This Week on Dear Television:
Game of Thrones, Cliven Bundy, and the Fantasy of Freedom
By Sarah Mesle
April 29, 2014
HERE’S A COINCIDENCE worth pondering: two uses of the name “Oathkeeper.” It’s the name Brienne gives Jaime’s sword in one of the only truly warm moments of this past weekend's emotionally grueling Game of Thrones episode. But not so fast, Dear Television; don’t be so quick to think warmly of the name. With a slight twist, it’s been in the news lately for another, chillier, reason: “Oath Keepers” is the name of the militia that recently jumped to support proslavery ultra-conservative Cliven Bundy. Not all oaths, apparently, are oaths I want kept.
What to make of this coincidence? Connecting Brienne’s imaginary sword to the all-too-real Oath Keepers, so recently aiming their weapons at BLM officers in Nevada’s northern desert, may seem like veering past legitimate cultural criticism into some weird territory of interpretive slashfiction. But looked at differently, thinking about oath keeping in this strange episode — and it was strange: minimal action; moderate narrative positioning; maximal dreary misery — makes me want to hypothesize again about what Game of Thrones’s fantasy offers us right now, and what its imagined stories tell us about the cultural memories we’re apparently working through.
It may be a random coincidence that this episode about (again) slavery aired the same week when the news cycle is full of proslavery rants from landowners and racist rants from basketball team owners — but it’s a coincidence we can work with. What does the fantasy world of Westeros tell us about our own fantasies of slavery, cruelty, and reparation? A lot, actually. Shot through with our culture’s deepest myths of liberation and oppression, the episode “Oathkeepers” performs a complex trick of offering us uplifting narratives of good vs. evil while also showing us more useful, grayer versions of America’s struggle to understand its own legacy of cruelty.
The episode begins on a high note. We’re in Essos, in the only plotline where world changing redemption ever seems possible. In a smart and revealing move, the episode begins not with Danaerys — Westeros’s Abraham Lincoln — but with two slaves she has freed. And specifically, in a scene of democratic self-making that will surprise exactly zero readers of African American literature, we begin with Grey Worm learning to read. The camera focuses on Grey Worm’s finger tracing lines on paper: “My Name is Grey Worm.” The sentence is important because it’s so different from his usual, depersonalizing line: “This one is called Grey Worm.” Grey Worm, here, like so many before him (Frederick Douglass, Hannah Crafts, Celie, Precious) is learning to tell a free story — to move from “one” to “my,” to take property in himself. And he’s learning it from Missandei: together, these two share the experiences of rupture that stand in, for the slave, for shared family memory. “When they took you?” Grey Worm asks, and Missandei corrects him, “When DID they take you?” Grey Worm gets the past tense, now; as a free man, he gets to have a history. Grey Worm’s learning a new actual language, but really what he’s learning, the script emphasizes, is the language of freedom. In this language, Missandei assures him, there’s a part of him that the Unsullied do not own and did not destroy.
Presumably this version of selfhood would be more peaceful, more benevolent. Missandei fantasizes about a return to innocence that the viewer is meant to admire. But this is not Grey Worm’s fantasy, and we admire him, too, as he asks, in his own language, for what he wants: revenge. “I will answer injustice with justice,” says Danaerys, but her Old Testament ideal of fairness is one she shares with Grey Worm and not her other advisors. What I admired most about this segment of the episode is its complex twining of images of punishment and redemption, making the two difficult to parse. “Kill the Masters” is written in red on the door, like the blood in the Passover story, the celebration of which the airing of this episode also (coincidentally?) roughly accords — a story of liberation that is also a slaughter of innocents. Danaerys is a liberator, a redeemer. She’s Christ like (or like Mary? They have the same signature color) but she is the one who crucifies, and the camera gives us a close shot of a nail-pierced hand to emphasize it. In this portion of the episode, Danaerys and Grey Worm keep the oaths they made. Are we glad they did?
If there’s freedom in Danaerys’s opening sequence, then, and the joy of liberation, there are also profound reminders that slavery, as a psychological and structural cruelty, isn’t easy to cast off. This is the lesson that the episode’s most vivid (read: horrifying) sequences emphasize. They do so particularly by shifting from the very masculine vision of slavery and rebellion in the opening scene — not only all the rebelling slaves we see in Meereen, but all the masters too, are men — to more complicated visions that feature the role of women, sexuality, and reproduction. Slavery, this episode emphasizes, isn’t just a matter of state structures. It’s part of the way you are made.
