This week on Dear Television, we begin our weekly coverage of season seven of HBO’s Game of Thrones. First up, Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle on the season premiere episode, “Dragonstone.” There are spoilers below so, if you haven’t seen the episode yet, hasn’t anybody told you this show is the dying gasp of the monoculture? Go watch it and hurry back to the water cooler.
Previous episode: season 6, episode 10, “The Winds of Winter.”
Following episode: season 7, episode 2, “Stormborn.”
Soup, Poop, and Climate Change
by Aaron Bady
That Game of Thrones has continued long after the original inspiration went dry is one of the most interesting things about it. I’ve written elsewhere about how the show began as an anti-fantasy in which the chivalric and honorable patriarchy either turns evil or dies—the nihilistic cynicism that made Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding the structural climaxes of the show’s natural course—and then lost itself in an apparently endless melodrama of violent pornography. For quite a while, we were watching George R. R. Martin’s creation struggle through an awkward adolescence, without a plan or plausible endgame. All it had was spectacle: good characters suffered at the hands of bad characters, and then, when they suffered, in turn, they became the good guys.
And then, HBO took over, and once the network ran out of books to adapt, there was a decided shift in the writing. While George R. R. Martin’s source material was still the show’s bible, it was essentially a story of dispersion, an endless exodotic wandering in the wilderness in which the remaining children of dead fathers struggled to survive. They all had ambitions, sure, but those were very long-term and hypothetical; in the meanwhile, the protagonists mainly just struggled to keep their heads above ground. It was hard to say what their characters really were, constrained as they were by the desperate necessity of not being murdered or raped as much as humanly possible. But that has ended, now, and we suddenly see a lot of orphaned protagonists in the driver’s seat of their respective plotlines. Jon and Sansa have Winterfell. Daenerys has her army, and Tyrion got a sweet Hand of the Queen job. Bran has leveled up to Full Raven. Cersei and Jaime rule King’s Landing together while Yara and Theon, together, rule the seas. Arya is now free to murder all her enemies. Even Sam has finally gotten married and enrolled in a good graduate program.
In short, while the story used to be that when you played the game of thrones, you win or you die—such that die-ers are losers and winners are killers—we now have a narrative in which good people can get good jobs and thrive. It’s hard to overstate the extent of this shift; at the end of season six, most of the most long-suffering characters on the show had finally gotten exactly what they had long wanted, but which we had had no reason to expect they would ever get. And a show once notorious for its vicious narrative sadism has suddenly, perversely, gotten into the business of fan service. Fans were shipping Tormund and Brienne? DONE: now that’s happening. Everybody loves the little girl queen of Bear Island? DONE: now she’s taking over scenes.
Now what? What even is this show if its characters can make choices and have agency?
At this point, it’s very hard to tell what the show will do with this novel problem. The bloodbath that opened the season was there, in terms of structure, to distract viewers from the fact that everything else that happens in this episode is prep-work for the wars to come. So many of the show’s most important plotlines reached important climaxes last season that they’re not ready to get moving again, just yet; this season will soon involve two big armies somehow arriving in Westeros, but: the White Walkers aren’t here yet, and Danaerys, also, isn’t here, yet. And so, with the exception of Arya murdering every single Frey, episode one is prologue, a lot of stage setting and character work. Instead of bloodshed and gore, we get some interesting scenes with big maps; we get a few tentative openings for alliances; we get check-ins with characters whose relationships were left muddy and unclear; we get a few key scenes in which an army is seen walking towards the wars to come. Good fortune!
We also get an interesting discussion of epistemology, and we have a forthright discussion of temporal perspective. In the Citadel, Sam is introduced to the glacial pace of scholarly publishing and to the problem of academic paywalls: Peer review takes TIME, my friend; we’re the Maesters, not a bunch of assholes with blogs. But if the soup-poop montage stands out from the rest of the show’s slow, luxurious cinematography—and it really, really does—it does a nice job of signaling that the narrative problem our characters are facing is fundamentally very different. In the long crisis that followed the deaths of the parents, it was all about survival: because you could easily die tomorrow, you had the luxury of thinking exactly one move ahead. Now, because everybody is out of check, the question is whether you think two or three moves ahead of time—how do I get my armies to where they are going and win the battle—or ten moves: how do I ensure the long-term survival of the living?
