and that was precipitated entirely because a drunk guy rammed a boat into a rock.

I think what I’m inching towards here is that A Game of Thrones was really good at challenging the fantasy genre’s well-documented bias in favour of “rightful kings” but might have fallen foul of the genre’s somewhat less well-documented bias in favour of decentralised power. I don’t want to give too much life to increasingly outdated stereotypes of the genre, but there’s still a strong tendency in fantasy for “bad” societies to be very centralised and monolithic (your prototypical dark lords and evil empires) while “good” societies tend to be more of a loose confederation of autonomous bodies (see the rebel alliance in Star Wars or the Last Alliance in Lord of the Rings). Much as I loved Sansa’s ending in the TV series, I do think it’s interesting that “independence for the North” is seen so unambiguously as a positive outcome, rather than as a complicated state of affairs that could easily be either desirable or undesirable depending on your perspective. #StrongerTogether.

Because Sirota’s very much right on this one. It’s easy for a modern audience to get behind “freedom” or “liberation” as heroic agendas. It’s much harder for them to get behind “centralisation of power in order to create stability that will ultimately benefit the common people by enabling them to go about their lives without being disrupted by the squabbling of the baronial classes.” And it’s still harder for them to get behind “standardising the quart and making minor changes to the management of rivers.”

And as a result, the series does end on a peculiar note of cognitive dissonance. We are invited to view the institution of elective monarchy (or weirwood god-emperoroship, the jury is still out on that one) as an unambiguously good thing, even though all it’s really doing is—as one article I read pointed out—codifying the Game of Thrones for perpetuity (it’s suddenly way easier to murder and politic your way onto the throne). It’s particularly weird when coupled with the destruction-by-dragonfire of the throne itself, which is one of those big bits of symbolism that might just be symbolic in a vacuum rather than symbolic of anything. I mean … yeah the spiky chair is gone, but the Iron Throne was never the One Ring, it’s not the object itself that is inherently corrupting, it’s the endless jockeying of the noble families for power. An endless jockeying, incidentally, that they have now (entirely on the say-so of a confessedly incompetent man in handcuffs) enshrined into their new system of government.

Taking a step back (sorry, I overuse that phrase), I can’t help but think that part of the issue here is that while the show does a good job of challenging the fantasy cliché of just and rightful kingship, it actually does quite a bad job of correctly articulating the problems with monarchy. Obviously it’s right in broad strokes—heredity is a bad qualification for leadership, just because your father was good at governing that doesn’t mean you will be, it’s very easy for somebody with unquestioned power to oppress people—but I think it’s very wrong in the specifics. Many many years ago, one of the earliest conversations I remember having about A Song of Ice and Fire was with a friend who was disappointed by Jaime’s chapters in A Storm of Swords, because he felt that revealing his backstory with the Mad King made him significantly less morally ambiguous. As he put it, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if he had proven himself a cruel tyrant” is an interesting moral question, “would you murder a man you had sworn to protect if it was literally the only way of stopping him from actually blowing up a city and actually killing an actual million actual people” is rather less so. Although the series pays lip service to the idea that monarchy is inherently unjust and that there are no truly good kings, it presents its bad kings as so scenery-chewingly, city-immolatingly, casually-mass-murderingly terrible that it’s hard not to view its real problem with monarchy as a lack of insurance against individual bad rulers, rather than a more structural problem with a society that treats some humans as inherently more worthy than others.

In this framework, the move to elective monarchy is exactly the right play, because it probably does mitigate against the possibility of getting a monarch who will decide on a whim to burn the capital to the ground (which isn’t as far as I know a problem real-life monarchies had particular trouble with). But it does kind of leave the whole of the rest of feudalism in place and curiously unexamined.

Basically the end of the show turns the Seven Kingdoms into the Holy Roman Empire. An institution, it should be noted, that was actually ruled by a single dynasty for nearly three centuries. This is … fine. But it’s still just another turn of the wheel.

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So I’ve got an idea for a fantasy TV series.

At its core, it’s a tragic love story between a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of an honourable but naive nobleman and the daughter of the mad king who that honourable noblemen overthrew.

He’s pure-hearted but has to balance his inherent desire to do right against the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. She’s idealistic but driven to the point of ruthlessness, and constantly struggles with her hereditary disposition towards insanity, her supernatural affinity for fire, and the legacy of her abusive history which has trained her to believe that she can achieve greatness only if she follows a path of violence and terror.

They come together and each is immediately drawn to the other’s sense of purpose and honour. He tells her about the terrible existential war they must all fight against the very concept of death itself and she in turn tells him of her vision of a freer, more just world without slavery or tyranny. But as they fight alongside one another we see signs that she may be more her father’s daughter than we ever suspected, and when a mysterious seer tells them that he is not the bastard son of a nobleman, as he thought, but instead the true heir to the kingdom she has been raised to believe is hers by right a wedge is driven between them. This, combined with the sudden deaths of her most trusted advisors ultimately, inevitably, and horrifically leads to her embracing the worst and darkest parts of her nature, burning cities and innocents until at last, the nobleman’s bastard is forced—for the good of all the realm—to kill the woman he loves with his own hands, knowing that it will mean his own death or exile.

I’d want this story to unfold over about eight seasons of television to do it justice.

Oh, and I think I’d really want to make sure the two main characters don’t even meet each other for the first six years.

And I know it’s a cheap shot, but genuinely, this right here is the problem with season eight of Game of Thrones. Yes, it feels rushed. But it doesn’t feel rushed because it was told in thirteen episodes instead of twenty, or because they cut out Fake Aegon and made Euron Greyjoy a shallow dudebro instead of a creepy Cthulhu wizard. It doesn’t feel rushed because Dany left Meereen too soon or we didn’t get Lady Stoneheart. It feels rushed because the story we’re getting the conclusion to in this season is the story that—as I understand it (and again I have no inside information here)—George R. R. Martin told the showrunners was the heart of the series all along, which is the doomed love story between two characters who spent 75% of the show on separate continents. It’s like Romeo and Juliet only the entire Capulet family spends most of the play in China and the balcony scene is at the end of act four.

And yes to an extent I’m showing my romance bias (in that I’m billing this complex multi-viewpoint fantasy epic as “essentially a love story”) but what we’ve just seen in the final episode only really makes sense as the emotional culmination of a story that is fundamentally about Jon and Dany in a way that the show has never really been, and which the books might wind up being depending on what happens in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

Side note: my personal pet theory is that GRRM has actually finished the manuscript for The Winds of Winter but is sitting on it not because of some weird secret deal with HBO, but because he’s spent ten years trying desperately to think of a title that begins with an indefinite article, because otherwise he knows that having the series go “A Game, A Storm, A Clash, A Feast, A Dance, The Winds, A Dream” will haunt him to his grave.

Umm … I should also stress that this is a joke. GRRM has spoken fairly recently about how much he hates “secretly finished the books” theories.

But seriously, I would not be able to cope with having one book out of seven that began with The instead of A.

Where was I? Oh yes, romance bias.

The narrative, structural and emotional climax of this episode—and therefore basically of the entire goddamned series—is when Jon Snow embraces Daenerys, tells her “you are my queen, now and always”, kisses her and then stabs her in the heart. Leaving aside for a moment the yicky gender politics of Dany’s story getting reduced to how sad it is that Jon had to kill his girlfriend (maybe he and Tyrion can form some kind of club) this would be a fucking amazing scene if it was the culmination of an eight year arc centred on this exact relationship. It feels really hollow as the culmination of an eight year arc that was mostly about completely different people, most of whom are now dead.

As I look back on Game of Thrones the more convinced I become that it was always going to be impossible to end effectively, because—appropriately enough for a show that built its reputation on its depiction of a complex five-way battle for a throne—it was really about five different shows intermittently at war with one another. Incidentally I fully admit that I picked the number “five” here purely to rhyme with the war of the five kings, but I’m pretty sure I can get there. Let’s go:

  1. It was an adaptation of the books. I mean obviously.
  2. It was also in a lot of ways a fantasy soap opera. In that it was just about a bunch of characters hooking up, doing slightly random things, and generally having personal drama with no end in sight.
  3. It was the Henriad or if you prefer I Claudius. That is, a vast and epic story covering huge movements in a continent-spanning empire following a sequence of ups and downs across multiple rulers.
  4. It was a heroic fantasy about a nobleman’s bastard and a queen-in-exile.
  5. By the end of the series, it was very much about itself and its own legacy (which is why we get actual characters talking about Gendry rowing and Kit Harrington being short).

Now the thing about these different styles of story is that they have large areas where they are compatible. Mashing up a serious political drama with a soap opera gives you the West Wing, for example, and obviously a heroic fantasy story about kings and queens and kissing and stabbing will always have elements of political drama to it.

The problem, though, is that smooshing up all these disparate narrative styles together introduces tensions. Tensions that are much better resolved in written fiction than in a TV show (although I suspect these tensions are also part of the reason that Martin’s writing has to be so intricate and painstaking). For example, a soap opera really relies on following characters day-to-day, because emotional plots about love and friendship make most sense when they’re unpacked in something close to real time. But stories of dynastic politics and ancient warfare need to take place over a much longer time scale, and it’s very awkward to try to mash the two together. You can see bits of this creeping into the season very early on, like the way that we meet the pregnant Gilly in season 2 and Young Sam is still a babe-in-arms in season 5, despite the fact that Daenerys’ dragons have gone from tiny wyrmlings to city-wrecking monsters, the War of the Five Kings has basically ended, Bran Stark has clearly gone from a ten-year-old into a creepy teen, and the Others have … okay they’ve mostly been standing around looking menacing.

The problems become even more acute come the ending, because you suddenly have to end each of these five distinct stories, and they each demand a different ending reached by a different path. Jon stabbing Dany in the heart is a fitting ending to the heroic fantasy about the nobleman’s bastard and the exiled queen, but we barely saw that story on screen. Bronn getting made Master of Coin for no clear reason is a fine ending for the weird fanservicey show-about-a-show that we saw so much of in seasons seven and eight, but it’s borderline destructive for any sense of historical realism. I can just about see giving him Highgarden because, frankly, he’s kind of right when he points out that all noble families started off with some murdering bastard, but why also put him in charge of the realm’s finances? As a throwaway joke it would be fine, except that the show also needs to provide a fitting ending to the fantasy political drama, and again “transition from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy and put an unexpected person on the throne” is a perfectly fitting ending for that (and one that has interesting shades of Claudius’ ascension to Emperor at the end of I Claudius) but again it isn’t set up by the foregoing episodes (which were suddenly trying to tell the epic fantasy story almost from a standing start) or paid off by the following scenes (which were trying to tell a meta-story about how much we love the Game of Thrones supporting cast).

Side-note. Very famously, one of GRRM’s inspirations for writing his very detail-oriented, very political fantasy about a believably realised medieval world was getting to the end of Lord of the Rings and finding that Aragorn’s reign is blitzed through with “he ruled wisely”. His comment on this ending is well known to have included the line “what was his tax policy” (I should probably add that this makes more sense in context). And apparently King Bran the Broken’s tax policy is … to put a shiftless self-serving mercenary in charge? I mean it almost works as satire. But only almost.

There is so much that could be said and has been said about the Great Council scene. Like why is Tyrion suddenly calling all the shots despite his being literally in chains? Why is Grey Worm not pushing any kind of agenda here (I mean to be fair, the answer to this might well be “because he was a slave soldier conditioned from birth to blindly follow orders and the person who bought him just died without giving him further instructions” but that assumes you’re following the much darker “Dany the slave owner” interpretation which I don’t think the show supports even given that she goes evil in S8)? Why after eight years of ceaseless war and conflict does everybody just finally agree on a plan proposed by a man many of them hate?

Also, pet peeve alert: Tyrion’s big speech revolves strongly around the importance of stories. And with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, I have always hated professional storytellers using their role as professional storytellers to tell stories about how important it is to tell stories. It always feel like I got somebody in to redecorate my living room, and they responded by coming into my house and painting “interior designers should be better paid” all over the walls.

Because I love a spurious analogy, the whole “get everybody together and suddenly we all unanimously agree to make Bran king” scene reminded me a whole lot of that one bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s a scene where Roger and Bob Hoskins are handcuffed together, and Bob is trying to saw through the chains to get them apart, and then Roger pulls his hand out of the handcuffs so he can help with the sawing. Which prompts the exchange: “wait, you could have done that at any time?” / “Not at any time, only when it was funny.”

That was pretty much how I felt seeing all the Great Lords of Westeros sitting down and resolving their bitter differences with a single five-minute conversation. Like, seriously, guys. You could have done this at any time. These characters don’t know they’re in a series finale. Yes, some truly apocalyptic shit has happened and yes you can make a reasonable case that pretty much everybody here is sort of allied now (the Riverlands and the Vale have strong ties to Sansa, the Crownlands are basically out the picture now King’s Landing has fallen, the Stormlands are run by a blacksmith’s apprentice who is clearly in way over his head, and … also Brienne and Davos are here for no reason?) but come on. If it was this easy to solve your problems you should have solved them years ago. And why is it only the North that asks for independence when Dorne and the Iron Islands have always had a strong tradition of seeking self-rule? Why are the two kingdoms whose primary loyalty is mostly to Sansa specifically (the Vale, the Riverlands) not asking to join Sansa’s kingdom in the North rather than Bran’s in the South? Why is nobody bothered by what seems to add up to a Stark coup?

Also, really petty point: why do they change the name of the Seven Kingdoms to the Six Kingdoms when there weren’t actually Seven Kingdoms in it to begin with? There are actually still eight kingdoms in what’s left of the Seven Kingdoms even without the North (in case you’re counting: The Vale, the Riverlands, the Iron Islands, The Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Rock, the Reach, and Dorne).

Anyway, it is what it is.

I want to address a couple of final points before I (probably) stop talking about this show forever. Firstly, and very quickly I want to address the scene where Brienne updates Jaime’s entry in the White Book. I’ve seen some people argue that this is a problem because it makes her story subservient to his, and I … I don’t actually agree with this. Obviously for a lot of people the show gets no benefit of the doubt on gender issues, especially after its two most prominent female rulers wound up being severally mad and useless (yes there’s Sansa but she was never technically in charge of the North until the show ended) and I completely see where those people are coming from. But I do think it’s doing the scene an injustice to frame it as making Brienne’s story about Jaime’s rather than bringing their stories together in a nuanced and poignant way. Because showing Brienne updating Jaime’s entry in the book actually has two purposes. Most obviously, it shows how she thought and felt about Jaime, and highlights his character growth through the series. But more subtly, it shows that Brienne is now in charge of updating the White Book, which is specifically the duty of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. So not only is she paying a final tribute to the man she loved, but she is doing it in a way that signals the completion of her own journey in a way that has nothing to do with him. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, let’s not forget, is the embodiment of chivalric honour in the Seven Kingdoms, and Brienne getting that job is a massive deal.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is Bran. I sort of feel that I did the Dark Dany thing to death over the last two posts (although I will point out that—as other people have highlighted in other takes—that the fact her speaking a foreign language is used to signal how evil she’s gone is kind of problematic, even if it is clearly supposed to echo the Nuremberg rallies rather than people talking foreign on the subway, although now I think of it echoing Hitler for cheap villain points is also … not great). But since King Brandon came kind of out of nowhere, I’ve not really touched on it at all and … well … I do gots some opinions.

