I adoredGame of Thrones when it first came out. I had been excited for years before it came out. But even I approached this season with trepidation. I’ll be blunt (trigger warning: rape mention) I’m talking about the rapes. The extra rapes. Rape where sex was consensual in the books (i.e. the rape of Cersei by Jaime (who hates rape and saves Brienne from rape what even?)) and the rape of Sansa, which had previously been Jayne Poole (which was also bad, but… many people were invested in the story of Sansa’s quiet, feminine strength and… it was problematic OK?)).
Our amazing show, which gave us so many amazing female characters in so many different roles that we’ve never gotten to see women play before and all together, not just one or two and… it was amazing, and where it then went the last two seasons left a lot of people feeling betrayed.
What’s more, last season was weak overall. I talk about this at length in my review of Season Five. I know a lot of people who bailed afterwards. I knew I wouldn’t, but as the new season approached… I wasn’t sure why.
But I watched it, and… I was more than pleasantly surprised.
The following is not a review – I’ve not the energy for that – but rather, it is a minimally spoilery list of reasons to watch this episode and hope that things are turning towards the light. (I mean, not for the characters – those fucks are gonna suffer, you know that, right? – but for us as viewers who need things to get a bit less rapey and sexist.) I make it for the sake of saying ‘You may be worried, but these things happen and they are the good things you probably didn’t think would happen‘:
Things are going to get better for Sansa.
Brienne is gonna be FRIGGIN’ AWESOME.
Dolorous Edd is pretty cool. I just like writing that sentence, ngl.
Tyrion and Varys politically analyse Meereen. You know you want it.
Daenerys. Is not a white saviour to anyone (in this episode). Which is good. She’s taken down a lot of pegs. But she’s also pretty awesome. Which is also good.
Sand Snakes. Are snakey. And even if their characterisation last season was lack luster, they certainly make a statement.
Arya. Is on screen and therefore awesome. But also blind and suffers physical consequences for this.
Nakedness… happens. But not in the way you expect it to.
I mean, the first two points were the most important to me, and they satisfied exactly what I needed to make this episode worthwhile, but the other stuff is also good.
And no, I’ve not told you anything about Jon Snow. As is right and proper. Watch the episode if you wanna know about that.
It’s hard to say that there has ever been a more hotly anticipated season of any show than the third season of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy, Game of Thrones. One comment I hear again and again from people is that upon finishing an episode of Game of Thrones they instantly want more – like they had expected it to go on and it cut off abruptly. So greatly are people drawn into the world and its plot. I myself was counting down the months, the weeks, the days, from a surprisingly long time off. Basically, from the end of season 2. As one macro said: ‘One does not simply wait 306 days for Game of Thrones Season 3‘. Of course, HBO, weren’t idly letting the tension build itself. In addition to a dazzling array of posters and trailers, the cast seem to have been everywhere doing countless promo shoots, both ridiculous and sublime, including the sublimely ridiculous. They also seem to have cottoned on to the humorous creativity which infects the fans, offering the ability to create your own Game of Thrones style sigil.
I made a sigil for Philosophy, because I’m sad.
Although, to be honest, all these things were just stop-gaps in my already stoked anticipation.
The question is: did it deliver?
The answer? A complex shuffle of competing shouts of ‘HELL YES!’ and ‘Eh’.
There’s no doubt, the big moments this season were big. Of all the moments in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire that stand out as jaw-droppingly shocking for newcomers and most-tensly anticipated by long-time fans, this season has an uncommonly high percentage. The previous two seasons probably contained one a-piece: Ned’s execution in season one, and the Battle of Blackwater in season two. This season we are treated to:
Daenerys sacking her first city
Jaime losing his hand
The Bear and the Maiden Fair
and, of course, the Red Wedding
All of which were unutterably delicious. This season saw the pay off for things that have been set up gradually over a long period of time, with Daenerys’s freeing of the Unsullied and raising of Astapor being one of the most visually stunning and dramatically satisfying pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Daenerys’s storyline is one of the most interesting and complex in an exceptionally interesting and complex show. And it has to be. Hers is the storyline that involves dragons, and that’s a trope of weighty cultural depth, heavy with the legends and fairytales of disparate cultures and centrally located in the modern consciousness of fantasy tales by Tolkein’s iconic Smaug in The Hobbit. I love dragons, but I know a lot of geeks who find them overused and annoying. If you want to win over that crowd, as well as the crowd of non-geeks who are watching for the sexy, violent, political drama, you need a solid foundation of plot, character, and acting of sufficient gravitas.
