This Week on Dear Television:
By Sarah Mesle
May 20, 2014
I’VE BEEN SOMEWHAT frustrated with you lately, Game of Thrones. But with this episode, “Mockingbird,” I really feel like we’ve turned a corner. “Mockingbird” was no Red Wedding; it was not an episode for the ages. But in its strange textures and spectacles, “Mockingbird” circled back to the special mix of realism, fantasy, and sentiment that is the Game of Thrones sweet spot.
That sweet spot can best be captured in a single symbol: Daenerys Targaryen’s bafflingly exotic new dress.
Dear Television: we have so much to talk about. What is happening here? The news is not the display of Emilia Clarke’s (stunning) body, which we have seen before. The news is that Daenerys is mixing epaulets and pleats. With a bare navel. Who does that? Nikki Minaj wishes she did that. The effect is completely stirring yet vaguely discomfiting: Dany’s dress is both the most consummate fantasy-genre wardrobe decision ever made and a bit of a genre bender. I fear the pleats are too Star Trek, maybe? She looks gorgeous but also like she’s playing dress up. But then, I suppose she is playing dress up? Playing Queen?
Like an imagist poem but with a lower hemline, Dany’s dress blossomed under my critical eye, becoming more baffling the more I thought about it. I was forced to call in the Big Fashion Guns to finally determine: Daenerys Targaryan: Fug or Fab? Here is the take of Game of Thrones fan and Go Fug Yourself fashion writer extraordinaire, Jessica Morgan:
I have to say that, while the costumes on Game of Thrones are obviously always somewhat noteworthy, that was the first dress in a LONG time when I looked up at the TV and thought, "WTF is she wearing?!" I thought it was pretty in a Rudi Gernreich Bathing Suit Goes to Westeros kind of way, but I also thought it was a little obvious for Daenerys (and therefore somewhat distracting in scene), and it lacks the gravitas required for her position. If Kate Middleton has to wear pantyhose, I feel like Daenerys should opt for a dress you can't just randomly untie at any moment.
Further discussion with Jessica circled around the fact that Danaerys was seemingly wearing this rather come-hither garment first thing in the morning, which, as Jessica wisely put it, “QUESTIONS.” Who puts that on first thing? Even if we’re meant to assume that this is what Dany was wearing (with the addition of a somewhat matronly jacket) the night before, doesn’t she have something less, like, technological to put on after a busy evening in the boudoir?
You may wonder why I’m spending so long on this. Don’t we have some other plot points to discuss? Shouldn’t we get serious, now?
Dear Television: I have never been so serious! Perhaps the significance of Dany’s dress, as a televisiual event, becomes more legible in light of a recent Atlantic profile of (Dear Television writer!) Anne Helen Petersen. In this profile, AHP makes the excellent point that as television comes to be taken more seriously as a genre, the way we talk about it also becomes more masculinized. The “legitimating work” of critics, as AHP says, uses a “language of sophistication and high art to make it seem like television isn’t a feminized thing anymore.”
Although AHP focuses primarily on the way we talk about television making — the way critics focus on the talent of the (usually male) auteur showrunner, for example — I think her point is equally useful for how we talk about the experience of television watching. To watch television “seriously” is to focus on its political resonance, its camera work, etc. It is perhaps to talk about the cultural work of Daenerys’s displayed body. It is probably not to admire the exceptional pleating in Daenerys’s new skirt. And yet: check out that skirt.
As should be obvious, I am in favor of politics and cultural work as topics of conversation. But I am continually boggled that critics of Game of Thrones do not spend more time talking about its costumes, as a source of pleasure and interest on their own terms. And further: gabbing about the clothes (to wit: the Margaery wedding dress situation which, yes, I am still harping on) is not separate from talking about the show’s politics. It is the show’s politics, manifest in a different register.
I began this season by praising Game of Thrones’s embroidery, which seems to me both an independent aesthetic pleasure and a meaningful parallel to the show’s complex narrative strategy of dancing in and out of alliance with a typical, sword and sorcery, epic plot. Costumes like Daenerys’s dress further this work. They are switch points between the show’s different viewing registers; because discussing them draws on the lived pleasures and experiences of viewers (who may have sewn; who watch award shows and have thoughts about Cher-like formalwear; who have had surprising sex and wondered what to wear after; who would like to ship Daenerys and Kate Middleton in addition to having spent a fair amount of time thinking about Hegel) they reveal that television becomes more political when it reaches a range of ways we understand the world. Dissecting dresses with friends not only helps your friendships, and makes shows more fun, it raises meaningful questions like: if Dany is so committed to freeing slaves, who is sewing those pleats?
To think further about how costumes open up Game of Thrones, I want to hone in on Jessica Morgan’s final point, above, which gets at the meat of why this dress, beyond it’s spectacularly weird attractiveness, matters for this show: Dany’s dress has side ties. Dear Television: why?
For me, these side ties are the perfect emblem of Game of Thrones’s much lauded realism, as a genre: very detailed, mostly decorative, and threatening to come undone any second. Anyone who has ever sewed anything knows that those ribbons are not holding any of Dany’s considerable Business in place. Yet: there they are! Because Game of Thrones keeps it real, and this is a pre-industrial society we’re dealing with, and if there’s one thing we know about pre-industrial societies, it’s that they do not have zippers.