Like Mad Queen Dany, I do think that King Bran is probably a GRRM inclusion, but there is probably nothing that highlights how different the approaches to the specifically fantastical elements of the story are between the books and the show than its framing of the Three Eyed Raven (in the book the Three Eyed Crow or possibly just The Last Greenseer—there’s no indication that the three-eyed-bird thing is actually a formal title in the book) ascending to the throne of Westeros.

In the TV show, Bran becoming king is almost a meta-level ending. Bran is history. Bran is stories. Bran—with his ability to see anything, to spool forwards and backwards throughout the history of Westeros—is in a very literal sense the viewer. He is all of us.

In the book, Bran is tied to an ancient prehuman supernatural force that has an unknown agenda and might have been dicking with everything in Westeros since before the show began.

I wrote in my review of episode three that, when viewed in a certain light, Bran’s actions were fucking cold. He knew from the outset that the only way to win was to bait out the Night King. He used himself as bait, sure, but he also used the entire assembled army as a misdirect. I mentioned in my original post that they could theoretically have got the same result by sticking Bran in the Godswood, putting Arya in the tree and sending everybody else south to save lives, but that presumes that the Night King wouldn’t have spotted that for a trap, which he might well have done. But this again turns Bran into a Machiavellian sociopath. He willingly sacrificed thousands of people’s lives just so that the Night King wouldn’t suspect that he was being lured into an Arya-shaped trap.

And it gets worse. It’s Bran who confirms to Sam that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna and who insists that Jon has to be told right before the battle and right after Sam finds out Dany burned his father and brother. Like in retrospect it looks a lot like Bran was deliberately trying to turn people against Daenerys right from Episode Two.

And it gets even worse. Because remember that Bran had a montage of past and future events in the weirwood tree in S6, and that montage specifically includes a shot of Drogon’s shadow flying over King’s Landing. So there is a good chance that he knew that Dany would burn down King’s Landing. The charitable interpretation of this is that he knew that Dany would destroy King’s Landing if she became queen, and was trying to prevent it by making a last-ditch effort to support Jon. The full balls to the wall evil interpretation of this is that he knew Dany would go evil if she began to suspect people were plotting against her, and deliberately chose to stoke her paranoia at the worst possible moment, sparking a chain of events that would lead to the destruction of King’s Landing, the death of Daenerys, Jon Snow’s disqualification from the succession and the Three Eyed Corvid’s being crowned king of the Seven (well really Six, well really Eight) Kingdoms.

After Tyrion’s impassioned if a little self-indulgent speech about how important stories are, he asks Bran if he would be willing to be king.

Bran’s reply: “Why do you think I came all this way?”

All this way from Winterfell to King’s Landing? Or all this way from a ten year old boy falling from a window to the omniscient wizard-king of the Seven Kingdoms?

There are a fair few people pointing this out already. But if you want to go full tinfoil hat, this goes super deep.

Oh, and I should probably add that I’m going to go off on some really obscure lore stuff here, and I’ve picked up a lot of that from a lovely YouTube channel called In Deep Geek in which a guy with a really soothing voice talks about these kinds of obscure bits of Thrones lore (he’s also very neutral, which I like—a lot of reaction videos are quite angry about this season, and IDG’s recaps tend to be very specifically factual and tied to the deeper worldbuilding stuff).

Anyway Bran is called to the North by his visions of a three-eyed-raven. In the TV show this is … just kind of Max von Sydow, but in the books it’s specifically a man named Brynden Rivers, called Lord Bloodraven, the bastard son of Aegon IV Targaryen (seriously these Targaryens get everywhere) and a terrifyingly efficient spymaster. He was a one-eyed sorcerer, a warg and eventually the Last Greenseer—basically like Littlefinger and Varys rolled into one, except he could also do actual magic. He has been manipulating events in the Seven Kingdoms for decades, he was heavily involved in suppressing the Blackfyre Rebellion, he’s a creepy manipulative magic spy who lives in a tree. He also might have driven Euron Greyjoy mad and turned him into a creepy cthulhu wizard pirate (in the books he’s very specifically called Euron Crow’s Eye and his sigil is a single red eye, and bloodraven has one eye, which is red and … like I say this gets tinfoily).

Add to that the fact that the show makes it fairly clear that Bran isn’t entirely Bran—he’s this sort of weird ancient gestalt consciousness, possibly made up of all the previous three-eyed ravens, one of whom is definitely a manipulative bastard. And many of whom might actually be Children of the Forest—beings that not only aren’t entirely human but which actually fought a war against humanity and indeed by show-canon created the White Walkers as a weapon against the First Men.

Basically there’s a pretty good set of evidence that not only is Bran Stark not Bran Stark, but there’s also pretty good evidence that the Bran-Stark-Entity is a fundamentally bad person, and possibly one implicitly hostile to humanity. Whatever you think of the politics of it, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that Tyrion just talked all the surviving lords of Westeros into crowning a quasi-human gestalt consciousness with profound ties to the very beings that created the White Walkers.

And you know what. It gets squirrelier.

Every single thing that happens in A Game of Thrones ultimately stems from Robert’s Rebellion, which ultimately stems from the “abduction” of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen. This took place because they’d formed some kind of connection at the Tourney at Harrenhall. The tourney at Harrenhall took place during something called the year of the false spring, which is when the harsh winter that erratically plagues Westeros went into abeyance for a year—just long enough for a large tournament to be orchestrated ostensibly by a man named Lord Whent but probably actually by Rhaegar Targaryen—before Winter came back in earnest. There’s a reasonable fan theory that some kind of supernatural force with the power to see the future and control the seasons was dicking with the weather specifically so that this tournament could come about, so that Rhaegar could meet Lyanna, so that they could run off together, so the war could happen so… something.

Throw on top of that the fairly well respected fan theory that Lyanna Stark originally came to Rhaegar’s attention because she disguised herself as a man and entered the tournament as “the Knight of the Laughing Tree” in order to avenge one of her father’s  bannermen, who had been badly beaten by some squires, and that the bannerman in question was Howland Reed, whose son is Jojen Reed who accompanies Bran on his journey beyond the wall, and whose family it is strongly hinted has hereditary greensight (having greensight, confusingly, being a slightly distinct set of powers from being a greenseer) and may therefore also have been manipulated into position by Bloodraven, or by some other ancient power of the Old Gods and the North. And I should probably break that sentence up, but … well … I think we’re squarely in long run-on sentence territory here.

Anyway, all this means it is possible that every single thing that happened in A Game of Thrones, going back well before the start of the first book or first episode, was actually part of an elaborate supernatural scheme designed to undo the centuries-ancient injustices perpetrated against the Children of the Forest by manipulating the Seven Kingdoms into a chaotic civil war followed by an apocalyptic battle between actual ice and fire, all of which was prodded through Bran’s visions (sent by some source we never truly learn the nature of) into an outcome that devastated the human kingdoms of Westeros and led inexorably to his appointment as king. A king, it seems reasonable to assume, who will rule in accordance with the mysterious visions that he is being sent by an ancient and mystical prehuman force.

Tl;dr—the whole eight-season arc, and all of its backstory, might be part of a millennia ancient battle fought by the primordial spirits of the land itself against the invading tide of humanity.

Which … well first of all that might be totally wrong. And as a reading it’s only lightly supported by show canon (while also not, if I’m honest, being especially supported by book canon, and occasionally involving cherrypicking from the two) but I think it does highlight something interesting and important about fantasy fiction, and especially about how fantasy fiction translates to television.

The Dark Bran theory, along with all the various theories about Azor Ahai, the Faceless Men, the Doom of Valyria, the Lord of Light, Maggy the Frog, Wargs, direwolves, the secret origins of dragons and their ties to the blood of old Valyria, brindled men and eyeless wyrms rely on an attitude to fantasy fiction which it’s very easy to forget is extremely uncommon outside of habitual genre readers.

There’s a line in one of the NYT articles about the Game of Thrones finale which made me realise how disparate attitudes to this kind of thing are amongst fans. It ran as follows:

            This was a Shakespearean saga about power, blood and loyalty, we once told our skeptical, fantasy-averse friends. Not some show about dragons and wizards.

            And then in its final episode, a dragon committed the story’s most potent symbolic act and a wizard was put in charge.

 Which … is a bit dismissive, but it is reflective of the feelings of a surprising number of people. And the thing is I’ve always kind of known that there are large segments of the public for whom fantasy elements are a turnoff, but I’ve never quite realised how stark the difference is between the turn-off crowd and the turn-on crowd until I started looking at critical responses to A Game of Thrones. Because for every person who’s embarrassed that a wizard wound up being king of Westeros, there’s somebody who’s narked that they didn’t go into more detail about how exactly the weirwood network worked. For everybody who’s upset that the Iron Throne was destroyed by a giant fire-breathing lizard, there’s somebody who’s upset that the show didn’t sufficiently engage with the question of how that fire-breathing lizard was connected to the Targaryens or explore the question of whether dragons might be the result of Valyrian blood magic combining humans, wyverns and the firewyrms that tunnel beneath the fourteen flames.

 Because my writing and my reading both hop around between genres, I think I might be more aware than many of how much of an acquired skill reading in a genre is. Some time last year I finally got around to reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I know, I know, what have I been doing with my time?) and it genuinely took me a while to gearshift back into fantasy mode and remind myself that if I wanted to have any hope of understanding what was going on I had to really pay attention to how Allomancy works. And that was a shift I could make fairly easily, because I am a giant fucking nerd and Sanderson’s mathematically elegant system of magical metals (each pushing or pulling on either the internal or external manifestation of some fundamental principle, and forming pairs containing one pure metal and one alloy) is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy thinking about. But taking a step back it’s also fairly easy for me to realise quite how many people there must be for whom the idea of what-a-particular-sort-of-person-can-do-by-swallowing-a-particular-bit-of-metal being a fundamental aspect of your enjoyment of a story is wholly bizarre and alien.

 I said in one of my early GoTS8 posts that Benioff and Weiss were seen in some quarters as being almost ashamed of their show’s fantasy elements, and that NYT article gave me a little glimpse into why they might be acting like that. A Song of Ice and Fire is from a particular school of fantasy that invites you not just to experience the story but to live in it, to speculate about what R’hllor really wants, to wonder what the precise limitations on the powers of the Faceless Men are, to think in detail about prophecies that are scattered across dozens of chapters across multiple books and to scour histories and visions for hints of secret truths and revelations.

 I am not even joking when I say that there are fan theories about Cersei’s eventual fate in the books that hinge on the question of whether a particular term in High Valyrian is grammatically gendered or not.

 To your average TV viewer (and I very much don’t mean that as a pejorative term, as I say all genre reading is acquired), this is a completely bizarre way of consuming a story. So of course the TV show never dove deep into Bran’s greenseer powers or the possibility that his ascension to the throne could be the culmination of a secret plot by the Children of the Forest. And of course they had defeating the White Walkers boil down to “kill the leader and they all die” because for most people doing lengthy research into the one weakness of an otherwise unstoppable enemy and relating it to the mytho-history of its creation and the motivations of the transmortal mystical force that drives it is … like … the opposite of compelling television.

 Looking back, I’ll repeat what I’ve said several time throughout these posts (although perhaps not often enough). The Game of Thrones TV show is a remarkable achievement. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it could never be perfect. In fact perhaps in its later seasons it could never even be good because it reached the point where it really was trying to do something literally impossible—trying to wrap up a dozen different stories at once, all of them subtly different in tone and style and even to some extent genre, all requiring different types of ending and all while trying to appeal to an audience half of whom really want to know more about dragon-lore and the internal politics of the Citadel and the other half of whom really want a traditionally paced story with character beats and an emotional payoff and are just a little bit embarrassed to be watching a show with dragons in it.

 It didn’t always succeed, but you can make a reasonable case that even when it failed, it failed magnificently.

 And now its watch is ended.

 Valar Morghulis.

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I didn’t get around to writing a full post about Russian Doll, but my title for that post I didn’t write was going to be the infinite potential of episode six. Because basically I liked the series, but I found the ending a bit of a letdown, and then I realised that the reason I found the ending a bit of a letdown was because nothing could possibly have lived up to the infinite potential of episode six—that point in the eight-to-ten part miniseries where it has confidently established its premise and you’re seeing clearly for the first time all the thousands of possible fascinating places it could go to.

Then it goes to one of them, and no matter how good it’s been, you’re always slightly pissed at the wasted potential of the others.

The problem with Game of Thrones was always going to be that it spent the best part of a decade living in the infinite potential of episode six, and no ending would ever live up to everything that could have been. And of course there absolutely were abrupt changes in the style of the show between series six and seven—it got a whole lot less detail-oriented and a whole lot pacier, and I very much had mixed feelings about this because on the one hand it did make things a lot less plausible but on the other hand I was really pleased that they were finally moving in the direction of wrapping things up. Because while at the start of the show the lavish, leisurely pace was something you could genuinely luxuriate in, there came a point where I’d watch a season when it released on DVD or whatever streaming service I was using and just be really impatient for it to start … going somewhere. Which it … kind of didn’t for a long time.

I’ve not really gone back to S7 since it first broadcast and what’s weird about it in light of Season 8 is that it feels at once rushed and still … kind of full of filler. In retrospect, it sort of feels that only two things really matter at the end of this show: the defeat of the Night King and Dany’s descent into the role of Mad Queen. Everything else is just so much groundwork.

Given which … really very little of S7 actually contributed to that goal. I mean neither did much else that has happened, but given how rushed it feels, it’s noticeable that it spends so much time setting up new things that go nowhere. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the characters spend a lot of time doing things that don’t actually especially advance their goals but which do advance the plot in quite large and abstract ways, mostly involving things that happen by accident while they’re taking the actions that don’t advance their goals.