And they pull it off. Daenerys comes to her pivotal moment early in the season: episode 4. Having escaped from Qarth with her dragons and a modest amount of loot, Daenerys comes to Astapor, a great slaving city, famous for training the Unsullied: eunuchs of unparalleled fighting skill, endurance, and obedience. Jorah urges Daenerys to buy Unsullied, despite her entrenched ideological objections to slavery. The Masters of Astapor give her the usual spiel via translator, all the while mouthing off about her in Valyrian. Daenerys, against Jorah and Selmy’s advice, agrees to trade one of her dragons for all of the Unsullied – including those still in training.
Daenerys Kicks Butt
Up until now, Daenerys has been a beautiful young girl with a great name and three dragons, but she has had no land, barely any people, no army, few funds, and her dragons were small enough to be mere curiosities. At the start of season 3, though, we see that her dragons have grown, and so has she. Jorah and Selmy are too busy squaring off against each other to realise that Daenerys would never give one of her dragons into slavery. She is deeply opposed to slavery, views her dragons as her children, and is more than smart enough to realise that one dragon is worth more than 8,000 Unsullied when it comes to war.
In a stunning move that cements her stature as legend in the making, she waits until the Master has placed the whip of power in her hand and then reveals to the sexist pig that Valyrian is her mother tongue, and she has understood every insultingly misogynistic phrase he has uttered. She tells him that a dragon is not a slave and commands the Unsullied to kill their masters, and her dragon to roast the one who holds his chain alive. Having sacked the city, she frees all the slaves and asks them to fight for her of their own free will. Of course, they do.
It’s stunningly cinematic, worthy of a feature film. Emilia Clarke really comes into her own, and I take back every single word of doubt I voiced for her. I dare you to watch the above and not want to follow her anywhere.
Rousing stuff. Climactic stuff. Which is a little bit weird for an episode just shy of half way through the season.
Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie
If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Tumblr for a while you may be aware that I was basically referring to this season in anticipation as ‘Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie’. Of course, in reality, this was only one thread of plot, but it forms the backbone for the middle part of the season where all the political shenanigans are working themselves out to set up the big events further down the line.
Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is one of my very, very favourite things about A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’ve basically been waiting two seasons to see it finally flower before us. It’s through Brienne’s relationship with Jaime that we get to see a side of him that we have only glimpsed before, hidden behind the shocking introduction, way back in the first season, where he pushes a small boy from a window. We’re set up to hate Jaime, and almost all the characters are colluding to encourage this impression. It’s not just that he tried to kill a child to hide his incestuous relationship, he killed a king whom he was sworn to protect. Pretty shitty thing for a knight to do, right? Yeah, it’s easy, very easy to see Jaime the Shitbag.
Except, the king he killed was a mad man known for burning adults and children alive, sparking the war that led to Robert gaining his throne. And having killed the king, with his father’s army entering the capital, Jaime could have made a play for it himself. But that never even occurs to him. He cedes the throne instantly to Robert. He never wanted it. When Cersei tries to persuade him that he should be the Hand of the King, he refuses. He has never wanted power or responsibility. Despite his bravado and insolent manner, we gradually see revealed a man who’s never really at ease in social settings unless he’s talking about war. There is a hesitancy and lack of confidence lurking under the surface. His harsh words reflect a bitter disillusionment, and one might take the time to wonder why any man might ‘take the white’ – join the King’s Guard, swear to celibacy – if he were young and rich and beautiful and the heir to Casterley Rock. There must have been some real idealism in there somewhere. What would make a man like that kill a king? What would it do to a man like that to kill his king? And to be condemned for that act from every quarter outside of his family.
