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.

watching

,
4 Comments

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.

watching

,
1 Comment

First off, my predictions for the deaths in this episode were “Lyanna Mormont and nobody else” and you know what, I’m giving myself an 8/10 for this one. Because a lot of people were predicting a major bloodbath with at least one really major character (Jon, Dany, Sansa etc) buying it. I was expecting something a lot more restrained, and that was what we got. And heck, even Lyanna Mormont got to go out surprisingly effectively (a zombie giant was taken out by an actual child).

Second off … you know I really try not to armchair general, because it’s obnoxious and I’m a million miles from being an expert but seriously what was the plan here. What was the plan? Why are so many of you starting outside the walls? Why are you not firing your artillery until you’ve sent your cavalry in? Why are you just sending your cavalry in a headlong charge against an unstoppable zombie army? What was your plan for how they’d kill the zombies if Melisandre hadn’t shown up and cast Mass Flaming Weapon on them? Just what to any of it.

Third off … so … Brandon Sanderson has a set of rules called Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. The first and most famous of these is something along the lines of “the author’s ability to use magic to solve problems is directly proportional to how well the audience understands it.” And this episode is a really clear illustration of why so many people in fandom take that law so seriously. Because … holy crap did I not understand how any of this stuff works. Apparently the Night King can control weather now? And apparently he’s immune to dragonfire? But not to Valyrian Steel? Or maybe he can only be killed if he’s standing in front of a weirwood. Apparently the showrunners have confirmed that luring him into the godswood was a necessary part of his destruction but … well … not only is that never made clear to the audience, it’s also never made clear to the characters. Worse, it’s never made clear that the characters have actually made any effort to seriously think about how they’re actually going to kill the Night King, or what that would mean, or even to especially confirm that killing him would defeat the rest of his army. And I get that not everybody wants to spend hours watching long war council sequences, but it wound up being abundantly clear over the course of the episode that nobody involved in the Stark/Targaryen alliance had given any thought whatsoever to how they were actually going to win this fight. Fair enough they thought they were doomed, but you’ve got Bran right there and he actually seems to know shit and nobody even bothers to ask.

And the thing is, part of me doesn’t mind. This was always going to come down to the Rule of Cool rather than any serious consideration of siege tactics or the supernatural nature and weaknesses of the Night King, but the problem here is that Jon’s whole deal is that he’s been trying to persuade people that it’s important for them to set their differences aside and team up to fight the Night King, but this turns out to have been wholly incorrect. Beating the Night King required a small group of named characters to get together and stab him in the dick with a magic knife. Letting the wildlings through the wall didn’t help, Dany bringing her Unsullied and Dothraki didn’t help. Cersei’s armies, if she’d been telling the truth about randomly face turning last season, wouldn’t have helped. Jaime betraying her and coming north to stand against the darkness didn’t help. The only thing that helped was Bran, a weirwood, and a valyrian steel dagger.

There’s a lot of talk in this episode about fate and destiny and predetermination. Theon tries to apologise to Bran for the whole burning down his home and trying to murder him thing, and Bran is all “no it’s cool man, you’re where you need to be”. They also try really hard to make Beric Dondarrion feel non-pointless by having him sacrifice himself to save Arya and then having Melisandre talk about how the Lord of Light had saved him for a purpose and that purpose was now fulfilled but it just felt hollow. I mean yes, he saved Arya’s life on this specific occasion on which her life was saved, and if we’re really stretching it we could point out that the other person who has strongly protected Arya throughout the series is the Hound who is also touched by fire and therefore might also be somehow guided by R’hllor, but what about that time in season seven when she gets stabbed in the gut, plunges into filthy canal water, sprints across a city and is still fine? Basically Arya has plot armour, and you don’t need to resurrect somebody twenty times just for one scene where you save somebody who already has plot armour. Plus it isn’t even made clear how she wound up in that situation in the first place (she goes from unexpectedly badass to unexpectedly vulnerable in the space of one commercial break, then goes all badass again when she takes out the Night King). You can’t pretend you’re doing some big foreshadowed destiny plot when things feel this arbitrary.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that Arya gets the kill, but holy crap does this make so much of everything else pointless. Like Jon and Dany are … kind of useless here? Brienne and Jaime do nothing. And the people who do do things largely do things that anybody else could have done. I mean it was nice that Theon defended Bran in the Godswood but there was no especial reason that he had to be the one doing that. It was nice that Jorah Mormont sacrificed himself to defend Daenerys, but she was only in danger in the first place because she made avoidable tactical errors, and he was nowhere near her for most of the battle. Also how the shit does Sam survive. He’s just constantly being dragged down by the dead but apparently they’re incapable of killing him off. Headcanon fankwank explanation, killing a white walker makes you immune from being directly killed by wights.

And then there’s the entire Prince Who Was Promised/Azor Ahai thing and, again, don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that so far it hasn’t ended with some prophesied saviour drawing a flaming sword and doing battle with what the D&D community calls the Big Bad Evil Guy but it just leaves the whole plotline flapping about in a really awkward way where it was never really built up enough in the first place for it to really count as having been subverted but it’s there just enough that it feels odd that it went nowhere. Like Melissandre is totally convinced that Stannis is the saviour, then totally convinced it’s Jon Snow, and then she gets to the end and it’s like she’s known it was Arya all along, making confident pronouncements about Beric Dondarrion having fulfilled his purpose and dropping hints about the various colours of eyes Arya will close. I guess my feeling is that if they were going to use Azor Ahai as a bait-and-switch they should probably have somebody other than Mellisandre pay attention to the whole concept at some point over the course of the show. As it stands, you’ve got this odd non-twist where Jon and Dany turn out not to be mythical saviour figures that neither of them ever believed they were in the first place.

While I’m rambling on this point, I’ve seen it suggested somewhere in the vast pile of secondary material I’ve been reading that now they’ve gone past the books, the showrunners seem weirdly ashamed of the show’s fantasy elements, and I do think there’s shades of that. I don’t think “ashamed” is quite the right word, but I do think they have a very … televisual attitude to their fantastical components (and their historical components for that matter). They don’t expect the audience to care what the defenders’ plans actually were, or how Arya’s faceless man powers work, or whether the wights are supposed to be fast zombies or slow zombies (they’re both in this episode and I found that weirdly frustrating). They’re not interested in the prophecy of Azor Ahai as anything but flavour text, no more important to the narrative than the background music (which is excellent by the way, seriously Ramin Djawadi is the dude but it’s not like I’m listening to it for plot hints).

And that’s fine in some ways—there are multiple ways in which fantasy elements can work in fantasy fiction and “basically just a big special effect” is a more common and more valid function than some fans give it credit for—but the thing is that Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire always did a really good job of integrating its fantasy elements with its character elements. Dany’s dragons aren’t just a convenient superpower she has, they’re an integral part of who she is. The prophecy of Azor Ahai is integral to the motivations of Mellisandre, Stannis and—delving into deep backstory—Rhaegar Targaryen. It’s very possible that Jon Snow would never have been born if Rhaegar hadn’t been actively trying to fulfil the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. Similarly the actual problem of how to defeat the army of the dead has been a key motivating factor for Jon Snow for his entire arc. Every single decision he has made since season one has been driven by that same idea—that when winter comes and the dead come calling, the living won’t stand a chance unless they work together. And Jon doesn’t have to have been right, and the prophecy doesn’t have to have been true, but you’ve had a bunch of major characters here operating for eight seasons on fundamentally flawed assumptions, and the show doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

I said I didn’t mind that Arya got the killshot and I don’t, but I do sort of mind that apparently the showrunners have said specifically that they gave the kill to Arya because they thought it would be unexpected and shocking. And yes, people tune into this show for the twists, but in the early series the twists were grounded in the world and characters, rather than just being shocks for the sake of it. But people both in-world and out seem surprisingly unbothered by this. I’ve just watched an episode review in which the reviewer, although a little disappointed that Jon Snow didn’t get an Azor Ahai moment, suggests that he still might be the Prince Who Was Promised because the prophecy is a metaphor and his really important contribution to the fight against the dead was the seven years he spent coalition-building. Which is a really good argument, and one I really like, except for the tiny detail that the coalition itself didn’t matter at all.

Similarly there’s a bit in the crypts where Sansa tells Tyrion that he was the best of her husbands/suitors (which is kind of a low bar when you think about it) but that they could never be married because the Dragon Queen wouldn’t accept his having divided loyalties, at which point Missandei speaks up and says something along the lines of “it’s true, without the Dragon Queen there would be no problem, because without the Dragon Queen you would all be dead already.” Which … okay two things. First of all, given that the show has once again got a certain amount of negative attention for its handling of its characters of colour (it’s really noticeable that the Dothraki and the Unsullied are on the front lines of the battle and suffer disproportionately high casualties compared to the white characters—more on that later) it’s a bit unfortunate that the only thing Missandei does in this episode is stand up for Daenerys. Second of all … she’s wrong? Dany has made virtually no useful contribution to the struggle against the Night King (since it was her dragon that brought down the Wall, she’s arguably been detrimental to it). I mean yes, maybe her armies bought Winterfell some time, but the problem here is that specific timings stopped being an important part of the narrative long ago. Arya jumps on the Night King at just the right moment to stop him killing Bran but that’s not because everything came together in such a way we could see the value of those crucial extra moments that the Dothraki and Unsullied bought with their lives, it’s because everything moved at the speed of plot.

Whenever there’s something disappointing about an episode of Game of Thrones there’s a tendency to blame it on the TV show outpacing the books, and there’s some justification to that (although the question then arguably becomes whether a story that is told in a hurry is better or worse than a story that might never be told at all) but I think some of the disappointments people feel with the end of the White Walker arc are actually endemic to the structure of the story, and also to some extent kind of the point of the story.

A Song of Ice and Fire was always a series that focused on the what-comes-next. Robert’s Rebellion is basically an epic fantasy saga in and of itself, and all the events of the actual novels are pretty much just fallout from that. It was always going to be integral to the story (both in the books and in the TV show) that stopping the ultimate army of darkness didn’t fix everything, that there would still be a civil war when everything was done, that the North was getting increasingly used to its independence, that even with the White Walkers dead, Winter is still Coming. While a lot of people were disappointed that the Army of the Dead was defeated with what looked like relative ease in a single episode, I was really glad that they didn’t drag it out, because I did feel like it was important for them to get some sense of aftermath, because the whole series is about aftermaths.

The problem here, though, is that it makes the rhetorical throughline of the show feel deeply inconsistent. Essentially this is the episode where the central argument of the series pivots from “the Game of Thrones is a distraction from the Long Night” to “the Long Night was a distraction from the Game of Thrones”. And a lot of people are pitching this as a book/show disjunction, but while I expect the books to devote a lot more time to beating the Night King (or rather, to beating the Army of the Dead, the Night King per se is a show-only character) and to explaining the actual mechanics of how it can be accomplished, I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a lot of space after that battle to deal with the fact that the struggle for the Iron Throne is still going on.

And I do get that if you were one of the people who was keen to view the White Walkers as a straight-up metaphor for climate change then having them get beaten by a single heroic or antiheroic figure taking unilateral action makes that whole interpretation fall apart (although really what would the alternative have been? Westeros is saved from the undead by a vast, costly, but ultimately necessary investment in alternative funerals?). Even more depressingly for people who prefer a modern political interpretation with a leftist slant, the “unchecked immigration” interpretation actually survives relatively intact, because that is a problem that we’re told has relatively easy fixes (in this extended metaphor, Arya’s Valyrian steel dagger is presumably an executive order ending birthright citizenship). But Game of Thrones has always been in dialogue with fantasy fiction more than real-world politics, and the Army of the Dead was always Sauron before it was anything else.

Still, because Jon Snow in particular has pushed the nothing matters but the Long Night line so hard, asking us to really give a shit about Cersei is something of a big ask. Not only was her selfish refusal to join the battle against the Night King utterly vindicated (the Army of the Dead literally did not get within two thousand miles of King’s Landing) but we also, blowing up the Sept of Baelor aside, don’t even see any particular indication that she’s an especially bad queen. And to the extent that she might actually be bad for the country, the damage has very much already been done. In a sense, this element of the series was flawed from the outset—because its entire premise is that governing is an endless series of intractable problems, there’s not a lot that can be done to … well … end that story in a satisfying way. A lot of people are expressing either their disappointment or their excitement that Cersei is going to wind up being the final villain of the series but I think (at least I hope) that this won’t be strictly the case. Because while “defeat the Night King and everything’s fine now” would have been a disappointing ending for a series that built itself around subverting fantasy cliches (and ironically I’ve read-slash-used that phrase so often that it has itself become a cliché), “defeat Cersei and everything’s fine now” would be just as bad, if not worse. Because defeating a being who seeks to end all life is an unambiguously positive outcome, while defeating a woman who you … just happen not to like very much … really isn’t.

In fact I’m increasingly coming to the position that Cersei is by far the best person to be on the Iron Throne. Part of this is sheer virtue of incumbency—there’ve been enough shifts in power over the last few years that right now the instability is probably doing more harm to the Seven Kingdoms than any given ruler could do, even a tyrannical one—but part of it is, well, really, who’s left? Jon has no interest whatsoever in governing and contrary to what conventional wisdom might tell us, that is a bad quality in a ruler, not a good one. Daenerys didn’t even grow up in Westeros, has a habit of burning people alive when they disagree with her, and is from a bloodline known for its hereditary psychological instability. Also she might be infertile, which makes securing the dynasty and the succession effectively impossible. I still half-seriously think Gendry might take it (some people think he’s actually the legitimate child of Robert and Cersei—she talks in the early series about their having a dark-haired child who they lost, and he’d be about the right age) but that is actually an incredibly bad idea from the point of view of an even remotely realistic interpretation of a feudal kingdom (also, can he even read?).

Another possibility is that nobody takes the Iron Throne. Which I cannot imagine ever taking the form of actual democratic reforms in Westeros (that would be even less believable than an armourer’s apprentice becoming king, although since the showrunners have apparently said on record that “themes are for 8th grade book reports” bets are kind of off on this one) but which might take the form of the Seven Kingdoms splitting back up into, well, seven kingdoms. Although since the ruling houses of most of those kingdoms are now full on dead, that might have some problems of its own. Or not, I mean while it’s easy to rag on feudalism from the safety of the 21st century it did its job pretty damned well. While bloodline is a flatly terrible way to determine the legitimacy of a governing body, it’s about three hundred percent better than no way, and there are literally hundreds of minor noble houses who’d be happy to take up the rulership of the various territories in the wake of the Iron Throne falling. While the series (both on TV and on the page) tends to present the notion that the lives of the peasants are pretty much shitty no matter who’s on the throne in a cynical way, it also suggests that they’re pretty much the same no matter who’s on the throne, because while the system may be unjust, it’s also robust. And stability matters, especially after a vast devastating war with a five year winter coming.

 The final thing I wanted to flag up about this episode is … so … the Dothraki are basically extinct now? Like, as a people? Dany united the Khalasars and led them all to Westeros, where they promptly died in the first eighty seconds of the battle? And that’s just kind of … we just kind of accept that? I mean yeah, Daenerys got upset at seeing them slaughtered and tried to fly into the battle earlier than planned but … well … well so many things.

 First off, it was a shit plan. And I don’t mind that the tactics used in the battle weren’t one hundred percent realistic, because of course they wouldn’t be one hundred percent realistic especially given that they were up against an enemy that no real army has ever had to fight, but charging light cavalry headlong into the army of the dead with no support of any kind except a couple of catapult shots was … well it was clearly a choice made for visual spectacle, not because it made sense in world. What does bug me a little bit is that some people are defending the pointless valley-of-death charge on the grounds that “that’s how the Dothraki fight”. And to be fair, it might be—the Dothraki are fictional, their canonical military strategies are defined by what GRRM and the showrunners have said, not by actual history. But it would be disingenuous not to admit that the Dothraki are based on real-world historical analogues, and it would be doing those real-world historical analogues a disservice not to point out that … they didn’t fight that way. The Mongols in particular were extremely sophisticated combatants—pretty much their entire strength came from the fact that they were expert riders, and this gave them a huge advantage in manoeuvrability which they knew how to exploit. They used hit-and-run tactics, rapid redeployments, encirclements, ambushes and of course arrows. They certainly didn’t just charge head first into the enemy and get massacred.

 Second off, just, just … so we’re blanking the genocide thing are we? I mean yes it wasn’t intentional on the part of the army of the dead, and yes Dany seemed to have a slight emotional reaction to it, but it seems like we really did just witness the actual death of an actual culture. Unless Missandei and Grey Worm have some serious fucking words for Dany next episode or she does some deeply serious unprompted introspection (spoiler, I very much doubt either of these things will happen) then we’ve just had a situation where Daenerys persuaded an entire human society to uproot itself, travel halfway around the world to fight a war that had nothing to do with them, and got them wiped out apparently to a man. And this is barely commented on.

 Obviously the way the Unsullied are left to cover the retreat of the Westerosi fighters is also deeply problematic, but at least some of them seem to survive (although it’s not clear how many). Still it’s … I mean … this is just not okay. Although also, come to think of it, why are all the Unsullied black? Slavery in Astapor isn’t race-based so you’d think you’d get Unsullied from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Sorry, digressing again. Even more frustratingly, when people point out that having the warriors-of-colour so obviously and unthinkingly sacrificed first, the internets tends to fall back on the old “historical accuracy” argument. Which … first of all it isn’t. I mean it’s not like when Ghengis Khan’s armies rolled into Europe he immediately started taking orders from a random white person and then rode his entire army to England where they sacrificed themselves charging headlong into battle against King John. And second, even ignoring that, you don’t get to cry “historical accuracy” when nothing about this episode is making any effort to be anything like historically accurate. And I’m not even talking the zombies and dragons here, I’m talking the basic decision-making process. Because it takes a very, very strange view of historicity to be completely fine with the cavalry charging the enemy unsupported and your phalanxes of spearmen being deployed in front of the massive spiked pits full of fire when they could just as easily have been deployed behind them, but somehow still compelled to have your commanders make decisions informed by what you consider (probably incorrectly) to be a historically accurate portrayal of race relations.

 To put it more succinctly, every decision in the framing of that enormous battle sequence was made based on how it would look to a modern television-watching audience, not on how it would play out in a real battle. And if you can make decisions with an eye to what looks cool, you can also make them with an eye to what looks racist.

 Although I said at the start that I wasn’t going to armchair-general, I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject and I do think I’ve come up with a better plan for defending Winterfell. There are some good articles out there from military history buffs that break down quite what’s wrong with the defender’s military strategy, but most also admit that there isn’t a huge amount that the army of the living can do—they’re outnumbered and (perhaps more importantly) out-indestructibled. I don’t want to claim that I’m smarter than the experts, but I do actually think I’ve worked out how the living could have deployed their forces in a way that would have drastically reduced the number of casualties they suffered. The consensus seems to be that the only way to kill the Night King was to symbolically reverse the ritual that created him by stabbing him in the heart with a Valyrian steel dagger underneath a weirwood tree. Further, Bran seems to know this (he gave Arya the dagger last season and he put himself in the godswood as bait). I therefore strongly suspect that the most effective way the living could have deployed their forces, is as follows: 

  • Put Bran in the Godswood to lure out the Night King.
  • Hide Arya in the Weirwood in the Godswood with the Valyrian steel dagger.
  • Send everybody else as far south as possible, as quickly as possible.

