Game of Thrones, "Beyond the Wall"




This week on Dear Television:

Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle get a raven from Eastwatch saying some bad stuff that was obviously going to happen is happening, so they put on their white tailored fur coats, saddle up their dragons, and talk about “Death is the Enemy,” the penultimate episode of the seventh season of Game of Thrones. There are spoilers, of course, so don’t look directly at the sun during the eclipse.

White Wedding

by Aaron Bady

Dear Television,

So, let’s start with the basics.

Going north of the wall to steal an ice zombie was, it turns out, a really bad plan, as Jon’s “I am so, so sorry” moment indicates he now realizes. What happened was pretty much what was obviously going to happen: they found one wight by finding fifty of its friends, which was immediately followed by finding about a million of its friends. And then they were fucked, except what the internet calls “plot armor” intervened. No matter how stupid you behave, the plot will intervene to protect Characters Who Matter To The Plot.

Thus: an indeterminate number of indeterminate red-shirt wildlings were killed, along with one named character — the least engaging person in the party, whose name I can’t remember — but, otherwise, the show worked really, really hard to imagine a way for Our Heroes to not be easily slaughtered. Oh, we just happen to be on a little island of stone in the middle of a frozen lake that the night king’s wights fall into, creating a perfect standoff. The Night King even chucks his ice javelin at the flying dragon, a much more difficult target, rather than the one who is literally just sitting there, all loaded up with personnel; close call for our heroes!

You can rationalize every decision if you want, and you can figure out, retroactively, how actually it made sense: see, he had to attack the one who was loaded up with fire because that was what killed it, if you rewatch the scene, you can see, etc. But come on: we know that that’s never the real reason why things happen the way they do. We are just propping up the show’s stupidity. If you watch the knuckle-dragging “inside the episode” featurette, you can actually hear Weiss and Benioff explain just how hard they worked to think of a contrivance to keep everyone alive, which is basically the clearest articulation I’ve ever seen of this phenomenon: We wanted them not to die, say the creators, so we wrote it so that they don’t die. Lucky break for our heroes that they turned out to be the heroes of the show!

I’m tired of this show. I will keep watching it, obviously, because I am much too far gone. (What am I going to do, read a book?) But I’m tired of all the ways George R. R. Martin’s vision of a fantasy world where everyone covers their head — because OBVIOUSLY YOU WOULD WEAR A FUCKING HELMET INTO BATTLE AND A HAT INTO THE ARCTIC — has become a show where the important thing is that we see our characters’ faces. I’m tired of how an “anyone can die!” framework has become a show where, no, the named characters are impervious to hypothermia (Jon) and can also swim underwater with armor (Jaime, Bron) and “rescued at the last minute from out of nowhere” has become the basic narrative move of the show, particularly to save Jon “When Will This Show Let Me Die, I Want To Die” Snow.

(I mean, for god’s sake, he tries to GIVE AWAY HIS SWORD IN THE MIDDLE OF A MISSION TO ZOMBIE COUNTRY, HOW CLEAR DOES HE HAVE TO MAKE IT. In a way, the real drama in this show is Jon Snow’s increasingly desperate attempts to die and the creator’s sadistic refusal to allow him the sweet release of death.)

I’m tired of the tedious haggling over travel times that this show makes us do, after all the work it once put in to make a ludicrous fantasy story feel realistic. It never was, of course, but HBO had good material to work with and they hurled enough money at the problem to make it hold together, just enough; it gave you just enough cover to suspend your disbelief. It was still a fantasy world, but its fantasy people did normal people things like talk, go to the bathroom, stand around waiting, and get killed; you understood that it was contrived artifice — that fantasy wasn’t real — but it had a kind of narrative hybrid vigor, where the “War of the Roses” historical fiction blended with the Lord of the Rings high fantasy elements, and all of that produced something that felt newer and more interesting than it ever really was. You knew better, but when you were watching, you didn’t care.

For me, that frisson has run out. The “War of the Roses” plots are long forgotten and we’re just watching a conventional High Fantasy story about zombies and dragons and Our Heroes in between. But even those elements aren’t doing it for me. The show is coasting. It’s been burning its furniture to keep warm for a while, but there’s a point at which you run out of places to sit, and we are way past that point. I can’t even bother to get mad about things like WHERE DID THE NIGHT KING GET THOSE HUGE CHAINS FROM.