We also learn that Jaime always struggled with his schoolwork. There are hints that he may have had dyslexia, but Tywin, father of the year, would brook no quarter, and forced Jaime to read for four hours a day before he was allowed to go and do what he was good at: learning to fight. And I think we see here the germ of a deep insecurity. A man who only ever wanted to do what he was good at and enjoyed, but from whom others always demanded more. With no mother and a father like Tywin, it’s unsurprising the Jaime would feel drawn to the unconditional love of his twin sister for solace (even if incest is taking it a bit far). And it’s equally unsurprising that he would run away from his father for the simple, cleanly honourable life of a knight of the King’s Guard at King’s Landing.
But everywhere he is seen through the veil of ‘Kingslayer’. And at first Brienne despises him for his lack of honour. He seems everything that she is not. And he taunts her for the strength of her principles – her strength of honour, which he feels is lost to him forever. But when she proves herself his equal as a fighter he cannot help but respect her. He has always connected best to people on this one level where he is sure of his own skill, and it creates a connection that he has never had with a woman before. In turn, the respect he accords her as a fighter is one that Brienne has rarely experienced, except from Renly, whose meagrely kind treatment sparked an unrequited love, and from Catelyn, whose bravery and respect won Brienne’s undying loyalty.
When Jaime’s (successful) efforts to save Brienne from rape lead to him losing his hand, they each open up to each other in a way neither has to any other person, and in a post-amputation fever, Jaime tells the real story of what happened when he killed the mad king. How Aerys, had commanded him to kill his own father, and for his pyromancer to destroy the city; how Jaime’s action in killing him saved a quarter of a million lives. And where every other person outside of his family had refused to hear him out, had despised him, Brienne listens. And she believes him. And she tells him he did the right thing. It’s probably the most powerful thing anyone has ever done for Jaime.
I’ve written a lot about their relationship here and here. But I guess what I’m coming to is best summed up by someone else:
Put simply, she’s the knight that he wanted to be. She has all of the qualities that he tries to pretend aren’t important to him, are the realm of the naive and the stupid, but that he hates that everyone assumes he doesn’t have, that he thinks it’s too late for him to ever reclaim.
Jaime doesn’t push Bran out of a window because it’s what he wants to do. He does it because Cersei asks him to: ‘The things I do for love’ he says. Jaime was a man of honour who was despised for doing the most honourable thing in a bad situation. He had always been starved of love – his mother died when he was young and his father is a big time poo – and in a world that hates him he would have done anything for Cersei, even though she never shared the honour that came naturally to him.
And then, there’s Brienne. Who is everything he ever thought a knight should be, and she doesn’t think what he did was dishonourable when she hears the whole story. And she tells him he can be the sort of man he always wanted to be.
Guys… I just have too many feels about this. If you don’t ship Brienne/Jaime I think your heart is broken.
Ahem. *coughs* Not a tear in my eye. Dust. Yeah, dust.
Anyway. Before all the feels come out, it is totally a buddy movie, I promise. Because there is also a world of BANTER, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime) Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) manage perfectly the shift between humour and tension. Particular kudos to Gwendoline Christie for managing to portray Brienne as suitably awkward whilst also keeping up her end of the banter. Honestly, it may not have had the cinematic glory of Daenerys’s sacking of Astapor, but Brienne and Jaime’s character arc provides a much needed emotional anchor, one which gets its pay off as Jaime is forced to abandon Brienne at Harenhal, where she is forced to fight a bear in parody of a popular Westerosi folk song ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’. Learning that Brienne’s ransom has not been accepted because Jaime led her captors to believe that her father is richer than he really is, Jaime returns, jumping into the bear pit despite knowing that he is now useless in a fight, his only value being that others will protect him for his ransom. It is an utter confrontation with his own vulnerability at the same time as a true act of heroism, marking a quite remarkable moment of redemption.