 The basic problem with the Battle for Winterfell as a battle is that the only thing that matters is destroying the Night King, and it can only be done in one way and with one object in one place and nothing else that happens in the fight advances that goal at all. Even the things that seem to advance that goal absolutely don’t. Bran must have known that Arya would kill the Night King (again, he gave her the dagger that she killed him with, in the exact spot where she’d kill him), so he could have just told her to wait in the Godswood from the start (thereby obviating the need for the Lord of Light to resurrect Beric Dondarrion twenty times just so he could protect her from some zombies). All the heroic sacrifice stuff that everybody else did tends to be described by other commentators as “buying time” but nobody is on a clock here. The Night King was the one who decided when he was going to go and confront Bran, and he literally could not be killed until that happened. All the battle did was delay the moment at which the guy they needed to kill got into the one place where he could be killed. I don’t want to detract from the (entirely fictional) heroism of all the characters who gave their lives in the battle, but when you think about it they were literally fighting in order to prevent their side from achieving its goals.

 Even Theon Greyjoy was basically wasting his time. It’s fairly clear from the way the Night King slowly walks up to Bran, pauses with his hand raised, and looks down smiling that he was always going to want to kill Bran in person, on foot, face-to-face. Theon and his Ironborn gave their lives protecting Bran from wights, but the wights almost certainly weren’t there to kill Bran. This also, incidentally, makes Bran a total dick. His final words to Theon inspire young master Grejoy to charge the Night King with his spear, but Bran must know that this is pointless. In fact he must want the Night King to draw closer so that he can be in the shadow of the weirwood. So he’s just … what? Sacrificing Theon as a feint?

 And I know that this is kind of a petty way of thinking about the episode, and I know it’s sort of cheesy and sort of gaming the system, but the issue here is that Jon and Dany’s big alliance of the living was completely the wrong solution to the problem of the White Walkers. And that, far more than the fact that Arya kind of comes out of nowhere or the Night King goes down “easily” is what makes the conclusion of this plotline feel anticlimactic.

 Still, with most of the army dead, at least Sansa doesn’t need to be so concerned about how to feed everybody.

 #showusthegrainsilos

watching

,
1 Comment

Halfway there. Well, I suppose a bit more than halfway there since S8 isn’t finished yet and I’m blogging it as I go. Anyway I have watched a lot of Game of Thrones in the last fortnight. I’ve also read a lot of secondary material and listened to a lot of podcasts because once you start going down this rabbit hole it’s easy to pursue it endlessly. And I’m aware I’ve made a number of non-trivial criticisms of the show on a number of levels, but I do want to take a step back and acknowledge what a remarkable achievement both it and the books that underlie it represent. Like the Lord of the Rings (and I know comparing popular fantasy series to Lord of the Rings is kind of an unbelievable cliché) it has a tremendous weight of history behind it to the extent that it’s almost possible to forget that this is just something one guy made up. And easy-stroke-fashionable as it is to make jokes about how very very long Martin is taking to get the series finished, the truth is that there is a rich tradition of this kind of worldbuilding in fantasy and I’m sort of glad it exists. Because sometimes it’s nice to pick up a book and know that the person who wrote it has spent literally decades crafting the world in which it’s set in meticulous detail. I mean right now I’m listening to a series of videos about everything that happened with Rhaegar Targaryen, Lyanna Stark and the Tourney at Harrenhall. This is a set of characters and events that happened long before TV show starts and are barely mentioned in it, but people have made literally dozens of hours of videos speculating about their causes and consequences. It’s genuinely a remarkable accomplishment.

Anyway, the show itself.

Perhaps ironically for something with such a reputation for its endless spiral towards chaos and despair, the overwhelming feeling I took away from Season 4 is that it’s the closest that Westeros gets to actually being … kind of fine? The Battle of Five Kings is basically over, Stannis has gone north to fight beyond the wall, Tywin Lannister has come back to King’s Landing and is taking Joffrey firmly in hand, which makes the boy-king himself far less of a menace and once he’s choked to death on a somewhat pointlessly sadistic poison at what I understand fans call the “purple wedding” Tommen takes over and shows every sign that he’ll be a perfectly reasonable king.

Like my S3 recap, I’m also going to take a few opportunities to randomly segue into S8 discussion, speculation, and meta-commentary because I have absolutely zero self-discipline, and also because this was always supposed to be a “watching early seasons while also watching S8” series, rather than a set of standalone recaps.

Anyway the point about which I wanted to segue this time was the question of “good kings”. One of the weird things about worldbuilding that comes up repeatedly in Game of Thrones the TV series (and also in the novel series, but since they’ve got more room for nuance and discussion I think it’s less of an issue) is that it is on the one hand very clear-eyed about the structural flaws of feudalism while also being weirdly fixated on the idea of “good kings”. This leads to some very strange divisions in the fandom where some people are fairly certain that it has to end with one or other prominent character on the throne and Ruling Wisely (which would be especially ironic since Martin so regularly talks about his objections to that characterisation of Aragorn’s rule in LotR) while others insist equally fervently that the only satisfying ending will be one in which feudalism is entirely abolished in the setting (which would be equally ironic given how committed the show has otherwise been to a historically realistic view of a high medieval society and particularly odd given how little interest the series has shown in either any alternative theories of government or even really the lives of people who aren’t born nobility).

If there was an interpretation of monarchy that I thought was roughly consistent with its portrayal on Game of Thrones (and I think this is undermined in places, mostly in the places where people talk about how brilliant and just Daenerys will be as a ruler—in the face of basically all the evidence) it would be that there aren’t really any good kings but there are plenty of bad kings. After Joffrey’s death, Tywin Lannister gives the newly elevated king Tommen a long—well I was going to say speech but it’s really more a socratic dialogue—about kingship which ends with the conclusion that the most important virtue for a king is wisdom, but that wisdom means listening to people who know more than you do. And leaving aside for a moment the fact that he’s being deeply self-serving here (since he is basically a king’s advisor) and the fact that monarchy still has some deep-seated flaws (most notably the flaw that a king who doesn’t want to listen to people who know more than he does doesn’t have to), it’s actually a pretty damned good piece of advice for anybody in a leadership position.

All of which is to say that taking a step back and putting aside the instinctive yay Stark/boo Lannister bias that the audience has been lulled into by the viewpoint characters, Tommen ruling the seven kingdoms closely advised by Tywin Lannister and Margaery Tyrell is actually a pretty good outcome. Is it as good as the kingdom miraculously transforming overnight into a fully realised 21st century representative democracy? Of course not, but that isn’t a realistic outcome. Getting from feudalism to democracy takes centuries, can easily take a left turn into theocracy or totalitarianism, isn’t even necessarily the same thing as becoming a more just society (Athens, after all, was one of the purest and most direct democracies that ever existed, but they still also owned a whole lot of slaves and their women had less rights than women in Sparta, which wasn’t democratic at all) and Westeros has shown no indication of having anything resembling that kind of social movement. But it is better than the kingdom being ruled by Aerys Targaryen, Joffrey or even Robert. Hell, I’d even argue that the Seven Kingdoms would be way better off under Tommen guided by sensible advisers than under Daenerys or Jon Snow. Mah boi Stannis would be fine as well, of course, but he’s three thousand miles north right now.

Looking back, I’m genuinely not sure to what extent this interpretation is supposed to be supported by the actual show. Maybe I’m just giving undue weight to the fact that Charles Dance is tremendously charismatic, but right now I can’t help but feel that everything would have been absolutely fine if Tyrion hadn’t thrown a tantrum and murdered his father, who was clearly the only person holding everything together.

Like with series three, there are a lot of different threads to talk about here, and we’ve well and truly reached the point where they’ve stopped interacting. One of the things that I was struck by on rewatching season one and to some extent season two was that even though there were lots of different characters doing lots of different things in lots of different places, their stories all overlapped with each other either thematically or causally—right down to Ned’s falling out with Robert over what to do about Daenerys or Catelyn’s journey to the Vale with Tyrion having repercussions in King’s Landing and at Winterfell. We’re well past that now—Dany’s in Meereen doing Meereen things, Brienne is wandering the countryside looking for Arya and Sansa, Sansa is in the Vale with Littlefinger and Arya is wandering around with the Hound (she does meet Brienne briefly but then doesn’t want to travel with her, making Brienne’s journey seem doubly pointless), and Jon Snow is at the wall fighting Mance Rayder’s army.

And, like with series three, I’m going to rattle through some of these plotlines very fast.

Brienne: She’s still great, but she still isn’t really doing much. Once Jaime is delivered to King’s Landing virtually no event of this or any other series would go differently without her. In a sense the scene where she gets knighted in S8E2 is indicative of this. It’s a great feel-good moment, but it doesn’t affect anybody else, it doesn’t impact the battle against the Night King, or Cersei, or the aftermath. Worse it raises thematic complications that the show is ill-equipped to address in the time left—can women be knights now? Is that a thing? Will it continue to be a thing once the wars are over? Are they going to change the succession laws as well? How will all the eldest sons with older sisters feel about that? Will more conventionally feminine women feel that their status is threatened by a culture that is suddenly telling them they should have spent their lives practising swordplay instead of needlework? I don’t expect the show to address any of this.

Arya: She’s also still great, and she gets some good character development and ups her kill count, but her whole arc is about going to Braavos to become a faceless man, and it’s taken us two full seasons (which was two full years when the show originally launched) for her to get from King’s Landing to the Vale where she can finally get on a damned ship. And I know she has character growth to do on the journey but hot damn it’s slow paced.

Sansa and Littlefinger: I really like Sansa’s arc, and it’s good to see her getting better at doing politics and moving from being a frightened child to a seasoned player-of-the-game. In retrospect, Littlefinger seems a bit … convenient. The “Chaos is a Ladder” speech in season three is cool, but we discover in this series that he was basically responsible for everything. I can give him a pass on poisoning Joffrey because, fair enough, his one big defining feature is that he’s got this creepy stalkerish obsession with Catelyn Stark and it’s reasonable to want revenge for her murder, although does he really think that Joffrey was responsible for that rather than Tywin? But we also find out that he was responsible for the murder of Jon Arryn and for sparking the whole Stark-Lannister war and … again it’s possible that this is all just elaborate revenge for the way he feels the great houses have mistreated him down the years, but it’s all very … very motiveless malignancy. Again and again I come back to the word “convenient”. He keeps deliberately sowing chaos and confusion, for motives that don’t seem clear even to himself, and the net result is mostly just to keep the arc of the story going in the direction it needs to go to get to the right ending. I feel like there might be a point being made here but I don’t know precisely what it is. The series often makes a big thing about how arbitrary everything is, and nobody embodies that arbitrariness more than Littlefinger. He’s a cypher who does … stuff. His one big political success is that he becomes de facto Lord of the Vale, but he achieves that by marrying Lyssa Arryn who … has wanted to marry him literally her whole life? I mean yes he needed Jon Arryn out of the way, but he didn’t need to pointlessly lure Ned Stark south. And maybe his plan was to get Ned death-by-politics’d so he could marry Catelyn but that was an awfully convoluted way to go about it and did not turn out well for him.

The stuff in King’s Landing, as I’ve said above, feels surprisingly … fine. At least until Tywin dies. Basically the only real problem left in the south is Cersei who, despite being played magnificently by Lena Headey, still comes across as a bit sulky and petulant. I read an interesting article that I didn’t especially agree with from a columnist who felt that TV!Cersei was much less interesting than Book!Cersei because Book!Cersei is cold, ruthless and motivated by a desire for power in much the same way as the men in the series while TV!Cersei is motivated by a much more cliched and stereotypical “love for her children”. I honestly don’t feel she comes across that well in either medium, but now I’ve gone down the everything-would-be-fine-if-they’d-listened-to-Tywin path I’m finding her particularly difficult. I think part of the problem I’m having is that a lot of Cersei’s motivation in both media can be traced back to a prophecy she heard from Maggy the Frog (or just Maggy on the TV show—not that she’s an actual frog in the books but it is a different character). In particular, there’s a line in that prophecy that runs “Queen you shall be… until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear”. It’s the “younger and more beautiful” clause that particularly causes me problems because it means that even if Cersei is actually a totally calculating political animal her motivation is still basically that she feels threatened by women who are younger and more attractive than she is.

And okay, maybe this is a deliberate subversion of what is otherwise a sexist trope. Cersei, like the actual wicked queen in Snow White, feels threatened by younger, prettier women, but it’s not because she’s insecure about her youth or beauty, it’s because of a literal prophecy that somebody younger and more beautiful than her will be her downfall. Presumably if the prophecy had been about somebody with red hair she’d be really wary of gingers. It’s just that I’m not sure having her play into a sexist stereotype for an unexpected reason really undoes the fact that she’s still kind of playing into a sexist stereotype. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I recap season five.

On the subject of subverting tropes, Dany’s breaker-of-chains arc continues in this season and slightly addresses some of the issues I had with it last season. The first episode more or less opens with Grey Worm sneaking into Meereen, giving a group of huddled slaves a sack of weapons and a speech about how if they want freedom they have to take it for themselves. Which is all a bit … steps forward steps back, I think? Like it’s good that it acknowledges the agency and humanity of the slaves more, but it’s also a bit lip-servicey and seems unwilling to address Dany’s own hypocrisy. Throughout this series she keeps insisting that the people of Meereen freed themselves but … well … she’s still queen, isn’t she? And to quote the anarcho-syndicalist peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I know I didn’t vote for her. Yet people still keep calling her Mhysa and Breaker of Chains and making it super damned clear that whatever she says she’s definitely the one responsible for the new freedoms enjoyed by the people of Slaver’s Bay.

A core theme of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire) is that—to quote Hamilton—winning is easy, khaleesi, governing’s harder. Throughout the series we see people who are good at winning wars being bad at running kingdoms, starting with Robert Baratheon in season one, but also arguably including the entire Targaryen dynasty as outlined in Fire and Blood the tie-in history book that GRRM recently put out. Aside time: this is why I’m a bit worried about the limited run-time remaining to the series, a lot of fans seem to insist that there’s only a couple of plot points left to wrap up and three extra-long episodes are plenty of time to do it in, but that seems to miss the important point that a huge central theme of the series has been that it doesn’t actually matter what happens in the epic battle, it matters what happens in the months and years after it finishes. We’ve spent nearly two hours with people sitting in Winterfell and are about to spend an hour and a half on a single battle, that leaves three—admittedly feature-length—episodes in which to not only decide the outcome of the final confrontations but also to settle some of the outstanding questions from the backstory (what’s going on with the Lord of Light anyway? Who is the Night King and why does it matter? What’s this Prince Who Was Promised people keep chatting about) and set up our expectations for the future. Which is a big ask.

Anyway, I was digressing. The problem here is that Dany’s conquest of Meereen seems to be a specific instance of the more generic “winning easy/governing hard” theme of the series, rather than one that engages with the unique ways in which governing a culturally foreign city whose system of government you haven’t even bothered to think about and whose entire economic basis you’ve just kicked over is an order of magnitude more complicated than governing a feudal kingdom that your family ruled for three hundred years already and only stopped ruling a couple of decades ago. There’s a bit early in the series where she says something like “how can I rule seven kingdoms if I can’t even rule Slaver’s Bay” and the show seems to consider this a reasonable question, but actually ruling Slaver’s Bay should be much harder than ruling the Seven Kingdoms, because while it’s smaller she’s trying to make much larger changes to it. One of the videos in the series about Robert’s Rebellion that I was discussing earlier points out that when Robert Baratheon overthrows the Targaryens surprisingly little changes—even the Small Council remains largely the same except for Jon Arryn becoming Hand of the King. Otherwise all the ruling houses of all the constituent Kingdoms remain the same, and everything carries on very much as it was. Dany’s planned conquest of Westeros was always—for all the “break the wheel” talk—going to be similar. New arse on the throne, same hands on the reins. In Meereen, though, she’s trying to install a monarchy in a city that previously … and actually there’s really very little information about “previously”. Even the normally very detailed wikis (even the book ones rather than the TV ones) are kind of silent about how the government of Meereen actually worked prior to Daenerys showing up, there are references to rule by the “great masters” who were from “old slaving families” but … well … how did they actually run the city? What were their laws? Their courts? Now Dany’s taken over she seems to be micro-managing everything personally and that can’t always have been the system, can it?

Throughout the series we have shots of Daenerys sitting in the great pyramid of Meereen holding court on a throne atop a steep staircase, and I keep finding myself shouting whose throne was that in the first place? The wikis suggest that Meereen hasn’t had a king in a thousand years so, well, I guess it might go back to the old Ghiscari Empire? But then how is it still a functional government building? How is she legislating? How is she communicating her decrees to the people?

There’s a bit towards the end of the series which I think is supposed to address some of the complexities of freeing what was once a slave city when an elderly freed slave comes to Daenerys and asks to be permitted to sell himself back to his old master because he’d been in a relatively high-status position and now had nothing else to do and no way to actually survive. Which I liked, but was a little bothered by because at no point did the show pause to acknowledge that the arrangement he was asking for was exactly the arrangement Dany has with Missandei and the Unsullied. Barristan Selmy warns her that allowing such a thing will permit slavery to return by the back door, but, well, in my never especially humble opinion, that ship sailed the moment she bought a slave army, “freed” the soldiers, then continued to use them as an army.

But I talked a lot about Daenerys last time, so I think I’m going to leave her arc there for now. I do think they handled things a bit better in S4 than S3 (not that I am in any position to be making that kind of judgement) but as is so often the case when rewatching the series, a lot of my experience is coloured by the knowledge that Meereen doesn’t really matter in the context of the show. The moment Dany and her advisors leave it, it just slips away into backstory and all our focus moves to events in Westeros. And yes, the Night King is a big deal, but when you think about it’s a bit creepy how little the characters who have just been in Essos think about the hundreds of thousands of people they left behind, and how willing they are to frame the zombie army, which as far as we can tell is only a threat to the continent where all the white people live as threatening to “erase the world” and “destroy humanity”. I mean maybe they’d spread, but we’ve seen no evidence of so much as a single white-walker related casualty on the other side of the Narrow Sea.

The other person I said a lot about last time was Stannis Baratheon, so this time I’ll say a bit less about him specifically and fold his arc into a broader discussion of Jon Snow, the Wildlings and the North. Especially because I’ve hardly touched on it up to this point.