In his conversation with Sam, Archmaester Marwyn makes an interesting point. People have a propensity to capitalize the current troubles and give them a false sense of finality: this crisis is The Crisis! This ending is The End! He has a sense of perspective on those who lack it, and since he believes that nothing really ever ends—telling Sam that “The wall stood through it all, and every winter that ever came, has ended”—he thinks Sam should focus on finishing his coursework and qualifying exams first, so that when the time comes to do real scholarship, he’ll be ready. Without scholarship, real scholarship, humankind would be little better than dogs, thinking only of their last meal and their next meal. If you take the long view, after all, soup and poop are the same thing.
But how does that long view taste? (Remember: soup is the key to the entire mythology.) As it turns out, the Archmaester has it hilariously wrong. His faith that the wheel will turn the same as it always has, and the game of thrones will go on—such that the key thing is to keep producing timeless scholarship—rests on an assumption that academic scholarship can exist outside of time. “We’re not like the people south of the Twins; we’re not like the people north of the Twins,” he says. We’re not people, he wants to say. But what the soup-poop montage demonstrates is that, in fact, they are people, and even if they don’t think about their last and next meal, someone certainly does. Someone has to bring them their soup; someone has to carry away their poop. And if the Maesters have the luxury of taking the long view—consuming books and churning out more books—then someone has to live life in the sequence of increasingly short and fast cuts in which soup after soup becomes poop after poop; to live the disembodied life of the mind, someone has to be reduced to laborer. To ally yourself with eternity, in other words, is to make yourself the well-meaning enemy of day-to-day people.
It’s a deeper, more interesting point than a show which is primarily about war and desire is really capable of making well, but to its credit, it does try. The White Walkers have always been an obvious metaphor for climate change, and they are, now, suddenly real. And the problem with thinking in terms of eternal humanity is that humans aren’t eternal. We live in the Anthropocene, a human-made temporality that humans can un-make, and are, in fact, vigorously un-making; we also, each of us, live in a life that came to a beginning and will come to an end. There is something precious at stake in both of these desperately brief windows of life; we would do well to keep that in mind. People who make the soup understand this, as do the people who clean up the shit.
In between episode one’s stage setting, as we rearrange the board for the next clima(c)tic battle(s), the show touches on the problem that emerged last week, when a New York Magazine feature suggested the unseemly possibility that climate change will make the earth literally uninhabitable. More than a few climate scientists were quick to poo-poo that suggestion. Some argued that the science of that assertion was shaky at best—that we can’t know for sure that the earth’s capacity to bear human life is as endangered by climate change as that article made it seem, and that doomsday scenarios are still just science fiction. Others asserted that people can’t be influenced to make change simply through fear; the way to influence people, they maintained, is through facts and more careful research findings. It is important not to overstate our sense of doom, went the counterargument; let’s have a sense of proportion. It will be really bad, probably, just not that bad, not definitely; let us confine ourselves to what we can be sure about, what we can know for certain.
On Game of Thrones, Sam is right and the Archmaester is wrong. Sam isn’t smarter, and he isn’t a better scholar than the Archmaester; of what there is to know, we can be sure, the Archmaester knows it all. But Game of Thrones is fantasy, so the White Walkers are real: what the rational, scholarly Archmaester knows is a poor guide, it turns out, to a fantasy world beyond his rational ken. What if our world is a world not of science, but of science fiction? What if the truth is something that our science can’t prove, and its gravity something that our scientific method—with its focus on the timeless, ceaseless increase of gradual human knowledge—is poorly equipped to appreciate? How do you prepare for the thing that your preparation, by definition, cannot imagine? It’s a hard question but it doesn’t mean it isn’t the right one. Our president, after all, is a person who could not have become president.
