Los Angeles Review of Books

This week on Dear Television:

  • “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” from Sarah Mesle
     

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When Bad Things Happen to Good People
By Sarah Mesle
May 4, 2015

Jaime vulnerable
GAME OF THRONES is irritatingly interested in bad things happening to whores. (In fact, one of the bad things in which it’s interested is the very word “whores,” which its characters seemingly use as often and as hurtfully as possible.) If I were ever going to quit Game of Thrones it would probably be because something bad happened to Arya’s direwolf, but the next most likely reason would be because one too many Bad Things had Happened to Whores. BTHtW is absolutely my least favorite part of the show; nothing makes me feel more excluded as a viewer. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones is this kind of runaway narrative train going full throttle along the “investigating power, especially patriarchy” line, and then sometimes there’s an error at the switching station and all of a sudden you find yourself instead barreling through “voyeurism and objectification,” where (particularly male) viewers are invited to revel in their own vision of boobs and power and it’s just BTHtW all over the place.

(Let’s pause and remember the absolute worst example of BTHtW, which in my opinion was when Game of Thrones added a whole character, Ros, basically for the purpose of letting Joffrey kill her very stylishly two seasons later, “like she was set dressing,” as my friend Leigh says. And as Leigh also says: “ROS: NEVER FORGET.”)

Anyway, this was an episode with a lot of BTHtW, or at least bad things happening around whores: the episode was framed by two scenes in which marauding men, flush with misguided self-righteousness, go around doing terrible things to people, and both scenes involve brothels.  They are importantly not the same kind of scene — I’ll come back to that — but it’s worth pointing out the symmetry. One of the reasons Game of Thrones features so many BTHtW, I think, is because brothels are places of pleasure and power, and pleasure in power. And violence is one thing this show thinks its viewers will find pleasurable. “The Sons of the Harpy” made me wonder: when, and for which viewers, is that true?

Violence was this episode’s central theme, if it had one: violence chosen, violence inflicted, violence (narrowly, perhaps mistakenly) avoided. Unlike last week’s focus on verbal jousting — violence of the tongue, to the reputation — the violence of this week was more straightforward, knife and sword to flesh. But that doesn’t mean that the violence was all the same, or the same to watch. If some of the violence was misery inducing (the first scene of BTHtW particularly), some of it was thrilling. I’ve just disparaged Game of Thrones’s willingness to indulge its viewers’ unsavory appetites for violent spectacle, but I can’t say I’m free from dangerous tastes myself. But my own affinity for some of the show’s violence only made it seem more interesting to me. The emotion the show’s violence produces — whether pleasure or misery — has a lot to do, in Westeros and for us, with who we are willing to consider as human. And that means the pleasure of Game of Thrones’s violence has a lot to do with viewers’ social position.

There’s a certain irony, of course, in watching an episode about fantasies of violence this week, when the realities of violence have been so hotly contested in our own culture. Protestors, police, and politicians in Baltimore have been debating what sort of violence counts as criminal and what sort of punishments different sorts of violence deserve. Meanwhile, even as media figures (here I’m thinking particularly of Wolf Blitzer) framed anything but “peaceful protests” a moral failing in Baltimore, the media also promoted “the fight of the century,” Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao’s boxing match. I’m not interested so much in debating boxing’s dubious merits here, except to note that the discussion about the match — about what it means that this ritualized violence is so profitable; about what it means that some kinds of violence can be sanctioned — reveals how close we are to Game of Throne’s own tensions. When Dany and Hizdahr argue about reopening Meereen’s fighting pits, they might as well be talking about Vegas.

Dany And Hizdahr aren’t the only ones in this episode who debate the merits of different kinds of violence. In fact, a debate about violence between Jaime and Bronn is where “Sons of the Harpy” more or less begins. Bronn and Jaime are on a Dornish rescue mission: a necessarily violent endeavor with violence nevertheless strangely, to Bronn, hemmed in. Their conversation, in effect, is about what kind of violence satisfies what needs. “Why don’t you send an army?” Bronn asks Jaime. “Unlike most people, you’ve actually got one.” Jaime claims that his motives are practical: he doesn’t want to start a war. But Bronn, who is awesome, knows that’s only part of the story. Jaime wants to fight this battle on his own because of a strange combination of guilt and hope: he feels guilty for his father’s death, and he feels hope that retrieving “his niece” Myrcella will help restore his own self esteem and his standing in Cersei’s eyes. The political violence of a war would not solve the emotional problem Jaime is having: for this, he believes, only hand-to-hand violence will do. “It has to be me.”