We’re four seasons in now and finally stuff is happening with the North plot. Bran gets to the Big Spooky Tree in this season before promptly vanishing for the whole of season five (when something like that happens I tend to assume that the actor had exams, but I have no idea if that’s actually the case here—it’s entirely possible that there was just too much other stuff to fit in). Ygritte remains surprisingly relevant given that she and Jon barely interact, and we get the first and (arguably) the best of the Big Battles In the North when Mance Rayder’s army finally busts through the wall and attacks Castle Black. It’s possible that the final battle at Winterfell (which aired last night but which I still haven’t watched yet) will be better but honestly I kind of doubt it—what makes the Battle For Castle Black in season four so good is that there are real personal stakes all over the place. Jon has spent time with the Wildlings, so we know what’s going on from their perspective as well as that of the Night’s Watch, and pretty much all of the tension comes from the fact that Jon is fighting against somebody he loves and alongside people who hate him. By contrast, the coming battle at Winterfell is just between Everybody In the Show and A Bunch of Zombies.

Season Four is also where the “guys, I’m beginning to suspect Jon Snow is just a completely generic fantasy protagonist” thing starts to really kick into high gear. Everybody he meets either has a profound respect for him or a hatred born of jealousy, he’s amazing at pretty much everything (unless he’s being Too Darned Honourable or being afflicted by Plot Necessitated Incompetence), and spends all his time looking serious and noble. It is good to see him growing into a leadership role at Castle Black but there’s a bit where the battle in the courtyard is going really badly and Jon is basically all like “hold my beer” to Genn, and then he goes down and … I mean it’s not quite framed as him turning the tide of the battle single handed but it’s also not not framed that way.

In retrospect, Mance Rayder and his army feel a bit … nothingburgery? A really big deal is made of the fact that he has a hundred thousand men while the Night’s Watch has less than a hundred. And while I’m really impressed at how good a job the show does of showing the Watch using the Wall and their fortifications as an effective force multiplier (I particularly like that they show that there are other siege defences built in and they aren’t just relying on the wall being really big), the fact that they’re outnumbered literally a thousand to one makes it all seem a bit convenient that they basically win. There’s some talk about how the initial attack was just Mance testing their defences, and I do see that you don’t necessarily want to send your entire army to scale a vast wall of ice with soldiers at the top of it, but … well … he knows that the wall is mostly unmanned, why is he even trying to attack Castle Black head on at all in that case? His stated goal is to get his people south of the wall in time for winter and you’d think that the fastest way to do that would be to take them somewhere that wasn’t the single most fortified point along its entire length.

Then Stannis shows up, and last I checked he had four thousand men. Which yes is more than the Watch by a factor of forty but is also less than Mance Rayder by a factor of twenty-five. And they somehow manage to catch the Wildlings completely by surprise and rout all hundred thousand of them despite still being massively outnumbered and also fighting in arctic conditions which they aren’t at all used to. And then that’s the wildlings kind of … dealt with? And I appreciate that Mance Rayder is kind of a secondary threat, and that there’s a certain amount of cleanup afterwards because it’s not clear what the appropriate thing to do with the wildling survivors is, but again the consequences of this get glossed over quite a lot. I mean yes, Jon Snow’s decision to let them settle south of the wall gets him literally murdered, but firstly he gets resurrected immediately afterwards and secondly that decision is very much framed as the people who kill him being bad and short sighted, rather than having legitimate concerns about letting a group of people some of whom definitely are mass-murdering lunatics settle on land that is presumably already being used by somebody else.

Sidebar again: this is always the problem with using fantasy situations as analogues for real-world situations. Some of the left-leaning podcasts I listen to tend to be quite keen on drawing parallels between Jon Snow’s decision to let the Wildlings through the wall in the face of pushback from his sworn brothers and the current debates about immigration on the southern border in the USA. The problem here, though, is that a lot of problematic racist things that people suggest about immigrants in modern western countries are actually true about the Wildlings. They won’t integrate into Westerosi society (they call themselves the Free Folk and will flat out refuse to submit to any king at all, which is a pretty serious problem in a feudal kingdom), they are actually more prone to violence than the people you’re wanting them to live alongside and it’s not at all clear how a hundred thousand hunter-gatherers are going to support themselves in an agrarian society with strict land rights. Especially not come the winter. Of course if they stayed north of the wall they’d all die and get raised by the Night King but that doesn’t mean that letting them through the wall for the first time in a millennium isn’t going to be an order of magnitude more complicated than any immigration issue that we might face in the real world.

Basically the whole thing with the wildling army, the subsequent question of what to do about the wildling army and everything leading up to Jon’s eventual murder in a season or two’s time winds up feeling a bit pointless in retrospect, because we wind up at Winterfell with everybody teaming up to fight the White Walkers like we were always going to. Pretty much the only visible consequence of the entire three-season-plus arc of Jon ranging north, killing the Halfhand, meeting Ygritte, joining Mance Rayder, betraying Mance Rayder, Stannis defeating Mance Rayder and Jon to some extent defying Stannis over Mance’s execution is that Tormund Giantsbane becomes a recurring comic relief character.

When S8E2 launched I (and several other people) compared it to the Citadel DLC that rounded out the otherwise disappointing ending of Mass Effect 3. Looking back at whole business with the Wildlings, I’m reminded of a different aspect of Mass Effect 3, that being the somewhat controversial mechanic of War Assets.

Like GoTS8, the Mass Effect trilogy built to a conflict against a seemingly unstoppable enemy that posed an existential threat to all life and that couldn’t really be sensibly engaged with by conventional warfare. The problem is, showing how you’d fight a war against such an enemy is kind of a big ask, and so the game sort of handwaved it by tracking an abstract mechanical resource called “War Assets”. Every time you did something that might nominally help with the war effort you got “War Assets”, and the number of War Assets you had ultimately determined what endings you got or had available. But because they were totally abstract, there wasn’t any real sense of connection between the things you were doing and the final outcome, and it didn’t feel like you were building a grand alliance so much as racking up points. And things like the Wildling arc feel the same. Aside from Tormund, there’s no real sense of a strong Wildling presence leading into the final battle (perhaps this will change in the actual episode, although what spoilers I’ve read suggest that it’s very dark and hard to tell what’s going on, so that doesn’t fill me with hope), so it really does feel like Jon spent dozens of episodes wandering around north of the wall and all he really got for it was 35 War Assets and a comedy NPC.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about S4 ahead of S8E3. Oh, except that because I glossed over the King’s Landing stuff I didn’t mention that this is the series where Tyrion gets put on trial for murdering Joffrey, and is so upset when Shae testifies against him that he murders her with his bare hands, and then cries. Again, the show is famous for subverting fantasy tropes, but if there is one trope that absolutely needs to die in a fire right now it’s “man deliberately murders woman he loves and then acts all upset about it.” Just no.

Since the action is heating up there’s a lot less focus on logistics, which means there’s a lot less focus on food. Which is a shame.

Thoughts on S8E3 coming tomorrow.

#showusthegrainsilos.

 

watching

,
Comment

 I said at the start of my last post on this subject that doing this “new series and old series at the same time” thing was a headfuck. Finishing up season three for the recaps, I became worryingly aware that it had slid from “headfuck” into “genuine engagement killer”.

Oh, also, this post contains spoilers for all of Game of Thrones that exists at time of writing and, even more randomly, for a 1971 Michael Caine movie.

Right now pretty much the entire GoT community is engaged in … well it’s engaged in the things all media communities are engaged in, so memes, infighting, bickering and fan theories but there’s at least a marginal focus right now on who is going to survive the upcoming Battle of Winterfell (I made two predictions last post, one of which has already been proven wrong—I said we might just cut to King’s Landing but apparently that’s not happening because we’re getting not only a battle sequence but an eighty minute battle sequence. Sigh.) Reddit is full of lists and images of people trying to work out who lives and who dies and as a result it’s really hard not to come to feel two annoying things:

  1. Anybody who isn’t at that battle (apart from Cersei who’s now the only one in King’s Landing) basically doesn’t matter.
  2. Anybody who is at that battle and dies was only in the series at all so we’d feel sad-slash-shocked when they kicked it fighting the Night King.

Incidentally there’s a fantastic thread on Reddit right now in which a random Redditor points out quite how badly the terrible army of the dead should get its arse kicked, because literally every single piece of evidence we’ve seen in the last however many seasons suggests that both wights and white walkers are actually incredibly bad at fighting. Like the Oathbreakers of Dunharrow, their primary weapon is fear and the fact that most weapons can’t hurt them. But with dragonglass, fire, or valyrian steel, they’re actually very, very easy to kill even if you aren’t defending a fortified position. The only thing the AotD really has going for it is that the Inverse Ninja Law seems to apply to the good guys as much as the bad guys. I mean yes, right now they’re outnumbered ten to one, but last season Jon and his droogs were outnumbered literally hundreds to one, and surrounded and trapped on an ice sheet with no food or shelter and they still suffered exactly one casualty. And that was fighting a bear.

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about season 3 rather than season 8, but the intent was always for it to be about the experience of watching season 3 while also watching season 8 (because like, I suspect, most people who aren’t real hardcore fans, my interest in any given bit of Game of Thrones is at its peak when I’m watching some other bit of Game of Thrones), and this was where the experiences really started to clash.

The characters we saw in S8E2 having their dark nights of the soul before the penultimate battle were, in alphabetical order: Arya, Bran, Beric Dondarrion, Brienne, Daenerys, Davos Seaworth, Gendry, Gilly, Grey Worm, the Hound, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snowgaryen, Jorah Mormont, Missandei, Sam, Sansa, Theon, Tormund, Tyrion, and Varys. Watching S3 having just watched S8E2 it was really hard to give a shit about anything that happened to anybody who wasn’t one of those people. Worse, it was also pretty hard to give a shit about anything that happened to anybody who was one of those people that didn’t flow directly (either causally or thematically) into their being in Winterfell before the eighty minute battle for the end of the world.

And in a lot of ways, this fucking kills me (I mean, in a having-a-sense-of-perspective kind of way, it’s just at TV show after all) because there’s so much great stuff in season 3 that I just couldn’t really enjoy because of how abruptly and pointlessly it was all going to get cut off. Like I freaking adore the Tyrells (for a start they’re the ones who produce all the fucking food #showusthegrainsilos) and the scene where Margaery explains to Sansa that sex is way cooler and more complicated than she’s been raised to understand, and then Sansa is all like “did your mother explain that to you,” and Margaery is all like “yup, that’s definitely what it is, I have certainly not been boinking my way around Highgarden at all” is absolutely to die for. But it all goes … where, exactly? Up in a cloud of wildfire for what feels uncomfortably like the sake of a cool set-piece. And I know that setting stuff up only to have it cruelly ripped away is what the show does but the problem is that doing that once is clever, doing it twice (or eleven thousand times) is a gimmick.

When I rewatched season one, I could still invest in Ned Stark’s story even though I knew it would wind up being cut abruptly short because it still had a coherence to it. I understood what mystery Ned was investigating (and yes, it was the mystery of Robert Baratheon’s magic semen, but we play the hand we are dealt), why he was motivated to pursue it, and what the stakes were for everybody involved. His death was shocking because it cut short a story that could reasonably have continued (I remember when I first read the book nearly twenty years ago how excited I’d been as I looked forward to seeing what happened when he was reunited with Jon Snow at the Wall) but it still has weight even when you know that story won’t continue because it also, in retrospect, created its own equally complete story. Ned Stark is a tragic figure in an almost classical sense, and he dies because of decisions he and other people make that stem from real and understandable flaws in his and their characters (insofar as “just too darned honourable” is a flaw and “just a psycho” is understandable). So it’s engaging to watch his story as many times as you like, because it doesn’t actually go nowhere, it’s just that the somewhere it goes happens to be his head getting chopped off on the steps of the Sept of Baelor.

The Red Wedding is the same way. I was less invested in Robb Stark’s story this time around, but not because I knew he would get massacred at a wedding. His arc still has a completeness to it, and his downfall still follows naturally from his choices, so it’s still a compelling story. It’s just that, as I explained at length in my previous post (and thanks for bearing with me, by the way, I’m aware that this is going to wind up being suuuuuper long when it’s all put together, although that’s kind of my metier blogging-wise), I think married to preserve the virtue of a woman I would otherwise have ruined fits a lot better than married for lurve. Hell there’s even a bit in this series where Robb tells Walder Frey that he broke his oath for love, and Walder replies “you broke your oath for firm tits and a tight fit, and I can’t say I blame you.” Which … like … I mean when you’re losing the moral high ground to Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies, you’re in a bad place. But again, despite its shocking ending, Robb’s story doesn’t actually go nowhere. It just goes somewhere bad.

Even the out-of-nowhere deaths are often thematically resonant in the earlier series. Sure Joffrey suddenly drops dead at his own wedding and it’s shocking and dramatic and unexpected, but it still fits thematically. It’s like the end of Get Carter (see, I told you this post would include spoilers for a 1971 Michael Caine movie) where having finished off all his enemies, he’s randomly shot in the back of the head by a sniper we don’t even see. Joffrey is a cruel, capricious, and arbitrary ruler who does cruel, capricious and arbitrary things, and dies a cruel, capricious, and arbitrary death.

But Margaery Tyrell just … gets blowed up. It’s not like she underestimates Cersei. It’s not like a vast explosive death by wildfire is a fitting consequence of choices she makes or an ironic commentary on the way she lives her life. It’s just … poof, gone, turns out everything is arbitrary. What was clever about the early series was that they communicated a sense of arbitrariness in ways that were not, in fact, at all arbitrary. Looking back, the deaths of Joffrey and Robb and Eddard actually have a massive sense of inevitability to them, they’re all destroyed by their own weakness and the question is only ever when, not if.

But for the twenty-or-so named characters sitting in Winterfell awaiting the coming of the White Walkers there’s nothing so neat. A battle is coming. Battles are the sorts of things that get people killed. These characters are all going to be in the battle because the battle is kind of the plot, and also because it’s kind of a literal zombie apocalypse. And of course there’s ways to have character-defining moments in a fight scene. People can sacrifice themselves for people they care about, or die doing characterful things, but that’s not the same as the every-step-has-brought-you-here weight of fatalism that characterised the earlier series. Whoever dies at the battle for Winterfell will have died because they were just kind of doing a dangerous thing that they were going to have to do anyway at some point, and that a bunch of other people were also doing and pretty much anybody else could also have done.

This was supposed to be about season three, wasn’t it?

The thing is, so much of S3 is so coloured by S8 that it’s hard not to bounce between them like a thing that bounces between things. Several of the characters who are now waiting to die at Winterfell have arcs that either begin or kick into high gear in S3, but which also … don’t particularly require those characters to die or not die fighting the Night King at Winterfell.

Variously:

S3 is where Brienne the Beauty forges her bond with Jaime, where he lies to Roose Bolton’s men to protect her and loses his hand as a consequence. It’s where she fights a bear with a wooden sword (I mean, she has the wooden sword, not the bear) and where we start to get a great sense of how cool and honourable and awesome she is. But it’s also, in the overall scheme of things, kind of … pointless. She’s spent the whole show wandering the seven kingdoms being generically cool but … well … now isn’t she just kind of making up the numbers? What exactly does Brienne, by being Brienne, bring to this fight other than a general fondness for her character that kind of exists in a vacuum?

And don’t even get me started on Beric Dondarrion. In a relative sense, he is actually quite a major part of this season—he captures Arya and the Hound, interacts with Melisandre and the Red God plot, and sends Gendry off to Stannis—but even looking back from season eight, even looking back from the episode before the one where there is a good chance he will die, I still don’t quite understand what he’s doing. The Lord of Light brought him back from the dead twenty times (according to his conversation with the Hound) and Melisandre keeps insisting he has a role to play in the battle to come. But right now I don’t really see what that role can be. Because ultimately he’s just a guy with a fiery sword. Not even a magic fiery sword, as far as I can tell. There’s nothing he needs to do. He’s just … there.

Interestingly in the books he quite specifically dies fairly early on, passing the flame of the Lord of Light to Catelyn Stark who comes back as Lady Stoneheart. I understand a lot of fans are upset that this was cut from the TV show, but I honestly don’t mind that the change was made for focus and time constraints. I just wish they’d gone further and cut him out entirely, because he doesn’t really bring anything to the table. In season three or season eight.

And once again, I’m over two thousand words in and I’ve barely talked about the thing I came here to talk about (that is, the actual story arcs of S3). Some of these I’ve got a lot to say about, others less so. We’ll do the less-sos first.

Arya and the Hound. Brilliant character dynamic. Virtually nothing happens. See above re: Beric.

Jon and North of the Wall. Jon/Ygritte is amazing. Almost problematically amazing. I mean Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie have so much chemistry that they literally got married in real life. That’s the kind of thing that casts a long shadow, and (I’ll stop with the season 8 stuff soon I promise) it actually causes real problems for Jon/Dany because they just don’t live up. No amount of dragon riding and knee bending and white-walker slaying can live up to the iconic simplicity of “you know nothing, Jon Snow.”

King’s Landing. Sansa is great but now she’s less in Joffrey’s orbit I feel she has less to do. Margaery is great but I can’t care because I know she goes nowhere. Cersei is still surprisingly great despite also achieving very little. Tyrion is cool but this is actually the start of a slow decline for his character (as one podcast I was listening to pointed out, nothing he tries or recommends actually works after Blackwater). Tywin is fucking awesome, and watching him repeatedly school Joffrey is incredible. Although even here, knowing that eventually he’ll be dead and we’ll basically have forgotten all about him and none of the things he’s fighting for will wind up being narratively important kind of makes him feel hollower than he should.

And actually, hold that thought for a second because I think there’s a one here that bears being gone off on. And yes, this is going to be an S8 thing again, sorry.

Sort of a central theme of Game of Thrones is that people become fixated on things like honour or wealth or glory or tradition, when what really matters are the things that can keep you alive, and the things that can kill you. Part of the point of all the pointless posturing that occupies the middle six seasons of the show is that it is pointless. If the White Walkers eat the world it doesn’t matter who’s king. It doesn’t matter if you bring honour or shame on the name of your family. It doesn’t matter if you betray your guests at a wedding or blow up the Sept of Baelor. We’re ultimately invited to condemn Cersei (and by extension Tywin) for being more interested in playing politics than in safeguarding the realm, but … well … it seems very likely that next episode the armies of the living are going to fight the armies of the dead and … well … they’re probably going to win? And yes that victory will be costly, but not really any costlier than any other battle they’ll have fought. More than that, since it became show canon that killing a White Walker kills all the wights it created and since it seems to have been accepted as a canonical extension of this fact that killing the Night King will destroy all the White Walkers, this great threat that was supposed to take real unity and compromise and coordination to overcome seems increasingly like it’s going to come down to … two guys duelling on dragonback?

