This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle show up to the dragon pit for a summit of all of the show’s main characters — while editor Phil Maciak has to carry a giant wooden crate with a white walker in it BY HIMSELF FOR SOME REASON — and talk about “The Dragon and the Wolf,” the finale of the seventh season of Game of Thrones. There are spoilers below…LORD BAELISH! (You thought I was talking to you, but I was actually talking to him the whole time.)
Previous episode: season 7, episode 6, “Beyond the Wall.”
Following episode: season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”
The Fantasy of an Enemy
by Aaron Bady
If you think Game of Thrones is a show about climate change, then we are finally here. As it continues to rain in Houston, winter has come, and the outlines of the Anthropocene are finally visible: dragons are weapons of mass destruction — the height of human power — and it was our own dragons that brought down the wall. Like the “children of the forest” — who created the Night’s King to fight one enemy, only to be destroyed by him — we are our own true enemy; in our hubristic folly, we gave “the one true enemy” exactly the weapon that he needed to destroy us. And so, the show asks an unanswerable question: while we might proclaim that the living and the dead are the only two sides that matter, if it’s the living who feed the army of the dead, are there really two sides? Perhaps we’re all marching in one direction, in unison, towards death.
Let me ask a different question: Does what’s happening on our screens look like what’s happening in Houston? Perhaps. As it rains, and rains, and rains, the army of the dead marches on, and when the wall comes down, they flow forward, slowly and inexorably and endlessly. If you’re Cersei, would this demonstration impress you? Would it make you willing to switch sides? Would it make you calculate your self-interest differently? It might, perhaps, if you are pregnant; the show has defined Cersei through her family, her children, insisting that they are the only thing that matters to her. And so, when her three children were dead, she had no family and no future, and was glad to see the world burn. That made sense. But if she is pregnant, again, then perhaps she can be reasoned with. Perhaps common cause can be made. Perhaps she can imagine the future again, and do what is necessary to save it.
The show is not wrong that the future is what will be washed away, if we continue as we are; planning for the future is what makes the concept meaningful — and there is no future without our ability to imagine and anticipate it — but the fact that there is no planning for this is fundamental to what “it” is. Climate change cancels the future. In the new abnormal, the past no longer helps us understand how to proceed, at a much more basic level than anything we’ve ever seen before. There is no human civilization without cities and agriculture; what if climate change makes both of them unviable? What if climate change changes the rules of the game?
The debate over evacuating Houston helpfully demonstrates the conceptual problem: while it is possible to evacuate a city of many millions, under certain circumstances — which is to say, there are circumstances under which “evacuating a city” would save more lives than not doing so — our ability to tell the difference relies on a playbook and a calculus that is ceasing to obtain. Hurricane Rita demonstrated that an evacuation can kill as many people as the storm, and the freeways that became jammed-up parking lots in 2005 are all, now, underwater. So they didn’t order an evacuation; there wasn’t time, there weren’t resources, and it would have cost too much. But what if the waters keep rising? What if a rainfall that brushes up against the theoretical limit for rainfall can not only happen, but can become part of the new abnormal — if the 500-year storms can come any year now, now that every year is hotter than the one before it — then what we are describing is a world where the only sensible evacuation is the one where you come back. In cities like Galveston, the hurricanes are inscribed in the landscape — and rebuilding from the last one is a way of life — but how can you plan to rebuild if the next storm is not a decade away, but next year? What if Houston gets another one of these, this year? What if that happens every year?
You don’t plan for that future, because it isn’t one, and you don’t win it, either: you flee or you die.
It’s still raining in Houston, and Game of Thrones is not a show about climate change, not really, because it’s possible to win The Game of Thrones. It’s not a show about how the industrial fabric of our civilization — our cars, our electricity, our factories, our cities, our agriculture — is destroying the conditions which make that civilization possible. It’s not a show that can end with the real ending, which is death, the death we occasionally remember we all will succumb to — and which, we might also remember, all civilizations will as well — because the show is not, in the end, Snowpiercer. It’s a fantasy.