The most obvious example of this is the plan to go north of the wall and capture a White Walker in order to convince Cersei to join the fight against the army of the dead. This takes up a significant chunk of the season between its proposal in episode 5, the journey itself in episode 6 and the parley with Cersei in episode 7 (yes, that’s only three episodes, but three out of seven is more than 40% of the season). This winds up being extremely important for advancing the plot but for reasons that are utterly tangential to the protagonists’ stated goals in going beyond the wall in the first place. It’s on this journey that they find out killing a White Walker destroys all the wights it raised, and Beric Dondarrion speculates (correctly, but with no evidence) that destroying the Night King will destroy the entire army of the dead, but they weren’t going north to look for information about how to destroy the army of the dead, they were going north to capture a wight to take to King’s Landing to prove to Cersei that the undead army was real. Which they fail to do. And of course this mission leads directly to the death of Viserion, which leads to the Night King getting a dragon, which leads to the wall falling, so this plan does actually move the White Walker plot forward in a substantial way, but that plot movement has nothing to do with what Jon et al are trying to achieve.

Similarly they do make an effort to find a way to destroy the army of the dead in this season—by sending Sam to Oldtown—but this leads to absolutely no new information about the problem at hand, but does lead to Gilly of all people finding a crucial piece of evidence about Jon Snow’s parentage. So again, the plot payoff is totally unrelated to the thing that’s meant to be happening. And by the way we’ve not really had much payoff from Jon turning out to be Aegon Targaryen yet either except that it made Dany go a bit madder.

The more I think about it, the more I think that being “rushed” isn’t the real problem with the ending of this series. The problem is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the stories that have been set up in the first six seasons and the stories that need to be paid off in the final two. People complain that the Night King got eight seasons of buildup and was then taken out in a single episode, but I don’t actually think that’s the problem. The problem is that the Night King didn’t have any real buildup at all—he had eight seasons of foreshadowing but there was never any real organic movement on his plotline. By the start of season seven we know virtually nothing about the White Walkers that we didn’t know in literally the first episode—they’re kind of scary and they raise the dead. I mean yes there was the Night King himself, and the implication that they were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon in their wars against the First Men when they arrived in Westeros and started cutting down the weirwoods, but (a) that’s not a huge amount for six years of what’s supposed to be a major plotline and (b) at least some of what I just said about the Children of the Forest is based on book canon and YouTube videos.

Dany’s psychological degeneration is a similar issue. It’s basically necessary for the story that she be a sympathetic character right up until she goes evil, because she’s so disconnected from the rest of the plot that if she wasn’t somebody we could properly root for we’d get deeply bored of her chapters. But again, this means that her eventual turn in season eight can only ever be foreshadowed rather than actually built up to. I argued in my last post about this series that she’s been basically a terrible person going all the way back to season one, but there’s not really been any escalation in that (when people argued prior to S8E5 that Dany was going full Mad Queen, others counter-argued quite reasonably that the worst thing she’d done recently was execute some people—the flaw in Dany’s arc here is really that the worst thing she does is when she crucifies people in season four, but that’s very early on and she kind of gets better after that not worse).

Complaints about the ending of Game of Thrones tend to come in two flavours, which can broadly be summed up as:

  • This sucks because it isn’t what GRRM intended, Dany will stay good and the final battle will be against the Night King, but Beinoff and Weiss changed it because they’re hacks.
  • This sucks because while it is what GRRM intended, the show is doing it wrong because Beinoff and Weiss are hacks, and the books will do it much better.

I don’t think either of these criticisms are correct or fair. I do think that the overall shape of the ending of the series roughly matches the overall shape of the ending that the books will eventually have. I don’t think Arya will kill the Night King in the books—the showrunners basically said that was their call—or that there will even necessarily be a Night King, but I’d be amazed if the book series didn’t end with the threat of the White Walkers being wrapped up fairly early and Dark Daenerys being the final villain. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that the books won’t ultimately bring things to a more natural-feeling conclusion, but I suspect that the problems B&W are having wrapping things up effectively stem less from their being talentless greedy hacks who don’t care about the source material as from structural elements of the story that Martin is clearly also having to deal with.

Specifically, the issue seems to me to be that the ending of this story is so radically different from the beginning that it isn’t at all clear how anybody could ever make the two join up in a satisfactory way. Somehow the story needed to transition from a detailed political drama about human motivations and petty rivalries spiralling out of control and unleashing chaos into a mythic supernatural conflict grounded in prophecy and destiny, and then finally into an epic and tragic struggle between doomed lovers torn apart by fate and hereditary insanity.

Those are three completely different stories, they don’t entirely fit in the same series, and there’s no real way to transition from one to another without alienating people who were on board with the first type of story but not at all at home for the second (when I read the books, for example, I was well up for the politics but not especially interested in all the Azor Ahai, Prince Who Was Promised stuff, but by contrast there are a bunch of people who freaking loved the Azor Ahai stuff and feel understandably cheated that it went nowhere in the show). It’s like trying to combine CasablancaSaving Private Ryan and Fantastic Beasts II, the Crimes of Grindelwald into one gigantic mega-movie—sure they’re all technically taking place at around the same time and, when you think about it, sort of in the same setting, but they don’t quite fit together.

I increasingly think Jon and Dany’s romance is a good example of this (and look, I actually got around to referencing something specifically from season seven in my season seven post, go me). A lot of people (including me, in my post on this subject last year) have complained that Jon and Dany have zero chemistry, which in hindsight I think is a little unfair. Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke are both talented actors, but they’re working against a lot of baggage that makes it very difficult for their relationship to pop onscreen.

Most obviously, there’s the comparison to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. I’ve already made the joke about Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie having so much chemistry that they actually got married in real life, but there’s a serious point to be made here—Jon/Dany doesn’t just suffer in comparison to Jon/Ygritte because Jon/Dany is lacking, it suffers because Jon/Ygritte was unusually strong, even by the standards of convincing TV romances.

And of course once again, a lot of people also insist that J/Y is better than J/D is because Jon/Ygritte was written by George R. R. Martin, while Jon/Dany was written by Benioff & Weiss who are bad hacks who can’t write. Which again I think is unfair. I’m not denying that J/Y is well written and well presented (in both the books and TV show), but I think it’s important to remember that Ygritte is only in the books as a romantic interest for Jon, and it’s much easier to write a romance between two characters when one of them has been specifically designed to be romantically interesting to the other than it is when both of those characters have been independently established for six years of television or a series of books longer than the bible. Ygritte’s attraction to Jon could never have felt out of character for her, because prior to meeting Jon she literally doesn’t exist, and Jon’s attraction to Ygritte could never have felt implausible because she’s there for him to be attracted to. By contrast, making it feel natural that Jon and Dany—two characters who we have known for the best part of a decade but who have known each other for eight minutes—would fall so epically in love that they both make a series of terrible life-ruining mistakes for each other (Dany abandoning her ambitions to fight somebody else’s war for a people who don’t believe in her, Jon signing up to be complicit in a war crime) is a much bigger ask. The problem isn’t that it’s “rushed” the problem is that doing it in a way that isn’t rushed would take not just a few extra episodes but a few extra seasons. Seasons that would need to be justified by the inclusion of whole extra subplots, which would only exacerbate the problem of people feeling cheated when those plots, once again, had no relation to the main storyline of beating the White Walkers and Dany going Mad Queen.

To put it another way, the “more seasons/episodes would fix everything” argument is grounded in the infinite potential of episode six. We look at the current ending, and we see that it feels unsatisfying and we think to ourselves “if they’d just let these last two seasons be ten episodes they could have done this so much better”. But that’s because we aren’t imagining real episodes, we’re imagining hypothetical episodes that nebulously solve problems and improve things without actually having to think through the details of what those episodes would actually involve.

As an example, a lot of people think that Daenerys’ final turn would have been more plausible if they’d kept the Young Griff plotline, in which Varys suddenly reveals out of nowhere that he’s been grooming this guy to be the perfect king since day one, and he invades Dragonstone with the Golden Company claiming to be Aegon Targaryen. The current internet consensus (there isn’t really a consensus, but more than one person has said it, which is as close to canon as these things come) seems to be that this would mean that instead of Dany fighting Cersei for control of King’s Landing she’d be fighting Aegon, who the people of Westeros would love on account of how Varys trained him to be this brilliant king, and this will make her whole “the people love you but they don’t love me” arc more plausible, so it will make total sense when she burns down King’s Landing. I’ve even seen people who thought the whole “fake Aegon” thing just seemed like an unnecessary complication and unhelpful padding when it first came out in A Dance with Dragons saying that they now see in retrospect why it’s actually a vital part of the series’ dramatic arc.

Now I’m not going to make any judgements about how plausible this arc will wind up being in the books. I suspect it will work better than it does in the show because getting Dany’s PoV will really help and there will be more space to explore how it all works. But I’m deeply sceptical that having some guy pretending to be Aegon Targaryen on the throne rather than Cersei would be the magic bullet for the show that people are suggesting it would be. Most notably, the effect that people seem to think Fake Aegon is necessary for (having Dany fighting a relatively united Westeros under an at least plausibly popular monarch so that it makes sense for her to be seen as a foreign invader and to resent it) could just as easily have been achieved by cutting out the bit where Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, and having Margaery and Tommen ruling when Dany arrives, without the need to introduce yet another major character viewpoint well past the halfway point. Dany’s turning evil doesn’t seem implausible because she’s fighting the wrong enemy, it seems implausible because they’ve pushed “Dany is a truly good person” so hard for so long, even while they’ve also shown her behaving tyrannically.

The Season Seven sequence which most typifies this issue is the bit about halfway through where Jon and Davos talk to Missandei about Daenerys and she gives them the “she is the queen we chose” speech. And … boy does that not look good in retrospect. I mean people have pointed out that Jorah Mormont’s arc is pretty dark when you realise how much shit he went through for Daenerys, right down to getting his redemptive dying-for-the-woman-he-loves sequence, only for it to turn out two episodes later that letting her die would have been unambiguously better for everybody. It’s even worse for Missandei, who spends five seasons having Dany’s back in a really problematic way, then dies in chains, only for Dany to turn out to be nothing like Missandei thought—and constantly told other people—she was.

And this is … like … this is not okay. Because while it’s tragic in a vacuum, the show has really traded on the authenticity points which Dany gets from having people of colour and former slaves on her side. Missandei and Grey Worm are what allow Daenerys in seasons three through six to read not merely as a self-styled liberator but as definitely being an actual liberator. Missandei is a pretty strong contender (alongside Brienne and possibly nobody else) for the only uncomplicatedly good person in the entire series. And she truly, passionately, believes in Daenerys. And yes you could do a revisionist or deconstructionist reading where she basically has stockholm syndrome, but firstly that’s really problematic because it denies the agency of the only woman of colour on the show and secondly it’s just … I mean it’s clearly not how it’s supposed to come across. Missandei constantly stumps for Daenerys and we are never invited to even consider the possibility that she has been deceived.

The other crap-we-have-to-wrap-this-up plotline that gets a lot of flak in season seven is the whole thing with Arya and Sansa in Winterfell. And … I actually liked it a lot more on rewatching right up until the end. Unlike, I think, a lot of people, I found it fairly plausible that Arya and Sansa would each have difficulty recognising that the other had changed so much since they were children—they’re neither of them even remotely the same person they were in season one, and there’s not really any reason for them to trust each other other than the fact that they’re family. I mean for fuck’s sake, Arya literally has a bag full of peeled faces in her room, that is not the sort of thing that inspires trust. I don’t even particularly think Littlefinger was wasted; although he’s a cool character I think it can be far too easy to lean on the “scheming character who does seemingly random things for inscrutable motives” plot device. It always seemed fairly clear to me that he never really had a plan per se (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica). The “Chaos is a Ladder” speech was cool, but it was practically the show hanging a giant lampshade on the fact that Littlefinger’s actions were always more about creating surprising plot twists than any coherent attempt to pursue his own self interest in a meaningful way (yes he winds up Lord of the Vale, but he does that by the cunning masterstroke of marrying a woman who has always wanted to marry him, he didn’t need to plunge a continent into war and murder a king first). I just really wish that the show hadn’t been so focused on providing surprising twists and revelations that it bent the plotline to breaking point just to preserve the wholly absurd courtroom scene where they all pretend Arya is on trial when really Littlefinger is. I mean why? Why? The reveal comes after two sentences, and the whole thing would have worked fine if we’d just seen on camera the point at which the girls decide to trust each other, rather than having them continue to try to fake out the audience even in private.

And that is … perilously close to being all I have to say about Season 7 of Game of Thrones. It was a short season, and many of the complaints that were made about it at the time (rushed storytelling, lack of attention to detail, the goddamned supersonic raven thing in Beyond the Wall which is probably the worst episode in the history of the series) seem a little redundant now Season 8 is out and is … even more so in every regard. And so many of the other plotlines seem pointless—Dany takes Casterly Rock but the Lannisters have abandoned it (okay, the gold mines are tapped out, but castles have strategic value, they’re not just a resource node in an RTS), Olenna Tyrell gets to be Queen of Shade one last time, Drogon fries the Tarlys. But almost everything we see is either faking out something that doesn’t happen (the Golden Company being a threat to Dany’s army, Cersei sending her troops north, Sansa and Arya falling out) or hinting obliquely at something that does (Bran giving Arya the dagger, Dany burningating prisoners, Varys beginning to alienate Dany), but there’s no possible way to know which is which and were it not for the fact that we knew they were working from a nearly-thirty-year-old outline, no especial reason to trust that the showrunners weren’t deciding which plot threads were real and which were fake more or less on the fly.

The more I think about it, the more I think the real issue here isn’t so much “bad writing” (a diagnosis that makes me flinch every time I see it—people are always quick to diagnose it and seldom clear about what they actually mean) or “rushed storytelling” as an increasing fixation on surprise to the extent of all else. People are complaining that nothing was set up, but the truth is that everything was set up, including a bunch of things that didn’t happen. It was absolutely set up that Arya would kill the Night King, and that Jon would. And that Dany would. And that Bran would. It was set up that Arya and Sansa would turn on each other. And that they would support each other. It was set up that Daenerys would go mad, and that she would be a truly just ruler who had the clear-eyed and sincere support of society’s most vulnerable and would be opposed only by nativists, racists and reactionaries. It was set up that the White Walkers were a generic zombie army with a single weakness, a metaphor for climate change, and misunderstood woobies who Never Asked For This. It was set up for the prophecies to matter, and for prophecy to be the proverbial sword without a hilt.

Part of the problem here is the show feeling forced to keep fans guessing to keep the hype up to keep ratings up (and sure they’re getting a lot of hate, but the old saying about the existence or otherwise of bad publicity has a lot of truth to it). Part of the problem is that Martin created a story so epic, complex, sweeping and compelling that it’s borderline impossible for anybody to bring to a satisfying conclusion, especially while also fulfilling the demands of a network television show.

But an enormous part of the problem is the infinite potential of episode six. The last two seasons of Game of Thrones were disappointing for a lot of people. But when you’re comparing what you actually got to all the things you could possibly have had, how could they ever be anything else?

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This week, on Game of Thrones, Benioff & Weiss laid out the true horror of war.