And obviously I might be eating my words next Tuesday. Maybe the Battle of Winterfell will be lost, and lost in such a way that it becomes clear that it would have been won had only the Southern lords put their differences aside and banded together to fight it. But if not, then basically Cersei is right. And Tywin is right. Or if they’re wrong, they’re not wrong for failing to recognise the threat posed by the White Walkers (who it seems increasingly probable will literally not come within three thousand miles of King’s Landing), they’re wrong for failing to recognise the threat posed by Daenerys’ dragons (there’s a bit early in S3 when Tywin insists that magic is gone from the world and dragons are never going to be a meaningful threat again—if there’s one thing he is mega wrong about it’s this). It winds up in this weird situation where the narrative thrust is saying one thing: that the Battle for Winterfell is the last stand of humanity against a terrible darkness, and those who did not pledge their support to it erred grievously and to their cost. But the actual course of events that happen in the world is saying a completely different thing: that for all the people in the castle are bigging up how apocalyptic this whole thing is, the Battle of Winterfell is no grander or more significant than the Battle of the Bastards or the Battle of Blackwater.

The story tells us Tywin Lannister’s worldview is fatally flawed. The history of the world proves he’s essentially right.

There are two other storylines I wanted to talk about in more detail, those being Stannis and Daenerys. I’m going to start with Stannis, because I expect the Daenerys one to run long and complicated.

Stannis was kind of my favourite character in season three, for a whole bunch of reasons, but chiefly because he actually does what Jon and Danaerys (and this is a season eight thing again, sorry) claim to be doing but aren’t.

Now obviously it isn’t great that Stannis has converted to a foreign religion that might be legitimately evil and which calls for actual human sacrifice, but aside from that single tiny flaw he’s clearly the best qualified candidate in the entire battle of five kings (indeed were I being cynical I might suggest that the whole reason for his conversion is that it’s really his only disqualifying quality and otherwise there’s no reason that literally everybody else doesn’t flock to his banner). He’s a seasoned general, a dutiful commander, genuinely cares for his wife and daughter despite the fact that they’re both—by the standards of his society—what you might call sub-optimal, and he seems to fit the all important Aslan criterion of not necessarily actually wanting the throne so much as feeling it’s his duty to take it.

But the bit that really sold me on Stannis was the bit where at the end of S3, Davos brings him a message from the Night’s Watch explaining that the White Walkers have come back, and his immediate response is “well I’d better go deal with that, then.”

And I suppose to be fair, Jon Snow sort of does that as well, but never as wholeheartedly as he pretends to. One of the parts of season seven I found most frustrating was when Jon, Dany and Cersei got together at the Dragonpit in King’s Landing and presented their demands to Cersei. The scene mostly annoyed me because nobody in that group was willing to give any ground on the matter of the Iron Throne, but it was presented as if only Cersei was the one who was being intransigent, and the fan reaction seemed to reflect that. I’m straying out of my depth again here, but this is something I’ve noticed being an endemic problem with the notion of compromise—people naturally think that “compromise” means their side getting pretty much everything it wants and, strangely, the more important the side in question seems to think the thing they want is the less willing they seem to be to give up other stuff to get it. Which is pretty much the opposite of how negotiations actually work.

I’m going to shy away from real world examples here (but I’m sure you can supply your own from basically anywhere the political spectrum), but Jon and Dany’s attitude seems to be that because the Army of the Dead is super important to them that Cersei should concede that importance and give up things she wants so that they can be better placed to solve their zombie problem. I’ve never seen anybody suggest that the right thing for Jon to do is persuade his allies to just let Cersei have the Iron Throne, even though her ruling in King’s Landing is in no way getting in the way of his avowed goal of stopping the Night King, and trying to stop her from ruling in King’s Landing actually, to some extent, is.

But you know who does effectively decide to give up fighting for the Iron Throne entirely once he realises that there’s a more important battle that needs his attention? Our boy Stannis. No questions, no posturing, no “I’ll only do this if the North submits”. Just “yeah, this needs doing,” and it’s done. That is the kind of no bullshit problem solving you want in a king.

To put it another way, the great thing about Stannis is that he’ll do what it takes to do what has to be done, but his idea of “what has to be done” is usually measured, considered, and unglamorous. Because pretty much everybody in the War of Five Kings has their own version of being able to “do whatever it takes” when the situation calls for it, but for everybody else there’s always just that edge of showing off. Cersei loves to show how inventively cruel and vindictive she can be. Jon will always take the heroic option over the option that’s most likely to actually help people. Renley only ever cared about appearances. Daenerys is pretty much always looking for an excuse to set something on fire. Stannis is the only person who you ever get the sense really considers multiple options and picks the best one. Team him up with Sam, the only man who reads, and you’d have an unstoppable combination of dull but efficacious government.

Indeed if Stannis has a flaw it isn’t really that he’s too uncompromising (which the show keeps telling us right from series one but profoundly fails to demonstrate), it’s that he has a tendency to see the merit in multiple strategies and fail to commit completely in one direction. This is symbolised to some extent by his punishment/elevation of Davos Seaworth, unwilling to let him go unpunished for smuggling or unrewarded for his support (“The good doesn’t wash out the bad, nor the bad the good” is pretty much Stannis’ whole MO). The problem is he lives in a world where everybody else is selling easy solutions that require wholehearted buy-in, and he’s often left in the middle. So he throws in with the cult of the Red God, but he leaves Melisandre behind at the Blackwater and (so she says) loses the battle as a consequence. He does just enough R’hllor shit to alienate people who are uncomfortable with sinister magic and dodgy fire gods, but doesn’t double down on it hard enough that it comes through when he needs it. If he’d stayed faithful to the Seven, he’d have wound up with more men. If he’d fully embraced the Red Lady, he’d have had more magic. Instead he went for a path between the two, and we all know dual-classing is underpowered.

Which is a shame, because he’s exactly the king the Seven Kingdoms needs. Although at this stage I kind of feel Jon is the king it deserves.

The plotline I’ve avoided talking about so far—semi-deliberately—is Dany’s plotline in Essos. I think I mentioned in my look back at season one or two that her whole arc with the Dothraki horde followed by the trek across the Red Wastes to Qarth could be interpreted either as a problematic white saviour narrative (she drops into Dothraki culture, flawlessly assimilates, earns the pretty much immediate respect of the entire horde, gets to bang a really hot dude, and develops literal superpowers) or a subversion of it (her insistence on pushing back against Dothraki traditions gets her husband killed, she trusts a witch for no reason, she leaves her people stranded in a desert with no plan or way out). Her season three arc looks … very much not subversive.

And this is … complicated. Like dealing with non-European-inspired cultures in fantasy is complicated, and dealing with the fact that slavery was a thing in a lot of the non-European cultures you might be taking as inspiration is complicated. You don’t want to sanitise the history of the slave trade, because that’s really problematic but you also want to avoid the thing you sometimes get in more lighthearted fantasy series where the existence of slavery in the non-quasi-European civilisations is confronted as a terrible social evil, while the existence of serfdom and the many attendant inequities of hereditary aristocracy in the quasi-European civilisations are glossed over entirely. And obviously it gets even more complicated because the biggest recent example of slavery in the real world (barring modern slavery which is also a thing but brings its own set of, y’know, complications) is the transatlantic slave trade, which ties into modern—especially modern American—racial politics in a whole bunch of complex and intersectional ways. And this makes talking about  (or for that matter creating) fictional settings that contrast non-European-style slave-owning societies against non-slave-owning European-style societies really difficult, because you don’t want to either minimise the historical evils of slavery (which a couple of centuries after the time period that inspired Game of Thrones will very much have been something Europeans were into) or to perpetuate the problematic idea that medieval Europe was a broadly more just society than the medieval East, when actually the opposite was often true.

Anyway Dany’s arc begins with her arriving in Astapor and negotiating the purchase of 8000 “Unsullied”, who are unstoppably terrifying slave-soldiers trained from birth to have no sense of self or identity, and to be absolutely loyal to whoever commands them. Dany trades all of the Unsullied for one of her dragons, and then does what you would obviously do to a city that had just sold you literally their entire army and commands the Unsullied to kill the slavers. Then she takes her dragon back, but not before commanding her dragon to kill the guy she “sold” it to and striking a cool pose.

Then once the masters are all dead, she tells the unsullied that she will not keep them as slaves, but that those who wish can follow her as free men. Then they all bang their spears on the ground and cheer.

Now … what has happened here? Because to my mind there are two possibilities.

Either Daenerys successfully orchestrated a slave revolt, and the Unsullied were so grateful to her for freeing them and their city that they followed her freely. Or Daenerys bought a slave army, then commanded them to act like they weren’t her slaves, and they went along with it because they were slaves and had no choice. The second scenario makes Daenerys a delusional hypocrite in a way that the show has never really called her on. The first scenario denies the agency of enslaved people. I’m not sure which scenario I prefer.

Because the thing is, Daenerys really brings nothing to the table here. Her dragon kills one man, the Unsullied do all of the rest of the fighting. Effectively they free themselves and then both they and Dany, and Dany’s followers and—most problematically—the framing provided in the show give Daenerys the credit. If their conditioning was so strong that they literally could not imagine the idea of rebellion then fair enough, but in that case we’re in the Dany-is-a-hypocrite scenario. If the Unsullied are so brainwashed that they don’t realise that they are the only people in the entire damned city with swords, then they are too brainwashed for Daenerys “freeing” them to be anything more than a fiction. If they have enough free will that they can meaningfully accept Dany’s offer of freedom and be grateful to her for it, then they should have rebelled long ago.

And I’m on thin ice here (and I know I say that a lot) because I am absolutely not meaning to imply that slaves only stay slaves because they lack the necessary gumption, manliness and rugged individualism to rebel. I’m not trying to go full Kanye and insist that eight thousand heavily armed soldiers not rebelling against their totally unarmed masters “sounds like a choice”. What I am saying (and what I think might have led to that unfortunate comment from Mr Kardashian) is that when we look at the history of slavery—or for that matter of any kind of oppression—we tend to do so in a way that implies oppressed people just sat around waiting to be rescued, and that usually isn’t true. The rebellion that Spartacus led in Rome was called the “Third Servile War” because it was … well … the third massive slave rebellion they’d had in about sixty years.

Now often slave revolts fail, because the thing about slaves is they tend not to have much in the way of resources, but slave-soldiers have a long history of winding up with a huge amount of actual power if they aren’t kept in check. The Janissaries wound up as one of the most powerful forces in the Ottoman empire, the Mamluks eventually straight up ran Egypt, and neither group had to wait for a white person to show up and give them permission.

And obviously I’m not suggesting that Slaver’s Bay had to be in the middle of an all-out slave revolt when Dany showed up, or that it’s unreasonable for the conditioning the Unsullied went through to have been sufficient to keep them from rebelling (although in that case then it would suggest that they really have been conditioned not be able to countenance freedom, which brings us back to scenario two above, where Dany just has a slave army and is really hypocritical about it). But the show seems to be creepily unbothered by the implications of Dany showing up and “freeing the slaves” in Astapor in a way that involves the slaves themselves doing all of the hard work and fighting while Dany gives one order and fries one dude. It makes it very hard not to walk away having drawn the inference that freedom was a gift Dany was somehow innately able to bestow upon these people that they could never have imagined taking for themselves.

It doesn’t help that literally every single Unsullied soldier chooses to stay with her, and that Grey Worm is so explicitly grateful to her and that Missandei falls into line so quickly and so unquestioningly. I mean no wonder Daenerys fails to foresee the terrible after-effects her attempts to abolish slavery would have on Slaver’s Bay, her personal experience is that when you free a slave, what happens is that they carry on happily doing the exact same job they were doing before you freed them, still for no pay, and without the uncomfortable moral questions.

This is why I was simultaneously pleased and infuriated by the scene in S8E2 where Grey Worm and Missandei make plans to retire to Naath. It was great to see them finally realise that they could just bail on this whole thing and go home, but I was frustrated that it (a) seemed to be a response to the realisation that Northmen are racist (in, as I discussed last post, what I interpret as a weirdly twenty-first century way) and (b) was clearly never going to happen and only there to make it sadder when one or both of them eventually die. If going back to Naath was on the table as an option, why didn’t she do it years ago? Just once I’d like to see a fantasy story in which the morally virtuous protagonist acquires a slave who will clearly be useful to their agenda/quest/goals, plays the “you are free but I ask that you come with me now as an equal” card and the former slave immediately comes back with “actually, I have a bunch of things I want to do with my life that don’t involve following around some random I just met. Peace, out.”

At least when Dany gets to Yunkai she actually has an army with her, and while the Yunkish do seem to employ slave-soldiers they also have an army of sellswords which explains why the slave-soldiers haven’t done what the only people with swords always do. But then she conquers the city with literally three guys. And fair enough, one of those guys is Daario Naharis (side note, my single favourite thing about Ed Skrein’s sadly unreprised performance here is the way he has a completely different accent for saying his name than for saying anything else) who is literally in charge of the army that is supposed to be defending the city, so the leaders of said city might reasonably have decided capitulation was their best chance. Although this leads me to another issue I’m beginning to have with Dany’s arc which is … wow when you think about it she gets handed a lot of stuff. And yes she also suffers, but her suffering and her acquisition of power and status are pretty much unrelated. There’s a bit when she shows up outside Yunkai where the Masters point out that she’s still in a pretty weak position, and she responds with something along the lines of “a month ago, I had no army. A year ago, I had no dragons.” And I think this is supposed to be evidence that Dany shouldn’t be underestimated but it’s sort of also evidence that she keeps … getting given things she hasn’t really earned? The dragon eggs were literally a gift, and while apparently she had “a dream” that told her how to hatch them, it’s not like she went to any effort to figure that out. And as I’ve rambled on about at length above, the Unsullied just freed themselves then decided to work for her for no reason.

And in a sense the same thing happens at Yunkai. The three leaders of the Second Sons decide that the quickest way to deal with Daenerys is for one of them to sneak into her camp and murder her in the night. They draw lots for who gets to do it, and Daario gets the short (or possibly long) straw. The next time we see him, he’s successfully infiltrated Daenerys’s tent, but twist it turns out that he’s killed the other two leaders of the Second Sons and decided to throw in his lot with her. An outcome that she has, once again, put no effort into producing.

Put in the context of that slightly-too-right-on conversation Dany and Sansa have about being a female ruler, it’s a bit awkward to realise quite how much of Daenerys’s power she owes directly to dudes wanting to bone her. And obviously there’s an element of problematic historical misogyny going on here in that (again I’m going to cite Cleopatra as an example) powerful female leaders tend to get defined in terms of their sexualities in retrospect or—like with Cersei and Euron Greyjoy—are problematically expected to put out even when what they’re actually offering is a perfectly advantageous and traditional military alliance. But in Dany’s case, so much of her rise to power pretty much relies on her being an attractive young woman. Daario was absolutely in a position to kill her while she was in the bath, and even if he hadn’t been when you’re defending a walled city 2000 mercenaries and a large number of armed slaves would have put up enough of a fight, even against the Unsullied, that taking Yunkai would have seriously hampered her chances of taking the Seven Kingdoms. He swapped sides instead specifically because she was young, female, and hot.

I’m honestly not sure what to think about this. On the one hand I think it’s really interesting to recognise that in a society with extremely rigid gender roles there will be some paths to power that are closed off to men just as there are many more that are closed off to women. And it’s almost interesting to take a step back and compare the way sexism in a historically modelled society like Westeros—where men and women have almost totally different spheres, crossing between them borders on impossible, and women are repressed primarily because the social spheres to which they’re relegated are inherently disempowering—and the way it works in the modern world—where men and women are now expected to interact in largely the same spheres but women face a large number of institutional barriers. But it does also play into some really difficult tropes that are not-un-misogynistic when they go unexamined. Because the idea that conventionally attractive women spend their whole lives just being given stuff and having men fall all over themselves to do their bidding is, as I understand it, mostly false. But for Daenerys it’s … mostly true?

And this is super awkward, and I am super out my lane.

Anyway, the Yunkai arc ends with the city’s slaves pouring out to greet the woman who liberated them, which leads to a scene I personally found really, really, really uncomfortable where we zoom into an overhead shot of Daenerys as the only white person (and since she’s got that Targaryen pseudo-albinism thing going on, she looks super white) surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned people all reaching out their hands towards her in adoration and calling her “Mhysa”.

Which … yeah. I know it gets more complicated later on, but this no longer feels like it’s really a deconstruction of a white saviour trope.

Final #showusthegrainsilos notes.

This is actually the season where we get the estimated population of King’s Landing (Qyburn tauntingly asks Jaime how many lives he’s saved and Jamie replies “half a million” because he stopped the Mad King burning down King’s Landing). There’s also a scene at the start where Olenna Tyrell breaks down the supplies her family have provided for the winter as:

  • A million bushels of wheat.
  • Half a million bushels each of barley, oats and rye.
  • twenty thousand head of cattle, and similar numbers of sheep but I couldn’t make notes that fast and rewinding was getting obnoxious.

I’m going to tweak my earlier numbers and assume that the “wagons” that Margaery said were coming from Highgarden can each hold 100 bushels (that’s 6000lb or so, which should be okay for two horses on a good road). They’ve apparently sent 100 carts a day, so 10,000 bushels of supplies. They claim to have provided 2.5 million bushels so far, which suggest that these carts have been running solidly for 250 days—has that much time really passed? And isn’t there a civil war?

Anyway, 2.5 million bushels of assorted grains should last King’s Landing about 300 days. Which is the first 16% of the Winter taken care of. Hopefully it’s not coming too quickly, because they need to step their game up.

Also, where are they keeping it.

#showusthegrainsilos

watching

,
1 Comment

So this project did, indeed, turn out to be kind of a headfuck, because here I am recapping/reviewing/sharing my scattered and unstructured thoughts on S8E2 having just finished writing about 5000 words in response to S2 and in between watching S3E4 and S3E5.

Holy shit there is a lot of this show.

Of course like everybody in modern fandom my first response on watching the latest episode of something is to hit the interwebs in order to find out what my opinion should be, and so I was a bit surprised when I did my obligatory googling and found that reactions to A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms were largely positive. Because I kind of … wasn’t?

I mean don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of cool stuff in it. A lot of good character moments, a couple of … other good character moments? I mean it was kind of all character moments? And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On of the problems fantasy often has as a genre is that it tends to prioritise big things like thrones and dragons over small things like people and feelings, and one of the great strengths of Game of Thrones was that it created a realistic sense of a world where the petty motivations of petty people could have vast and disastrous consequences for those around them. And the show is at its best when the worldbuilding and the character work go hand in hand—knowing how political marriages work helps explain the details of Cersei’s relationship to Rob which in turn helps explain her behaviour, and his, and to some extent Joffrey’s, which in turn explains the vast continent-consuming war that takes up the first several seasons. Knowing about the culture of the Iron Islands explains why Theon turns on Winterfell, and knowing Theon’s history and personality explains why his betrayal is so sudden and so ultimately unsuccessful. In this episode, however—and this might be because my recap-watching and my new-episode-watching are now so bizarrely out of sync—an awful lot of its “moments” felt unearned.