By fantasy, I mean something more specific than genre. In generic terms, “High Fantasy” is an array of conventions and clichés — from J.R.R. Tolkien to Anne McCaffrey — that clearly tell Game of Thrones how to tell its story, all the more so when it’s trying to disrupt and deconstruct them. High Fantasy is a comfortable narrative, because we know the repertoire of stories; we know how wizards and warriors and druids and zombies work. Game of Thrones is this, as well, but it’s also a fantasy in the sense that it’s a dream, the kind of dream where the things that most terrify us are superficially represented in fundamentally altered forms. They are familiar enough for us to experience the terror, and recognize it as such, but they are altered in ways that allow survival to seem possible. If your nightmares tell you what you fear, after all, then the work of dreaming is how you reconcile yourself to those fears, how you touch them and discover that you are strong enough to survive. Dreams are helpful because they help you break out of fears that might paralyze you.
In other words, our dreams — when they work — are telling a much more optimistic story than you might realize, and a lot of television functions in exactly the same way. A classic example is police procedurals about sex crimes, in which violence against women is depicted, horrifyingly, but in a world where the police are competent, dedicated, and always catch the criminal. We see the violence, and yet are untouched, and then we see the violator punished.
As dire as the situation for Our Heroes is, at the end of last night’s episode, our reality is so much worse. The army of the dead is on the march, but as we all know — as the fantasy conventions tell u s — somebody will kill the Night King and then he’ll be gone forever. Someone will throw the ring of power into the cracks of doom, and all the armies of the enemy will pass away; after WWII, the Shire might need scouring, but things will return to normal. Like Kaiju movies in which The Bomb is a monster you can stick back under the ocean — as Gerry Canavan observed to me this morning — the Big Monster is the fantasy of an apocalyptic enemy that you can kill, and then it’s gone forever (or at least until the next time you have to kill it). It’s the fantasy of an enemy. It’s the fantasy that we don’t carry the agents of our undoing in our own bodies and minds.
I enjoyed last night’s episode, much more than I had expected. It was gentle with its characters, and mindful of their arcs. We saw the Hound and Brienne bond like the foster parents of Arya they are, and we saw Brienne teach Jaime how to keep his oath. We saw Arya appreciate her sister’s skill at being a Lady, and we saw Sansa appreciate her sister’s usefulness as a killer (and complain about what a PAIN her brother is, correctly). Theon and Jon had a nice scene of reconciliation, and though the fight that followed was terrible, I do kind of enjoy the show’s realization that testicles can be a liability. I even enjoyed the initial Wow, Everyone On The Show Is In This Scene scene, which was tense and unpredictable and interesting.
Most of all, I enjoyed Cersei dueling with her brothers. It was a welcome return to the bluff and double-bluff of When Game of Thrones Was Still Good. Watching Cersei play poker with Tyrion and Jaime and apparently lose both hands was riveting, especially when you realize she might have lost them both on purpose. Both of her brothers thought she was going to kill them, and then when she didn’t — when she did nothing — they thought they had won. But what if they hadn’t? Her plan doesn’t make as much sense as it is supposed to — as Lili points out, won’t The Good Guys notice when she hasn’t sent her armies to fight? — but the way she lets Tyrion think he’s called her bluff, and caught her — when he cleverly deduces that she’s pregnant because she screams it at him in body language — this is exactly what allows her to trick him into thinking he’s won and to do what she wants. If you step back from the scene it falls apart, but while you’re in it, it’s Game of Thrones doing what Game of Thrones does best. And the same is true of the scene with Jaime. She might not be pregnant at all, and if she’ll lie about that — and if she has been conspiring with Euron — what if she sent Jaime away on purpose? What might that purpose be?
What we’ve learned from these scenes — and this season — is how Cersei can sit down with a busted straight and walk away with all the chips. She lets you think you’ve already won, and then she hits you where you aren’t looking. After she convinced everyone that she’s the mad queen, people stopped trying to anticipate her reasoning; when she told the men that she was pregnant, they immediately leaped to unwarranted conclusions about what it meant. Cersei is better at switching the game you think you’re playing, while you’re playing it, than anyone else in the show; her rise from the ashes is the most interesting narrative in it.