I’m tired of all the characters who were briefly important who have subsequently vanished, because the show just doesn’t have time to explore what happened to Yara, what Theon has been up to, what Bran is doing, where Meera went, what Grey Worm has been up to, etc etc etc. I’m tired of the show’s disinterest in what female power would actually look like, while we see yet another eighty-five ice zombies get smashed up. I’m tired of watching interestingly complex female characters become mean and stupid — the Sansa and Arya thing is interesting, intermittently, but it’s also just so damned unnecessary, and requires them both to be maximally petty and mean and lacking in insight or compassion — and I’m SO SO SO tired of seeing Queen Daenerys cheerfully subordinate her entire life’s narrative to Jon Snow’s extremely not-clever plan on the basis of, well, we don’t have a show if she doesn’t. But I mean: how can we reconcile the show’s “Is Daenerys a Mad Queen in the Making?” question — which makes her cruel, authoritarian, ego-driven, and unpredictable — with the selfless way she puts all of her plans on hold so Jon and the Boys can have their mission, then rescues them, and then is explicitly glad that HER DRAGON-CHILD DIED?

(Well, the answer, you see, is that they are falling in love! And why is Dany falling in love with her nephew? Why is Jon falling in love with his aunt? The answer: because the showrunners want them to. They have to. I mean, what are they going to do, not fall in love? I find it particularly rich to listen to them talk about the two characters who they have written into love as if they, like us, are just watching the show, instead of, you know, literally writing it.)

This show is now pure fan service. Fans have been calling Daenerys “Dany” for years, so Jon uses that name as a wink to those fans; the Gendry rowing joke was translated into actual dialogue, ha ha; Tormund and Brienne’s improvised relationship has become something the show will never ever stop doing; and a goofy piece of fan art has become, literally, the actual show. It makes a certain sense, then, if you think about it, that the end of the show merges so seamlessly into those godawful “The Creators Talk About This Week’s Episode!” segments, literally at the end of the show itself: the distinction between our reality and the in-show reality is becoming thinner and thinner, the suspension of disbelief increasingly notional. I mean, I like DVD extras as much as the next person old enough to remember DVDs, but the first rule of extras is that you don’t put them in the show itself.

But there is no more show itself, it’s only extra. This show is no longer Game of Thrones; it’s now a tribute to Game of Thrones, like the point in classic rock band’s career where you really, really, really don’t want to hear any new songs (Euron) because the only reason anyone is paying for tickets is to hear retreads of the old favorites. Season seven is every Rolling Stones tour after Steel Wheels. Or maybe it’s a spin-off series where we get to see all of our favorite characters inhabiting an imaginary timeline where George R. R. Martin actually finished the damned books. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Just imagine what could have happened!

But he didn’t. Instead, we’re stuck with HBO pandering to what it thinks viewers like, based on what people on Reddit get most excited about. And this is the result! Shipping and misogyny.

Here’s the real ending, the only ending for me: the White Walkers kill everyone. This is the real ending because the White Walkers are a metaphor for Climate Change, and because we are all going to die. Sure, a lot of stuff can happen before that point. We were all, already, going to die anyway — death has a pretty much 100% success rate with all living things, to this point, across the entirety of time as we know it — but climate change is different, existential at the level of civilizations. And in the nineties, when this series of books was first running, global warming was one of those things we really need to get in front of before it gets too late; we need to get our shit together, people, we have the power to stop this!

Twenty-one years of not getting in front of it later, global warming HAS THE BOMB. And while I can’t stop watching this show, I find that all I want is to go blind. It’s a nice day for the end of the world. So:

LET’S BLOT OUT THE SUN AND STARE AT IT UNTIL WE FIND SWEET RELEASE,

Aaron

Locked Up, Beaten, and Flung About the Room

by Sarah Mesle

Dear Television,

Let’s consider the two plotlines of this episode of Game of Thrones.

In one, an appealing, ragtag group of men embark on a thrilling and (the show, frustratingly, wants us to believe) socially necessary adventure through a snowy wilderness displayed through truly gorgeous overhead cinematography. There are zesty conversations, sex talk, and bonhomie! In a moment of crisis, our utterly charming band of men is saved by the one woman in their plotline, who swoops in with fantastic grandeur and in one of this show’s best-ever costumes, endures a great loss on the men’s behalf, and falls in love with their soulful and damaged leader. There are dragons! And also true love. It’s fucking fantastic and, if you can bracket the part about how it makes very little sense, utterly thrilling to watch.