We start off with Jaime Lannister explaining himself to Daenerys and Sansa, both of whom have massive reasons to want him dead. Tyrion vouches for him and this leads to a whole long bizarre sequence where characters stumble all over each other to justify the fact that Tyrion has been acting uncharacteristically foolishly since at least the end of season seven. It doesn’t help that the particular example of his uncharacteristic foolishness that is most pertinent to everybody is this insistence is that he told everybody they could totally trust Cersei, and the specific issue on which he told everybody they could totally trust Cersei was a transparent and pointless lie that—crucially—could not possibly have impacted the northerners’ plans whether they believed it or not. I mean they’re preparing Winterfell for a siege against the armies of the Night King. He’s the one that sets the schedule here, not Dany, not Jon Snow and certainly not the Lannisters, it’s not like expecting reinforcements from the south would actually change their plans, especially not when—as was firmly established in the first episode of season one—getting to Winterfell from King’s Landing takes about a month and the Night King is perhaps days away from the walls.

Again, I should stress that I have no problem with this episode being primarily character driven, but the problem here is that the episode is driven primarily by characters having conversations, often conversations laden with either exposition or … whatever the retrospective equivalent of exposition is. I’m naturally suspicious of “show don’t tell” as a piece of writing advice because I think it’s glib and overused and much harder to apply than it seems—when Bran says of the Night King “he wants to erase this world, and I am its memory” are we being told what the Night King’s motivations are and what Bran Stark’s place is in the cosmology, or are we being shown that Bran has grown from a child who loves to climb into a being barely human who sees deeply and lives beyond what most people consider reality? Both and neither, and that’s fine. But having said that, when Sam follows up Bran’s comment with a long speech about how death is truly forgetting, and that remembering what’s gone before is really important, and that they’ve all come a long way baby and had a lot of adventures over the past eight seasons that’s … yeah that’s just telling. Because we get it, it’s season eight, and we all love the show, and it’s been running a real long time now, and there’s a lot of textual and metatextual history behind us. But saying it out loud feels like fanservice, and it kind of makes the whole of the rest of the episode feel like fanservice.

S8E2 reminded me of two completely different works of long-running fiction, both of which—in different ways—had disappointing endings. I’ll get to the second much, much later in this pointlessly long post, but the first thing it reminded me of was Mass Effect. There’s a tradition in Bioware RPGs (for the non-gamers in the audience, Bioware is a games developer that has a tradition of making long, immersive, story-driven role-playing games although it’s recently made some bizarre sidesteps in a more actiony direction with weird consequences) that before the final confrontation with the big bad you have one last opportunity to talk to your companions and reflect on all the journeys you’ve had together and tell your NPC romantic interest how important the jerky, awkwardly-animated sex scenes you shared were to you. The Mass Effect saga was a huge trilogy of games that ran from 2007 to 2012 (so about half a Game of Thrones but still pretty epic by video game standards) that had a famously disappointing ending, and one of the ways that the developers tried to sweeten the otherwise bitter pill of that ending was with the release of the Citadel DLC, which was the “one last goodbye” scene on a combination of acid and steroids. It gave you the opportunity to speak to every one of the characters you’d spent the last five real-world years and perhaps hundreds of gameplay hours with, relive old stories and old injokes and generally celebrate the very real achievement the games represented even with the shonky final confrontation. It was silly, but it was great. It was fanservice in its best and purest form. It was fanservice doing what fanservice needs to do, which is … well … serving fans.

S8E2 felt to me like the Citadel DLC, except instead of being a piece of additional content that hardcore fans can pick up and play through at their leisure if they feel like taking some time out to celebrate all that’s gone before, it’s a full episode taken out of a six-episode season. We’re a third of the way into the series, and it’s still nothing but setup and back-patting. By contrast, a third of the way into the first season Bran had been pushed out of a window, Ned had arrived in King’s Landing, and Dany was well on the way to sealing her role as Khaleesi of the Dothraki Horde. And here we’ve just had … hugging. Lots and lots of hugging.

And of course I loved seeing Brienne (not dead, thank fuck) get knighted, but it still felt like it was just there because it made good TV, not because it actually made sense. It felt unearned, by which I absolutely don’t mean that Brienne doesn’t deserve to be a knight, but this has never been a show about people getting what they deserve, and surely making Brienne a knight misses the point because the series has always made it abundantly clear that “knights” are mostly overprivileged sacks of shit. And it was wonderful to see Brienne look genuinely happy for the first time in the show, but to me a far stronger, far more authentic moment of emotional payoff came about twenty minutes earlier when Jaime told her that he’d be honoured to serve under her in the battle. And what does Brienne being a knight even mean? Have we fixed sexism now? Are eight millennia of uninterrupted patriarchy, patrimony, and patrilinearity in the seven kingdoms just gone overnight?

I’m about to step onto some very thin ice, and I’m deeply conscious that I might start sounding like one of those fantasy fans who complains about beta cuck soyboys ruining everything with their political agendas, but … well … I do think it’s noticeable that the show seems to be making more of an effort to directly address real-world political issues and I’m not totally certain it’s working.

Sansa and Dany have a long conversation about how difficult it is to get people to take you seriously as a female ruler, and it feels more like it’s about the problems facing Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris than the problems that Sansa and Dany actually had to deal with in the TV show. Because “not being taken seriously” is never a problem they’ve really had. Not being taken seriously was less of a problem for Daenerys than it was a strategic advantage (or if we’re being honest, a legitimate assessment of how likely she and her motly band of outcasts were to pose a threat to people with a large entrenched power structure), and when people objected to her rule it was usually because of things she’d concretely done or tried to do (like outlawing slavery) rather than because she was a girl. Similarly, while Sansa didn’t get to be Lady of Winterfell until literally everybody with a penis had been killed (I’m not exactly sure how Jon Snow wound up as King in the North, incidentally … surely he’s a bastard and either still bound by his oaths to the Night’s Watch or freed from them because he’s technically dead, which should also remove him from the line of succession … I digress) but once she took over people fell in line because her being a Stark was far more important than her being a woman.

I’m not trying to suggest that sexism wasn’t a thing in pre-enlightnment times, or that female rulers didn’t face structural disadvantages (look at the way history has treated Cleopatra as a sexy sexy temptress lady instead of the intensely capable politician and leader that she actually was) but they’re different from the structural disadvantages faced by women in politics today. The Dothraki flat out refuse to follow women, so when Khal Drogo died Daenerys simply lost control of most of them, only getting them back when she was able to credibly threaten to burn them all alive, at which point they came back to her because while they generally don’t follow women they do respect strength. The moment she was able to demonstrate sufficient strength they were happy to work for her, gender be damned. It’s not like she rocked up with her dragons, incinerated Vaes Dothrak, and was immediately met by a bunch of Dothraki all saying “well I agree that her ability to command the living embodiments of primordial fire is pretty good, but I don’t think she’s very likeable.”

To put it another way, contrast the conversations about being a woman in the political system that Cersei and Olenna Martell have with Sansa in the early seasons with the conversation she has with Dany in season eight. In the early seasons, everything the other noblewomen say is grounded in the specifics of a gendered experience of the actual society in which they live, whereas in S8 they start suddenly projecting the quantitatively different problems of the real world onto their culture. I mean heck, everybody takes Lyanna Mormont seriously and she’s both a woman and a child, but they listen to her because she’s the legitimate heir of House Mormont and that is how feudalism works. You follow your liege lord even if he’s ten years old or murderously insane or female.

While we’re on this topic, I was also slightly bothered by the way they dressed Sansa in this episode. She’s got a chain around her neck and is wearing this quasi-armour of leather straps which looks a little bit … bondagey? And pro tip, do not google the phrase “bondage Sansa” unless you want your browser to go to some very dark places. Basically she’s dressed like the Ranger or Druid illustration in a D&D manual, or an early-2010s Warhammer character. And I’d previously really liked the fact that as Sansa had grown as a person her costumes had gone from dressing like a child to dressing like a princess to dressing like a queen or a Lady of Winterfell, and they’d never previously felt the need to signal her strength by masculinising her outfits. Again I should stress that I’m very much out of my lane here, but one of the things I thought worked almost unintentionally well in the earlier series was that the showrunners had taken a world designed with a nerdishly (as always, I use that term as much as a compliment as a descriptor) detailed view of medieval or quasi-medieval history and thrown in a cast of extremely talented actors who managed to create a well-rounded ensemble of female characters who were at once nuanced and well realised human beings and believably part of a highly gendered premodern society. I thought it was really valuable and important that Sansa was allowed to have an arc of growing strength and confidence that fit within the social expectations of a Westerosi woman, rather than being required to justify herself to specifically masculine (and ultimately flawed) models of strength and success.

I’m really concerned that they’ll actually have her fighting wights in the next episode, which to me will be a problematic validation of the setting’s implicit toxic masculinity. Sansa should not have to be able to shank a white walker with a dragonglass dagger for us to know she’s a badass, she’s been a badass ever since she learned to survive in the politics of King’s Landing.

The other real-world social issue that I thought this episode handled really oddly was racism. There were a couple of references in the last episode to the North not liking outsiders, and there’s a scene about halfway through this episode where Missandei says a friendly hello to two northern children and they look at her suspiciously, hold hands, and walk away, which then prompts Grey Worm to tell her that there’ll be “no place” for them (that’s him and Missandei, not the children) in Westeros once the war for the Iron Throne is over. This has been greeted with—I actually don’t think “joy” is too strong a word—by a lot of the more left-leaning commentators in the Game of Thrones community. Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post wrote that she appreciated “the show’s efforts … to incorporate racism into its worldbuilding rather than pretending that Northerners are so busy with the White Walkers that they don’t see color” and the commentators on the Citadel Dropouts podcast (which I’ve been listening to since the series dropped) seem to feel that the show is trying to show the pushback of nativism against Daenerys’s dream of a more culturally integrated society and … I just … I mean maybe? But that seems an odd thing to try to do in a world of medieval fantasy.

First of all, Dany’s not pushing a model of a more culturally integrated Westeros, she’s pushing a straight up restoration of the Targaryen dynasty (she talks about “breaking the wheel” which the folks on Citadel Dropouts seem to read as wanting to overturn Westerosi social injustices but which I only ever read as her wanting to break the “wheel” of dynastic cycles by founding a dynasty that will never be overthrown). And her armies aren’t immigrants or refugees. They’re certainly not the caravan. They are, in fact, a literal invading army. The Dothraki are specifically pillagers, much like the Ironborn. They consider people who farm to be weak and worthy only of being plundered. Their reputation for being ruthless invaders who sack cities and enslave people is based on the fact that they … are ruthless invaders who sack cities and enslave people. (Also, side note, where are the Dothraki in this episode? I’m sure they’re still with the army somewhere, perhaps they went into whatever pocket dimension Brienne was hiding in for episode one). There isn’t a compromise to be had here: either the Dothraki give up core elements of their culture and way of life, or they leave Westeros, or Westeros is totally fucked.

Secondly, racism—and due warning, this next paragraph is going to be a white guy talking about race issues like he knows shit about shit, and I’m aware that many people are quite rightly not here for that—is actually highly sensitive to context. I have absolutely no doubt that a version of the scene where Missandei makes a sincerely friendly gesture to two white children and they react with fear and suspicion plays out every day all over America (and Europe, for that matter), but that’s precisely why it feels so out of place here. Again, I am not an expert or a scholar on this matter but I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that attitudes to race in the real world are profoundly affected by the twin legacies of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. When two white children look at a black woman making a friendly gesture in the real world their reaction draws on a whole history of systematised racial oppression and white supremacy—every throwaway reference to “thug culture”, every stereotypical black criminal they’ve ever seen on a TV show, the freaking crows from Dumbo, every political rant about “illegals” bringing “crime and drugs” to the country that even young children will have heard if not from TV then from their relatives. To put it another way, South Pacific was right in this regard, you have, in fact, Got to be Carefully Taught.

None of that context exists in Westeros. And while I do agree with Alyssa Rosenberg that it’s good for fantasy writers to engage with racism in their worldbuilding one way or another (although for what it’s worth I actually think “not assuming that societies, by default, have to be racist” is an equally valid way to make that engagement) I think it’s really, really important that they reflect on what racism would actually be like in the context of their world and not just assume that it would be exactly like racism in our world. Because otherwise that actually normalises racism by treating it as something that is natural and inevitable instead of as something that is—consciously or unconsciously—created and perpetuated by people and institutions. Those Northern children would never have seen a black person before—they might never have heard of black people before. They have no reason whatsoever to be afraid, and fear actually usually isn’t the response of children to something unfamiliar. It’s the response of children to a person TV or their society or their parents have told them is dangerous. Ironically if the show did especially want to put a real-world racist microaggression into the episode a more realistic response (or I should say, a response that would feel more realistic to me—again super not an expert on either racism or children) from a young child who had never seen a person from Essos before to suddenly having Missandei say hello to them in an obviously friendly way would be … well … to ask if they could touch her hair.

And of course depending on how well the children had been taught about the history and geography of the Seven Kingdoms they could also, y’know, ask if she was from Dorne like Princess Elia Martell, the extremely famous wife of the extremely famous Rhaegar Targaryen. Because, yeah, there’s also that. Grey Worm says that there will be no place for him and Missandei in Westeros when the war is over and, fair enough, his only experience of Westeros is this weird version of Winterfell he’s been dropped into that’s suddenly had 21st century racial prejudices painted onto it so he doesn’t really know any better, but most of the commentators I’ve read seem to be taking what he says at face value, despite the fact that one of the “Seven Kingdoms” they’re trying to help Daenerys conquer is actually ruled and primarily inhabited by dark-skinned people. And people in the other six kingdoms know that and are fine with it. And this isn’t even unrealistic. Race as we understand it today is a relatively modern obsession, people five hundred to a thousand years ago cared about different things, and in earlier series the show was really good at selling the reality of that (it all comes back to Ned Stark caring more about Joffrey’s parentage than his manifest unfitness to rule).

I think I was most bothered by the response to this scene because my initial response to it had also been “oh good, they’re addressing some of the implicit racism”. It’s just that the implicit racism I’d been thinking about hadn’t been the racism of ordinary Westerosi, it had been the racism of Daenerys Targaryen. Because what I read (or, being honest, over-read) into that scene was Grey Worm and Missandei realising (slightly too late) that they could just go home and stop following Dany about like the slaves she kept insisting they weren’t any more. Because actually, I … I don’t think it’s okay that Daenerys buys a bunch of people as slaves, tells them they’re free but then pretty much assumes that they’ll carry on doing exactly what they did when they were slaves, and still as far as I can tell not for any actual money, but out of “loyalty”. And I super don’t think it’s okay that she seems to be right. I mean if the basic dynamic of Dany’s relationship with Grey Worm and Missandei was transposed onto a white woman in the antebellum South it would be … well it would be the kind of story that actually, as far as I know, does exist, but which now makes everybody so uncomfortable that I do actually feel a little bit queasy just for having brought it up.

Sorry, that got long, and I’m super aware that it’s not my topic to talk about.

The other major thing that happens in this episode is that Arya totally bangs Gendry. And … you know what, I was really up for it. Maisie Williams’ body is shot in a way that emphasises the fact that she’s a human adult who is covered in scars, rather than a way that emphasises … the things that are usually emphasised in a Game of Thrones sex scene. It isn’t framed as coming from any kind of place of damage, she’s just a young woman who might die tomorrow and wants to boink a hot dude and does. It’s so respectfully and tastefully done that I’m almost retrospectively offended for the crass and gratuitous way the show has handled sex for the last actual decade. Like you could have done this at any time, guys. At any time.

I’m fine that the hot dude she picks is Gendry, it makes a lot of sense: they know each other, always had a sort of flirtatious relationship, and he has that “I swing heavy bits of metal for a living” thing going on. That said, she should clearly actually have gone with Podrick. PSA for all the women currently in Winterfell: it is actual series canon that Podrick has a magic penis, experience it before you die.

Aaand … that’s pretty much what I have to say about that. This is another one of those “we never leave Winterfell” episodes. It’s also one of those “we get one fucking look at the zombie army and it’s right at the end and seriously I am so bored of waiting for this battle right about now” episodes.

Oh wait! That reminds me. I said about two thousand words ago that this episode reminded me of two science fiction franchises with famously disappointing endings. One was Mass Effect, the other was Babylon 5.

Back in the day, Babylon 5 was kind of the Game of Thrones of science fiction in … quite a lot of ways actually. It had a large ensemble cast, a huge overarching plot and almost novelistic structure (or at least as far as you could get away with in the 1990s) and delighted in subverting people’s expectations for its genre. It took the same “big space opera universe with multiple alien races all exploring space together” setup as Star Trek but grounded it against a grimier background of short-sighted governments, rising authoritarianism, racial mistrust and—much like Game of Thrones—an ancient and resurgent evil that needed to be thwarted, but the thwarting of which was undermined by the petty rivalries or outright betrayal of the great powers.

At the end of the series, the ancient enemy was defeated, the corrupt governments cast down, the good guys triumphed and the various alien races of the galaxy signed onto a new Interstellar Alliance that would ensure peace and justice in the galaxy for centuries to come (this isn’t even speculation, the last episode is a massive flash-forward dedicated almost entirely to bigging up the legacy of the show’s Great Man protagonist). This did, however, lead certain commentators to point out that having built its entire premise around challenging and tearing down Star Trek cliches, the final plot beat of the series was that the sentient races of the galaxy all got together and set up Starfleet.

In a similar way, I can’t help but notice that having spent ten years and seven seasons breaking down fantasy cliches, Game of Thrones is now setting up to end with a big battle between a team of unlikely heroes and an army of zombies. An army of zombies, no less, that will all die if some plucky individual is able to kill its leader. Apparently a lot of people on the left of the GoT community are quite keen to interpret the White Walkers as a metaphor for climate change, while those on the right are quite keen to interpret them as a metaphor for unchecked illegal immigration on the southern border. But they’re clearly neither. They’re an army of zombies. Both immigration and climate change are large, complicated, multifaceted problems that defy (or should defy) simplistic solutions. The Army of the Dead, it has now been pretty safely established, will go away if Jon Snow can find the right scary man and stab him in the face.

Now things are getting underway, we’re well into the “guess who will die next episode” game. People have been betting big so far (people seemed to think we might see Jaime or Sam go this episode, which turned out to be epically incorrect).

My predictions are as follows:

Either nobody because we’re going to cut away from the North to catch up with events in King’s Landing, and the actual battle for all life in Westeros will take place in episode four or five. Or Lyanna Mormont and nobody else.

#showusthegrainsilos

watching

,
8 Comments

The original plan was to do these alternating with recaps of the new series, but it turns out S8 is only going to be six episodes (which means when you think about it that the series so far—I am writing this, as you might gather, before S8E2 drops—is shaping up to be at least 16% people hugging) and with the fence-post problem (where you need 11 fence posts set a meter apart to make a 10m fence, because there has to be one at each end so you effectively start from 0) there are only five gaps in the middle to do season recaps. And part of me thinks it would be cute to just say fuck it and limply carry on recapping seasons six and seven two weeks after the grand finale of everything but, well, this is binge TV, and so I’ve already watched two seasons of it, and I’d really rather bookend this whole blogging project with S8E1 and S8E6.