That horror, apparently, being that it is completely possible to use weapons of mass destruction and an army at least partly made of up rampaging horse-warriors renowned for their commitment to indiscriminate slaughter and looting, to conquer a city in a precise and controlled manner that produces a near-zero rate of civilian casualties. Unless somebody decides to randomly go on a murder spree for no reason afterwards.

I should probably say first of all that I absolutely, one hundred percent, no takesie-backsies believe that this is Martin’s intended ending for the series. I should add that I believe this on the basis of no evidence, but he’s said in interviews that he didn’t think his ending would be so very different from the show’s ending, and if you look right back to the beginning Dany was clearly always supposed to be more conqueror than saviour. Then there’s the fact that B&W cited three “holy shit” moments from their original discussions with Martin back in the day, of which one was the burning of Shireen Baratheon, one was the origin of Hodor’s name (and … it’s weird that Martin thought that was worth mentioning) and one, it seems extremely likely, was this. Although having said all that I don’t quite buy all the people who are claiming that it’s been super obvious all along that Book Daenerys was going this way and it only feels out of character on the show because the showrunners changed her character in the earlier seasons (a lot of people are arguing that Dany’s final heel turn will make more sense in the books based on (a) things that also happened in the show and (b) things that they’re assuming will happen in books that haven’t been published yet).

 As so many people all over the internet are saying, the problem here is less what happened than how it happened.

For the past three weeks people have been asking “so is Cersei the big bad now” and I’ve been pulling confused faces at YouTube thinking “why on Earth do you think that a big bad is the kind of thing this show needs or has ever needed.” I was even more confused by those who expressed the question in terms of a “final boss” as if the politics of a pseudomedieval fantasy kingdom were some kind of video game to be resolved by a set-piece battle against a massive bucket of hit points. I was similarly bothered by the question of who would kill Cersei. Cersei was only ever a middle-aged woman in a metal hat, killing her was never going to be the difficult bit.

The thing is, confused as I was by the way people seemed to be expecting that the entire decade-long narrative arc would come down to the question of who got to beat up a pregnant forty-five year old, I couldn’t entirely blame them because the show had been bending over backwards to fake out not just the events but even the style of its ending. It was fantastic to see Drogon finally getting to be the unstoppable engine of destruction that we’ve been led to expect dragons to be throughout the books and TV show, but this comes after a series of episodes in which we’ve seen dragons being profoundly ineffective and surprisingly easy to kill.

Having had to sit through the overlong and ultimately pointless battle sequence of The Long Night, it was really nice to see that this battle was so profoundly one-sided—Aegon the Conqueror took over Westeros with three dragons and a fraction of the armies Dany now possesses, and it was great that we got to see that recreated in the “present” day of the Seven Kingdoms. But why spend the whole of episode four trying to fake out the idea that this would in fact be a close battle? Why have all those bits in the last two seasons where Euron teleports his fleet in from nowhere and destroys everything if “use the dragons to burn the iron fleet” really was a perfectly viable strategy the whole time (and one that would by definition involve no civilian casualties)?

There seems to be a genuine thing recently in visual media where fear of spoilers and love of surprise have trumped pretty much any other concerns, to the detriment of any other aspect of storytelling. I’ve heard stories (well, read articles on websites) that people filming scenes for recent Marvel movies have been given their script pages out of order and not told the context of the scenes they’re filming so they can’t leak story details. If true, this is … ludicrous. People still watch films when they know how they end. People watched the first season of Game of Thrones even if they’d already read the books. But it seems increasingly like making sure that people can’t guess what happens next is the only goal of people making films and television shows, which I really don’t get. If all I wanted from an entertainment medium was to be uncertain what the outcome would be, I’d sit at home and watch a random number generator spit out digits.

This episode was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who previously directed The Long Night and The Battle of the Bastards. He’s directed others for the show, but these three form a sort of peculiar tryptich. His episodes tend to involve action-heavy set pieces, but what’s interesting about BoB, TLN and now The Bells is that the first is very much shot like a war movie, the second like a horror movie, and the third like a disaster movie. Which is … a thing (I know shit all about film)? In the Battle of the Bastards, Jon faces off against Ramsey Bolton in what amounts to a very traditional military conflict with shield walls and cavalry charges, while in The Long Night the armies of the living face a literal zombie horde and Arya even has a survival horror stealth segment. The Bells, by contrast, shows Daenerys just raining down fire and devastation on an essentially helpless King’s Landing.

The thing is, I really like the creative choice here—emphasising the effect of this horrific event on ordinary people really worked. Yes it leaned on some slightly awkward cliches (the burned corpse of a child holding an adorable toy, really?) and still notably found time to include the confrontation that I understand the fandom has taken to calling “Cleganebowl” (I assume that’s an American Football thing), to have Jon save a woman from being raped because Jon Is Still The Hero You Guys, and most bizarrely of all to have Arya ride out of the ashes on an actual white fucking horse like she was in the dream sequence from Blade Runner. Still I was really pleased that Cersei just died in the collapse of the Red Keep (seriously, nobody needed to “get the kill” here) and that Arya took a turn at least for a moment from trying to murder people to trying to save them. I was even pleased that the Golden Company got so thoroughly wiped out because … umm … yeah. This is what dragons are supposed to have been all along.

What I didn’t like was the storytelling that got us to this point.

I talked a bit in a recent post about why Dany going mad queen is difficult. I mean yes on one level it’s a subversion of a bunch of difficult tropes about true rulers and destined saviours and the like. But those tropes are almost universally embodied through men and when you set out to challenge the idea that mysterious returned heirs are always the best people to be on the throne while also making your mysterious returned heir a woman then … well … your take home message does feel like it reduces very quickly to “chicks … amirite?” And obviously this is a difficult one, because in an ideal world we’d be in a position where a female character could descend into tyranny and madness and it wouldn’t have any unfortunate implications, and I’d like to think that we were way closer to that now than we were in 1991 but … yeah, I don’t think we actually are.

A big part of the issue here is that it effectively reduces Daenerys to a supporting character in Jon’s uncomplicated heroic story. I mean he might not end up killing her, but given the whole Azor Ahai thing, I think it’s unlikely. For non-book-readers, or people who haven’t been obsessively listening to YouTube fanvids for the past month, Azor Ahai or “the prince who was promised” is a legendary—although peculiarly non-westerosi—figure who a bunch of characters in the books are supposed to be the reincarnation of. For the purposes of this line of thinking the really important deal with Azor Ahai is that he creates a magical sword called Lightbringer, but he has to sacrifice his own wife to do it. Which, like Tyrion’s murdering Shae in the show, is very much framed as his tragedy. Basically it looks an awful lot like the core story of A Game of Thrones is shaping up to be the heartbreaking tale of poor old Jon Snow, who just can’t help falling in love with women who he then has to kill. At this stage it doesn’t even especially matter if he winds up on the Iron Throne—the show has pretty much doubled, trebled, and quadrupled down on the notion that he’d be this shitballs amazing and wise king (Varys says exactly this to him—I mean not exactly, he avoids the word “shitballs”—and Varys also turns out to be dead on right about Dany being a dangerous pyromaniac), so the only thing really left to see now is whether he turns out to be too noble to sully himself with politics, or so noble he’ll take a throne he doesn’t want for the good of the realm (or maybe to be cruelly denied it at the last moment). My yes-they-would-wouldn’t-they money is on his getting a cake and eat it ending, giving up the throne but in such a way that his vision for a better Westeros is carried out by less noble people (I suspect they’ll wind up abolishing the inherently corrupt Federal Govern… I mean Iron Throne and delegating power back to the State… I mean Kingdoms).

And it super, super doesn’t help that Dany’s descent into mass murder is framed so specifically against the backdrop of her never-hugely-convincing romance with Jon breaking up. So not only does she go full evil, but you can make a reasonable case that she … kind of goes evil because a boy doesn’t like her? And I know there’s other things, like because Missandei got fridged and because her dragons were implausibly taken down by weapons that in this episode she could trivially destroy on Drogon. But it still feels a bit … gendered. I mean basically she’s jealous that people like Jon better than her (and according to the showrunners, Sansa betrayed Dany out of jealousy too, and since Cersei’s motivation comes from a prophecy about being replaced by a younger more attractive woman she is … also kind of motivated by jealousy? I mean it’s a bit patterny when you step back).

I will say that the one aspect of this twist I do like, but which I suspect might be unintentional (and which I know other people are super angry about) is how this stacks up alongside her exploits in Meereen. Because to me, Daenerys going full mass murderer is actually a pretty reasonable and weirdly satisfying deconstruction of the whole white saviour thing that the show is so uncritical about in seasons one through six (and which by my recollection, the books are only slightly more critical about). A lot of people are really angry about the fact that she goes from being the liberator of Slaver’s Bay to the destroyer of King’s Landing but … like … this is a woman who has been used to massive crowds of people—and I mean entire cities and whole cultures—bowing down before her, literally prostrating themselves, and carrying her over their heads like she’s actual Jesus. Just take a step back for a moment and think about how horrendously fucking entitled somebody like that would actually be, and how much of a gigantic temper tantrum they would throw when they got to Westeros and were suddenly getting treated the same as everybody else.

And when you think about it, it kind of says something really difficult about our wider perceptions of different groups of people that we find it so easy to imagine that the quasi-Asian, quasi-Mongolian and quasi-Middle-Eastern people of Essos would drop to their knees the moment a pretty girl showed up with a magic lizard, when it would feel completely wrong for the proud, honourable people of Westeros to do the same. In Essos literally everybody she meets either worships her, or tries to murder her. Things fall apart when she encounters the Westerosi, who behave like human beings with agency.

Again I keep coming back to what a fantastic subversion of toxic genre fiction tropes Dany’s arc would have been if she was a dude. You start off thinking this guy is a tough smart hero who just cares too darned much, and then you slowly realise that actually he’s always just been this awful manchild who saw every single other human being in the world as toys in a game he was playing with himself for his own gratification. Because actually somebody who burns a city on a whim has a lot in common with somebody who decides to end slavery on a whim. And even more in common with somebody who decides to end slavery on a whim, sulks when it gets difficult, turns randomly violent and ultimately bails with the job not even half done, leaving their grateful subjects in the hands of a man whose official policy, let us not forget, is “fuck the people.”

But there are two big problems here. Firstly, Dany isn’t a dude, so we go from “actions that seem heroic are often driven by the same sense of inflated self-worth and lack of regard for the reality of other people as acts that are plainly villainous” to … and I’m going to say this a couple of times this post … “chicks, amirite”. And secondly … for all I think you can make a good case that Dany’s good and bad actions really come from the same deeply problematic place, I don’t think you can make a coherent case that this is intentional on the part of the showrunners. Basically I tend to view Dany as kind of a Westerosi Donald Trump. Not only does she have distinctive hair and a fine line in three-word catchphrases (“break the wheel” is basically fantasy “drain the swamp”) but she also has a tendency to rage at her advisors, a tremendous need to be conspicuously adored by her people, and an ironclad belief that she can unilaterally solve problems that have challenged her predecessors for generations. I feel like the showrunners view her more as torn between a good side (that wants to free slaves and get carried around by grateful people of colour) and a bad side (that wants to burn things). Which is also valid, but then you do wind up with this terrible whiplash where the great liberator becomes a great murderer in the space of about a hundred and thirty minutes screentime, much of which is taken up with zombies and Euron Greyjoy.

A lot of people are saying that the problem with the plot beats of this final series is that major plotlines have been rushed. Which … I think is partly true, although having just done a slightly weird out-of-order rewatch I’m increasingly of the opinion that pacing has never exactly been the show’s strongest point, even in its earliest seasons. It’s true that a lot of the character arcs we’re seeing now would previously have been spread out over more episodes but that’s because those episodes would have been padded out with a lot more overlapping plotlines, which obviously ceases to be an option as the show narrows towards endgame. How much actual screentime does Ned’s investigation of Robert’s bastards have in season one? Yes it’s spread out over the whole series, but it’s really not that much. Arya’s journeys cover seasons and seasons and seasons but really she … has some fencing lessons, wanders around a bit, then goes to Braavos? The series has always taken an impressionistic approach to both storytelling and character development—we get a sense of who people are and what they’re going through, but we’re often working with inference rather than information. That’s why it’s taken so long for people to notice that Tyrion has stopped being clever. People put this down to the shows moving past the books, but he hasn’t actually done anything clever since season two, it’s just that his framing has maintained the sense of his cleverness long after it stopped really existing.

To put it another way, people suggest that the battle against the Night King and Dany’s descent into madness could have been expanded over more episodes, but I find myself wondering … what would actually happen in those episodes? Do we really want another half-a-season of Arya and the Hound riding across Westeros, of Jaime wandering the Riverlands and Daenerys sitting around in a castle doing not a huge amount? I mean they had eight seasons, it’s not like there was no space to foreshadow a descent into madness or work out how to defeat the Night King or any of those things, and it would still have felt jarring and unsatisfying when it happened because to some extent endings always are.

Ironically I wonder if part of the issue here isn’t that the show is something of a victim of the very genre tropes it (and the books—which are going to have to solve a very similar problem although weirdly the TV show has done GRRM a solid by at least priming people for it to end this way) seeks to subvert and challenge. Because while people complain about the Dany arc being rushed, it has clearly always been part of her character, and there are soooooooo many examples. Like I’m pretty sure we can do at least one per season:

  • S1: She gets, like, mega-excited at the speech Drogo makes after Robert attempts to assassinate her. The speech where he says he and his Dothraki are going to sail to Westeros, burn down all the castles, kill all the men and rape all the women. She also burns Mirri Maz Duur alive.
  • S2: She watches with joy while her dragons burn the warlocks, and then she seals up Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and one of her own damned handmaidens, inside his own vault to starve to death. This latter act being show-only and having been held up fairly recently by some commentators as an example of the show being too negative in its portrayal of Daenerys.
  • S3: Burns a slaver alive and commands the unsullied to “Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child.” Which is framed as her being totes noble, but she’s still kind of ordering a genocide here. Also depending on how literal the Unsullied are, she might have just signed the death-warrants of hundreds of innocent wagon drivers and ox-herds.
  • S4: Crucifies 163 people.
  • S5: Rounds up a bunch of Meereenese nobles, has a random one of them burned by dragonfire, then tells the others: “Who is innocent? Maybe all of you are, maybe none of you are. Maybe I should let the dragons decide.” There is no indication that this is a bluff, also she already had one of them burned alive and watched him die screaming with no particular sense of remorse or compassion.
  • S6: Burns all the leaders of the Dothraki alive. Repeats Drogo’s “let’s go commit mass murder in Westeros” speech to her new horde. Achieves rather less butchery than in previous seasons because she’s without her army and her dragons for most of it.
  • S7: Executes Randall and Dickon Tarly by dragonfire. This is arguably excusable, but can we just take a moment to appreciate that having two men horrifically burned to death is one of the least psychotic things she’s done in the last seven years.
  • S8: Burns down King’s Landing for not bowing down before her the way the Essosi did.