She is also, as such, occupying the place of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan; as Ashik Siddique works out in this thread, she’s the GOP who are happy to gamble that the apocalypse will hit other people first, the monster who knows that chaos is a ladder and is happy to climb; Jon and Dany are the liberals who appeal with facts and reason, rather than simply building power and crushing her (we can even slot Jaime in as “a Republican congressman with a crisis of conscience, realizing need to fight common threat to humanity [who] gets kicked out of office”). But all of this is a fantasy. Ryan and Trump aren’t masterminds, and we’d still be on course for climate apocalypse if Hillary Clinton was president: it wasn’t a GOP monster who peddled fracking technology across the globe, it was Barack Obama’s policies carried out by his secretary of state. It isn’t a right wing demagogue who’s pushing pipelines in Canada, it’s beautiful Justin Trudeau. Every city in the world is built on wildfire.
If Arya or Jaime kills Cersei and Jon kills the Night’s King, then the monsters will be vanquished and the good Kings and Queens will be able to build a democracy in peace, forever. If we can just kill the bad guys then there will be no more winter, you see; we’re all just building a better world. It’s as dumb as it sounds, when you put it like that, which is why Game of Thrones doesn’t put it like that. Instead, we get a ragtag band of brothers who, together, will cancel the apocalypse. We get the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monster that can be slain, and isn’t us; we get the high fantasy dream that we’re all queens and knights and related to each other, and that no one else exists. But it’s still raining in Houston.
Why would anyone want to live that way?
Being Petyr Baelish
by Sarah Mesle
Obviously, I cheered.
Arya has slit the throats of all sorts of dudes by now. The Walder Frey throat slit was elegant and almost coy, the Meryn Trant pelvic throat explosion was glorious, but I think that we can all agree that her casually efficient knife across the throat of Petyr Baelish is her most satisfying revenge-killing yet. It was all the more excellent because she slit his throat as herself, not masked as someone else.
And, too, she did it with her sister, and with witnesses! Two weeks ago I said I wanted the lords of the North chanting Sansa’s name as they had done for John; here they were, watching Sansa and Arya avenge their father’s death, together.
So I guess I got what I wanted?
Or at least, I had the strong feeling watching the episode, that it believed it was giving me what it thought I wanted. I have spent the last couple of weeks railing against this show’s refusal to let women be each other’s allies, supporters, friends, and now, here they were, not only being those things, but in fact, apparently, having been those things the whole time, or at least most of the time, it’s unclear actually how much of the time, but definitely some of the time, while I read them wrong. I doubted! I doubted the gender politics of the show, and now the joke was on me, oh me of little faith!
But I’m going to go ahead and say that while this was, yes, a fucking satisfying moment of television, it was not exactly what I wanted. What I want is for women’s intelligence to stop showing up like a surprise.
Also I want riveting swashbuckling television with good conversations and a sense of narrative heft, and “The Dragon and the Wolf” was definitely that. It was nowhere near the pleasure from three weeks ago of the “Epic Loot Train Battle” but, watching this episode with a room of friends, I was really into it! Let no one say I was not into it.
The question, and this is similar to the question I raised last week, is how to fit together my different responses to an hour of television. I’m torn between my competing impulses to make the best of things — a pleasurable hour of television with friends — and my sense that in order to do that, I have to sweep under the table a range of feelings and frustrations which are, also, the exact feelings and frustrations the world always wants me to sweep under the table: frustrations about how women are represented (aesthetically and politically), frustrations about how women’s lives are allowed to participate in story. Sweeping my irritations under the table so we can all enjoy (or even not enjoy, just discuss) the big picture feels like just more of the emotional carework that we know always falls disproportionately to women to perform.
And this is particularly galling given that the show, so clearly, thinks that it is in fact acting in defense of its women characters. And yet I’m not terribly interested in praising Game of Thrones for rescuing these two sisters from an impasse it had worked very hard to place them in. It worked hard to convince me that they were being antagonistic and naïve, and now it wants me to feel — maybe I’m projecting — somewhat shamefaced for doubting them, when the show believed all along.