“Mockingbird” begins with realism: in Tyrion’s cell, Jaime chastises his brother for his unwise heroics. “I thought you were a realist.” Realism here stands against Tyrion’s courtroom truth telling; it stands against Tyrion’s belief that he might survive. Put differently, realism works against the hopefulness of storymaking itself. Paradoxically, Game of Thrones initially became such thrilling television because it was willing to risk the rules of storytelling that usually make fantasy so appealing: in fantasy, heroes win; in realism, heroes usually don’t. Tyrion now hopes to be a hero, and Jaime is having none of it. You have no zippers, Tyrion. There is nothing here to hold your story together.
We see the show’s realism, too — and the literary critic in me knows I’m being a bit fast and loose with my genre categories here — in the show’s narrative entropy. Characters are spreading out, moving apart: it’s hard to know how this show will end. But if realism, or call it a kind of reality effect, has brought the show this far, it’s hard to see how the same impulse will reward us in future episodes. There needs to be some kind of resolution, some kind of reckoning. There needs to be some kind of connection. We need some side ties!
And lo: here they appear! If I’m partly reading the side ties of Dany’s dress so aggressively because it pleases me to do so, I also think that there’s some there there: this episode satisfied me, as a viewer, because of its interest in unlikely connections. “Mockingbird” catered to my desire to have some things begin to come together. We can see this literally in the episode’s ongoing attention to dressing and undressing. In addition to Dany’s side-tie dishabille, we see Melisandre fastening her robe, and we see Daario unfastening a complex knot at his waist and dropping his britches (as Ramsay would call them) to the floor (also Bronn’s new suit, which he puts on as a symbol of his marriage). Daario’s britches are not actual verisimilitude any more than Dany’s side tie is; this world is not real, and it’s impossible to represent it “accurately.” But the attention to these details shows Game of Thrones trying to create a kind of realism that works for this particular fantasy, one that simultaneously depends upon and denies a conventional realism.
And this effort motivates some of the episodes most pleasing plot points as well. In Game of Thrones’s sprawling world, it seems the opposite of realistic that our favorite adventures might ever come across each other, and yet, in this episode, they do. Arya happens upon a man, Rorge, who has hurt her and whom, satisfyingly, she kills; Oberyn happens to know why Cersei wants Tyrion dead, and happens to be extremely motivated to prevent that death; Brienne and Podrick happen into an inn where Arya’s friend Hot Pie is a cook, and is willing to point them towards her whereabouts, and Sansa’s. Even the episode’s final scene depends on a series of unlikely connections: Littlefinger happens to see Sansa slapping Robin; Lysa happens to see Littlefinger kiss Sansa; Littlefinger happens to swoop into the Eeyrie’s throne room just in time to save Sansa from flight.
Is this realism? Not in some senses. But realism evolves to suit the needs of its audience: William Dean Howells might not have considered Dickens to be “realism,” but the complex connections that cross-wired Dickens's often sentimentalized plots were not separate from his own interest in honest accountings of the problems of his world. Game of Thrones cares about realism, but like Dickens, it is primarily interested in paying tribute to the difficulties of hard times.
The fact that genre and fashion come together in my watching of this episode might be idiosyncratic to me. But I spend a lot of time reading novels that are disparaged for their attention to plot, for their dependence on coincidences that seem unlikely. Dickens might be a strange example, in that his genius is always revered. The more feminized versions of Dickens, however, certainly are not; sentimentalized novels, and their discussion, are easily dismissed, as are the importance of fashion, and gossip, and the feminine popular writ large. Dany’s dress seems like Dickens to me, but girlier, and thus, I guess, even better.
I am not ever sorry to see the moments when Game of Thrones's realistic narrative takes a Dickensian turn. The brutality the show sometimes offers as realism, as seriousness, often leaves me wondering why I watch it at all. Here, I think of the episode’s beginning: Arya and The Hound happen upon an old man who’s been stabbed in the belly; he’s dying. It’s not explained but anyone who’s ever read a fantasy novel has read an explanation of why, as the Hound tells us, this is “a bad way to go.” Stomach acid slowly leaking into the abdominal cavity is a problem that, after swords but before antiseptics and surgery, you can identify but can’t solve. Arya asks him: “Why go on?” It’s a question I sometimes ask of Game of Thrones itself. Sometimes watching this show seems like a slow leak in the stomach: bile and corrosion, but no closure.
But then, there are Dany’s side ties: they can’t go on, but they go on. And there’s this, too. In my favorite scene in the episode, Arya and The Hound sit in the countryside, horses grazing. The Hound’s shirt is all undone. He is trying to pull himself together. But with the loosening of his collar, his anger and hurt spill out, too: he gives an account of the burn on his face, the cruelty of his brother, the betrayal of his father. He is a man alone; that is his reality, and what he needs to truly close his wound is the fire he cannot stand. But this is real, too: Arya has a needle. She puts it down, and begins to refashion him. Their connection is fragile, but they are beginning to stitch something, something serious, together.