I really meant to review this ages ago, but it had the misfortune of airing at pretty much exactly the start of the shittiest part of my year, and I didn’t really review much of anything (or do much of anything) for a good while after that. But we’re coming up to the second year anniversary of this blog, and I find I just can’t let the year pass without paying tribute.
You guys know I like A Song of Ice and Fire, and you know I enjoyed HBO’s landmark first season of it last year (had, indeed, been waiting with anticipation for it since the end of Rome). It’s expected that I was going to enjoy the second season, I guess, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I was completely blown away. In almost every facet it was even better than last year. Part of that is because the source material is better – A Game of Thrones, the novel, is a slow burn that I probably would have given up on if not for the insistence of a friend that I had to keep reading. By A Clash of Kings many of the characters are established and we already understand a bit about the history and politics of this vast and complex world. In addition, we meet a number of new characters, including Brienne of Tarth, the fearsome and fearless women who has forced recognition of her fighting ability, gaining the status not only of knight, but of Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon. She’s one of my very favourite characters, and her relationship with Jaime Lannister becomes an increasingly compelling read.
But the success of Game of Thrones, season 2, is not solely down to the progression of the books and the development of the characters in the source material. Many actors who gave memorable performances in the first season out do themselves to become truly sparkling in season 2. Peter Dinklage won a well-deserved Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister last year, but his performance this year was even better. It isn’t simply that we get to see him perform in award winning episodes like ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ but that his performance is so masterful. ‘Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!’ he declares, and you understand how the Half-man could win the support and loyalty of a bunch of disillusioned and dispirited commoners who have just seen their king run to hide in his mother’s skirts. For there is not merely bravery, but regret and fear in his tone. Dinklage portrays not only the intelligence, but the honour and the sadness of Tyrion. I loved this character in the book, but Dinklage has made the role his own – it’s a different Tyrion, in some ways, but I like it:
Lena Headey surprised me with the strength of her performance as Cersei in this season. Not quite at the heights that she would reach in her role as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D, but strong, and in my opinion notably superior to her performance last year. I felt that she had relaxed into the role and really begun to understand Cersei. Again, I feel the need to draw attention to scenes from ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ – that episode was undoubtedly designed as a special effects extravaganza, but the quieter scenes away from the battle itself are not to be dismissed. The scenes between Cersei and Sansa (Sophie Turner) as they hide with the other noble women, waiting to find out if they will be raped and slaughtered, are claustrophobic with their sense of helpless imprisonment. And Cersei’s bitterness at the way she has been robbed of power, as a woman, seems to slowly permeate the room like a toxic fog – increasing with every glass of wine she drinks:
It’s masterfully done. I wrote quite a bit on Cersei and Sansa and the different representations of women in season 2 over on my Tumblr back in June. This was in response to Laurie Penny’s article that basically accused Game of Thrones of being sexist for all the wrong reasons. Because, all the praise aside, it is problematic, and if you’ve read any of my Read Along with Rhube posts on A Dance with Dragons you’ll know just how much I’ve warred, personally, with its issues. Baseless accusations like saying that Game of Thrones is just a ‘racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons’ do nothing but embarrass the author of the article. And it’s important to know the difference precisely so that the accurate criticisms don’t get silenced in the knocking down of the straw man. You couldn’t get much less Disneyland than Game of Thrones, and whilst it does tackle the issues of rape-culture head on, you can hardly pretend it endorses the world that supports them. However, the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series are considerably more problematic. The treatment of Daenerys, in particular, is often presented for titillation rather than critique. And let’s not forget that at the start of the series she’s meant to be thirteen. It’s all kinds of skeevy, and that’s why I’ve forced myself to write so extensively in critique of these moments in reviewing A Dance with Dragons.
Even so, it’s important to discuss such treatment in the context both of Daenerys’s growth into a formidable woman (and one clearly damaged by her experiences) and the other female characters. A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are both notable for a range of female characters rarely seen in books or television. Women are not simply ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, they are multifaceted, fully rounded characters, many of whom express strength in very different ways: Brienne, the formidable knight; Arya, the determinedly ungirly-girl who is also becoming a skilled fighter; Cersei the queen, politician, manipulator; Catelyn, the honourable lady and ferocious matriarch; Daenerys, the wise and powerful girl-ruler, leading an army of disparate peoples to conquer a world, take back her birth-right, and challenge the slavery she herself was sold into; Margaery Tyrell, great beauty and canny political mover, who declares that she doesn’t want to be a queen, she wants to be the queen; Asha/Yara Greyjoy, capable of leading fleets of ironborn in a way her brother, Theon, could never hope to; even Sansa Stark – feminine and meek, but enduring with quiet dignity what she cannot change and showing a different kind of strength in sticking to her values in a hostile world. And there are many, many more.