Most dramatically, we see this in the scene at Craster’s Keep, where the mutinous Crows have taken Craster’s wife and daughters and made their horrible lives even worse. “Fuck ‘em till they're dead,” says lead mutineer Karl, casually punching the woman who sits, blank faced, at his side. In this segment, women are being raped in the foreground, in the background, all around. The sexual violence is extreme, but it also seems strangely believable, and very very far away from the show’s opening sequence of liberation: even if John Snow successfully kills Karl, will the men who help him do it treat women much better? It is from this kind of scene, one imagines, that the infant Grey Worm was taken; its emphasis on rape, and finally on the babies produced by rape, returns us to the violence that Grey Worm seeks to avenge, but with a difference. Here we see mothers, driven to blankness by the most visceral of assaults, chanting mindlessly as a baby is stolen away. There’s no happy family here, pre-slavery, to return to.
I rarely have much patience with the White Walker portions of Game of Thrones — it always seems to me like just another plotline that Martin imagined but didn’t know how to manage — but this episode did something deeply useful with those crazy northern zombies. Our modern zombie legends come from plantation myths; they tell us about the dehumanizing effects of slavery. By beginning with Grey Worm’s account of his own stolen infancy and ending as the Walkers steal another infant, the episode triggered those deep mythic associations. Its final moments, which viewers spend watching Kraster’s baby writhe in the cold and then stare gapingly at its White Walker captor (“peeeeeek-a-booooo” my friend Leigh intoned), were miserable, a strange kind of slow torture for anyone who has cared, in any way, for a newborn. It didn’t make it better when the baby’s eyes went Walker Blue, but it did draw together the Unsullied and the Walkers. Doing so makes the process of liberation, with which the episode began, seem much more precarious. One imagines the absurdity of this Walker baby in some narrative future, being taught a new language by Missandei. Do our optimistic genres of liberation have meaning for Zombies?
The episode overall, then, tracks a degenerating process from a story where liberation from slavery seems possible (our favorite kind of American myth) to one where liberation seems much more complicated. And it’s in this trajectory that it’s important, even if its uncomfortable, to situate the moment with which I began: the beautiful scene between Jaime and Brienne, where she promises to keep their shared oath to protect Ned Stark’s daughters.
It’s a great scene, and I loved it completely. But it’s worth remembering that it comes in a moment that is not disconnected from the episode’s overall emphasis on slavery. Just before Brienne names her sword, she has been given another gift: a person. Podrick. He’s a squire, I guess, and not a slave. We’re supposed to feel good about it. Should we?
Or take a different disturbing moment: as Bran, Jojen, and Meera peer into Craster’s Keep, Meera sees one of the mutinous Night’s Watchman grab a woman by the hair and throw her to the ground. “We should go,” she says. “Right now.” But Bran doesn’t listen. He’s a nice guy but it doesn’t occur to him to leave. Why worry about the woman being raped in front of him, or about the terror it inspires in Meera? After all (and I say this with a lot of respect, but still): he’s got to save his dog.
Americans like our moral stories of slavery neat and clean. We want the “Grand Masters” of slavery to be pure evil, whether they live in Meereen or the American west; we want oath keepers to be kind. But what if we don’t get that? One of the disturbing facts of studying American cultural history is learning how often the people enacting terrible cruelty were also, in in other ways, nice people. Or at least, they valued niceness and thought of themselves as nice. They didn’t always go around, like Karl, drinking blood out of skulls and bragging about their cruelty. The “reformers” who ripped Native American children off their reservations and away from their families understood their violence to be “tender.” Those who defended slavery sometimes — even often — believed themselves to be creating families, creating human feeling. Here I’m not, at all, excusing or justifying anything. Instead I’m trying to say something extremely critical: Americans often give a pass to people who are nice, even if they are part of systems of tremendous brutality. We condemn the Cliven Bundys and the Donald Sterlings, but as many have pointed out, we leave the systems that empower them intact. Nowhere is this paradox more clear than in our complicated discussion of slavery, or sexuality.
And it seems to me that, as unpleasant as it often was, this episode of Game of Thrones helps us see this about ourselves. Brienne’s code of honor exists on the same hierarchical spectrum that enables systemic slavery; Bran’s blindness to Meera’s fear isn’t categorically different than Karl’s; Jaime raped Cersei last week and helped Brienne and Sansa this week. What to do? We keep looking for good guys, in this show. But what the show keeps showing us that maybe we should be looking at systems instead.