Of course, all of the above is drawn from the books, but the HBO team are commended for pulling off what was, for me, one of the most anticipated story arcs of the whole show.
There were a couple of rough notes. Brienne’s cry of ‘The Kingslayer!’ when Jaime faints in the bath tub, felt way forced and overdone, mostly due to poor staging and overly dramatic camera angles, but the scene leading up to it was spot on. They even managed to make Brienne’s forgetting that she’s naked (one of the most painfully unrealistic moments in the books) into an act of power. Also, the fact that Gwendoline Christie is actually beautiful, and not as ugly as Brienne is meant to be in the books, makes what is meant to be a humiliating and inappropriate act of forcing her to wear a dress lose all its power. She doesn’t look awkward in it at all, and all the ‘uglying up’ styling, which was passably effective up until this point, basically evaporates when she’s cleaned up and wearing a dress that actually suits her quite well.
Minor points, though.
The Red Wedding
No review of season 3 could go by without discussing the moment that shook the Internet, as millions of fans who hadn’t read the books tuned in for the penultimate episode to witness Robb Stark, Catelyn, the pregnant Talisa, and all of the Stark army slaughtered by the Freys (and Roose Bolton) after Edmure Tully’s wedding to Rosalind Frey.
Twitter wept. An account was set up called @RedWeddingTears retweeting all the people who said they were rage-quitting Game of Thrones afterwards (you’d have thought Ned’s death in season one would have alerted them to the stakes in this game, but hey ho). Highlights include:
@gameofthrones HBO should cancel this show as a lesson to deter treacherous writing and i don’t care if its in the original book
So, I think we can assume that the episode had the desired effect. Honestly, I have difficulty connecting with people who want to quit a show because it generates a strong emotional reaction for them. I kinda wish I hadn’t known it was coming, because that kind of punch to the gut is what I want from fiction. I don’t know why, but I think it’s relatively normal for humans to feel that way. Something about tapping into shared emotion at a fundamental level. Being moved by terrible things somehow makes us feel less alone.
And on a serious note, this was a very sophisticated presentation of a blood bath. No, I’m serious. I don’t know why people who will grant Shakespeare as a great genius decry violence in shows like Game of Thrones. There’s a difference between blood presented for pure titillation and blood presented as a grim confrontation with reality. A lot of the plays we count as truly great are revenge tragedies. Hamlet has a body count of nine. Titus Andronicus is his most gruesome at fourteen, as well as rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism – it was his most popular play during his lifetime. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is famously bloody, as is his White Devil – in one production I saw fake blood ended up literally dripping off the stage. I couldn’t find an exact figure for it, but The Revenger’s Tragedy is widely thought to be the bloodiest of the genre, with one reviewer writing: ‘the body count of Revenger’s Tragedy makes the deaths in plays such as Hamlet seem like an adolescent squabble’.
And that’s what this is: a tragedy. Anyone familiar with the genre could not help but see the visual and stylistic references. It perhaps sits somewhere between classical tragedies (like Oedipus Rex) and Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy, but both are evoked. I can’t have been the only one who noticed that the set dressing for the Frey stronghold turned remarkably Elizabethan once the wedding started. The spartan stone castle was suddenly clad in oak panelling and tapestries. And the layout of the set with the dais for the wedding party’s table was reminiscent of a stage – complete with galleries above, just like the galleries of an Elizabethan theatre, to which our attention is drawn when crossbowmen fire down upon the wedding party from above. In this context the excessive bloodiness of the scene feels right at home and calls on centuries of literary discourse about death, and our voyeuristic interest in death. I wrote my exam piece on Shakespeare about the relationship between revenge tragedies and the spectacle of hangings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The playwrights were conscious of the similarities between plays and these obscene spectacles. People would rent out rooms with good views of an execution; issue programmes of the day’s hangings, much like theatre programmes; sell snacks to the audience… It’s one of the reasons the play-within-the-play is a recurring feature of the revenge tragedy, calling the audience to reflect upon their own behaviour and fascination with death.