“Hysteria” is a word that Serious Rationalists sometime use to describe people whose embodied emotions get the better of them, a gendered insult based in the notion that women think with their wombs and scientists with disembodied man-brains. It’s not a good term to think with, as such, especially now that every other new book of psychology is about how we think with our bodies. All a term like that does is mark the speaker as the kind of mind that can’t hear what people with bodies are saying, along with a latent layer of fundamental sexism. But the fact that there are no women in The Citadel—that there are no women-bodies there, just man-minds—is a mark of the prejudice that blinds the Maesters to what those who make the soup and carry the poop—of any gender—might know. If you masculinize knowledge, then you feminize its limits.
This is a problem that afflicts Westeros as a whole. In a world where “everywhere…they hurt little girls,” as Cersei reminded Oberyn, the limits to rational knowledge are something only those who have been hurt seem to understand. Sansa doesn’t know the military stuff—her father never allowed her to learn—but she knows what Jon seems not to, that Cersei is a nightmarish vortex of danger for them, and that she will find a way. Jon is complacent about the south, but Sansa knows what he doesn’t: the Lannisters might be broke and outnumbered and beset on all sides, but the machinations of the plot will not allow them to fall, not yet. (And she is right, they will). Meanwhile Cersei knows what her brother doesn’t seem to know, that troop numbers and logistics and gold are not so important in a world where Euron Greyjoy can have his best ships stolen but still somehow show up with an armada of a thousand ships. But it’s not because they’re women that they know something that men don’t know, or not precisely that: having had their worlds destroyed around them—having had the unthinkable and unspeakable happen to them—they have brought out of their experiences a useful skepticism about the things that people think they know, in their security. It’s because Jon and Jaime only know what they know, and are satisfied with it, that their knowledge has limits. The world makes sense to them, as the patriarchy does for patriarchs.
But take a step back: when has Westeros ever made sense? And why would it start now? It doesn’t do to be realistic in a world where reason doesn’t rule. Experience teaches a different set of expectations; men who tell you it will be fine, it turns out, are usually full of shit. Because Westeros is a place where women, of all people, have learned very well the limits of secure knowledge, it has been left to women and unmanly men to feel and fear what lies beyond the wall of rational knowledge. It’s irrational to expect the unexpected; it’s the opposite of the scientific method and a contradiction in terms. But it’s the one thing a canny watcher of this show must do…and also people who need to live in bodies in a world that has a good record of often not doing what scientific minds have expected it to.
I wish us all good fortune in the wars to come,
On Giving a Shit
by Sarah Mesle
Slop the soup, scour the shit, get slammed-on everyday by the oppressive weight of what everyone else is reading, barely contain your seething frustration that the world is fucking ending and here you are, doing the goddamn dishes: can you think of a better description of being alive in 2017?
Like most of us, I suspect, I go through my daily routine—which, okay, is not as viscera filled as Sam Tarly’s; both my kids are way out of diapers—with a writhing worry that I am doing it all wrong. There are monsters at the gate! Doesn’t that mean I really should be engaging in some heroics, already? Or, if not saving the world, then at least doing something extravagant and soul-enriching, ideally on the beach? This daily grind shit is not what apocalypse movies had trained me to think the apocalypse would be like. I thought it would be, I guess…more apocalypse-y, less stressed-out reading of social media updates.
All this is to say that, like Aaron, I found the elaborate and prolonged “Sam Tarly Goes To School And Gets A Bad Work Study Job” montage to be a fascinating interpretive navel of the Game of Thrones’s season 7 opener. For both Aaron and for me, Sam’s scenes reckon with the show’s central narrative tension, which is also the central tension for viewers in our real lives: how to balance the critical and the political and the daily, the White Walkers and the Lannisters and the bedpans, climate change vs. Trump. vs. fighting your way through Trader Joe’s on a weekend. Where should our energy go?
Yet watching Sam Tarly’s crescendoing misery at being forced to do the citadel’s grunt work rather than preparing for war, I felt both kinship and a kind of envy. Sam Tarly wants to fight the end times, and he thinks he knows how! The rest of us, those sitting around watching Sam on our Sunday night televisions, I don’t think we’re so clear. What should we be doing to fight climate change or ICE or R. Kelly or Trump? Does anyone really know?
And, more pointedly: when we’re watching Game of Thrones, when we’re watching Sam Tarly clean the bedpans, what kind of action are we taking? Is it political, moral? Avoidant, pedestrian? Is Sunday night television just more slopped soup?