 I’m not saying I think it’s well handled, I’m not saying I think it’s well paced. I am saying that (a) I don’t think another couple of episodes of Dany going “mad” (which is a whole other kettle full of problematic fish) would make a difference, and (b) that everything people are claiming makes this make sense for “book Dany” and not “show Dany” is right there in the show, it’s just that because a lot of people are disappointed with the way the show is going “books good TV bad” has become kind of a default reaction for large sections of the community.

 The more I think about it, the more I think that the slavery thing is the real problem here. And this is … difficult. Slavery, like Hitler, is one of those things it’s hard to have a productive conversation about without getting derailed into issues that—for perfectly good reasons—people don’t like to see treated as throwaway debating points in discussions about a TV show. But it’s kind of at the point where you can’t really discuss this TV show without discussing slavery in way more detail than I’d normally be comfortable with. Because ultimately the extent to which Dany’s turn in this episode feels earned to you depends in large part on the extent to which you’re willing to view the Great Masters of Meereen, the Wise Masters of Yunkai, and the Good Masters of Astapor as “innocent people.”

 And again I should stress that this strays into thorny real-world issues that I’m in now way qualified to talk about, and I do not blame you if you want to skip the white-guy-talks-about-slavery bit.

 So anyway. All over the internet right now, the conversation is going roughly like this:

             “It makes no sense for Dany to be killing innocent people.”

            “Dude, Dany kills innocent people all the time.”

            “No she doesn’t.”

            “She crucifies a hundred and sixty three people in Meereen, and they’re chosen completely at random.”

            “But they were slavers, slavers aren’t innocent.”

 And this is … complicated. It’s rendered significantly more complicated by the role the transatlantic slave trade played in the evolution of modern racial politics (especially in the USA) and the tendency of 21st century racists to explicitly downplay the evils of that specific instance of slavery in order to justify racist ideas. In some contexts I can completely see why “there are no good slave owners” is a really important mantra to stick to (and why people are squicked out by “good slave owner” tropes, especially when they’re specifically applied to the transatlantic slave trade). But the thing is, Slaver’s Bay isn’t the Antebellum South, and Daenerys Targaryen isn’t Abraham Lincoln. And there’s a world of difference between thinking it might be a good idea to tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee, and believing that Robert E. Lee should literally have been crucified.

 Again, I know I’m on thin ice here, but if we’re accepting that merely owning slaves in a slave-owning society is a terrible enough crime that you deserve a slow death by torture and the desecration of your corpse (remember that Dany is hostile even to the idea of letting Hizdahr zo Loraq take his father’s body down off the pillar, and remember that she doesn’t bother seeking out the masters who actually crucified the slave children, she just selects randomly from amongst the aristocracy) then that suggests a pretty harsh judgement on a whole raft of historical figures, some of whom—not to put too fine a point on it—are still on banknotes. I really don’t want to oversimplify complex historical concepts (and I think the basic problem with Dany’s Meereen arc is that it does necessarily oversimiplify them) and it isn’t my intention to come across as glib but, well, if we accept that what Dany does to the Great Masters of Meereen is at all morally acceptable then we should also watch Hamilton in the belief that at least half the characters deserve to be nailed to a tree and left for the crows.

 What this ultimately comes down to isn’t a question of the show being rushed or of bits of book content being cut. It’s a question of a really problematic framing for the first part of Daenerys’s arc. Neither the slaves nor the slave-masters of Slaver’s Bay are given the same reality as the people of Westeros, despite our spending season after season amongst them with Dany. If Dany had ordered that a hundred and sixty three random Westerosi noblemen be hunted through the woods and torn apart by dogs, or stripped, sexually humiliated and shot with crossbows in retribution for the crimes of Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon, then it would be easy to see how small the step was from that to burning a city for refusing to grovel. But when she does it to the Great Masters of Meereen it’s obfuscated by layers of coding that make it hard for us to see her actions with emotional or moral clarity.

 This is made even worse by the fact that the codes which lead to our difficulty in sympathising with the Great Masters of Meereen pull in two very different directions. On the one hand, you have our instinctive revulsion at the notion of slavery, which is natural, correct, and extremely important in the modern world because of the persistent relevance of that historical injustice to modern politics. But on the other hand, you have the fact that the Meereenese aren’t white, and their culture isn’t quasi-European. You absolutely shouldn’t try to minimise the historical evils of slavery, but you maybe also should think twice about making your most prominent non-European-style culture a group of bad slavers who it’s okay to indiscriminately kill because they’re bad slavers. We are never really invited to view the Essosi cultures or their people as real, and this is great for misdirection, because it allows us to sympathise with Daenerys even as she does terrible things, but it also stands in sharp contrast to the nuanced way we are expected to see even the most repugnant of Westerosi characters.

 Wikigroaning is a terrible and unscientific way to assess this kind of thing, but it’s a good way to make a cheap point, so I went to a fan wiki (gameofthrones.fandom.com, in case you’re wondering) and compared the length of a few articles about important parts of different plotlines. The crimes that most foreshadow Dany’s descent into a full war criminal are her crucifixion (and following that crucifixion, her other various arbitrary executions) of the Great Masters of Meereen, so I thought I’d have a look and see how much information the wiki had on this particular social group; their culture, traditions, and motivations—what might have led them to defy Daenerys in such a way that she was provoked into taking such terrible retribution against them. The article on the Great Masters of Meereen—the people who used to be in charge of the city in which Daenerys spends three full seasons—is 803 words long. The article of House Frey, a minor Westerosi noble house that is, admittedly, involved in some fairly major plotlines (although not, I would argue, as major as Dany’s three-season rulership of a city) is 3240 words long.

 But okay, perhaps that’s unfair. While House Frey are small politically, they’re a major part of plot because of the Red Wedding. What about House Dayne? They’re both minor, and so inconsequential that they’re hardly mentioned in the show at all. Yet they still merit an article of 845 words. Hell, even The Bear and the Maiden Fair merits 950 words. It seems like we have more information about a comedy folk song than we do about the people who Danerys conquers and rules  for nearly half the series.

 I know this is partly just cheap point-scoring, but there is a serious issue here, especially with reference to how Dany’s arc was built up over the season. In this episode, Dany burns King’s Landing for seemingly no reason, and it feels incredibly out of character.

 But it feels out of character because of the framing. We’ve met people from King’s Landing, and this whole episode focuses on the plight of the civilians caught in the dragonfire. It would have felt a whole lot less out of character if they’d actually shown us the sack of Astapor. When Dany trades the Unsullied for one of her dragons, she gives them the following order: “Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child.” Now we only get 529 words about the Good Masters of Astapor, so it isn’t entirely clear who, exactly, Dany has ordered her 8000 Unsullied to kill, but they seem to be the ruling elite of the city. We do know that the status of “Master” in Slaver’s Bay seems to be roughly equivalent to the status of “Nobleman”—that is, it’s more about social status than what you actually do. And we also know that the cities of Slaver’s Bay make great use of slave soldiers.

 Which means … I think technically in season three, Daenerys—with no particular thought of the consequences—passes a death sentence on everybody who is (a) an adult and (b) legally able to own slaves in a slave-owning culture. And also on all the slave-soldiers protecting them (presumably even if they surrendered—the Unsullied are trained to be merciless and obey orders without question, you say kill all the soldiers they will kill all the soldiers). This would have been a massacre every bit as terrible as the one in King’s Landing, one that would have littered the streets of Astapor with corpses, but we’re never invited to see it as one.

 And gosh this is long now.

 Very quickly, the other big complaint people have about this episode is that Jaime goes back to Cersei. I … I honestly don’t mind it. People seem to think that his decision not to leave his sister to die alone in the dark undermines his character development over the series, but to me that … well … it comes back to #mahboistannis and his extremely correct statement that #agoodactdoesnotwashoutthebadnorabadactthegood.

 Because character development is funny, and almost a completely artificial construct. Imagine for a moment that we’d never seen Jaime right up until he catches up with Brienne in season 3. Imagine that she knew nothing about his past—none of the Kingslayer stuff, none of the incest, and so on—and imagine that we started getting little hints about his relationship with Cersei as they travelled together, culminating in S8E4 when he finally breaks and tells her about the time he threw a ten year old boy out of a tower window, because the boy saw him fucking his sister.

 That’s exactly the same “redemption” arc Jaime has in the books and show, but if you frame things in a way that we get reminded of all the fucked up shit he did at the end then suddenly he becomes a tormented and conflicted character whose inner torment is gradually revealed, rather than a bad guy who turns into a good guy. And that, more or less, is the problem I have with “redemption” arcs. I mean imagine for a moment if this was real life, if there was some celebrity or candidate for high public office who had a pretty okay if slightly edgy reputation, and then suddenly it came out that he once tried to murder a child. And not even, like, a long time ago. Like a few years ago. Would you say “oh, well he’s come a long way since then and it would undermine his whole arc to hold him accountable now?” (I mean, if there’s one thing we’ve learned post #MeToo, it’s that a lot of people would in a lot of cases, but I’d remind you we’re talking about literal child murder).

 I mean, basically nobody is getting a happy ending on this show but if anybody definitely doesn’t deserve one it’s Jaime the things I do for love Lannister.

 Dany burns down King’s Landing in this episode, so they’ve missed their last chance to #showusthegrainsilos, but I was quite pleased that we got to see the occasional cache of wildfire going up—it would have been easy to either forget about it entirely or to cop out and make it do more damage than the dragon (which would let Dany off way too easy), so it was nice to see it just being there.

 Next up, season seven recap, and the last ever episode.

 I feel strangely hollow.

watching

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I’m now weirdly, terrifyingly close to the end of this series. Or rather, to the end of this slightly pointless blogging project. And perhaps one of the things I should say to begin with is that I absolutely don’t recommend this method of watching the series. Jumping from the new episodes that everybody is hype-slash-angry about to the old episodes that we’re all used to taking for granted is interesting but it’s not fun, especially when you’re trying to fit a rewatch into the schedule of the new series and putting together multiple long-winded blog posts about it. I should probably stress that there is loads of good stuff in the early series, especially when viewed in the proper context (which, broadly, was when it came out) rather than as this weird melange-outside-of-time where everything is judged relative to everything that has come before and afterwards.

Season six is the point where the show well and truly went past the end of the books, and this has both advantages and disadvantages. It means that the series is freed up to be more straightforwardly televisiual, which tends to make for more satisfying television (for obvious reasons), and I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that the point at which the show ran out of book content was also the point at which it started really pushing forward with what you might call the main plots (Dany finally sets sail for Westeros at the end of Season Six, we get to see the outcome of Bran’s training North of the Wall). In a way, S6 hits something of a sweet spot in that there’s just enough residual book content to make everything feel grounded but the showrunners have enough freedom that they can kick up the sense of urgency in a way that’s more suited to the TV format.

Like season five, season six is very spread out, although still less so than the books. For a lot of book-fans, S6 is where things start getting rushed and abbreviated, with Arya’s Faceless Man training getting wrapped up in a couple of short (and not especially well explored) sequences, Cersei committing an act of domestic terrorism for which she suffers weirdly few consequences, Jon acting like a complete muppet at the Battle of the Bastards only for Sansa to save his arse out of nowhere and Dany leaving Meereen after a couple of very high-impact set pieces. Season Six is also where it becomes increasingly clear that certain large segments of the book plot—the pretender Aegon who in the books is aligned with Varys, Catelyn’s resurrection as Lady Stoneheart, and the more explicitly occult elements of Euron’s plot (in the books he’s what some commentators refer to as a “goth wizard pirate who worships Cthulhu”) aren’t going to be in the TV show.

In my month-long Song of Ice and Fire fandom binge, I’ve been reminded just how vast and complex the book narrative is, encompassing as it does not only the existing novels but also prequel stories, worldbooks, and most recently the vast two-volume history of the Targaryen dynasty Fire and Blood. Bringing all of this content down to a single satisfying story with a satisfying conclusion is an enormous task and possibly an impossible one (depending on how broadly you define “satisfying”), and it’s a task that the showrunners didn’t entirely sign up for (the broad consensus seeming to be that they expected the books to be finished by the time they caught up with them). Season six seems to represent the beginnings of their effort to … well … wrap things up.

In King’s Landing, for example, we have a plot which now only really involves Cersei and a bunch of tertiary characters (the Tyrells, the High Sparrow, and so on) and while the scene in which they’re all blown up in the Sept of Baelor is shocking and impactful (and also, trivia point, the only time apart from the death of the Night King when piano music is used in the score) but it also feels a little bit like … to borrow some tabletop gaming jargon … the “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending. A lot of people are, for understandable reasons, bothered that having been built up for eight seasons, the Night King and the White Walkers were defeated in the space of one episode and—ultimately, in a single dramatic sequence. (Some seem less upset by this and are more upset that the single dramatic blow that defeated the setting’s greatest objective threat was given to the wrong character, and that’s a criticism with which I have somewhat less sympathy). But really the destruction of the Sept of Baelor is a very similar moment. It’s awesome and shocking and (quite literally) explosive, but it throws away a whole supporting cast of characters we’ve been building up in seasons-long arcs. And I can absolutely see why this had to happen—what would Margaery Tyrell or the High Sparrow bring to the final battle or the final season? Neither of them would make sense as a primary antagonist, and having other people who were hostile to Cersei in King’s Landing would just take the emphasis away from the people who were always going to be the main characters (interestingly in his original pitch, GRRM suggests that the key viewpoint characters who would remain for the entire series were Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Bran and Tyrion, which I think is interesting partially because all those characters wound up at Winterfell as part of the Alliance of the Living, and partly because it notably doesn’t include Sansa who I suspect might wind up with a smaller role in the books). Just destroying everybody with Wildfire is an imperfect way to bring an end to those plotlines, but I’m honestly not sure what a perfect way to do it would look like.

You see a similar race-to-a-conclusion with Dany’s arc in Meereen. Tyrion negotiates a peace with the slavers, which fails, meanwhile Dany is away getting the Dothraki on her side by the simple expedient of burning all their leaders alive (turns out fire immunity is OP if you’re in a sacred city with no other weapons allowed). And … again there’s some deeply tricky racial politics here which far more qualified people than me have discussed at length, but much in the same way that knowing the White Walkers ultimately never make it south of Winterfell makes a lot of the Night’s Watch stuff feel a bit pointless, so knowing that Dany ultimately gets back the Dothraki horde she lost in season 1, and by pretty much the same method that she used to keep what few followers she hung onto at the end of season 1 makes a lot of what happened in the middle feel like so much back and forth. Dany was always going to arrive in Westeros with an army of Dothraki, that was a given. Having her gain the Dothraki, then lose the Dothraki, get a different army and fight a bunch of different battles only to get the Dothraki back again and walk away from those other battles leaving them half-won at best just feels a little repetitive.