In the other plotline, three women — Arya, Sansa, and Brienne — move tensely through claustrophobic rooms. Unlike the men, who are all at their most charming, all three of the women (even Brienne, I’d say, though I suppose this is debatable) act as the worst and most reductive versions of themselves; they mistrust, hurt, and alienate each other. They do this because their fears and anxieties are not, for the writers’ room of Thrones, a source of sympathy or heroism (as the Hound’s fire phobia is, for example). Instead, they are tied to their petty childhood dramas. Whereas the one woman in the men’s plotline offers sacrifice and support, the one man in the women’s plotline, Petyr Baelish, works to break the women down, divide them, manipulate them. Rather than ending with noble sacrifice and grand feeling, united, holding literal hands as are Jon and Dany in plot one, the women don’t really end at all: the conclusion of the episode shifts from alternating between the adventurers and the women to alternating between the adventurers and the white walkers. What the women are doing at the end, presumably, is sitting alone and thinking fearful and angry thoughts about each other. The scenes in this plotline were so unpleasant to me that I had to fight the urge to fast forward through them.

What to say?

Last week, I wrote that I was tired of women “providing the ballast of realism” for men’s fantastical stories. Am I less tired of it this week than last? Dear Television: I am not. Now that the symmetry of the two plot lines, their clear structural mirroring — outdoor and indoor, masculine and feminine, heroic and fearful, propulsive and restrictive — are formally even more clear, do I enjoy it more? Is the thrill of unpacking a structural logic of gender-segregation-by-genre a kind of compensation for cringing every time plotline two took the screen? Fucking nope.

In fact, as a critic, what I like least about it is how crabby and un-fun pointing all this out makes me feel. I don’t want to be the critic who swoops in with my ideology critique — an ideology critique is like the opposite of a dragon, when it comes to swooping in — blowing un-fun all over everyone’s viewing pleasure. Because, aside from the structural masculinism, this was a pretty fun episode of television to watch! Everything Aaron says about the plot holes is correct, and I wished they weren’t there, but let me come in with a true confession: I don’t necessarily care all that much about suspension of disbelief. I gasped, and more than once, and that’s a pretty good hour of television for me. Yes, the whole ice/army/dragon plot was incoherent and demanded an absurd amount of rationalization from its viewers, totally true. But there were dragon zombie battles and heartfelt love, and I really go in for all that shit. If Game of Thrones had never been more than this, never more than an icy Pirates of the Caribbean, I would still probably be an avid fan.

(I mean, for real: I spent yesterday’s eclipse day thinking loving thoughts about the stellar 1985 fantasy movie Ladyhawke which is about as believable as the ice zombie plotline and which you should all watch immediately; it also shares with the ice zombie plotline the fact that it has only a single important woman character, who gets most things done character-wise with her creature-management and her cheekbones).

And yet, here I am, sighing deeply and furrowing my brow. I do not want to be the one who has to be nattering on about this episode’s bad gender politics. Because really, it is not on me, it is not on feminism, it is not on feminist criticism, that this show made such bad decisions about gender: it’s not my fault that it put all the fun and pleasure into the plotline about public male heroics and put all the anxiety and frustration into the plotline about private female negotiation. That is fucked up and it puts all of us — critics and viewers too — in the bullshit position of either just sort of going with it for the sake of narrative pleasure or calling the show out on it and then being the feminist killjoys who spoil everyone’s good dragon time. What kind of fucked up choice is that? I felt this week that I could either say, “yep, more of the same, let’s note yet again how women’s relationships are getting the narrative short end of the stick” or I could talk about excitement and battle and pleasure. It makes feminist criticism feel boring and unpleasant, when it is not: in fact, it’s just masculinist television that is boring and unpleasant.

Look, I think we can all agree what the best moment of this episode was. It wasn’t the zombie dragon resurrection, it wasn’t the dragon death, it wasn’t #rungendry, it wasn’t even Tormund’s “Big Woman” talk, although I’d give you that as a strong second. It was Daenerys Targaryan’s white winter feather coat and accompanying braid job. Walking to her dragon, Daenerys was fierce and strong and beautiful, and I wanted to watch her walk to that Dragon in that coat all day, and then I wanted to watch her give up on her dumb romance plot and fly straight to Winterfell to talk politics and braids and grain supply with Sansa and Arya and Brienne. I wanted her to go full “dracarys” on Petyr Baelish’s tiresome ass.