The scene satisfies me both because of Jaime’s roiling emotions and because of Bronn’s savvy in exposing them. Claiming that there’s nothing like “a fuck-mad Dornish girl” to restore you after violence, Bronn casually reveals his keen awareness of the nexus of sex, affection, and violence that Jaime is navigating. We’re entirely sympathetic with both of them and that sympathy shapes how we respond to the violence they inflict this episode.

Caught by four Dornish soldiers, Bronn and Jaime’s battle is a sort of violence lite: Game of Thrones’s much-vaunted realism falls completely away, leaving viewers with violence as pure spectacle, unfreighted with the emotional experience of suffering. Bronn’s so superior to the other fighters that the scene feels like something out of The Princess Bride, Bronn playing Inigo Montoya to injured Jaime’s “mostly dead” Westley; Jaime reminded me, too, of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Arc (and not just because of his leather jacket). Game of Thrones excels at these scenes of semi-comic heroic battle; the choreography is always brilliant, and the humor and the heroism supplement each other, strangely, so that Bronn’s ability to joke (“That one should be slow enough!”) immediately after slicing open the rushing belly of a horse becomes a sign of his virtue, his humanity, rather than his coarse brutality. When the scene ends as Jaime (somehow the virtuous figure, despite the fact that he’s the attacking force) literally skewers his opponent, sword thrust completely through his body, the effect on the viewer isn’t so much horror as a strange kind of satisfaction. That Dornish dude? Not human in any way we viewers need to worry about.

I guess it feels clean, somehow? Think about the ending of the following scene, when Obara Sand gracefully tosses her spear through the traitorous ship captain’s head. This scene, too, features both a display of and a debate about violence. It’s part of the show’s clever strategy to juxtapose Jaime and Bronn with Ellaria and the Sand Snakes: both groups are granted the idiom of violent heroism, even as the narrative pitches the groups directly against each other. Jaime has an army but does not want to start a war; the Sand Snakes do not have an army, but aren’t letting that stand in their militant way.

I’ll admit that I’m a little confused by what’s going on with the Sand Snakes. I’ve been as excited as anyone for these bad-ass warrior women to appear; watching the snake slither up the spire in the opening credits was a total fist-pump moment for me. But the scene was a let down, and not only because the acting was, as my friend Morgan said, “a little WB.” I like camp (Morgan does too) but for camp to work everyone needs to be in on the joke, and Keisha Castle-Hughes’s painfully earnest delivery of her unnecessary speech — is there any possible chance that the other Sand Snakes would not have heard this story before? — undermined the scene’s camp potential.

I think we are supposed to find these characters sympathetic and reasonable, but it’s hard for me. The reasons why it’s hard come back to the show’s interest in BTHtW. Obara is the daughter of a prostitute, and while this is not something she’s necessarily troubled by, in her speech she nevertheless distinguishes herself from her mother’s lot in life. She recounts how her mother wept when Oberyn came to take her to court, and how Oberyn told her she could choose the weapon with which she would fight her life’s battles. Rather than womanly tears — last week we learned that tears are, in Volantis, the assigned tattoo for prostitutes — Obara chooses the spear. Rather than being a whore to whom bad things will happen, Obara will make bad things happen to other people. But is that the only other choice? We’re supposed to root for her rebelliousness, I think, but Obara doesn’t read to me as any meaningful kind of revolution. Her rejection of her mother — of her mother’s pain — isn’t a rejection of the system by which sexual women become disposable. Instead, Obara’s departure is just another BT that HtW. And there’s no way I want to root for that, even if I am impressed by Obara’s spear work.

But are we supposed to root for her? I’m really not sure: I think so? The show has a complex portrait of violence, one that seems incoherent in an impressive rather than inconclusive way. We are meant to like Rhaegar, I think, when we learn from Selmy that Rhaegar “never liked killing; he liked singing.” We are meant to be glad that Jaime doesn’t want to casually start a war. But we are also meant to see it as a kind of tactical error, if not a sign of moral weakness, when Tommen can’t bring himself to allow his guard to attack the Sparrows at the foot of the sept. It might be admirable that Tommen isn’t blood-thirsty, but what we’re meant to see is not only that Tommen doesn’t like violence: more important is that he doesn’t understand it. His confusion at the sept matches his bewilderment in navigating between Margaery and Cersei: “Aren’t you and mother getting along?” Somewhere between Obara and Tommen, I think, is the show’s moral center. But importantly, the characters that might represent that viewpoint — Brienne and Arya, particularly — are not in this episode.