It doesn’t help that Dany’s whole Meereen arc ends with what I at least perceive as a difficult disconnect between what I think is happening and what I think the showrunners think is happening. It seems like, from the show’s perspective, Dany has finally liberated Slaver’s Bay and is now returning to Westeros having done what she set out to do in Essos. What I think is happening is that Dany has won a couple of indecisive victories in a conflict that is likely to bog down for years or decades, but decided that she’d rather go and be Queen of Westeros than continue to hang out in Meereen. And I will concede that both of these interpretations are valid, especially given the series’ overall “winning is easy, governing’s harder” theme and the perception that Dany is shaping up to be the final villain (or at least final antiheroine). And it’s certainly valid to point out that the show literally has her leave the city in the hands of Daario Naharis who literally responds with the line “fuck Meereen, fuck the people” which surely we’re expected to interpret as a bad sign? But on the flip side, Grey Worm and Missandei (may she rest in peace) are kind of the moral heart of Dany’s story arc (in a way that is very far from being unproblematic) and they seem completely supportive of the idea. And it’s not like we get any word from Essos, so either we’re supposed to assume it’s fine, or we’re not supposed to care.

The thing is, there isn’t really a good way out of this problem. Either you give Dany’s arc in Meereen an unrealistically hurried conclusion that glosses over the enormity of the task she took on when she conquered it, or Dany never leaves Meereen. Because when you think about it, it is at once testimony to the vastness and complexity of the story and the … difficult approach it takes to its non-quasi-European setting elements that “abolishing slavery in a society the entire economy of which is based on slavery” is effectively a subplot. It’d be like writing a novel about Abraham Lincoln and treating the whole thing with the Civil War and the presidency as a tangentially relevant narrative quirk getting in the way of the real story, which is about him going to France and pressing his claim as the last surviving heir of the Bourbon dynasty. (Umm, not suggesting that I actually think Abraham Lincoln was secretly descended from French aristocracy, just drawing an analogy).

The other really big plot arc that moves dramatically forward in season six is Bran’s (notably, Bran was wholly absent from season five). He spends the first half of the season in the company of the three-eyed raven (side note—in the books this figure is called the “three eyed crow” and there are relatively well argued theories that the man who trains Bran and the strange figure who has been appearing to him in dreams as a bird are completely different entities because the books are much more complicated to an honestly unfilmable extent). Here he is trained as a greenseer, which in practice means spending a long time having visions of stuff. He sees his father in the past, he sees the creation of the White Walkers, and he sees the Army of the Dead (this last vision causing him to be marked by the Night King and allowing the dead to attack the cave where he and his companions are sheltering). This is also where we learn that Hodor’s name comes from weird time-travel hijinks whereby Bran was simultaneously viewing him in the past while also warging into him in the present while Meera Reed was yelling “hold the door”. Which is … one of those things that we’re sort of invited to see as tragic but which we’re also not especially invited to think too closely about. Because honestly the whole way Bran and co treat Hodor is just not okay on any level. I mean first of all, you shouldn’t use a guy with actual brain damage as your personal transport device. And having done that you definitely shouldn’t directly mind control him the same way you do literal animals. And at the very least, once you discover that the only reason that he had the brain damage that allowed you to treat him in this fundamentally unacceptable way in the first place is because of something you did to him you should at least stop and reflect a little on your culpability here.

I know a lot of people are disappointed that Bran hasn’t done more with his powers, but it’s actually pretty much in line with what I expect from the level of magic in the series. It’s true that things have grown a lot more explicitly magical over time but, dragons aside, pretty much all of the magic you see in GoT/ASoIaF is subtle rather than showy. It’s true that from a perspective of military strategy you’d expect the Army of the Living to at least make more use of Bran’s ability to warg into birds (as the wildlings do in the earlier seasons), but there have been predictions that he would be warging into dragons or leading vast armies of forest creatures against the Others, and I never felt like that was on the cards. There’s this notion out there that Bran was useless during the Battle of Winterfell, but from a certain perspective he was the one who orchestrated every beat of their actual victory. If you assume that the only way to win was to lure the Night King to a weirwood and stab him in the chest with a specific dagger, then every part of that outcome was set up by Bran quite deliberately. I sort of put him in the same space as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, most of what he achieves, he achieves by talking to people rather than by throwing fireballs at things.

 I have rather less to say about the North this time around. It does mildly bug me that Jon Snow gets proclaimed King in the North when he’s a bastard, given that Sansa is there and isn’t. And it’s true that Westeros does seem weirdly resistant to female rulers even relative to the societies it’s based on but … come on? I mean really? Jon is terrible. I mean obviously he’s not, he’s fine. But he’s far and away the character who most resembles a regular fantasy novel protagonist. Like, to the point where it’s sometimes really not clear that he’s in the same show as everybody else at all.

 And … like … I don’t mean to harp on about this, but there’s a whole big deal where Lyanna Mormont is all like “we recognise no king but the King in the North whose name is Stark” and all the Northern lords are like “we agree, we definitely want to be ruled by our own king who should definitely be a Stark and who definitely shouldn’t swear fealty to the first attractive lady he sees” and Jon is all like “Gotcha, I’ll definitely not do that. I mean, unless she’s got dragons. Dragons are awesome.” There’s this whole thing in S8 where Varys and Tyrion are talking about how people flock to Jon Snow, how he’s an instinctive leader and people follow him. And … actually isn’t he just kind of an inveterate people-pleaser? I mean basically he spends his entire arc getting people on side by offering them whatever they ask for with no real plan for how to give it to them (“oh sure you can come live south of the wall, nobody will mind”, “pledge the North to fight for your claim on the iron throne? No problem!”—hell even killing Qhorin Halfhand is something he does specifically because Qhorin asks him to).

 Anyway, the Battle of the Bastards is actually pretty cool. I mean yes, Jon is a liability but I’ll give him credit for the fact that in this one specific case he’s throwing away his strategic advantage in order to make a death-or-glory suicide charge for an understandable personal reason. That doesn’t quite justify all the other times he does exactly the same thing, mind. And actually you could reasonably hold this up as emblematic of the core paradox at the heart of Jon Snow’s character arc. He’s the character in the show that is closest to a straightforward hero, but he’s also the character in the show whose primary motivation is most divorced from straightforward heroics (okay, maybe not compared to Sansa or Tyrion, but certainly compared to Dany, Bran or Arya). If you listen to what Jon Snow talks about his primary concern is that everybody needs to work together to defeat the army of the dead, which is pretty much the opposite of heroism, it’s far-sighted coalition building to encourage a collective response to a potential existential crisis. But if you look at what he actually does it’s almost all bold unilateral action where he tries to fix big problems by doing dramatic things with little or no help, which sort of undermines his point. Because it winds up sounding an awful lot like what he’s really saying is “I want you all to send your armies north so I can have a nice big audience when I 1v1 the Night King.”

 Anyway, the Battle of the Bastards is nearly lost but Sansa calls in the Knights of the Vale to save the day. She doesn’t tell Jon that they’re coming which … like on the one hand, I want to say that since Jon is clearly a massive liability it was probably fair enough, but on the other hand you just don’t keep vital tactical information from your commanding officer. There is a bit later on where she tries to explain that she knew Littlefinger couldn’t be trusted, but even that’s not a great reason, and it feels mostly like a plot-convenient excuse when what’s really happening is that they needed to preserve the surprise of the last-minute rescue. So in my head-canon what actually happened is that Sansa knows Jon really, really hates spoilers, and she didn’t tell him that she’d sent for the Knights of the Vale because she knew he’d be pissed at her for ruining the surprise.

 Thinking about it, that might also be why he keeps risking his life needlessly. He’s trying to get himself killed because he’s decided to read the books first, and doesn’t want to spoil the end before Winds of Winter comes out.

 Final final point. There’s a little bit in the middle of this season where Brienne goes to the Riverlands while Jaime is laying siege to Riverrun, and they have some really nice I-believe-you-are-a-better-person-than-you-think-you-are interactions that are only slightly marred by the fact that Jaime goes back to boinking his sister pretty much immediately afterwards. (Much as people complained about it, if Jaime did suddenly decide to throw in with Cersei last episode, it wouldn’t actually be all that out of character). I mention it here mostly because during the siege, Brynden the Blackfish taunts Jaime with the notion that they have the supplies to last for a year. To which, as always, I say then what are you going to do for the other four years of winter? #showusthegrainsilos

 Okay, final final final point, I think I’ve twet about this already, and mentioned it in my summary of S8E4, but just one more time because it actually happens in the closing moments of this season: it is cool that Arya gets revenge on Walder Frey for the Red Wedding, but please explain to me why having gone to all the trouble of killing his sons, butchering them, cooking them into a pie and serving them to him, she then tells him what she’s done before he eats any of it. Don’t get me wrong, I respect A Girl’s commitment to the classics, but A Girl has to work on her attention to detail.

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I actually liked this episode a lot more than I have the last few. It had its issues but I thought it was better paced, had more naturalistic character moments, and brought the plot back to the kinds of storytelling that, broadly speaking, made it work.

And the episode isn’t without its problems. There’s a weird amount of casual misogyny in it, some of which seems like deliberate commentary (like the way Tormund and the Northmen are celebrating what an awesome dudebro Jon Snow is for fighting to defend them and how badass it is that he rode on dragonback, while Dany looks on and is clearly all, like guys, I have been doing that for years, it is literally my whole thing) but some of which seems just out of left field and kind of pointless, like the hound randomly bringing up how Sansa got “broken in hard” by Ramsay Bolton. Which particularly stood out because the Hound usually isn’t interested in talking about that kind of thing.

But before I get into the nitpicks and the difficult politics stuff that I am in no way qualified to talk about, I should probably explain my broadly positive reaction.

Mostly, the answer is fairly simple: stuff happened in it. I mean yes, last episode the entire Army of the Dead was destroyed, but that was always kind of going to be a formality, whereas this episode we legitimately got the aftermath of the battle, an effective but efficient sendoff for the characters who died last week, a reasonable sense of the plans for the forthcoming fight against Cersei, a decent helping of political intrigue, the loss of one of our two remaining dragons (Qyburn comes through) and a cheap but affecting character death. And I know every previous episode had people who loved it, and maybe I’m just part of the short attention span entitled millennial generation but I  want ninety minutes of TV to give me forward movement on both plot and character, ideally on multiple fronts, and I thought this episode did that in a way the last three episodes didn’t.

Where to begin? Because the structure of this episode is more like the classic structure of a GoT episode (people are geographically together but their plots are thematically separating now the dead are defeated) it probably makes most sense to go character by character, starting small.

Smallest of all: Ghost!

So he’s being sent to the Wall with Tormund Giantsbane? Which means after everybody wondering if he’d died at the Battle of Winterfell, the canonical answer from the show is literally that he’s been sent to live on a big farm upstate with a nice family? I mean I’m not really a pets person so I think this affected me less than it did others, but I understand some people are super upset about it. Because ghost is a good doggy. Yes he is. He is. Oh yes he is.

A little less small, Brienne and Jaime. The episode starts off with a genuinely affecting scene were Jaime, Brienne and Tyrion playing the drinking game that Tyrion introduces in S2 where you guess a fact about a person and they drink if you’re right and you drink if you’re wrong. This proceeds happily until Tyrion turns to Brienne with the statement “you’re a virgin”, which is a subject that Brienne, who has spent her whole life being made to feel inferior because of the way she looks, is deeply sensitive about (although it has been pointed out that she’s also an unmarried noblewoman in a medieval setting so being a virgin is … kind of expected of her?). Jaime defends her but it basically wrecks the evening. And I’ve seen some people complaining that this is out of character for Tyrion and is part of a trend of casual sexism on the show, but (and I’m very much out of my lane on this one, at least as regards the gender politics, I’m more in my lane on the question of Tyrion’s character) to me it read as fairly plausible and better handled than some other elements of the series. Tyrion is clever, but he’s not exactly a woke bae, and like a lot of clever people he will often say hurtful things without thinking about the impact because he’s more interest in sounding witty than protecting other people’s feelings.

Anyway, Jaime and Brienne totally bang, and weirdly this scene bothered me more than the previous one because Jaime in particular is clearly totally wasted. Like this is one of those situations where naive gender reversal is something you have to use cautiously, but if a female character had been that drunk going into a sex scene it would have raised some really difficult consent issues. And don’t get me wrong, I am a Jaienne (Brieaime?) shipper, but I really wish he’d been more sober. Afterwards Tyrion asks Jaime a clearly horrible question about Brienne’s genitals, which Jaime once again shuts him down on and, again, people are suggesting this is out of character for Tyrion, but we’re talking about a man who strangled his lover with his bare hands, on screen. He’s never exactly had a non-problematic attitude to women, and I didn’t feel like the show was validating that here.

Weirdly, Jaime then runs out on Brienne when he gets word from King’s Landing, and he makes this big speech about how he belongs with Cercei because he’s a very very bad man and … it’s kind of odd. It doesn’t help that the show lost all sense of time after about Season Six, so it’s not clear whether this is happening the very next night (which it’s shot to look like) or about a month later (which it would logically be if they’ve had time to get an entire army to the other end of the continent). It also doesn’t help that Jaime basically as good as says he’s going to King’s Landing to be with Cersei, even though it seems more emotionally plausible that he’d be going there to confront Cersei. So either he’s completely jettisoned all of his character development and is going to turn heel for no reason, or he’s decided that he has to be part of the final battle in which his sister might die (which is fair, she’s his twin sister who he also used to have sex with, that is a relationship you want closure on) but then inexplicably decided to express this to Brienne in the most misleading way possible. And there’s a fan theory that he was saying this to protect her feelings or to make sure she wouldn’t follow him but … umm … has he met Brienne? What about her would make him think that she would have any problem with his saying “I wish I could stay with you, but Cersei is my twin sister and my former lover and I have to be there when it ends, your place is here with Sansa because you literally swore an oath to protect her”. Its either a total character reversal, or misdirection for the sake of misdirection, and neither of those are things I especially like.