My experience of rewatching S1 was one of being uncomfortably reminded quite how much nudity there was in the show, and of being pleasantly surprised at how much progress, character development, and thematic coherence they packed into their ten episodes. My experience of watching S2 was one of remembering quite how quickly that “who is that what is he doing didn’t he die already” feeling set in. The show almost exists in this strange time loop where no matter which series you’re watching, you feel like you need to go back and watch all the other series for context, because either you’re seeing the second appearance of somebody who you’re sure showed up two seasons ago, or else you’re seeing the first appearance of somebody who you’re sure does something important two seasons later. My current rewatch of S1 was legitimately the first time I’d ever noticed that the guy Ned Stark sends off to capture the Mountain was Beric Dondarrion, who later shows up as the eternally-resurrected leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Also Benjen Stark was a thing? Who knew?

And the feeling that most struck me most at the end of the series was the memory of the strange … hollowness I always used to get after watching a season of Game of Thrones. Somehow it manages to pack every scene, episode and series with so much incident that by the end of it all you’re struck by the simultaneous, conflicting notions that a huge amount has happened, and nothing has happened.

Viewed as a series of events and set-pieces, S2 is full of stuff. You get Brienne defeating the Knight of Flowers and becoming sworn to Renley’s kingsguard, only to watch him murdered by a shadow with his brother’s face. You get Stannis Baratheon burning his idols and the Red Woman doing evil sex magic. You get Tyrion just owning basically the entire season for basically the whole thing. You get Daenerys gradually growing into her role as Mother of Dragons. You get Jaqen H’gar being all a man has a thirst. You get to meet warlocks visit Craster’s house ‘o incest. You get Bronn doing Bronn things and also singing because let’s please never forget that Jerome Flynn was in a ‘90s musical duo that had a UK number one with a song containing the line “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.”

Awesome, basically.

But viewed as a set of narrative arcs suddenly it feels a lot more sparse. There are so many stories being told all at once that hardly anything happens in any of them, and because they all need to reach their ends at roughly the same time, despite naturally running on very different clocks (this is most notable with Daenerys’s story, which pretty much has to be drawn out until her dragons are big enough to sit on, which should be years of in-world time, but has to be set against things like engagements, murders and wars that need to be progressing far more quickly on the other side of the Narrow Sea) quite a lot of them feel a bit … fillery? What you might call the central storyline, with Tyrion getting recalled to King’s Landing to stand in as Hand for his father and preparing the defence of the city from Stannis’s invading fleet despite his being constantly undermined at every turn by Cersei, Joffrey and basically everybody else around him is really meaty and satisfying, although it does reduce Stannis’s arc to “tries to take King’s Landing, fails.” Meanwhile Jaime spends half the series in a cage and the second half in handcuffs. Cersei spends the whole series drunk and while she has a tremendous screen presence she doesn’t really move her story forward. I love Brienne to bits but while she’s cool, she’s introduced and makes it onto Renley’s Kingsguard in episode 3, Renley dies in episode 4, and then she’s just sort of … wandering around taking people places like some kind of Westerosi Uber. So many people have encounters and experiences in the show that, while you can make a case that they’re significant and formative, also leave them narratively pretty much exactly where they started.

Arya starts the series travelling north with Hot Pie and Gendry, she gets captured by the Lannisters, taken to Harrenhall, meets Jaqen H’gar and learns the words Valar Morghulis, but then she goes right back to travelling north with Hot Pie and Gendry. And obviously eventually her encounter with the Faceless Man will be an important part of her experiences, and ultimately she will wind up following him to Bravos to train as an assassin, but that doesn’t happen until season five. And don’t get me wrong, the Arya/Tywin stuff at Harrenhall is cool and really develops both of their characters. And the Arya/Hound stuff in the next two entire seasons is cool, and really develops both of their characters as well, but it’s not moving her arc towards any kind of conclusion.

Dany’s season two arc, in many ways, suffers even more from this issue. Having stepped out of the flames as the Mother of Dragons she wanders the Red Wastes while her people slowly starve to death and … again I should stress that I really like Dany but you do have to take a step back and ask yourself why we’re supposed to be on her side here. She promised these people glory and freedom but she had no plan, is clearly only really interested in her own self-aggrandisement (when you think about it, the “Mother of Dragons” thing is really double-edged because it’s become such an unironic anthem of empowerment that it’s easy to forget that it’s also essentially the same kind of rhetoric that her dynasty have always used to justify their cruelties and excesses), and constantly acts as if she’s entitled to expect people to sacrifice themselves for her (not least because they constantly do).

Anyway she arrives at the gates of Qarth, which usually just leaves people to starve in the wastes but doesn’t here because reasons (to be fair, there’s actually a fairly decent reason that comes out later on but it basically boils down to “because Daenerys is magic”, but at least in this case it’s that she’s magic in the literal sense). She’s taken in by a guy called Xaro Xhoan Daxos who claims that he wants to marry her so that they can rule the universe together as father and … husband and wife, but it all turns out to be a trick and yadda yadda betrayal, yadda yadda stole my dragons, yadda yadda dracarys. Again, it’s nice to see her gradually growing into her power but the thing is that the keyword here is gradual. Daenerys arrives at Qarth with her followers and her dragons. She leaves with slightly fewer followers, slightly more gold, and her dragons. Her passing through the city left literally all of its leaders dead, but since we’re never going back there again and Essos has always had this slightly problematic theme-park vibe where we’re never really invited to care as much about what happens in it as we are about what happens in Westeros (it’s sort of there for Westerosis to be exiled to, and so foreigners have somewhere foreign to come from) that doesn’t in any broader sense matter. Dany’s season 2 arc is that her dragons get a little bit bigger.

Oh, also, at the end of the series she seals Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the handmaiden who betrayed her to him into his own impregnable vault, and leaves them to die. Which we are … sort of invited to think is edgy but cool? And I get that she’s not burning people alive in their own armour or forcing prostitutes to beat one another bloody at crossbow-point but … well once again why are we supposed to be on her side? Jorah Mormont says that she has a kind heart and that she’s the once-in-a-dynasty example of somebody who both can rule and should rule but … is she? Is she really?

On which subject, let’s talk about the Joffrey arc for a bit. And probably the most important thing to say about the Joffrey arc is that ideally this would be about Sansa’s arc, but those two storylines actually become increasingly divorced over the series. I’ll come back to Sansa later (possibly much later, this got long), pausing now only to say that Sophie Turner is fantastic, and her evolution even in the short space of seasons 1-2 from naive enthusiasm about court life, to abject terror at it, to stoic but calculated defiance with a core of goodness is probably the most fascinating arc in the show (and one I seem to recall didn’t come across nearly so well in the books).

For now, though, I want to talk about the big J. Well, I suppose the little J, since there are a whole bunch of Js in Westeros and they’re almost all bigger than King Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name. Now obviously I don’t actually like Joffrey, because he is unremittingly a bad person. But if this was a reality TV show I think he’d have a fair claim that he’d been given the villain edit.

The thing that always gets said about Game of Thrones is that it subverts fantasy cliches. Although I think it might also be fair to point out that a lot of the time, the people saying this are people who aren’t super-familiar with the genre and have quite a narrow view of what fantasy literature looks like, or even looked like in the 1990s. I mean heck, Terry Pratchett was deconstructing fantasy’s uncritical enthusiasm for monarchy decades ago, with the artificiality of the “true king” schtick being a central theme of Wyrd Sisters in 1988 and Guards! Guards! In 1989. And while I’d argue that “subverts fantasy cliches” is a less interesting reading of Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire than “holds a fantasy setting to a near-unprecedented level of historical verisimilitude” there is obviously a sense in which it’s trying to challenge your expectations, and the more I think about it, the more Joffrey is … less challenging than he seems.

The deconstruction you get in the first series of Game of Thrones is that you expect it to be all knights and chivalry and romance but it turns out to be all blood and treachery and self-interest. Sansa begins the series believing that Joffrey will be good because he’s a prince and will one day be a king, and the expectation that is set up by chivalric romances is that princes and kings are always good. The “fantasy cliche” that season one is supposed to subvert here is—very broadly—that monarchy is at all fair or functional as a system of government. Joffrey appears as this beautiful golden-haired prince, but turns out to be an absolute monster, thus is the cliché subverted.

Except … the thing is … the fantasy cliché isn’t that kings are good. It’s that true kings are good. In yon generic fantasy story, the solution to a bad or tyrannical king is always to find the true heir and put them back on the throne and expect this to magically fix everything (and, looking at season eight, there’s a reasonable chance that this might ironically be the way GoT winds up ending). But if, in yon generic fantasy story, the guy on the throne is literally a bastard born of incest, then fantasy cliché demands that he turns out to be petty, venal and unworthy in exactly the way that Joffrey does.

Hell, when you think about it, rather than being a subversion of a fantasy cliché, Joffrey is a completely straight implementation of a folkloric archetype that literally goes back to Mordred. When Joffrey does become subversive, though, is when you stop thinking of him as a villain and step back and ask yourself how he could possibly be other than he was.

I’ve heard it pointed out—and bear with me because I am going somewhere with this—that the problem with the original Shrek is that the whole message of the film is that you shouldn’t judge people by their appearances but the film still uses the villain’s height as both the butt of its jokes and a symbol of his character defects. And you really don’t get to make both arguments at once—if the whole point of your movie is that a person can be morally good despite being physically ugly, you can’t also use the fact that a person is short to signal that they’re petty and inconsequential.

With Joffrey it isn’t his looks that are the issue, it’s his—not to put too fine a point on it—capacity for violence. Joffrey lives in a world (and, rather more problematically, a narrative) where a man’s worth is judged almost exclusively by his capacity to mete out physical violence—often lethal physical violence—where necessary. This message is spelled out loud and clear in the very first episode, when it’s revealed that Ned Stark (the closest thing the series has to a moral arbiter) explains that you shouldn’t employ a headsman because the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword (and however you feel about capital punishment … no? Those are different skillsets). It’s reinforced at the end of the second season when Sandor Clegane tells Sansa that her father and brother are killers and her sons will be killers. It comes up in the first series when  Joffrey is so utterly ashamed to admit that he lost a fight to a girl and that he was afraid to be attacked by an actual fucking direwolf, and his mother responds to his fear by making him deny what really happened and telling him that one day he’ll have the power to kill anybody who opposes him. It’s reinforced once more when the entire city looks on Joffrey in contempt at the Battle of the Blackwater for not rushing out to fight in the vanguard of his army even though he is, at this point, thirteen years old.

What’s really odd for a show that’s so often celebrated for challenging romanticised stereotypes about the historical periods from which it draws its inspiration is that it takes something of a … shall we say … steps-forward-steps-back approach to deromanticising its core chivalric legends. It starts with knights in shining armour, and then it reveals—unflinchingly and over the course of several really nasty sequences—that knights are just killers in pretty coats. But what’s weird about the show is that the thing it seems to have most trouble with about that construct is the pretty coats. Because be honest, doesn’t the show make the actual being a killer part seem … y’know … kinda cool?

I’m afraid this is another rabbit-hole, so do please mind your head, but while I was working on this article I started to notice that for all its grimdark talk about how honourable knights are just nicely dressed murderers, there’s actually a surprisingly strong correlation shown in the show between how good at killing a man is and how good a person a man is.

Ned Stark? One of the best men in the seven kingdoms, and one of the best fighters, let down only by the fact that he fights too honourably. Jaime Lannister? Probably the best fighter and yes he starts the series by shoving a ten-year-old child out of a window, but only to protect his family and for the whole of the rest of the series he’s presented in a remarkably sympathetic light. Barristan Selmy? Most honourable man on the Kingsguard and strongest fighter. Ser Loras? Good dude, good swordsman. Robert Baratheon? Ace warrior, terrible king but nothing in the text suggests we’re supposed to think he’s a terrible man, just one that got in over his head in a war he started for love. Jon Snow? Do we even need to talk about Jon Snow? Khal Drogo? Best warrior best husband, so much so that the show skims right over how utterly nonconsensual his early relationship with Daenerys is.

What about the sellswords? Well yes they’re dishonourable, but the show is fairly clear that honour and goodness are nothing like the same thing. Bronn and the Hound (not technically a sellsword, but he wears the same kind of armour so I’m putting him in the same box) piss on the idea of virtue while at the same time consistently displaying an almost absurd amount of it. The Hound defends the Stark girls more loyally and faithfully than any six knights you’d care to name, while Bronn never actually does anything even remotely morally suspect that I can think of. Sure he likes his wine and his prostitutes, but who doesn’t?

Then you get the other end of the spectrum. Theon Greyjoy actually gets notably worse at fighting once he starts heading down the road to sacking Winterfell. When we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy he’s pretty badass, shooting wildlings down before they can hurt Bran and acquitting himself well in Robb’s battles. It’s only when he turns traitor that he suddenly turns all beta and wussy and becomes unable to cut a prisoner’s head off cleanly (again, passing the sentence and swinging the sword are different skills). Then of course we have the absolute puniest man in Westeros (leaving aside actual children and pensioners), Viserys Targaryen, who is so unmanly that the only person he can beat in a fight is his baby sister and who we all hated so much that we cheered when the much manlier and therefore much better Khal Drogo boiled his face off with molten gold.

There are about two or three stark (that’s small-s stark) exceptions to this model. The biggest is Ser Gregor Clegane, who is clearly just a monster (literally so in the later seasons where he’s a zombie in gold armour), and you can make a reasonable case that he’s almost like the Night King—not really a man at all but a destructive force that comes out every now and again to fuck with people. It’s also worth pointing out, though, that he actually loses fights surprisingly often. People talk about how dangerous Gregor Clegane is, but we never really see him win a battle against a character we care about except when he fights Oberyn Martell, and even then that’s kind of a draw. The second biggest is Samwell Tarly, who is clearly deeply unmanly but is also clearly one of the best men in Westeros. And I’d say that did for my manliness-is-next-to-godliness theory were it not for the fact that the motherfucker motherfucking kills a motherfucking White Walker. And of course finally there’s Tyrion Lannister who is … difficult. On the one hand he’s actually not at all a good person, but he keeps doing good-person type things and he’s a massive fan favourite. And actually I’d argue that the way he navigates the show’s violence pretty much reflects that. He’s not good at fighting because he has a real physical disability that means he will never be as good at fighting as his brother, but he’s also not afraid of fighting and he regularly goes heroically into battle to earn the respect of fighting men.

And I suppose you could make the case that this is the key difference between people like Tyrion and Samwell (who are not conventionally masculine, but towards whom the show is broadly sympathetic) and people like Joffrey and Viserys (who are not conventionally masculine, and who the show openly despises for it); Tyrion and Samwell are ultimately brave when they have to be. Except … umm … that’s kind of some toxic masculinity bullshit right there. It’s completely fine to be scared of dangerous things. Dangerous things are scary. It’s even fine to stay away from dangerous things. More than fine, it’s physically and psychologically healthy. Especially when, just as a reminder, the “dangerous thing” is a literal invading army that is also by the way actually on fire, and you are fucking thirteen.

Which brings us back to Joffrey and his habit of beating and humiliating people who are much weaker than him, especially women. And don’t get me wrong, of course that is morally reprehensible. But it’s the consequence of a society that raises boys with the understanding that their only purpose in life is to physically dominate other people. And it’s sort of creepy to me that the show never quite seems to notice that. Joffrey’s violent outbursts are always condemned in terms of his weakness and his failure as a man. It’s “can’t beat down anybody except a girl”, or “can’t get a woman any other way” never “it’s not okay to do that to people” or “your worth as a human being isn’t bound up in who you are able to beat in a fight”. And obviously those aren’t realistic ways for people in Westeros to relate to a young man struggling to find his place in the world. But then really when you think about it, it’s not super realistic that Bronn and the Hound never get violent with sympathetic characters either—the men are both professional killers who have learned the hard way that everybody is just meat, after all—but the show seems to buy into the worryingly common (and, ironically, chivalry-and-fantasy based) cliché that only people who are bad at fighting behave violently towards helpless people.

Aaand that’s nearly four thousand words, and there is so much I haven’t touched on yet.

Very quick what the fuck roundup:

What the fuck happened to make Stannis decide that converting to an obviously dodgy foreign religion would be a really good idea (I am sure this is answered in a short story or on a wiki somewhere but I haven’t looked)? What the fuck does the Night’s Watch need Craster for other than grimdark points? Kill him and install a couple of brothers in his stronghold, job done. What the fuck is up with Harrenhall and why do they keep giving it to people? It’s a ruin of melted stone that is no use to anyone. What the fuck is up with John Snow getting separated from his brothers in this almost slapstick “I can’t cut your head off now we are falling” moment? What the fuck happened to Jeyne Westerling?

Actually, I need to talk more about that one.

So for those who aren’t book fans (sorry, that came across really wanky), in the novels Robb Stark isn’t a viewpoint character, so most of what happens to him happens off camera, and so it’s only second-hand that we learn that at some point during his campaign in the Westerlands he was wounded while laying siege to the Crag, ancestral seat of House Westerling, and nursed back to health by the lord’s daughter Jeyne Westerling. One thing leads to another and they totally do it, and then Robb marries her because otherwise she’ll be ruined on account of Westerosi society taking virginity really, really seriously, so you get this parallelism where Robb is brought down for essentially the same reason his father is—he makes a mistake and is too honourable to avoid facing the consequences, even though the consequences in this case are “everybody gets killed”.

Also, side-note, there was a mad fan conspiracy theory that the Jeyne Westerling Robb married wasn’t the Jeyne Westerling Jaime Lannister meets later, based on a minor difference in the description of her hips. The “Jeyne Westerling Hips Theory” is a real thing in the A Song of Ice and Fire community. Seriously I fucking love fandom.

Now I barely remembered Jeyne Westerling as a character, because these books have a massive cast and she last appeared in A Feast for Crows, which released in 2005, but I did remember the surrounding narrative: incidental, almost meaningless encounter forces Robb to choose between honour and victory, he chooses honour, everything goes to shit. So I was a bit … confused … when in the TV show she was replaced with a spunky nurse named Talisa Maegyr from Volantis.

I hate to be all they changed it now it sucks but … they changed it now it sucks.

The actual behind-the-scenes story of how Jeyne Westerling from the Crag who Robb marries out of a sense of honour and duty became Talisa Maegyr from Volantis who Robb marries out of a fundamentally selfish desire to be married to the cool attractive healer lady actually came about in several different ways and by several different steps. Apparently the showrunners had just finished reading A Dance With Dragons, and liked the idea of introducing a character from Volantis to set up the city (which is fair enough, although since my recall of this show is pretty minimal I had actually completely forgotten that we even went to Volantis in it, or that not-Jeyne-Westerling was from there), and they also wanted to make the storyline more “dramatically compelling” by making it a more conventional love story rather than another story of something something honour something.