Death is one of the most central themes in literature because it comes to us all. And it is a large emotional part of life before it comes to us ourselves. I would imagine that everyone who is old enough to watch Game of Thrones has known death, probably death in the family, so the family dramas that usually form the central part of both classical and revenge tragedy ring home for all of us. And the centrality of family is emphasised from the start. We begin with a scene in which Robb and Catelyn come together again, having been estranged, are bonded by their shared desire to avenge Ned – Robb’s father and Catelyn’s husband. The scene is also set at a wedding – a joining of families. And as Catelyn pleads for her son’s life she calls on the honour of both her families: the Tullys and the Starks. Moreover, the centrality of motherhood to Catelyn’s character has been emphasised throughout the season, as she makes ritualistic doll-wreaths to protect her sons Bran and Rickon, who she thinks are probably dead, and she regrets never being able to accept Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard, properly into her heart as a son. It all leads up to the final tableau, as she seizes Walder Frey’s unfortunate wife and holds a knife to her throat, begging for Robb to be spared. Who could not but feel her agony, admire her strength – Michelle Fairley, who had always played the role with intensity, taking it up to a new and as yet unseen level.
Her stillness and inarticulate cry at Robb’s death, before her own throat is slit, thus seem wholly appropriate, where the oft trotted out cry of ‘Noooooo’ has been rendered silly in other shows. Even the realistically spurting blood that is usually forgone in modern cinema, as audiences (who have rarely seen arterial blood spray) find it implausible, works in the context of the revenge tragedy.
Granted, the Red Wedding lacks the trope of a ghost sending a protagonist on a quest of vengeance, but I think the scene between Catelyn and Robb at the start of the episode, considering Ned’s death, spurring them on to accept the Frey deal in the name of revenge, can be seen as a symbolic ghost scene. Certainly, the ghost of Ned’s death hangs over the event, and the outrage it prompted eerily echoed in the excess of grief evinced on the Internet for the Red Wedding.
We also see Robb’s hubris. He should see, really, that going back to the Freys cap in hand when he has slighted them so thoroughly is a really bad plan. But he’s the Young Wolf. He’s never lost a battle. In the classical style, the Red Wedding forms a requisite catharsis. And although Robb was, for many, a favourite character, he was set up to be a little too perfect. The handsome young man and brilliant tactician, his one flaw being falling for the wrong woman, perhaps pride in thinking he was above marrying a Frey… in the literary game he had been set up for a fall. People call George RR Martin names for murdering favourite characters, but I’m not sure he’s as harsh as people think. The really interesting characters – the Tyrions, the Aryas, The Daeneryses – the flawed characters who make the compromises necessary to survive, but still retain a humanity and charm to keep us on their side… they seem to be doing quite well.
Doubtless I am tempting fate to say such a thing, and I’m by no means convinced anyone is immune from not making it to the end, but I’m not terribly surprised that it’s the Ned and Robb Starks of this world that have popped it. Or, at least, I wasn’t surprised by Robb after Ned had gone that way.
I honestly think ‘The Rains of Castermere’ The Red Wedding is a brilliantly crafted piece of theatre – not just in the original writing of George R R Martin’s books, but in the direction, scripting, set design, and acting of the actual episode itself. It’s like a little play within a series – a set piece – after the old revenge tragedy tradition. And it provides a concentrated microcosm of the themes of the wider series. Whilst there is some voyeuristic enjoyment of scenes like this, the enjoyment is parasitic on the horror. I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who swore off Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding will be back again next year after they’ve digested the event. In part because they will digest the event. It’s an event that demands to be digested and considered. It forces reflection because the emotions it provokes are so intense. It provides a counterpoint to the glorification of violence we see exemplified in the sub-plot, as Daenerys’s three best fighters – Jorah, Greyworm, and Daario – showcase their fighting skill in a striking piece of choreography. Because, for some reason, that kind of violence, which obfuscates the pain and death and gore it causes, is permissible, where as the raw horror of a blood bath like the Red Wedding is repugnant.