Next up is Arya, who has a relatively small part in this episode, which is fair enough since she’s already had her big moment. And I like how absent she is from all the celebration here: she’s been through absolute hell the last seven-and-a-half seasons (much like all of her siblings) and has been far more isolated from the world than anybody except Bran (and even he had Hodor and the Reeds with him for most of his journey), so I like that in this episode she and the Hound just ride off into the snow together as two stone killers who can never really go back. Early in the episode, Daenerys declares Gendry the Lord of the Stormlands (Tyrion then immediately explains in an aside why this was a clever thing for her to do, and she acknowledges that she was clever to do it—it’s not totally unfair to suggest that show isn’t quite as subtle as it used to be) and then almost immediately afterwards Gendry asks Arya to marry him and be Lady of Storm’s End, at which point she reprises the that’s not me speech she gives Ned in the first series when he talks about how one day she’ll marry a fine lord and have his sons. And I feel ambivalent about this. On the one hand, fair play to Arya for sticking to her guns, on the other hand I feel the callback is … odd. Because while I can completely see why little-girl Arya didn’t want to get married and have babies, and I can completely see why grown-up Arya doesn’t want to get married and have babies, I feel like they’re actually quite different things. Young Arya didn’t want to be a lady because she wanted to go out and fight with swords and have adventures. Old Arya doesn’t want to be a lady because she’s a literal trained assassin who puts people’s children in pies (but then doesn’t wait for them to eat said pie before doing the big reveal—she’s come so far, she has so far to go). I feel like treating the two things the same undercuts some of her character growth.

Of course the other Stark kid who’s come a long way over the series is Sansa. And I really, really enjoy Sansa in the later seasons. And in the earlier seasons for that matter. Like there’s a bit of a wobble in Season 3 where she’s not doing a huge amount but other than that she’s been the best thing in the show for a good long while. Also I’d happily watch close-ups of Sophie Turner’s “I am conflicted yet also shrewd and increasingly manipulative” face for basically ever. This episode does open with that really creepy encounter with the Hound, and that then goes to an even more problematic place when he points out that none of the shit that happened to Sansa would have happened if she’d just left King’s Landing with him in Season 2, and she responds by saying that without everything that happened to her she’d have “remained a little bird forever.” And ugh … just … no. And this is where it does feel like it’s a TV show problem rather than flawed characters or endemic features of the realistically sexist society of Westeros problem. The last few episodes have had a big “everything has brought you here / this is destiny / you are where you need to be” vibe which I’ve always had a bit of an issue with (I very much side with #mahboiStannis in, I think, Season 3 when he tells Davos “the good doesn’t wash out the bad, nor the bad the good”—Theon burned children alive and helped Sansa escape Winterfell, Jaime pushed a child out of a window and rescued Brienne; if you do something unforgivable and something laudable, that doesn’t mean you didn’t do the unforgivable thing) but this is probably its most pernicious manifestation.

For a start, “female character gets sexually abused and becomes badass as a consequence” is a very common and deeply problematic trope. And when explicitly compared positively to the possibility of her “staying a little bird forever” in a series that has always somewhat valorised the hyper-masculine culture of the North and the Wildlings over the effeminacy of King’s Landing it’s … yeah, it’s very very difficult. Like the Tyrell women were all awesome (until they get blown up or poisoned), they didn’t need to get abused to get that way.

Also, something I’ve been increasingly bothered by as I’ve progressed through my rewatch: how the hell did Sansa wind up getting raised the way she was raised in the first place? She seems to be, like, the only girl in the North who was raised to favour traditionally feminine pursuits. Lyanna Mormont is a warrior, as was her mother before her (and that isn’t even a show invention, as far as I know), and her namesake Lyanna Stark was a horse riding sword-fighting badass who might have actually entered the Tourney at Harrenhall in disguise and beaten fully trained knights in the joust. And a lot of those women are singled out as exceptional but we don’t see a single woman from the North except Sansa who is remotely interested in balls, embroidery, or court. Was Catelyn just really, really controlling? Or maybe you only get to do that stuff if you’re a brunette.

Anyway, apart from that, Sansa is great this episode and all the episodes. She seems to be pretty much the only person in the entire thing who is actually interested in running a kingdom effectively. Her keen governmental insight for this episode being hey, maybe don’t march your armies the entire length of a continent when they’ve just fought an apocalyptic war against the dead? Seriously, just make her queen and Jon and Dany can run off to bang in Qarth or something.

Whiiiich … brings us to Jon and Dany. And by extension to Varys and Tyrion. I don’t know how I feel about a lot of this. The part of me that is still giving the show the benefit of the doubt, deconstruction-wise, kind of likes that we see Jon Snow getting all the credit for the victory over the dead despite Arya getting the killshot and Daenerys being at least as much of a part of the battle as Jonny-boy (particularly when what Jon is getting praised for is mostly how awesome it was that he rode a dragon). On the other hand, Daenerys is increasingly looking like she’ll be a terrible ruler. Actually scratch that, it’s probably better to say it’s looking increasingly like we’re being invited to wonder if Dany might be a terrible ruler (or indeed go full Mad Queen, which is the ending the internet is increasingly predicting), when if you’ve paid any attention as we’ve gone along it’s fairly clear that she’s always been a terrible ruler. Not, I should stress, any worse than basically any other ruler we’ve seen, but certainly not such an obviously great ruler that I could ever understand why the Tyrions and Varyses of this world were so keen to throw in with her.

This is difficult for a number of reasons. One thing that’s making it difficult is that while I’m a big fan of messing with tropes, I think you have to be a bit careful about messing with too many tropes at once, especially when things start getting, y’know, gendered. There’ve been a lot of trope subversions in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark was a subversion of the lone honourable man who stands up to a corrupt system and triumphs. Robb Stark was a subversion of a revenge narrative. Angry internet commentators have turned “subverting expectations” into a meme after recent events but the show has absolutely always been about subverting expectations, and while I do think the twists in the early seasons were more grounded in the setting, I don’t think they were any less made for shock value than having Arya kill the Night King.

The trope that having Dany turn out to be good at conquering but bad at leading would be messing with is the general assumption in fantasy literature that the skills required to overthrow a bad ruler are the same as the skills required to be a good ruler yourself. The thing is, that trope is usually embodied in a male character (Aragorn being the classic example), and doing it with a female character and also having her turn out to be a shit ruler prone to emotional outbursts and utterly unfit for the throne winds up feeling a little problematic. It gets even more problematic because we seem suddenly to be having people decide that Jon Snow would be a fantastic king based on … nothing? I mean they’ve been doing this for a long time, he got proclaimed King in the North at the end of … shit was it season six? And to be fair here Jon and Dany’s arcs have both been largely characterised by people giving them things they didn’t earn and giving them credit for things other people did, which is kind of how fantasy heroes work. Still it feels a bit like a double standard.

One of the things I often feel when the ending of something seems to be less good than the beginning is that the problem isn’t actually with the end as much as it’s with the setup. For example I felt that the reason the battle against the Night King felt unsatisfying was less that Arya bamfed out of nowhere and stabbed him in the dick than that they’d spent eight seasons really pushing two key facts about the army of the dead, those being:

  1. The army of the dead is too numerous and magically empowered to be defeated by a conventional army.
  2. Their strategy for defeating it is building a very large conventional army.

There was no good way for that to play out. If they just kind of had a big battle and won that would have felt anticlimactic, but if the Night King had been taken out by some kind of McGuffin, big ritual or prophesied saviour, that would have undercut the entire coalition-building schtick that Jon Snow has been doing this whole time, as well as the whole broader theme of the petty squabbling for the throne distracting people from the wider threat (because if all you need to do to defeat the apocalypse is wait for the messiah to show up then … yeah, you might as well focus on other stuff).

The point here being that often the reason an ending feels unsatisfying is because the foundations it’s building on didn’t leave any room for it to be satisfying. And this is kind of what I feel the real problem is with Dany’s “Mad Queen” arc in S8 really is.

Once Jon tells Sansa and Arya about his heritage (a lot of people are bothered, incidentally, that we don’t see their reactions to this information which … honestly didn’t bother me), Sansa passes that information on to Tyrion as a way of undercutting Dany’s claim to the throne. And again a lot of people are bugged that this is basically her next scene, and we get no shots of her wrestling with the question of whether to break her word, but … well … can’t we just take all that as read? We’ve been following these characters for a decade, Sophie Turner in particular is really good at portraying a complex sequence of emotional reasoning using only her face. We know why she makes the call she makes without needing to spend additional screentime on it. Anyway, Sansa tells Tyrion and Tyrion tells Varys and this leads to a conversation between two of Dany’s most trusted advisors where they debate whether to sell out Daenerys in favour of Jon. Tyrion is broadly pro-loyalty while Varys is broadly pro-betrayal, but listening to the arguments they make, it seems like they’re both weirdly convinced that Jon Snow would make a great king.

Leaving aside the problematically gendered elements of this (some of which are explicitly recognised as part of the setting—Varys points out that the Lords of Westeros would be more likely to accept a male ruler “cocks are important” as he puts it) the issue here seems to be that Tyrion and Varys jump ship from Daenerys for no clear reason. But I kind of feel that the issue is really that they threw in with Daenerys for no reason in the first place. Tyrion flees across the Narrow Sea in season—four I think it is? And he gets this really intense speech off Varys that Daenerys is this amazing ruler but it’s pretty clear even then that she just very much is not. By any objective standard her strategy in Slaver’s Bay is as brutal as the one in Westeros, if not more so (I mean not wishing to state the obvious, but she doesn’t talk about crucifying anybody in King’s Landing), and her understanding of the nuances and realities of rulership as tenuous.

And in some ways the problems go deeper than that. Varys a couple of big speeches in series seven and eight about how he only cares for the people of the Seven Kingdoms, which is why he has no loyalty to any particular king. The problem is that this … definitely isn’t true. At the start of the series Varys is supporting Viserys (Dany even points this out to him in season seven) despite the fact that Robert is a perfectly reasonable monarch while Viserys is sadistic and unstable. And while you could argue that Varys didn’t know how bad Viserys truly was (which was how he defended the decision when Dany lampshaded it), surely if he cared about the common folk that would be a devil-you-know situation. Then there’s the fact that he not only knew about but actively orchestrated the plan for Viserys to arrive with an army of Dothraki, who would absolutely devastate the countryside during the conquest. That is not remotely compatible with him caring about the common people.

The reason for this is that in the book Varys has a whole big master plan involving either the real Aegon Targaryen (son of Rhaegar Targaryen, rescued by Varys before his apparent death at the hands of the Mountain) or a fake Aegon Targaryen (set up by Varys and Illario to be king of the Seven Kingdoms). But for very good reasons the showrunners decided that this was one twist too many (I kind of wish they’d made the same call with Euron Greyjoy, he just came in too late to be anything but weird and slightly out of place). But without his master plan, Varys’s actions in the early seasons make no sense, and pivoting him to this man of the people schtick really doesn’t work. And this kind of thing was always going to happen when you start adapting a long-running novel series for TV before the books are finished. Varys is an iconic character in the early seasons and the early novels, but because the things he does later in the books wouldn’t translate well to TV his presence in the show never quite pays off.

There’s a lot of this stuff when you start looking for it, bits and pieces that only really make sense if they’re setting up for other bits and pieces that wound up being cut (Beric Dondarrion seems primarily there as setup for Lady Stoneheart, for example, which for the non-book-readers out there is when Catelyn Stark gets resurrected as a vengeful fire zombie by the Lord of Light). There are only really three solutions to this. The first is to cut nothing, but that would not only make the series even longer and borderline impossible to follow (does anybody think the show would really have been improved if another pretender to the Iron Throne had shown up in series five?) it would also rely on the books being finished before the series wrapped up, and that hasn’t happened. The second option is to cut heavily from the outset, but again that kind of relies on the books being finished so that you can get a clear overview from the beginning of what parts of the story you want to adapt for television and what parts you don’t. The only really feasible option left is the one we got, which was to stay relatively faithful to the books at the start so you can hedge your bets about what will wind up mattering as things move towards a conclusion, and then start cutting more deeply as you reach the end and start getting a clearer idea of where the whole story is going.

Anyway, Varys and Tyrion talk about how Jon might make a better ruler than Dany, and Varys suggests that the fact that Jon doesn’t want to be king might make him uniquely qualified to be king.

This is … this is not a sentiment I agree with. I can see it in a less complicated story, and one with less of a grounding in brutal medieval realpolitik (yes, realpolitik is a decidedly post-medieval concept, but you get the idea). Heck, it’s basically what Aslan says to Caspian at the end of Prince Caspian (pedant alert: he actually says that if Caspian had felt himself ready to be king it would have been proof that he was not), and it’s the principle behind the Man in the Shack in the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I sort of feel that this epic gritty political drama needs to have a more nuanced understanding of power structures and kingship than a children’s book or a satirical space opera. Because actually we’ve seen several times in the series that not wanting to be king makes you a bad king, because being king is actually a job, and there are important things you need to do. I mean I suppose you could make the case that a king who completely ignores the throne and spends their time hunting or engaging in personal heroics at least isn’t doing any active harm, but at that point you’re just transitioning from monarchy to an unelected oligarchy, and even if the only thing the king does is hand over the stewardship of his realm to advisors, well, he still needs to pick good advisors, and that’s still a leadership skill that I’m not convinced Jon possesses. I mean mostly he likes his friends? Who would he make Master of Coin, Tormund? Well I suppose at least the crown would never run out of milk.

Anyway, Dany and Jon sail-slash-march south to Dragonstone, where they are ambushed by Euron Greyjoy and Qyburn’s new improved artillery, who shoot down Rhaegon and wreck Dany’s fleet. A lot of people are annoyed about this scene because the scorpions (the big crossbow things) are unrealistically powerful but I honestly don’t mind. I’m not a huge fan of the “it’s fantasy so things don’t have to make sense” line of reasoning, but I do think it’s a bit odd that people are bothered about the physics of giant crossbows but aren’t bothered about the physics of dragons. A lot of people insist that the difference here is that dragons are magic, but there’s no indication in either Game of Thrones or … well … any other dragon-related medium that dragons fly by magic (to be mega, mega nerdy for a second, I’ve never known a D&D DM to rule that they can’t fly in an antimagic field). They have wings, and they fly by flapping those wings the way a bat or a bird would, which shouldn’t work by any realistic model of aerodynamics. But if they’re actually held up by some kind of magical force, then that raises far more questions than it answers—does that mean, for example, that dragons are telekinetic? If so, why do we never see dragon-telekinesis? Dragons can fly because flying is the sort of thing that dragons do, and I’d argue that claiming there’s a specific in-world magical explanation for how they fly (especially in a setting that isn’t especially clear about how its magic works) is disingenuous. Dragons can fly because they’re dragons. Qyburn can make dragon-killing weapons because he’s evil Leonardo da Vinci. To me they do both rely on the same genre-based suspension of disbelief.

Also, Cersei has known for like two seasons that she’s eventually going to have to fight an army that has dragons, so Qyburn has spent that time designing weapons to kill dragons. Jon Snow found out in season one that he would eventually have to fight an army that had White Walkers, and everything he learned about how to kill White Walkers he discovered by accident (Sam stabs one with dragonglass to protect Gilly, Jon stabs one with Valyrian steel at Hardholme, they witness the kill-the-walker-kill-the-wights effect as a side effect of going wight-hunting in Beyond the Wall). Qyburn is the best. #qyburnminionoftheyear.