As Cersei holds forth on a woman’s power residing in her sexuality, there is in no danger of this defining a view of women for the books or for the show – it is undercut both by Cersei’s obvious dissatisfaction with her lot in life and by the many and varied ways that other women have been shown to have power. We see the precariousness of power based on beauty in this season as Margaery Tyrell emerges as a rival to Cersei’s beauty – a younger rival – and Cersei is faced with men, such as Stannis, who cannot be seduced.
As to the accusation of racism… there might be some more truth, there. There’s certainly a presentation of savagery in the dothraki people that might seem indicative of a supposition of barbarism in non-white races. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the parroted phrase ‘It is known’ which seems to be almost the only thing the women of the dothraki are capable of saying – it rings of a lack of knowledge and a culture that discourages questioning and learning. One could read Daenerys as an unusual female example of the white man come to teach the ‘natives’ how to do their culture better than they do it themselves. I think there may have been an element of that at first, but I feel like there are also some significant differences from that archetype. Daenerys does not enter the culture possessed of power and confidence in some alternate ‘white’ norms. She is a lost and broken child who never really knew the culture that birthed her. She has a romantic memory of the ‘house with the red door’, but it’s a childish memory, barely connected with anything concrete. She does not force a home in this other culture, she learns it and adapts to it as a mechanism of survival. As the books go on we see her act as chameleon in several different cultures, and she makes many, sometimes grievous, mistakes as she tries to force her values – her dream of an abolition of slavery – on others. Slavery is wrong, but marching in with an army and demanding that a culture abandon central elements of its identity and economic structures can have catastrophic consequences.
Moreover, if one is inclined to cast the dothraki in the stereotype of savages, one can hardly say that all the races and nations outside of Westeros are presented as ‘uncivilized’. We haven’t seen much of them yet, but by modern standards the ‘Free Cities’ in many ways show more aspects of what we might call ‘civilisation’ from a ‘western’ point of view. Volantis is a democracy, Braavos is religiously tolerant and has outlawed slavery, as has Pentos – not much is known of the other city states, yet, but there’s some interesting discussion on the Wiki of Ice and Fire about them.
There is, perhaps, a case to be made for exoticism of other cultures. Here I feel like I’m not on a stable ground to make a judgement. My instinct is to say that there is always an element of exoticism in fantasy worlds. Part of the appeal is presenting cultures that differ from our own with a sense of wonder. Westeros itself is a somewhat exoticised view of medieval feudalism. Yet, there is no question that we are encouraged to identify with the white, European-like, faux-Britannia as the central locus for point of view action. To an extent the Daenerys plotline is unusual in fantasy novels in basing one of the major plots in completely different, non-European-like cultures, and it does allow for more non-white characters that are not ‘evil’ than you see in the average Hollywood show or Anglo-American novel. But equally, her plotline is the most exploitative in terms of titillation and presentation of other cultures for spectacle. I don’t know. I don’t feel confident making a call in this area as I’m aware of my own privilege as a white European, but my instinct is to make the same call as for the sexism issue: A Song of Ice and Fire is problematic, but does good things as well as bad, and, on the whole, Game of Thrones, the TV show, does its best to tone down some of the more problematic elements (see my discussion of the ‘Qartheen dress’ below).
Returning to the topic of the presentation of female characters, I can’t not stop off to tip a hat to the glorious Arya Stark. Arya’s story develops along new and interesting lines in season 2. Her plot takes a darker turn as she is forced to try and survive in war torn Westeros, concealing her gender for fear of what would be done to her if it were known that she is a girl. She travels with young boys and hardened criminals, heading for the Wall and learning to hold her own. Witnessing death and torture she begins to build a list of people she will kill one day as a coping mechanism, and having saved the life of the assassin, Jaqen H’ghar, she uses his debt to her to begin wreaking vengeance. We also see her treading a careful line in Tywin Lannister‘s shadow. This is sheer invention – a contraction of events from the books to enable a more digestible format for our screens – Tywin and Arya never meet like this. Yet it works; Maisie Williams and Charles Dance make captivating verbal sparring partners, creating for Tywin a charm he didn’t really have in the books, but which works very well for the TV series.