Surely violence should be repugnant. Surely we should wince and look away. I’m puzzled by people who want to see violence cleaned up (except for in kids shows, because, as my friends who are parents tell me, kids can find that stuff pretty upsetting), especially as they tend to be the same people who think we are becoming desensitised by violence on telly. We’re desensitised by santised violence. By violence only ever presented as cool and bloodless. No, I’m not saying every episode should be a Red Wedding, but anyone who thinks the Red Wedding glorifies violence needs to have their internal sensitivity to violence checked, because all those reactions above? That great outcry such as I have never seen in response to television before? That’s people who are shocked and awed and were confronted by the fact that the underlying message of Game of Thrones is not and never has been ‘violence is cool’; rather the message in unequivocally ‘war is awful’.
OK, that’s a lot of praise and in-depth analysis. Let’s take a breather before the close to return to the ‘eh’ that I mentioned in the beginning. Because, believe it or not, this was not my favourite season. It has most of my favourite moments (and I haven’t even covered all the brilliant stuff between Tyrion and Sansa and what’s been going on with Arya becoming a murderous little revenge driven terror*), but it also has the worst pacing. Between the really awesome moments are a lot of scenes that stand out against those moments as somewhat grey and unexciting. Most of the scenes at Riverrun are required to set up the Red Wedding, but seem to crawl by in comparison to places where things actually seem to be happening. Granted, this is only a low note in the context of general Game of Thrones quality, and you need some quiet moments amongst the burning cities and Red Weddings, but, for instance, the Brienne/Jamie banter scenes do this much more effectively than the Riverrun scenes, despite the wonderful Tobias Menzies bringing such colour in incompetence to the role of Edmure Tully.
In this way I’m hard pressed to rate this season over season two, just because season two was consistently good value. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that season three of Game of Thrones was a fantastic bit of television with some Internet-shaking drama that sort of throws down a gauntlet for all other television shows to take up… if they dare.
*Just a quick sidenote, there, as it relates to the Red Wedding, I think Arya’s witnessing of the events of the Red Wedding form a crucial part of the message as outlined above. Because, unlike, for instance, Hamlet where the cleansing pile of bodies leaves a sense that order has been restored, Game of Thrones presents the more realistic picture that violence begets violence. Revenge only ever leads to more revenge, and Arya’s story arc is all about the forging of a revenge driven character. That list she repeats to herself? That’s not just a list of people she wants to kill, that’s a list of people she wants to wreak revenge on. In hurting her they stoke the desire to hurt others.
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.
(Index to previous A Dance with Dragons posts here.)
Making up for lost time! Lordio, I sort of wish I’d started out giving page numbers for these chapters – it’s surprisingly difficult to find where I was last at. Ne’ermind, too late now. Onwards!
Chapter 47: Tyrion
When we last saw Tyrion he was about to be taken by slavers, now he’s on the auction block. Him and Penny seem likely to go for a pretty… uh, penny. Being performing dwarfs and all. Ser Jorah? Not so much. He gave a good fight before they took him, earning himself a bad reputation, and hearing that Daenerys is married took it all out of him. He’s been beaten physically and mentally – there’s not much left.
There’s a bidding war over Tyrion and Penny, spurred on by Tyrion, who sees that one of the sellswords has recognised him for who he really is. Tyrion knows his chances are better with someone who recognises him as a Lannister – whether to take him to Cersei (who is, after all a long way away) or as a man who would pay his debts to anyone who freed him. Alas, the sellsword is outbid by a large wealthy man who likes to keep a menagerie of ‘freaks’, Yezzan zo Qaggaz. Tyrion persuades Nurse, who supervises Yezzan’s menagerie, to take Jorah, too, claiming that he plays the role of the Bear in a sketch of ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ that they perform.