Let’s consider how all this played out. As we know, for the last while, Petyr Baelish has been working to try to separate Arya from Sansa, to spread antagonism between them. Somewhere along the line — it is not clear where — Arya and Sansa realized that this is what he was doing. Was it at the beginning? Was it a scheme hatched when Arya first returned to Winterfell, and the three Stark children joined together and Bran gave her the knife? That would make some sense, and it’s not hard to imagine that as Petyr spied on Arya sneaking into his room, she knew he was there; she was playing him the whole time. But then the scenes where Sansa and Arya are alone, fighting, with no visible witness: are we supposed to believe that these were just sort of recreational fights, to get into character or something? Or maybe we are supposed to think that Petyr really was watching, and so they were for his behalf. Or maybe they figured it out later, after these scenes, which were just as fraught as they look: Sansa and Arya had an emotional rift, but the reconciliation happened off stage so that the viewers would be as surprised as — this is key — Petyr Baelish.
Or maybe Sansa and Arya never figured it out, and Bran whipped them into shape. That’s annoying in its own way.
But what I really want to think about is how the relationship between what’s shown and not shown in this plotline positions the viewer. We want Sansa and Arya to work together, and we have been frustrated at the show for not giving that to us. We are, thus, the opposite of Petyr Baelish in terms of what we want (we want their unification; he wants their disintegration), but similar in terms of what we think is happening: we, like Petyr, believe that Petyr is successfully manipulating them. Arya and Sansa go to great lengths — for no necessary reason within the show — to not only kill and or execute Petyr, but to do so in a way that is a surprise to him. Who else does it surprise? As I said: us. All the scenes of them fighting, which don’t really make sense unless Petyr was watching them — who do we know was watching those fights? Us.
I’m not saying you can’t piece together a logic whereby all Arya and Sansa’s actions make sense — including the surprise trial, because you know he’s so tricky he would have gotten away otherwise and also they needed people to see it so Sansa couldn’t just murder him, I guess — but rather that, the most obvious thing that’s going on is that the show wanted to make Petyr’s death and exposure at the Stark women’s hands as shocking as possible, and the show’s way of doing that was to, strangely, align the viewer with Petyr Baelish.
And that just makes even the pleasure of watching the scene feel sort of shitty. The show has double-crossed us. It doubted Arya and Sansa so that it could redeem them, and then, in this reveal, by aligning the viewer with Petyr, it makes us feel like we too were doubting Arya and Sansa, when the whole time what we were doubting was the show.
I mean: does it matter? As Aaron so very rightly points out — Aaron, I love this post — we’ve all got bigger problems, both in the show and out. It’s totally end times everywhere, and at least Petyr Baelish is dead, and Arya killed him, and it was great. Meanwhile, as I write this, Donald and Melania Trump are visiting Houston, and I’ve seen at least three writers this morning take the opportunity to criticize Melania’s footwear. It is a crisis! Doesn’t she know better than to wear high heels???
I have nothing really to say about Melania’s high heels, she’s obviously a terrible human being, except to note that even in the midst of a crisis, it’s nice to see that people can really come together around criticizing what powerful women wear, even the same people who were just railing at Arya for doing the same thing to Sansa.
Like I said, I really liked watching most of this episode, even if a lot of it didn’t make sense: I still don’t understand how this meeting got set up, and a lot of the walking around at the episode’s beginning confused me, and Brienne being there is yet another one of Sansa’s actions that becomes confusing in light of this week’s scheming, and I don’t know who Cersei is supposed to be anymore. Pretty much, I liked it! I liked the Hound and Brienne talking, obviously. I liked Cersei’s dress (my favorite of hers this season!). I liked the white walker roaring out of his box into Cersei’s face; I liked the moment when it seemed Cersei would make a connection between her unborn child and the larger world, and I even liked when it became clear that she wouldn’t.
Here was my favorite part, in addition to the knife to Petyr Baelish’s throat: Daenerys Targaryan’s dismount from her dragon. It was a beautiful moment to watch, just visually, and it was especially beautiful because it was a moment where at least someone in this show — the director, the costume designer, the monster itself — figured out how to let a woman move through her power without obstacle, with grace.
Previous episode: season 7, episode 6, “Beyond the Wall.”
Following episode: season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”