Which. I mean. Okay. And there is part of me that does get that because it’s not the 1870s any more “oh no, we did the sex, now you must marry me or else I shall be ruined” is nowhere near as relatable to a modern audience as “I said I’d marry someone else but I just love you so god damned much” but … umm … you know I keep on talking about the way the show keeps getting celebrated for challenging fantasy cliches? And you know how “I want to marry for love instead of political convenience” is probably the biggest fantasy cliché out there by a very very long way? Umm … that?

Again, this is just personal. Again, your mileage can and will and should vary, but particularly in the early series (before the show overtook the books and became far more televisual in its sensibilities) one of its great strengths was a sense of being set in a place that is not here and a time that is not now. Tywin Lannister gives a whole speech in the second season about how the family name is the only thing that matters, because it’s the only thing that outlives you when you’re gone. Ned Stark refuses to take a course of action that would save the kingdom and his life because it conflicts with his sense of honour. Jon Snow swears an oath to defend the realms of men from the threats from beyond the wall, and then considers breaking that oath out of loyalty to his half-brother and is brought back out of loyalty to his sworn brothers who themselves risk death for desertion out of loyalty to him. These kinds of stories just don’t sit alongside the kind of narrative where a man like Robb stark would seriously consider jeopardising a vital alliance with a famously easily-offended lord for something so out-of-keeping with his entire value system as “marrying for love”. Not even season one Sansa, at her most naive and childlike, ever talks about “marrying for love” like it’s a thing that makes sense in her world and her society, because it isn’t and it doesn’t.

Basically all the Talisa scenes feel kind of like a DLC character in a computer RPG. She’s got just slightly more dialogue and backstory than everybody else, and it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the narrative in ways that are hard to pin down but—for me at least—shake me out of the story. Heck she’s even partly in there to set up content that will be released years down the line, which is pretty much exactly what every Dragon Age DLC did. I am completely on board with TV adaptations changing the source material in ways that make for better TV, but this just feels so strange to me.

Anyway, I should probably wrap this up before I hit five thousand words, because there’s still a lot more of this to get through, and another episode to come this evening.

Final bonus prediction: Gendry will wind up on the Iron Throne. Seriously the guy should have been killed so many times by now and this is, like, the only thing they can be keeping him alive for.

Final final #showusthegrainsilos observation. At the start of season three, Margaery Tyrell tells Joffrey and Cersei that a hundred wagons of grain are now arriving every day from Highgarden. Now draft horses can pull an amazing amount of weight, but over long distances (like from Highgarden to King’s Landing) a horse shouldn’t be expected to pull more 1-2 times its own bodyweight unless the roads are exceptionally good. Let’s assume we have 100 wagons each pulled by two 1000lb horses, each pulling twice their bodyweight. That gives us 400,000lb of grain being delivered to King’s Landing each day, it might go as high as 600,000 if you load the horses down more, although we’re already assuming massless carts here. King’s Landing, you will recall, contains 500,000 people, each of whom eat 2lb of grain a day, so every day Highgarden is sending enough grain to feed the people of King’s Landing for 0.4 to 0.6 days. And there’s an indication that the city is already having trouble with food, and they aren’t building a surplus, and Winter is Coming.

#showusthegrainsilos

watching

,
2 Comments

So after watching S8E1 I realised I had NFC what was going on in GoT and so I had to go back to S1E1 so I could … and I really wanted to keep up this thing where I kept talking in acronyms and initialisms, but I can’t so—yeah. Anyway I went back to the first episode of the first season and … really weird experience you guys.

My basic feeling about the first season was that it was thematically and narratively coherent in a way that did an excellent job of setting up for series 8, but I couldn’t help but have a niggling suspicion that I remembered this coherence falling apart pretty much the moment Sean Bean got his head cut off.

Oh yes, spoilers, by the way. For a ten year old TV series in which the most shocking plot twist is that Sean Bean’s character dies at the end.

There was a lot I’d forgotten about the first series of Game of Thrones, although the thing I’d most forgotten can best be summed up as “boobs”. I mean seriously, I know it’s a running joke, I know it’s what the series is infamous for, to the extent that there were cake-and-eat-it style gags in the most recent episode about the “sexposition” but I hadn’t remembered quite how bad it was. I mean I’ve just finished watching Harlots, a show distributed by Starz and in which virtually all of the major viewpoint characters are actually prostitutes and it didn’t have anything like the number of nipples on display that early Thrones did. It’s been a darned long time but I can’t quite remember what we were thinking back in the 2010s, but I have this vague recollection that we’d just got to the point where it was socially acceptable to show nudity on TV and people went completely bananas over it, and it took us a good five or six years to turn around and say “hang on, are we sure this isn’t maybe just a little bit skeevy and exploitative?”

On the subject of “skeevy an exploitative”, my perception of the all-tits-all-the-time policy of the series isn’t helped by an impression I’ve picked up from somewhere (and I can’t really source this, so please for the love of the Old Gods and the New don’t cite me as any kind of authority) that Emilia Clarke was not super comfortable doing nude work. Certainly she stops it entirely after the first season and the way I’ve heard it told (again, I should stress, only from nebulous “they say” type sources) was that the position she took after the first series was along the lines of “you know how the character I play is completely essential to the plot and I’ve become so iconic in the role that there’s no way you could recast it or make the show without me? Yeah, I’d like to keep my clothes on, thanks.” Which might not be true, but if is, then (and I apologise, because this is what people are going to say every time Emilia Clarke does anything even remotely cool for the rest of her life) that is some mother of dragons shit right there.

Dany’s arc in the first season is, on rewatching, kind of problematically brilliant. On the one hand it’s great to see her grow from a terrified child into a confident leader and commander, but on the other hand it’s hard to shake the awareness that this is essentially a story about a white woman who goes to a decidedly non-white (I suppose quasi-turco-mongolic if we’re being specific) culture, alternately excels at or is contemptuous of all of their practices and traditions, convinces their leader to risk everything in support of what—despite all her brother’s talk of heritage and her supposed rejection of his hypocrisy—is still ultimately a vain and petty desire to rule a country she doesn’t even remember. And even when she gets her husband and their unborn child murdered by a witch she was explicitly warned not to trust, an opportunity that said witch only got because he was wounded in a fight that she started over her adopted people’s right to take slaves from a battle she started that was explicitly designed to finance a war that she wanted to happen somehow a fair number of them remain loyal to her, and the audience seems genuinely to be asked to view her as noble and heroic rather than, when you get right down to it, scarcely better than her brother.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Dany, but her story isn’t exactly written from a perspective of ethnographic sensitivity. I mean you could make the case that her season one arc in particular is almost a deliberate subversion of a white saviour narrative, in the sense that she rocks up with her smug sense of western superiority and gets all outraged at the Dothraki doing things that are … actually pretty much part of what conquering armies do everywhere in the setting, and ultimately part of what she herself wants them to for her in Westeros, and ultimately it loses her everything. Even the bit with Mirri Maz Duur seems fairly explicitly set up to subvert audience expectations (much as everything in early Thrones or for that matter early Ice and Fire was set up to subvert audience expectations). Looking back on when I first read these books nearly two decades ago, I honestly can’t remember how surprised-or-otherwise I was when the woman who the Dothraki constantly denounced as maegi turned out to actually be working against Danaerys rather than for her. With my 2019 head on I look at that plotline and think oh come on Danaerys, she’s so clearly evil what in the seven Hells do you think you’re doing, but back in the early 2000s I’m pretty sure I was actually suckered in, because we have been super trained by years of fantasy tropes and cliches to assume that women who claim to be healers but are accused of being witches by angry men with swords are always 100% innocent, honest and benevolent. Especially when the angry men with swords come from a denigrated ethnic group that our culture still tends to characterise as nothing more than unthinkingly violent.

Unfortunately the Dany-as-subversion-of-white-saviour interpretation is slightly undermined by the fact that the series ends with her literally having a miraculous rebirth from the flames. At which point she is kind of, well, literally a saviour figure. A complicated saviour figure, admittedly, but still a saviour figure.

Aaaand we’re a thousand words in and I’ve only talked about Danaerys and bosoms, so I should probably skip over the narrow sea and say some things about goings-on in Westeros.

Let’s start with our boy Ned. In fact, let’s start with the throwaway joke I always make about Game of Thrones, which is that I love the fact that because they cast Sean Bean as Ned Stark, his accent became the default accent of “the North” and so every other actor playing a Stark or Stark bannerman has had to spend the next eight years talking like Sharpe. I just find near limitless joy in the idea that Winterfell will forever, in TV canon at least, be Sheffield.

Anyway, blah blah honour blah blah Hand of the King, blah blah oops he’s dead. I’d forgotten quite how quickly the whole “Jon Arryn had evidence that Cersei’s children were bastards born of incest and that evidence was based entirely on hair colour” thing comes out, or how slowly it comes together after that. On reflection I am … I am not sure how I feel about it. Especially given that Jon Arryn’s last words were the seed is strong, which makes it sound like the evidence against Cersei is essentially a peculiar faith that Robert Baratheon had magic spunk. I mean based on my very, very, very cursory research the actual genetics of hair colour are quite complicated, and since human hair colour actually often changes with age and circumstance it probably isn’t a purely genetic phenomenon at all. And when you think about it, it’s kind of weird that the Lannisters are somehow the only blondes in Westeros. And it’s even weirder that they’re blonde at all if we accept that apparently in this cosmology non-blonde DNA overrwrites blonde DNA infallibly. Tywin Lannister’s mother was a Marbrand, what did her hair look like? What did it look like I ask you? Perhaps she was bald.

But I digress.

Jokes about King Robert’s all-powerful semen aside, what I most like about Ned Stark’s arc is how deeply it gets you to invest in a worldview that’s actually completely alien to the modern world. In fact zooming out for a moment, that’s sort of what I like most about the whole series, in print and on TV. Although fantasy is almost always set in a world that has pre-industrial technology and pre-modern social institutions, the characters usually care about the kinds of things that modern people care about—especially the kinds of enlightenment values that animated the American Revolution. Your generic fantasy hero might be born on a farm, but there’s always a sense in which he’s an old west homesteader or a colonial-era yeoman farmer rather than a feudal serf, and while he might be fighting for honour in some abstract sense, his values are likely to be more-or-less recognisable as variations on Truth, Justice and the American Way. But the characters in Game of Thrones are legitimately motivated by ethical frameworks that really did kind of go out of fashion with the Tudors.

Because when you think about it, every single man, woman, child and direwolf in the Seven Kingdoms knows that Joffrey will be a shit king. They know he’s shallow, venal, prone to violent tantrums and dangerous outbursts, and utterly unwilling to listen to advice or accept correction. Yet Ned Stark spends the whole of the first series gathering evidence not that he will be bad at the important job of governing Westeros, but that he wasn’t made using the correct jism. Because Ned Stark has a medieval worldview and from his perspective who Joffrey’s real father is actually a more important question than will Joffrey flat out ruin the kingdom and kill a bunch of innocent people. This is patently absurd, and it’s testimony to how well Ned comes across that it’s so easy to buy into this as both acceptable and honourable. You see reflections of this throughout the series, like the way everybody is a colossal dick to Jaime Lannister about his betrayal of Aerys Targaryen even though Aerys Targaryen was definitely a dangerous psychopath. You see it most clearly in the Starks, who seem to genuinely despite him for his status as the “Kingslayer” even though the king he slew was the one that Ned Stark was actively rebelling against (and who, let’s not forget, literally burned Ned’s father alive). And it’s interesting, on rewatching, to notice that from a certain perspective Ned’s honour isn’t just naive, it’s actively hypocritical. He’s happy to accept terrible things happening, and to accept terrible rulers being in power, as long as those terrible things are done and those terrible rulers rule, within the confines of a completely arbitrary set of rules that only really exist in his head.

Incidentally this perspective also makes Joffrey’s decision to go full off-with-his-head in episode nine weirdly more sympathetic. It’s easy when you’re reading a book or watching a TV show to forget that the characters aren’t reading or watching along with you. Ned’s only objection to Joffrey’s rule (and for that matter his marriage to his vulnerable underage daughter) is that he’s a bastard (in the technical rather than colloquial sense). A conclusion he reaches on the basis of remarkably scant evidence and barely shares with anyone (and with no-one who can be relied upon to back him up) before publicly denouncing Joffrey at his moment of succession. Now yes, Joffrey’s a shit, but he doesn’t know he’s a bastard. As far as he’s concerned he is unambiguously, unequivocally, the King of Westeros, and Ned Stark has come out of nowhere with a half-baked lie and attempted to strip him of his throne. Honestly at this point cutting his head off is kind of a fair call. Yes it’s politically ill-advised, but not that ill-advised. As far as anybody knows, Ned Stark is a traitor to the crown, so in a sense it’s kind of odd that so many people kick off so hard in his defence. I mean yeah, Stannis gets the “bee-tee-dubs, Joffrey’s a bastard” raven, but Robb didn’t, he just goes to war because he doesn’t like the idea of his father being executed for what as far as he knows is an actual crime of which he’s actually guilty. And Renley rebels because he … wants to?

Looking at this from the hindsight of season 8, it all feels a bit immaterial—it feels almost silly to worry about little questions like whose balls Joffrey started off in given that he’s been dead for almost half the series now. The war stopped being about honour or glory or legitimacy long ago and is now about—what, exactly? And I don’t mean that in a negative way. The whole point has always been that it was pointless. In some ways the thing that Season 1 sets up best for season 8 is that everything going on in the south is, in fact, meaningless. Because it doesn’t actually matter who winds up on the Iron Throne. We see this reflected in characters like Pycelle, Littlefinger and Varys, all of whom have served multiple kings, and who weather changes of regime much like the Seven Kingdoms weather the changing of the seasons. And of course we see it reflected in the show’s ultimate tagline, the House Stark motto that Winter is Coming. Indeed perhaps the most petty and futile thing about the war that—depending on who you ask—Joffrey, Ned, Stannis or Renley needlessly start at the end of the first book-slash-season is that the absolute last thing you want to be doing in your final growing season before a winter that might last a full decade is having a bunch of armed men trample all the crops and burn all the farmers.

On which point, one last thing that has actually been bugging me. And warning, this is going to get nerdy ay-eff.

The thing that I’ve always found most absorbing about Westeros is how plausibly like real medieval Europe it felt, from its social structures to its cultural mores to its castles. And it’s testimony to the detail and deftness of its worldbuilding that I’ve only recently begun to realise that its very familiarity might be the most implausible thing about it. Because its social structure is based on a society where 90% of the population spent their whole lives producing food, and they were just about able to survive in a climate where you could actually grow, produce, or harvest food for nine months out of every twelve. I am not a medieval historian by any stretch of the imagination, but my basic understanding is that over the course of a farming year in the middle ages the average agrarian society would produce just enough surplus that you could be reasonably sure of getting through a three-month winter and even then a bad harvest or a late spring could screw you.

And obviously in a fantasy world where things are different, systems and infrastructures will be different, and maybe they are, but Westeros is so specifically similar to our world that it’s hard to see where those differences come in.

This whole rabbit-hole of thinking was triggered by a scene (spoiler) early in the second season (I’ve been watching ahead) where Janos Slynt explains that the wars are damaging the fields and the city is filling up with refugees and there might be trouble laying in food for the winter, to which Cersei responds “so a few peasants will die”. To which I respond “you do understand that the peasants are the ones that grow the food? And that you’re talking about a world where winters can last five years.” In a world where getting enough to eat was that difficult and that important, you’d think that the social structures would reflect that, rather than being all about the value of swords, wars and dragons. And I do sort of get that the fact the nobility are constantly distracted by pretty baubles is kind of the point, because they’re worrying about thrones and crowns instead of livestock and harvests and this screws everyone, but that idea slips further and further away as the series progresses. Also, they’ve been acting like this for centuries, why didn’t everybody starve years ago?

That was when I started doing some maths.

According to a random google search, the average medieval peasant would consume 2-3lb of grain a day. That means getting a village of—say—a hundred people through a regular 90-day winter requires about 18000lb of grain. Which is about 8 long tons or 9 short tons. A lot, but not as much as it seems. According to a handy online food calculator I found 18000lb of wheat takes up about 355 cubic feet. Which fits in a silo about 7 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet. Very doable.

But that’s for a three-month winter, and for one village. The estimated population of King’s Landing (because of course there are estimates for these things on the internet) is 500,000. Over the course of a five-year winter, a population of 500,000 requires about 1.8 billion pounds of grain. Taking up about 36 million cubic feet. Which would be either a single silo three hundred and thirty feet to a side (Buckingham Palace is 79’ high, and the Tower of London is about 90’, assuming the Red Keep is of a similar size, that means that the skyline of King’s Landing should be dominated by a grain silo three times taller than its largest civic building). They could keep it in barns, I suppose. A barn 40’ by 50’ and filled 15’ deep with grain would contain 30,000 cubic feet of the stuff. Which means they’d need only 1,200 of these to store the city’s entire grain supply. Which almost works, but you can find maps of the city online and very few of them contain whole districts labelled “this bit is legit just food storage”. And that’s before you get into the question of spoilage, insect infestation (admittedly less of an issue in a years-long winter that threatens to eradicate all life on the planet) and just general unforeseen circumstances. I repeat, why haven’t they starved already, especially given how bad at governing we know half their rulers have been?

And I know I’ve way overthought this, and I will absolutely defend to the death the right of any fantasy setting to be built around thematic and narrative concerns rather than this kind of nerdview nonsense, but it is really going to bug me now. Like seriously, what do they eat in winter, why don’t all the wild animals basically starve? Do the large predators hibernate for years at a time? What storage solutions do they use and why do we never see them.

#showusthegrainsilos, man, #showusthegrainsilos.

watching

,
5 Comments

Check me out, doing a blog project about a thing that’s currently happening.

So I belatedly realised that the first episode of the final series of Game of Thrones dropped last night. And I discovered, to my surprise, that I could have access to it this time via a streaming service I actually use rather than having to subscribe to something weird or wait for the whole thing to come out on Amazon. And, thinking about it, it’s testimony to how damn long this series has been running that I watched S1 on an legit physical medium that I had to put in a machine and press play on like a fucking caveman.

Anyway, I was sort of dithering over whether to try and watch the new GoT as it released rather than waiting and binging it, but I decided it might be nice to build a blogging project round it. Then I saw the first episode and discovered that I was in no position to say anything insightful about the show whatsoever because it’s been two years since the last series, a decade since the first series and nearly twenty years since the book was released, and I had no idea who anyone was or what was going on.

So I kind of took a pause, and started trying to thrash through strategies of how to deal with this, not just in terms of blogging, but also in terms of not wasting an hour a week going “who’s that?”, “I thought he was dead?”, “wasn’t she on the other side of the world?” I briefly considered sticking a pin in the new series and just going back to a full thon of Seasons 1 to 7 to get myself caught up. But I hesitated for two reasons. Firstly, I super don’t feel that consuming entertainment should require you to do homework. And, secondly, as I was paging through the older series on the various services through which I can access it, I was struck by the thought that so much of what I was going to be watching would be totally irrelevant.