(But wait: maybe someone else could represent it, too? Dear Television: we need to talk about Stannis! Awful Stannis is typically such an annoyance in this show: all self-righteousness, no style. In fact, I recently had a twitter debate about Awful Stannis with a very kind stranger, Rachel, who as a result sent me a bulleted list of Stannis’s virtues and described him, endearingly, as “the Grumpy Cat of Westeros.” Despite my respect for Rachel, I remained unconvinced. But here he is, proving her right, being completely awesome in both action and acting, not only insisting on the humanity of his daughter, but also more or less giving Melisandre permission to go vamp with Jon Snow if she wants to. Forget for a second how annoying Melisandre is; how great is Stannis? Friends, this could be one of Game of Thrones’s most impressive character conversion moments yet! It was one thing when dashing Jaime went from villainy to virtue, but taking Stannis from awkward to awesome would be a next-level kind of transition. Game of Thrones: you impress me!)

Of course, key to “The Sons of the Harpy”’s portrait of violence is the High Sparrow, who we might read as this episode’s anti-Jaime. While Jaime does not want a war or its mass suffering, instead wanting to wield direct force for his own emotional ends, the High Sparrow claims to be completely selfless. But Jonathan Pryce’s brilliant acting hints at how appealing power, when offered, can be. The High Sparrow does not want authority, he repeatedly says; he simply wants to defend “the common man” on behalf of the Gods. We will get no Indiana Jones-like heroics from him; he is absent from all the violence that happens at his will (most importantly, of course, he wins his political battle with Tommen by praying rather than fighting). “War teaches people to obey the sword not the Gods,” he begins his scene by saying. But this radical drive to protect human experience against violence finally operates less as a defense of the human than as means to uniformly dismiss it: when the High Sparrow says that “all sinners are equal” what he seems finally to mean is that all are vulnerable to the Gods’ wrath.

And this takes us back to where we began, to BTHtW. The episode’s first action sequence takes place as the newly-authorized Faith Militant rampage through the city. Unlike in the scene with Jaime and Bronn, we are clearly not supposed to like watching this. These men, claiming to be “Justice,” in fact represent a kind of puritanism quite in opposition to this show’s values; they slash and burn vulnerable people in away that undermines their claim to equality. Sinners are no longer human to the Faith Militant; they deserve no mercy, no sympathy. And to illustrate very clearly to viewers how brutal the Faith Militant are — and also, of course, to foreshadow their intolerance for homosexual acts — the show sends them into a brothel. 

Let me be clear about something: we are supposed to be on the side of the brothel, not the Faith Militant here. I know that. But this brings us exactly to why BTHtW is so troubling to me in this show, even when I’ve defended other moments that explicitly portray violence against women. I said above that the pleasure we take in the show’s portrait of violence has to do with whom we see as human. What bothers me about BTHtW is that the show seems to extend and withdraw the humanity of “whores” at its own whim: when it needs to portray a character’s brutality, it makes naked women the victim; when it has other ends in mind, naked women become aestheticized objects, background noise to the machinations of the plot. This can’t be justified by saying that it’s true that prostitutes are horrifically vulnerable to violence, because the show seems to take their categorical vulnerability as a given. It is unwilling to imagine them differently. Even here, their suffering is aestheticized, and functions not as an end in itself but rather as a vehicle to illustrate to us the more narratively significant threat the Faith Militant pose to Ser Loras.

Dear Television: Fuck this noise. 

I guess this episode does offer up some kind of self-criticism, by way of the final sequence’s battle. The prostitute collaborating with the Sons of the Harpy cries but does strategically, and — though I’m a bit mystified at her motivations — I think we’re meant to admire her for it.

And we’re also meant to admire, at the end, both Grey Worm and Ser Selmy. Throughout the episode, violence had worked to shore up inequalities, both moral and narrative. There’s some of that happening here, too: the masked Sons of the Harpy are not invited into our sympathies. But more important is the parity the sequence established between the Unsullied and the Knight, both of whom are more, emotionally, than the roles their lives have given them to play. Bad things happen to them, and it is not a pleasure to watch. But it is Game of Thrones’s portrait of violence at its best. Unlike the whores, so blank even in their deaths, as Grey Worm and Selmy suffer they become more and more real.

We didn’t even talk about Sansa,

Sarah M.