Another change from the books that I very much appreciated was concerning the notorious Qartheen dress. In the books this marks an uncomfortable and inexcusable exoticism mixed with misogyny. This is a style of dress that indicates the exotic nature of Qarth by having it just so happen that the women of Qarth traditionally walk around with one breast exposed. A breast that is described in loving detail. There is no obvious reason why the people of Qarth would favour such a style, and whilst some cultures do favour bare breasts, this usually comes with a more relaxed attitude towards nakedness that makes breasts a much less fetishised body-part than they are in much of the so called ‘developed’ world. Such an attitude does not seem to be present in Qarth, and it’s pretty clear that the reason why this outlandish fashion is the way it is does not lie in some flavour of world-building colour, but in seeking to titillate the (presumed male, heterosexual) audience. In case you can’t tell, I found these passages pretty sickening, in the book. It is to Game of Thrones‘ credit, then, that they chose to redefine the Qartheen gown to look like this (above). She still looks stunning, as is only right for a character described in the books as the most beautiful woman in the world, but she’s not in the least bit over-exposed. Rather, this is a dress that exudes strength – complete with metal power-shoulders – at the same time as enhancing her beauty. This dress says that being beautiful does not render a woman weak.
But lest we start thinking that the message is that ‘only bad witches are ugly’, let’s recall that this series also features Brienne of Tarth, or ‘Brienne the Beauty’ as she is mockingly called. At 6ft 3in, Gwendoline Christie was inspired casting for Brienne, and you can see that they made full use of the camera’s bag-o-tricks to enhance the height difference between her and other characters. Moreover, Christie reportedly put on 6.5 kilos of muscle for the role, enabling her to cut a truly impressive figure as a fighter. Granted, the Brienne from the books is described as considerably more ugly than Christie could hope to be, but her awkward gait and clear lack of typical female mannerisms marks her out in a way that one could see might well be judged unattractive to the men of her world.
It’s wonderful, then, to see the shift in perspective on Jaime’s face when he sees her fight and kill for the first time. He realises that she’s no joke – she might even be his equal, and few men could say that. I’ve always felt that the most interesting thing about Jaime is that, whatever else he may be, he’s a good fighter. He always seems more comfortable talking to people about battles and fighting, and on screen we can see him visibly relax when the conversation turns to such things, as he finds himself on firmer ground. In this way, Jaime is able to respect Brienne as he has no other woman, in the area that matters most to him.
Season 2 shows us just the beginning of what I’m hoping will become the Brienne and Jamie Very Bloody Buddy Movie, which is basically what I’ve been calling season 3 in anticipation. I can’t wait!
It’s not all squee. I can’t say that I’m a fan of how Melisandre has been presented. Not that I’ve ever really been overly fond of the character, but I didn’t think her relationship with Stannis needed sexing up the way it was. Apart from anything else, it’s completely out of character for Stannis. Whether you agree with his principles or not, Stannis is all about doing what’s right, and even if he doesn’t show much affection for his wife, having an affair with his priestess doesn’t seem like his style. It felt like the producers just saw another pretty woman they could get naked, and I couldn’t help but feel that this is a show with enough of those already. I like a bit of sex in my fantasy, but I prefer it in character and less exploitative.
The other big changes that I haven’t mentioned concern the ‘Battle of Blackwater’. In the books, Tyrion’s stroke of genius is not simply making use of Cersei’s stock-piled wildfire, but in trapping Stannis’s ships with a massive chain across the harbour, preventing escape. It’s a shame, as it’s a striking element in the books and a mark of Tyrion’s strategy, but you can see why it was cut. Blackwater was always going to be difficult to stage, and they went with the most dramatic looking elements to portray. It worked. The other significant change is that [spoiler] Tyrion’s nose doesn’t get chopped off. He does get a slice across the face that leaves him with a (supposedly) disfiguring scar, but losing half his nose becomes such a big issue for Tyrion in the books that it does seem like a slightly more problematic departure. Some people have said they thought the make-up would have been difficult to achieve, but I’m not convinced. I’ve seen noseless people/monsters on screen before. I suspect that it had more to do with keeping the face of one of their most celebrated stars intact than anything else. I don’t mind too much. I imagine it would have been difficult to look at a gaping wound like that, and I enjoy Peter Dinklage’s face the way it is, but I had half-hoped for a more gutsy move, there.
Aside from that, however, it really was an impressive production. I finished every episode bereft, like I could have continued watching forever. For quite a while after it had finished I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make it until next year. Of course, I have managed to fill my time with other things since then, but it’s undeniable that Game of Thrones has become a televisual experience not quite like any other.