Their first job as slaves is to perform at a feast, and then serve at table. They perform admirably, and as Tyrion boasted of his skill at Sheldon’s three person chess cyvasse on the auction block, he is commanded to perform in a wager between Yezzan and the sellsword who tried to buy them, who turns out to be Brown Ben Plumm – the man who betrayed Daenerys for money. The wager is that Plumm will win the dwarves if he can beat ‘Yollo’ (Tyrion). Of course, he does not. But in performing so well, Tyrion and Penny please their master, and it is decided that they will perform for Daenerys as entertainment in the great pit. Our players draw ever closer together…
This was a fun chapter. Tyrion on fine form ‘selling’ himself on the auction block. And poor Ser Jorah, learning that he has come too late, and Daenerys is already wed. Not that he had much of a chance – she was always going to need to marry for advantage, and marrying him has little to offer. It’s a nice note, though, his utter dejection after having just displayed his power and prowess trying to fight off a bunch of slavers by himself.
The game of cyvasse is also well employed, in this instance. However much as Tyrion is humiliated and physically beaten, Martin has yet to show him at mental disadvantage, and the encounters with Brown Ben Plumm and the future performance before Daenerys have him well set to turn the situation to his advantage.
Chapter 48: Jaime
Jaimeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Finally, we see Jaime again 😀 He is come to resolve a seige that has been going on needlessly long, and been handled very ineffectually by a Lord Jonos. There’s yet another episode of needless focus on breasts and nipples that I could have done without, but it’s mercifully brief. Unfortunately, Martin also decides that it’s necessary to have a feature of the landscape known as the ‘Teats’. O_O Not that it’s 100% implausible in and of itself – lord knows there are some funny named places about (Cockermouth springs to mind – although I’m pretty sure it didn’t mean the same thing when they first named it, just as ‘Effin‘ is not really a rude word; I once went on holiday to a place called Sandy Balls, and visited a nature reserve called ‘Windy Gap’ on the way back, but they weren’t really named for body parts). These hills, however, really were named as an act of objectifying a woman (although it’s disputed as to which one), on top of employing the most over-used and unpleasant word for a woman’s breasts in this book: ‘teats’. I have never read any book that used the word ‘teats’ so much. And that’s not because the book is so long – I’m talking percentagewise. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it used at most one or two times in pretty much any other book I’ve ever read, but Martin has got stuck on it. Once or twice is shock value, this is just unpleasant; not skillfully unpleasant as in a horror novel to intentionally discomfort, though – I’m pretty sure this is meant to be funny and titillating. Way to alienate your female readers. Yes, you still write some truly awesome lady characters, and I give you full credit for that. It does not make this kind of casual objectification OK.
But enough about that. Jamie sorts out the siege, showing some intelligence and skill that has nothing to do with his sword. Not screwing Cersei appears to be good for him. Speaking of Cersei, he receives a fairly moving plea from her to come to her aid, and ignores it. It’s kind of awesome. He’s growing up. And I think maybe he really is sort of falling in love with Brienne (and I ship Brienne/Jaime so hard).
Speaking of Brienne: !!! Last time we saw her she was apparently being killed, and I was all ‘Nooooooooooooooooo!’. Actually, considering all the things I’ve forgotten about the last book, it’s impressive how much Brienne’s fate was seared into my mind. I’ve been on tender-hooks waiting to find out if she’s really dead, or, you know, undead. After all, death doesn’t have to be final in a GRRM book. And she shows up, saying that she has found Sansa. And with a bandage on her face…
So, is Brienne alive or undead? What has happened to her since we last saw her? I guess if she were undead she’d have black hands, and nothing was said about that, but maybe she’s wearing gloves? I kind of hope she’s not undead, but I kind of don’t dare hope it. OH MY GOD but I want to know more about what’s been going on with her RIGHT NOW. But it’s the end of the chapter and we’re left waiting. You tease!
Suffice it to say that this chapter had a couple of really, super annoying moments, and moments of glorious squee. Could be a metaphor for the whole book.