I mean, from a certain point of view, the only GoT summary you’ll ever need is as follows:

  • S1E1: Ned Stark and his children leave Winterfell
  • S8E1: The surviving Stark children come back to Winterfell

I feel really conflicted about the emotional reaction I had to all the stuff that happened in ‘Winterfell’ (that being the title of the first episode of the final series) in that it was really satisfying to see these things that you’ve known were coming for so long finally unfolding in front of you. On the other hand, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that they’d taken their sweet time getting there, and that an awful lot of the things that had happened in the middle played almost no part in connecting where we started to where we were always going to wind up.

Because it’s great to finally see … I mean, the list is so long it borders on fanservice but Jon and Arya, Arya and the Hound, Arya and I wanna say Gendry? I think I mean Gendry, y’know, Chris from Skins, the Ginger Wildling and the guys from Brotherhood Without Banners, Jaime and Bran, Sansa and Danaerys, and pretty much any character combination/pairing you can think of meeting or being reunited after all this time. You look at them, particularly the ones who were legitimately child actors when the series began, and say “oh my God, they’ve come so far and so much has happened” but then, if you’re me, you immediately think: but most of the much that has happened and the far that they’ve come was just kind of random and arbitrary. Also, perhaps it was just because my memory of the previous season was a bit woolly but every three minutes I found myself going “hang on a second, when did he/she get to Winterfell, wasn’t he/she somewhere completely different and/or dead?”

So for what it’s worth, I decided that the structure for this blog project is going to be as follows: I’m going to watch the new episodes as they come out and I’m also going to re-watch the previous series … serieses … and rather than doing either “this is my experience of watching series 8, having refreshed myself on everything else” or “this is my experience of re-watching this series now that it’s finished” or “this is my experience of watching this series without a clue about what happened earlier” I thought I’d do sort of … all of them mashed up at once. A tiny part of me was quite tempted to do an episode-by-episode of the whole thing but then I realised that would be committing to 70 blog posts, which is more than I wrote about Hugh Grant, and we can’t have that. My vague intent, therefore, will be to alternate a not-exactly review of the new episode of the new season with a not-exactly recap of a whole previous series. This is clearly absurd, and probably won’t work.

Anyway, for those who are still paying attention or care, my thoughts on Season 8 Episode 1 … well … I mean it really can be summed up as “wow, that got super focused super quickly.” We went from having characters spread all over the world, doing a thousand different things (I’ve sort of developed a rule for when I’m watching TV on Amazon that when the episode summary just lists four different characters doing four unrelated things, something has probably gone structurally wrong with the show) to having them in exactly two different places and, really, in King’s Landing it’s just Cersei, her pet necromancer, and one of the Greyjoys.

The rest of the episode of pretty much all exposition and foreshadowing. A child, who has unexpectedly been thrust into a positon of responsibility for which he woefully unprepared, is nailed to a wall to remind us that this is the kind of show where children get nailed to walls, and also to remind us that the Night King is still a thing. Although, really, this raises more questions than it answers because everything we’ve seen so far from the Wights and the White Walkers suggests that they come in force and destroy all your shit. In the scene where a bunch of beloved characters we haven’t encountered for a while, and whose names I’ve completely forgotten, find Little Lord Doomed pinned up and surrounded by weird severed limbs that look at once insectoid and fleshy and form some bizarre occult sigil, one of the characters declares that this is “a message from the Night King”. Which …  isn’t the kind of thing the Night King has ever done? A message from the Night King is “I have just walked over your Wall with a giant army of zombies, one of whom is a dragon”. Who exactly is sneaking around the North doing installation art with dead kids?

I mean, obviously fans, nerds and nerdy fans pontificating about the whole point of their favourite media franchises is something that it’s very easy to overdose on but I can’t help but feel that the whole point of the White Walkers (from my perspective at least) was that they were this implacable force of nature. One of the scariest things about them, like the scary thing about a lot of undead horrors in a variety of fictions, is that they weren’t especially interested in scaring you. So having them suddenly go full Edgelord was a bit … odd?

It’s probably not a good idea to judge the new series too early or too harshly but I am dimly reminded about one of the things I found unsatisfying about series 7, which was the drift away from a focus on detail to a focus on spectacle. Don’t get me the wrong, the scene with the burning screaming Wight Child at the centre of the spiral of flames is terribly dramatic but I’m left with the niggling suspicion that it’s just dramatic in a vacuum. Maybe I need to have more faith, but my feeling is that all we can take away from that sequence is that the White Walkers are getting closer, and things are getting spooky yo, rather than anything more concrete about what they are, where they come from, or what they want. Although I’m sure this is the point where someone links me to a Wiki, detailing that the symbol is actually a really important bit of deep lore that highlights something crucially important I’ve missed.

Other notable happenings: Jon Snow rides a dragon, thereby establishing that he is at least as cool as Harry Potter and discovers, in the course of one conversation, that he is secretly the true king of everything, that the woman he’s sworn fealty to is way happier to burn people alive that he might have imagined, and also that, oh yeah, he’s fucking his aunt. On which subject, there’s a super strange bit where Jon and Dany start making out somewhere in Skyrim and then the implication is they’re gonna, like, legit do it and the camera cuts to a shot of one of Danaerys’ dragons watching them with a perplexed look on its face. And while we’re talking about Jon and Dany, there’s also a scene where Tyrion, Varys and Jorah Mormomt really explicitly ship them, then go on to have a melancholy conversation about youth and age and shit. It’s like everyone in this world is obsessed with Jon and Dany’s sex life.

Aaaand, I think that’s kind of it? Unless you count Cersei banging the Spare Greyjoy for no reason, and Theon rescuing Kate from Upstart Crow, all of which takes about three minutes before we bounce back to yet more people showing up at Winterfell. The last of whom, in a shock reveal, is Jaime Lannister, weirdly no longer blond. Because apparently even hair goes grimdark in Westeros.

My glibbest reaction to the first episode, and this was always going to be inevitable given how much it had to cover, is that it almost felt like a really, really, really long trailer. You get dragons, an ominous soundbite every six to eight seconds, and a bunch of shots which imply that people are about to start or have just finished having sex. Even the more serious reviews from more serious reviewing sites basically describe the episode as “a taste of things to come” which is a polite way of saying that nothing, strictly speaking, happens in it.

And where was Brienne? Everyone winds up at Winterfell except Brienne. Shit, is she dead? She better not be dead.

watching

,
10 Comments

 You know what I haven’t talked about in a really long time? Okay, lots of things—Hugh Grant movies, Star Trek, FFG’s Arkham Files franchise. But the thing I haven’t talked about in a really long time that I’m going to talk about right now is board games. Specifically “Legacy” board games.

 For those of you who don’t remember this deeply obscure bit of boardgaming lore that I haven’t really looped back to since talking about Pandemic: Legacy more than a year ago, a “Legacy” game is a board game where as you play it you make permanent changes to the board, cards and rules, so that the game is fundamentally different every time. Or at least the first 10-15 times. They naturally cap out after a while as you see all the cards and fill in all the tables and tick all the boxes. But then really how many big board games do you own that you’ve played more than fifteen times?

 The first Legacy game was Risk: Legacy, which was kind of mind-blowing when it first came out because the sheer adrenaline rush of opening little boxes, tearing up cards and discovering that there was a little envelope taped to the bottom of the box labelled DO NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES was amazing. Buuuut it suffered from the core problem that it was based around Risk, and Risk is actually turning sixty this year. It’s quite a traditional game and has quite a lot of traditional game problems, most of which boil down to its being … just not very good. There are some fun variants that have come out over its very very long life (I enjoyed the 2004 Risk: Godstorm and I admit to being weirdly curious about 2018s Risk: Rick and Morty) but Legacy starts as basic Risk, which is a bit dull, and yes if you play it long enough it eventually evolves into a more interesting version of Risk but … you could just play one of the more interesting versions straight off.

 As a result, the boardgames community’s mind was even more blown with the release of Pandemic: Legacy (which I spoke about at some length on this blog). As my personal favourite gaming review site put it, it had all the cool stuff that made you excited for Risk: Legacy, with the added advantage that the base game was actually good. Pandemic was a hugely enjoyable and classic game, one of the few titles I think you could unironically describe as “beloved”. And the Legacy version added a huge amount of nuance and complication to the game in well-timed increments that kept the level of challenge up for more experienced players. The second “season” of Pandemic: Legacy didn’t quite live up to the first, because it essentially took the opposite approach—instead of starting with base pandemic and building up, it started with a game that was kind of less good than Pandemic and slowly built up to a game that was … more complicated but still less good than Pandemic.

 Once the “Legacy” concept became more baked into boardgame culture, you also started seeing games that were built from the ground up to be a Legacy game. The first of these was Seafall, which came out in 2016 and which I didn’t pick up because the reviews I’d looked at suggested it shared a similar issue to Risk: Legacy—the appeal was mostly in the novelty of discovery and the legacy features, not in the innate playability of the underlying game, which apparently took a while (and in Legacy game terms, a while means multiple full play sessions) to get going and wasn’t hugely satisfying even when it did. Then there was Gloomhaven, which I did pick up, because the reviews I read suggested that it was a stonkingly good dungeoncrawler out the gate.

 That pretty much became my rule for Legacy games: only play it if you’d also play it if it wasn’t a Legacy game. Expecting Legacy elements to fix what you don’t like a board game is a bit like expecting marriage to fix what you don’t like about your relationship. It very seldom works and instead ties you into a long-term and likely quite expensive commitment you’ll probably regret.

 Which brings me, after a mere seven-hundred-and-thirty-odd words, to the actual game I wanted to talk about today, which is Betrayal: Legacy.

 The base game of Betrayal: Legacy is Betrayal at House on the Hill (which feels like it’s missing an article somewhere). And Betrayal at House on the Hill is … inconsistent. It’s not a bad game. It’s often actually quite a fun game. But it’s equally often a frustrating and pointless game. The basic premise of original Betrayal is that you are … kind of in a 70s horror movie? Or a spooky campfire tale? A group of you go up to this weird old hous house, and scary stuff happens to you, and then suddenly there is BETRAYAL and you’re pitched into one of fifty different scenarios (called “Haunts”), in most of which it turns out that one player was a bad guy all along.

 Because it relies so much on randomness—a random house that you move around having random things happening to you which will randomly lead to a random endgame—and because keeping consistent quality over fifty unique stories-slash-minigames is a huge ask, it’s fairly common to get to the end of a game of Betrayal and think is that it? To put it another way, the saving grace of original Betrayal is that it’s short and low-impact, which is kind of faint praise. And I was trepidatious to say the least about investing £70 (about $90-$100 US depending on exchange rate) on a long-term investment in the Legacy version of a game when often the best thing you could say about the base game is often that it’s over quickly.

 It turns out I shouldn’t have worried, because this seems to be the one in a million time when marrying a game really does fix your relationship with it.

 Okay, the marriage analogy might be a bit weird. A better comparison might be with playing rock, paper, scissors. Which I appreciate is probably still a bit weird and in need of unpacking.

 Played once, rock, paper, scissors is an essentially random game, or near enough to it. You don’t know what your opponent is going to do and while there are little things you can do to try to influence them (apparently a common tactic in what the pros call “street RPS” is to flash one of the signs while you’re clarifying that you throw after three not on three, and then throw the counter to that sign) but those marginal advantages only become apparent over a very large number of games. I suppose thinking about it professional poker might be an even better analogy. Contrary to the way it works in the movies, being an excellent poker player doesn’t mean you’ll always definitely win every hand (or even the crucial hand that matters when you’ve just bet your life savings or the nuclear codes), it means that—in the words of Kenny Rogers—you know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, which leads to a net profit over many games.

 Playing one game of Betrayal at House on the Hill (seriously why isn’t there an extra the in there somewhere) is like playing one game of rock paper scissors, or one hand of poker. Great if it goes well, entirely pointless if it goes badly. Of course because Betrayal is quite a thematic game, going well doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Some of the most satisfying games of BaHotH (and incidentally I’ve just noticed how fitting it is that Bahoth sounds like the name of a demon in a cheesy ‘80s movie in its own right) I’ve played have been ones where I’ve lost but it’s felt really appropriate, like when one of the characters turned out to be possessed by the ghost of a serial killer and tracked us all down one by one, or when as the traitor I’ve been defeated in an nailbiting final struggle against the one surviving player. The worst games are the ones where it either ends too quickly or too slowly. Where either the traitor got really badly beaten up wandering around the house and then died instantly the moment the turned evil, or where it was obvious really early on that the good guys couldn’t actually do the thing they needed to do because it was too long-winded and complicated or the scenario was just poorly balanced.

 Betrayal: Legacy doesn’t strictly solve the problem of the game sometimes whiffing. You can still fairly often wind up just not really achieving much before your inevitable doom, but where in the standalone game that feels like you’ve just kind of wasted forty to ninety minutes, in the Legacy game even the most ignominious of endings and disappointing of outcomes become part of a more interesting wider story.

 The core campaign of Betrayal: Legacy unfolds over thirteen sessions beginning in the sixteenth century and ending in the present day, with the house growing and filling up with spooky objects, strange rooms and peculiar inhabitants, many of which you name yourself. Each player takes control of a family that interacts with the house down the years, and every game you record your character’s name, age, and eventual fate. It’s deliberately set up so that if you’re a child in one game (and you often are if you base your character’s age on the model that represents them) and you survive you can plausibly come back as an adult in the next game, creating a real sense of continuity. In the base game the various items and events that pop up over the course of play can just feel a bit arbitrary and disconnected—why is there a mystical chalice in this room, a pair of glasses in this room, and a shotgun on the balcony? How exactly does the spooky apparition in this room relate to the bloody handprints in this room to the mysterious bright light in the basement?

 Convert the game to a Legacy game and you get to build the house slowly over centuries. You know exactly what that random crossbow is—it’s the crossbow that you shot your friends with in the opening scenario. That ghostly apparition is specifically the spirit of the Viking berserker who possessed you in the second scenario when you found the strange object under the hanging tree. The marrow spoon that rewards you for eating dead people … yeah that’s still a bit random.

 Without giving too much away, the game does a really good job of building on the silly, campy fun of Betrayal in a bunch of cool ways. It adds neutral characters to the house who can die and die permanently (which is anticlimactic if they snuff it in the scenario where they show up, but ah well), it introduces mysterious Hammer-Horror-level quasi-occult signs and artefacts. There are the usual boxes to open and envelopes to unseal, and they’re all presented in this knowing, slightly cheesy way that nicely marries the innate excitement of opening new bits of a legacy game with the spooooky hidden mysteries vibe of its particular flavour of pulpy horror. I mean it even calls the space underneath the box insert where you store dead and destroyed characters and objects “the tomb”.

 Prior to Betrayal, my experience with Legacy mechanics was that they worked when they took an already excellent game and added depth and complexity to it, accentuating the positive like the song says. Betrayal: Legacy is the first Legacy game I’ve seen that successfully uses Legacy elements to do the opposite and eliminate the negative. It’s true that the first couple of times you play it, the game you’re playing is effectively a stripped down version of base BaHotH, but unlike—for example—Seafall or Pandemic Legacy Season Two where it feels like you have to play about halfway through the campaign before the game is even really feature-complete, Betrayal: Legacy’s early game is effectively a distillation of everything that makes the game actually fun to play, with all the other stuff that can get in the way stuffed into legacy decks and sealed boxes for later. In the first scenario, the “house” on the hill is quite specifically a colonial-era homestead and contains barely a dozen rooms. Which means yes, you don’t get as much of the “wandering around finding weird things and having weird encounters” part of the game as you normally would, but it also means that you get to jump very quickly to the Haunt, which is the part of the game that’s actually unique and fun.

 Basically it’s exactly as enjoyable as the original game, with the two significant advantages that the Legacy bells and whistles are fun in their own right, and that building into an overarching haunted house story makes even individually disappointing play experiences satisfying long term as you realise that the character who turned evil and murdered all his friends in the previous game died bathetically at the hands of a bad horse in this one.

 As always I should wrap up with the “is it good for couples or children” questions. The first is easy: this game does not work at all with two players—it’s based on the premise that one player unexpectedly turns on the rest and while there’s some effort made to balance the game around 3, 4 or 5 players, it’s generally not possible for one player on their own to beat a player-turned-traitor with monsters backing them up. Also, some scenarios have a hidden traitor, and that mechanic goes out the window with two. Three is a hard minimum and it’s best with four to five.

 The question of playing with children is … a tricky one. It wasn’t until I was typing up this review that I quite realised how odd it is that Betrayal (both the original and the legacy version) is a game in which you regularly play small children and those small children regularly die horribly. Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of traditional spooky campfire stories—when you think about it, for all we worry about children being exposed to violent content from modern sources (online, in video games, on TV), the kinds of stories we habitually tell children in certain contexts (like fairytales and traditional ghost stories) are crazy bloody. Heck, the Lizzie Borden song is a children’s rhyme and it’s literally about a girl who murders her parents with an axe, and is based on a real crime. I should probably clarify that the game isn’t actually that explicit about its violence or its horror aspect, and it steers very heavily into straightforward horror and haunted house tropes. It’s just that those tropes do include things like “axe murderers” and “dismembered body parts” as well as “vampires and mummies.” As always, mileage varies and different people will draw their lines in different places so. Yeah. Is what it is, y’know.

 In a lot of ways I think my final thought on Betrayal Legacy is a lot like my final thought on T.I.M.E. Stories (yes, I know I’ve now just compared the game to a completely different game that I haven’t mentioned at any point in the last 2,500 words, sorry I am terrible at structure) in that I think whether you should buy it depends a lot on whether you have the kinds of gaming friends it works with, and those types of friends might wind up being quite specific. The base game skews casual—it’s a low-investment game with a short playtime that’s sometimes disappointing but usually a decent way to pass a smallish chunk of your afternoon, so it’s a nice option to have on your shelf for if people fancy it and doesn’t require your friends to be super into boardgaming. But Legacy games are kind of the opposite—you’re committing to playing one game with one group of people, semi-regularly, for at least thirteen sessions.

 I think if I had to sum up the friend-group you need to get the most out of this game, it would be a group of people who really like board games but don’t mind not taking them super seriously. People who won’t look at you funny when you start saying “hey, let’s play this game that might take us the best part of a year to finish and which also requires you to put stickers all over the board and tear up the cards” but who also won’t get hacked off playing a game that doesn’t really involve any kind of strategy, often turns on an extremely swingy dice system, and is likely to be more silly than scary most of the time.

 One sentence summary: Like the original but better. Worth a look either as a straight upgrade over base Betrayal, or as a fairly low-impact introduction to Legacy games in general.

playing

, , ,
4 Comments