But instead, Game of Thrones played the oldest trick in the “men write about women” book and took its most beautiful, powerful woman, Dany — all her beauty and strength and feather-coated narrative power — and deployed her in the service of the male heroics she begins the episode by dismissing. The real story of this episode, read that way, what’s different between its beginning and its end, is that at the beginning Daenerys thinks that male heroics are stupid, and at the end she has pledged her troth to them. The real romance this episode works to celebrate is not just between Dany and Jon, but between Dany’s feminine power and the brooding male heroics Jon represents.

Here, as in so many situations, I feel the best thing to do is to turn towards Virginia Woolf.

Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

Woolf here writes of the strange experience of comparing “woman in fiction” to “woman in history.” But let’s here compare “woman in fantasy” to “woman in realism.” Or, put differently, let’s compare the stories of Daenerys Targaryan to that of Sansa Stark/Lannister/Ramsey, who certainly, like so many women in history and in realism, has been locked up, beaten, and flung about the room. What different space have these two characters been given by the narrative, and why? Sansa has been abused at every turn, and now that she is finally free of husbands, the plot has made her the victim of her femininity in another way: her own sister is still so pissed at her for being good at navigating the strictures of womanhood — so good, with her pretty handwriting, that she even desired those strictures — that while Arya may not kill Sansa, she is certainly aggressively killing any pleasure we may take in her storyline. Rather than moving the plot forward towards its conclusion, Sansa and Arya and Brienne are impeding its path.

Dany, meanwhile has been given power and more power, and now we see why: because her final role will be to rescue Game of Thrones from its own opening conceit. What made Game of Thrones itself was that it was willing to kill its heroes. But now its heroes do not have to die, because Dany and her dragons will rescue them. The love of a good sacrificial woman will save this show from its own genre.

What will happen when this episode’s plotlines meet? It’s hard not to see the women’s plot — which is also a plot of (Petyr’s) male agency, don’t forget — as, also, in need of rescue. It’s hard not to imagine how this plotline gets resolved without some other plotline — Jon and Dany’s, probably — rushing in to save it at the last minute. Will they come in on Dany’s dragon, I wonder? Once Dany restores Jon as a hero, surely he can go save those sisters of his, too.

What’s the point of saying this? What’s the point of railing against the machinery of HBO, which clearly wants so badly to be good at gender, and yet just can’t pull it off? Shouldn’t we be glad that there are all these interesting women characters on this show, and then get back to admiring the battles?

But ignoring Game of Thrones’s gender problems, how they’re so deeply built into the structure of what this show thinks of as a story, in order to focus on everything I loved about this episode feels sort of like all those times in left politics when women are supposed to defer women’s issues — abortion rights, let’s say — into some obscure futurity so we can get “centrist” democratic candidates elected. Women are always told: Be patient! Shh! Wait! Look at the big picture. The big picture is so heroic! Let’s not get bogged down in these petty details of structural gender bias, these details that constitute this minor stuff, which you, woman, might experience as “your life.”

It gets boring being someone who is always yammering on about ideology. I’d like a break from it myself. Virginia Woolf was tired of it in 1929! But then, when I was thinking about this, I also thought of a somewhat more surprising recent feminist advocate, Taylor Swift. Swift, as you might have heard, was just involved in a complicated legal case: she had been sexually assaulted, the man who assaulted her then sued her for ruining his career, and Swift filed a countersuit (she sued for one dollar) which she has just won. If you want to know if the kids are all right, I encourage you to read as much coverage of this trial as you can.

Here is Swift responding when questioned about her feelings about the man who assaulted her and then lost his job: “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. …I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions — not mine.”

I’m not kidding when I say that, when trying to decide what to write this week, I took some strength from Swift. With her I want to say: the buzzkill happening here, the one that I’m talking about, is the product of Benioff and Weiss’s decisions — not mine. I would like to sue them for one dollar. I would like to reclaim my time.

The enemy always wins, and we still have to fight him, I guess, or we could just do something else maybe,

Sarah


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