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.