This isn’t the kind of question I like to ask, because I don’t usually think there’s a clear divide between art and pleasure and the “real world”—I really don’t. And yet nevertheless, for me the big question of Game of Thrones this year is not what will happen in King’s Landing or how they’ll parcel out the battles of the coming wars or the remaining two seasons, but rather just more basically: do we even care, anymore? And how do we care, and for what reason, and to what extent? Even for those of us who care, the scope of our care has paled in comparison to other things. Last year it seemed hard to focus on Game of Thrones in a Prince-free world. This year, there’s Trump with the nuclear codes.
Another way to put this is that the show has shifted its focus away from real politics and more towards fantasy—a final, epic, zombies vs. dragons show down—at just the moment when for most people I know, the stakes of the political are ramping up. It can be hard to feel okay about spending an hour watching television, let alone spending substantive time afterward pondering its nuances. Last week LARB published a truly lovely essay by Jed Purdy about Westeros’s cosmology. The essay was mostly written, Jed says, in 2016, and reading it, I felt a surge of simultaneous appreciation and loss. It represented such luxury! Time to think in the abstract, resonantly, about some other question than whether we are all going to survive.
With all this in on the table, I want to point out a key way that I disagree with Aaron’s essay, and particularly his reading of Sam. In many ways—most substantive ways—Aaron and I agree about what this episode revealed. As Aaron aptly spells out, it’s crucial that this show’s taut balancing of fantasy and realism is unsteady at best, in ways that reflect real-world truths about whose knowledge (masculine, secure, “rational”) is privileged over whose (feminized, under threat, experiential). We agree too that the question of how to balance different values, different strategies of interpretation, is the pressing question for both the shows characters and its viewers.
And yet: Aaron and I read Sam and the Archmaester’s relationship, and in fact the Citadel itself, very differently. I don’t think the show, or the Archmaester, pits Sam’s daily labor against the abstract thinking of the Citadel. In fact, I read the show as aligning two kinds of labor, intellectual and practical, on the same side: the side of continuity. It’s daily life, and even if it weren’t end-times, cleaning bedpans would be unpleasant. But what can we learn from doing it?
This is a question the leaders of the Citadel seem to take seriously. It’s important that a part of Sam’s training as a maester is to wash the dishes; it’s important that the Archmaester—unlike Jon talking to Sansa, for instance—believes Sam about the threat he describes. The Archmaester is wrong about what to do, it seems, but not because he doesn’t listen or because he distances himself from his humanity. He just has a different sense of how we might value, in the face of an emergency, the work of taking the long view: a long view that, remarkably, comprises both deep learning and daily care. “Finish weighing this heart,” the Archmaester tells Sam. He means this both literally and metaphorically. Look at the world in its embodied state, with a deliberate and exacting focus, and you will learn what can be done to preserve it, and indeed what will make it worth preserving.
Put differently, one important difference between the Citadel and the university where I work is that I’m not sure any colleagues of mine ever spent time on the janitorial staff as part of their actual training. Many of us, I’m sure, had crappy work study jobs (you can always tell, at an academic reception, who worked in catering), but that’s supposed to be ancillary. I wish first-year grad students had Sam’s deal: free tuition, bathroom duty, and (apparently) sweet student housing.
I’m not trying to get idealistic about the Citadel here, with its obviously lame gender politics; the maester’s are clearly not some egalitarian cooperative with the full professors still teaching comp or whatever contemporary analogy you want to make.
But I liked that the show held out this hope that understanding the world was akin to, and might stem from, taking care of it. Maybe cleaning bedpans is, in a way Sam won’t see, the “wax on, wax off” of fighting white walkers—who is to say that the daily grind won’t offer a kind of world knowledge that books alone can’t deliver? It’s Sam who separates the two—whereas the show reveals to the viewer that the daily could help. In fact, it’s literally reaching out a hand—Jorah’s hand, out from a cell—that’s right there for Sam, if he would chose to accept it.
