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.”
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.