Although I was fine with Rhaegon getting shot out of the air, I couldn’t help but notice that this was, what, the third time that Euron Greyjoy’s fleet has appeared out of nowhere and demolished Dany’s allies (burning Grey Worm’s ships while he was taking Casterly Rock, capturing Ellaria sand and Yara Greyjoy as they traveled to Dorne, and this). I mean I know that when all you have is a hammer every problem starts to look like a nail, but seriously Dany just needs to stop travelling by sea. You can march over land, guys, it’s slower but it’s safer.

And of course when Euron attacks Dany’s fleet he also somehow captures Missandei and this just winds up being problematic however you slice it (although as ever this isn’t really my issue to talk about). There’s the whole weird thing where they put her in chains so they can be all like “where is your the breaker of chains now” to Dany, but … do they know she used to be a slave? Are they just assuming that because she’s black? Again, I’ve pointed this out in previous articles but slavery in Essos isn’t race-based, for all they know she’s just a free woman from Volantis who Dany hired to act as her translator. I’m also not super clear how they know that she’s personally important to Daenerys—in Westerosi culture the only hostages that are assumed to have any value are direct blood relatives.

Then of course there’s the … difficult broader context. It certainly doesn’t help that the Dothraki were the first casualties of the war against the Night King, then Missandei was the first (non-dragon) casualty of the war against Cersei. And it certainly certainly doesn’t help that the motivation in both cases seems to have been the furthering of Dany’s character arc. The plot beats definitely seem to have been presented as “things Dany has lost” (her Dothriaki, her trusted advisors, her dragons) rather than “people who have died following Dany”, and that’s one thing when it’s Jorah Mormont—it’s not like the series is short on Westerosi noblemen who have agency in their own stories—it’s another thing when it’s Missandei or a hundred thousand unnamed Dothraki.

I did still mostly enjoy the episode, although I appreciate that a lot of people will be far more bothered than I am about its various issues. I will add that Varys’s plan to take King’s Landing seems to be to lay in a siege, which presumably involves trying to run the city out of food. At which point I should also remind everybody that if they can’t survive a siege, they won’t survive a five year winter either.

#showusthegrainsilos.

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So … much … television. I mean seriously so … much … television. The A Song of Ice and Fire book series is regularly described as “longer than Lord of the Rings and the Bible put together” (which is one of those comparisons that mean a lot less than they seem to—the Lord of the Rings was a trilogy in the day but nowadays is published as a single volume, and holy books in general tend to be written in a way that packs a lot of information into a fairly small number of words) but so far I’ve watched fifty hours of the TV show which is … well let’s see. That’s long enough to watch all seven Harry Potter movies, all ten current Star Wars movies and still have time left over to get most of the way through the extended Lord of the Rings or just watch Casablanca four or five times. Like I tell myself I’m not wasting my life, but I’m believing myself less and less.

 And now we’re very much getting into the point where the pacing is beginning to … well … I don’t want to say drag, but it’s beginning to drag.

 The early series had a thematic and a narrative unity because most characters (apart from Dany) were fairly close to one another, and dealing with overlapping threats. There was also a sense of confidence that came because you were viewing the beginning and early middle of an epic story that you could trust would come together in suitably climactic fashion. The middle seasons were where the show started to overtake the books and where it started to become very apparent that there was still an awful lot left to tie up and increasingly little time to tie it up in. Because the thing is TV shows aren’t novels. A Song of Ice and Fire was famously pitched as a trilogy, the books to be entitled A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. Now not only did the story initially intended for the first book wind up growing to three books (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, a Storm of Swords) one of which was so long that it then wound up being further split into two volumes for its UK paperback edition, but the follow up, A Dance with Dragons itself had to expand to two volumes (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) while the original final volume, The Winds of Winter is already slated to spill over into a new final volume A Dream of Spring. And the thing is you can do that kind of thing in books. Your characters, in a purely written medium, stay conveniently frozen in time while you’re not looking at them. But television is a very different animal. You have much bigger budgets to worry about, hundreds if not thousands of people with priorities and schedules to work around, and a real sense that your audience is going to move on angrily if you don’t wrap this up when you say you will. Also, actors age. A Song of Ice and Fire got bigger and more complicated than its creator ever expected (there’s a reasonable chance that it will take more than two volumes to get it finished) but that’s a very dealable-with problem in written fiction. It’s an insurmountable barrier in television.

 Martin has compared the process of writing the next A Song of Ice and Fire book to writing twelve novels all at once, each with their own arcs, plot beats and supporting cast. And that’s a pretty good description of what it feels like to read a good work of multi-viewpoint fantasy, it’s like you’re reading lots of books at once and one of the really useful things about that is that you can to some extent control your own pacing. If I’m reading an ASoIaF book and I don’t like Bran’s chapters or Arya’s chapters or Jaime’s chapters, I can skim them, or pay less attention to them. I can control my own experience in a way that I can’t in television. For example, there’s a website out there called, appropriately enough A Feast With Dragons that even presents a suggested reading order for the chapters in the fourth and fifth ASoIaF books (which split the viewpoints geographically rather than chronologically, so events in the books happen simultaneously but thousands of miles apart) for people who want to read them as one mega-novel. But you have to watch the show at the pace and in the order it was released, and so there are times when you find yourself just staring at the screen and thinking gosh, a lot of stuff is happening here and I am not especially invested in any of it.

 This gets especially bad in Season Five for the events in and around King’s Landing, because in retrospect (and maybe this will change in the light of the next couple of S8 episodes) they seem to come from nowhere and go nowhere. Suddenly a bunch of religious fundamentalists calling themselves the “Sparrows” show up and … okay, fair enough, quasi-medieval setting religion should be powerful. Although we kind of … haven’t seen it being up until now? I mean I literally cannot think of any character in the series up to this point who shows any signs of actually believing in the Faith of the Seven, or the Old Gods for that matter (the Starks seem to keep to their traditions out of a sense of, well, tradition, rather than out of any sense that there’s a particular supernatural mandate behind them). Cersei tries to turn the Sparrows against the Tyrells and it all gets out of hand and both Margaery Tyrell and Cersei spend most of seasons five and six locked in tiny grey cells being preached at by fantasy nuns. None of which is ultimately destined to go anywhere because it’s all going to go up in a puff of dragonfire.

 Although again, the really ironic thing here is how basically fine things seem to be in Westeros. I mean yes there are fanatical preachers running around the capital locking people up, but they seem to be pretty much exclusively targeting the aristocracy, and the Westerosi aristocracy more than have it coming. I seem to recall (okay, I seem to recall reading fairly recently on wikis because I read the actual books a loooong time ago) that Varys actually has to murder Pycelle and Kevan Lannister in the books precisely because they’re actually doing a reasonable job and Tommen is shaping up to be a reasonable king, and he needs chaos in order to implement his plan to install Ser Not-In-The-TV-Show of House Targaryen on the Iron Throne. I mean yes the Sparrows are dicks, but so are the nobility, and at least giving the church some teeth leads to a bit more separation of powers in Westeros. Tommen is probably the best king Westeros has had since Jaehaerys II.

 Pretty much every other plotline in S5 goes … kind of nowhere. Or at least goes somewhere very, very slowly.

 Arya arrives in Braavos and begins training at the House of Black and White, where the Faceless Men are. This is kind of where she’s been going since the end of season one and while it’s nice that her training is fairly extensive (it lasts all this season and most of the next, although she’s actually really bad at doing anything the Faceless Men want her to do) it’s also just kind of a montage spaced out through the whole series. Basically in S5E2 Arya starts training as a Faceless Man, and in S5E10 Arya is still kind of starting her training as a Faceless Man, and yes she’s learned some things but it’s all very … leisurely. Her first big test—which, it should be noted, she fails—is to take out an insurance broker while disguised as an oyster seller. This whole arc covers three full episodes, and she gets distracted at the end when she extra-curricular-murders Meryn Trant and gets blinded for her trouble.

 Then of course there’s the infamous Dorne plot. I didn’t hate this as much as I know some people do, but I do think that any arc that culminates in the line “you want a good girl but you need bad pussy” probably has … some issues? Jaime and Bronn go south, fight some people, get put in prison, bring back Myrcella and she dies of poison lipstick. Also, the Dornish fight with curved swords, which I couldn’t watch without having the Skyrim “Curved Swords” meme running through my head on a perpetual loop.

 I continued to love Brienne this season while also continuing to be very aware that her plot is contributing little or nothing. True, she rescues Sansa at the end, but … well actually I’m going to go off on one here so bear with me.

 The thing is, there are an awful lot of supporting characters in the show who are cool in a vacuum but don’t really contribute much to the overarching narrative. Very often, when I’m trying to work out how the story would have been different if a particular character was absent the point I keep coming back to is “ah, but there’s this scene where they save [character x], so if [character y] hadn’t been in the story, [character x] would be dead, so [character y] is actually really significant.” Except the problem with this is that the show includes quite a lot of scenes of physical peril, and despite its reputation it very rarely kills off major characters (for all the complaints about the low death count of S8E3, most of the significant characters have always had plot armour, it’s just more obvious as we get closer to the end of the show). So this means that saving the life of a major character isn’t really an important contribution to the plot. Sure, Brienne saves Sansa and Theon in S5, but Sansa and Theon were always going to survive that scene somehow, being rescued by Brienne doesn’t actually change their story. It’s not like the relationship between Brienne and Jaime, where they’re pretty much integral to each other’s character growth, it’s just a random intervention where there was always going to be some sort of intervention. The same is very much true of Ser Beric Dondarrion sacrificing himself to protect Arya in the final battle.

 Sansa’s arc in these seasons is actually really good. I mean I really wish she didn’t have to go through quite so much explicit physical and sexual abuse to get there, because the idea that women specifically need to be abused to get strong is a really problematic trope, but it’s nice to see at least one person taking a political route through the story rather than a swords and neck-stabbing route. And incidentally, in my reaction to S8E3 I didn’t quite get around to mentioning how glad I was that Sansa was in the crypts with the other noncombatants and that they didn’t feel the need to have her stab a wight to prove she was cool. From the vantage point of S8, it sort of feels like Sansa is the only character who’s remembered what show she’s in, and while everybody else seems to be running around having epic fantasy adventures fighting zombies, it’s nice to see that they’re still making room for somebody who’s good at talking but bad at fighting. I’d put Tyrion in that box as well, except for the tiny fact that he’s been pretty bad at talking for years now.

 On which subject: Tyrion. Oh Tyrion, we hardly knew thee. Now it’s been pointed out to me that he hasn’t actually done anything remotely clever since Blackwater, it’s really hard to respect him. Although I will say that his S6 arc (as ever, I’m a bit ahead on watching and a bit behind on writing) is less boneheaded than I remember. True he fails to negotiate peace in Meereen, but that’s not because his peace plan is bad, just because he’s doing something legitimately difficult. I think there’s a genuine problem with fiction (especially genre fiction) in which we so often use success as a signal of competence that we forget that it’s actually perfectly possible to be really good at a difficult job and still fail at it. This even spills over into real life—in a parallel universe the Maginot Line is a byword for skilled strategic planning, while the German attempt to invade France through the Ardennes has gone down as one of history’s greatest military blunders. Season five, though, is something of a transitional one for Tyrion. He arrives in Essos, spends all of ten seconds in Volantis (remember that setting up Volantis was one of the reasons they changed Jeyne Westerling into a cool healer lady) with Varys, then gets captured by Jorah Mormont, who gets greyscale passing through the ruins of Valyria, then they get captured by slavers. Then they wind up in the fighting pits … basically Tyrion ends up as one of Dany’s advisors and Jorah ends up going back into exile and that’s kind of … it.

 Dany, meanwhile, is still struggling to hang onto Meereen (at first with the help of Daario and her definitely-not-slaves-any-more, later with the added help of Tyrion) and again this is … fine. Governing is harder than winning and all that. Anyway her rule is being undermined by this group of terrorists called the Sons of the Harpy and … again, it’s fine it’s just … her entire thing up until this point has been going back to Westeros so she can fight for the Iron Throne. And while it is interesting in a way that she deliberately pauses in her ambitions to do something she thinks is good and right she … I mean … she’s not going to see it through. And it’s season five. Five. Out of eight. And we know that once she gets to Westeros the Meereen stuff will be largely forgotten (and I’ll be more than happy to eat my words on this if it turns out that Dany rejects the Iron Throne at the end of the series to go back to Essos where she belongs to finish that whole “ending slavery” thing she was so into, but I’m not holding out much hope in that regard). So it’s really hard not to see basically all of this as just killing time until she finally gets off her arse and decides to cross the Narrow Sea.

 The aspect of the plot where the most progress is made is the North. As well as Sansa and Theon’s fabulous-if-harrowing arc at Winterfell, we also get solid movement on the story of the White Walkers. Jon Snow mercy-kills Mance Rayder, gets appointed Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, strikes an alliance with the Wildlings, faces the Army of the Dead at Hardholme, discovers that Valyrian Steel can kill White Walkers and, oh yeah, gets straight-up murdered. Don’t worry, though, he’s only mostly dead. And I really should take a pause here to say how good the Hardholme stuff is. I mean yes, if we’re being technical it’s worth pointing out that for some reason killing the White Walker doesn’t kill all the Wights (although to be fair there’s more than one of them present, so that might have been taken into account), but the escalation of the AotD threat here is really well done. We’ve gone from having the occasional encounter with a wight or two, to Sam getting a lucky shot in on a Walker, to the whole army of the dead descending on Hardholme in a tide of bone and rotting flesh. It’s cool. It’s really cool.

 That being said, I’m not one of those who was feeling cheated that it all ended so abruptly. I do feel that the end of the White Walker plot felt rushed, but that’s mostly because the whole ending feels rushed, and I attribute that less to the showrunners being bad at their jobs (I’ve been falling down fandom rabbit holes almost a month now and it really bothers me how loudly people are willing to proclaim that this or that flaw with the series is “bad writing” or that the showrunners are “hacks”) than to the overwhelming complexity of the series just not being reducible to a reasonable amount of television. There is so much in the books, and even cutting huge amounts of it out for the TV show, there’s still just too much sheer overwhelming stuff to get everything down to a satisfying ending no matter how good at your job you are. And this is especially true when you’re adapting an existing and beloved property, because whatever you cut out or change there will always be somebody who hates it (I have honestly met people who think cutting Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings movies was a shocking betrayal of the whole point of the novels)—and I am very aware that I say this as somebody who has complained at length about specific changes (although I like to think I did it with at least a modicum of self-awareness).

 Once again, there’s very little information about the actual food situation in this series. Which I continue to feel is a shame. Then again, pretty much everybody spends this season a prisoner in one way or another, so I suppose they can’t be paying too much attention to logistics. Even so: #showusthegrainsilos.

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