And I want to roll with this sense here, that understanding is both a kind of dissection and a kind of grueling messy labor. That’s the idea that best serves this episode of Game of Thrones, which interested me precisely because of the ways its ideas never quite lined up—like soup (soup, Aaron!), stuff seems all just cooked together. The sympathetic characters argue different directions. We are with Sam against the Archmaester, because Sam wants more focus on the white walkers, yet we are with Sansa against Jon because she urges him not to focus on the White Walkers too much. We are with Sansa that Cersei is a threat not to be underestimated, and we’re with Jaime that Cersei is completely overestimating herself. Everyone is doing their fucking best around here, there’s no right answer, and no one knows whether Trump’s batshit comments about Brigitte Macron are a distraction from the healthcare debacle or what! (Surely no one knows what to do about Ed Sheeran, who apparently exists despite the fact that I have spent a great deal of effort trying to pretend he does not.)
Or consider—yes!—the hair. There is a lot of hair happening this episode! But is there a theory of hair we can parse? I’m still unclear what’s happening with Cersei’s haircut, to be frank; I learned in the NY Times last week that the haircut is referred to on set as “the turnip” which seems to me to be a concession that it is not attractive, which baffles me. It is somehow self punishing? Not only is it not attractive, but it gives no sign of being accidental. This is not just “my head got shaved and now it’s growing out, give me a minute,” it’s some strange purposeful turniping. Why? I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time aligning this with any meaningful character arc—it’s hard to imagine a Cersei that doesn’t value being attractive, and how does it fit with the armor dress—especially because it also looks to me vaguely unwashed
And what about Sansa’s hair? As many noted, her narrow side-braids call to mind Cersei’s in long-haired days of yore, and that’s obviously true. But it’s more interesting, almost, to note that when Sansa is sitting next to Jon amongst all the lords of the North, they almost all have the same hair—that Sansa’s hair in this episode isn’t all that different from Lyanna Mormont’s. Everyone up there is really dealing with some lankness and some flyaways. It’s almost as if and to me, this is a much more interesting conclusion to draw, than to wonder if Sansa is explicitly modeling her hair after Cersei—it’s almost as if Sansa has stopped giving a shit. She actually looks not that different than Arya! Can you imagine? What is this new Westeros???
What if all of Westeros has stopped giving a shit, about hair? Does this up Dany’s odds of conquest, given that her braid game remains tight? Or does it mean she needs to stop it with all the cosmetic distractions and focus on climate change?
Further: if Sansa and Lyanna Mormont have both stopped caring about their hair, and also none of the women are knitting, who is going to make sweaters and socks and cold-weather gear for all these soldiers? (They aren’t worried about it, directly, but I wonder if the Archmaester would be? Or Jaime?)
The episode tacks back and forth between caring about materiality profoundly (bedpans) and not caring about it at all (who made Euron’s sails??). Why is it feminist to disavow knitting? Can’t we have sword training and knitting? Isn’t that nice to think about? When are Sansa and Lyanna going to get a scene together, anyway?
I’m not sure that the show has a clear answer; I’m not sure I care whether the show has a clear answer. It doesn’t work for me anymore, or at least right now—maybe this will change—to put the pieces of all this together in a clear logic. I’m not sure that’s something I want.
The show, too, is often unclear about what it’s worth wanting. Jon wants to stop the walkers, and that is fair enough and makes sense. The panic of impending death is a clear motivation. But think about the incoherence of Cersei’s claim that she wants a dynasty “for us,” or the Hound’s moral wrangling with the Brotherhood without Banners. Deserving matters but doesn’t define; the show’s moral universe is as confused as Thoros’s topknot. Are we meant to figure it out? Maybe?
There have been times when parsing Game of Thrones’ governing logic has been deeply satisfying to me; when doing so felt like it mattered, like it was a part of contributing to something significant and, so, good. I’m not saying I won’t have that feeling again, and it’s a nice feeling, so I’ll be happy if it comes back. But for now, I’m sort of enjoying this new way of watching this show: detail oriented, fragmented, not searching for some coherence or heroically broad-minded interpretation. Watching the show this way feels a little like turning back to what we might take from Sam’s Citadel experience—that caring is messy, but it helps us go on, and to do so as ourselves.
Previous episode: season 6, episode 10, “The Winds of Winter.”
Following episode: season 7, episode 2, “Stormborn.”