Previous episode: season 7, episode 4, "The Spoils of War."
Following episode: season 7, episode 6, "Beyond the Wall."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Winter: How Does It Even Work?
by Aaron Bady
There is a gaping hole at the center of this week’s episode, and it’s this: The Desperate Mission to Steal a Zombie makes no goddamn sense at all. Literally not one single part of it. And it makes a hash of every character it touches. It is the greatest threat to Westeros as we know it.
With that in mind, I present to you the following bill of particulars. J’accuse, Game of Thrones. J’accuse. You are being stupid again.
First: if this plan succeeds, it will obviously still fail. We know that Cersei won’t care about proof that white walkers are real. We know it because we see her basically say so to Jaime — which means we know their mission is doomed, already, even before they’ve set off, ruining the dramatic stakes — but we also know that Cersei is not the sort of person to care about white walkers at all. For Gods’ sake, shouldn’t Tyrion know this as well? Shouldn’t he know what his sister is like? Shouldn’t he be the last person in the world to propose this ridiculous plan? On what planet does “hey look, here’s a zombie!” scan as a productive approach to take with Cersei, to someone who knows her? Put aside the fact that SHE ALREADY HAS HER OWN ZOMBIE, Cersei has never shown particular concern for the people of Westeros at the best of times; lately, after the death of all her children — and after blowing up the consensus religion of the country — everybody recognizes that she’s now A Mad Queen in the classical sense: she may not be literally insane, but she is sociopathically unconcerned about anything but a very narrow set of narrowly conceived self-interests, and terrifyingly, gloriously focused on advancing those interests. Tyrion is a close second to Sansa on the list of people who know that Cersei is Not To Be Trusted.
(And look, even if Cersei weren’t a very special kind of sociopath, the ruling class of Westeros are the usual kind of sociopath: the long winter is coming, so half the peasants are going to die anyway, and no one seems to super care very much about that at all. Why would anyone think they’d put the Game of Thrones on hold to go fight for the good of the realm, something they’ve 100% never done before?)
Second, what happened to the Daenerys who said “enough with the clever plans”? Where is the spirit of Olenna, surviving by realizing how dumb the most serious-seeming, reasonable, clever men are? Remember the Daenerys who can’t be made to listen, as our wise counselors lamented in the throne room, bemoaning their inability to get her to do anything? She seems to have been replaced by a Daenerys who sort of frowns and pouts a little as her small council does the actual ruling. “I can’t make her decisions for her,” Tyrion lamented, and then literally one scene later, he makes her decisions for her. And let’s underline that this plan is the most excruciatingly “clever” plan he’s ever concocted, the Ur-clever plan; it only makes a certain convoluted sense if you really squint at it — basically, if you squint your eyes closed — and would only work if literally every part of it works perfectly. None of his plans EVER work at all! It is exactly the sort of clever plan that Daenerys was very clear, last week, about rejecting; so why is she totally fine with it this week? Put aside why she agrees to let Jon leave — apparently she loves him now — what we have is her hand proposing a plan she’s clearly irritated by, to assist a guy she’s, in theory, maybe going to put to death for not bending the knee; this plan requires her to sue for a temporary peace with her enemy and put all her plans on hold, all to combat a faraway threat that she has no real reason to believe in; the plan has nothing in particular to do with her advancing her interests. For basically all of her life, she has had one goal, and now it’s within her grasp; why not put it all on hold while a team of cool dudes gets together to fight ice zombies? EVERY REASON. The answer to that question is EVERY REASON.
Third, hey it’s Jorah! He’s back! He’s alive, here to serve his queen! Gosh, he really loves his queen. He always wanted to be by her side, wanted nothing more, and now he finally has it. Oops, he’s volunteering to go on a desperate nonsensical suicide mission to help Jon do that thing he’s doing, that Daenerys herself is super skeptical of. Bye Jorah!
Fourth, if Daenerys wants to help Jon — and since she is allowing her Hand to go on a super-secret mission to cut a deal with her enemies, and putting the war on hold, she does seem to want to help him — but maybe she should just fly over with her dragons and roast the ice zombies? ENOUGH WITH THE CLEVER PLANS, she should yell, leap out the window onto her Dragon, fuck up the white walkers, and be back in time for some fermented crab. THERE ARE FEWER OF MY ICE ZOMBIE ENEMIES THAN BEFORE BECAUSE MY DRAGON BURNED THEM ALL UP. YES, THANK YOU, I WILL HAVE SOME FERMENTED CRAB, WOULD YOU LIKE SOME FERMENTED CRAB, JON, ALSO LET US INTERCOURSE.
Fifth, where did Ser Davos get that big bowl of fermented crab in the first place? Did he catch the crabs himself? Did he ferment them himself? Dragonstone is, to all appearances, a ghost city; what are they all eating anyway? Also, that bowl of fermented crab seems sort of unsteady; how do you keep it from spilling if you’re taking that little rowboat on the ocean? Invest in some good Tupperware, would be my advice.
(Or is he, in theory, shipping the fermented crab away from Kings Landing? Like, we didn’t see him pick any of it up, did we? Or did we? Honestly, I’ve lost interest, but I am now wondering how you ferment crab, since all the recipes online make it seem like it only takes a day or so to make, which, I guess fermentation is really fast?)
Sixth, what happened to the main plan of getting a lot of Dragonglass to the Night’s Watch? Are Jon’s men still digging it out? Where are all of Jon’s men anyway? And where is Theon? Never mind: shouldn’t Operation Dragonglass still be the plan, to take it to The Wall that has Never Before Fallen, and, you know, try to fight them off the old way? The White Walkers haven’t actually figured out a way to cross the wall, have they? Shouldn’t we hold tight?
(Winter: how does it even work?)
(Fact check, Sam: do we have any sense that anyone, anywhere, respects the citadel and would listen to their warning?)
Seven, why does anyone think LET’S KIDNAP A ZOMBIE is a plan?! Like, what does that even look like? Putting aside the mechanics of transporting one, they mainly hang out in groups of ten thousand. How do you capture one of them? More to the point, since they will surely manufacture a convoluted plan: WHY WOULD IT SEEM RATIONAL TO TRY?
Eight, ok, let’s back up. Why is anyone even worried about convincing Cersei? Who, to be blunt, even cares about her? Why not just burn down the Red Keep and then turn your attention to the north? We seem to have established that killing thousands of people when conquering an enemy is now good — the crux of the clifftop “we want to help people and we can only do it from a position of strength” conversation between Dany and Jon was that the ends justify the means, and her argument was pretty strong — so why not, you know, do that? Even Cersei herself seems to have thrown in the towel when Jaime tells her about the dragons; it didn’t seem like a foregone conclusion last week, but this episode everyone seems to accept that Daenerys’ dragons are a total game-changer, and that the war is all but over. If that’s the show’s new reality — because the show is so myopically close-focused on a handful of characters that it’s really hard to tell what the big-picture reality principle actually is — then a much better plan, especially from Daenerys’ perspective, would be to win the war quickly and then worry about the north. She is very, very close to King’s Landing; the north, by contrast, is far away: if time is of the essence, it would be a lot quicker to win the war and then set out with armies for the north than to wait for the harebrained “kidnap a zombie” plan to work.
Plus, if the white walkers get over the wall, well, why wouldn’t Dany think she still has a pretty good fire-breathing trump card to burn their asses up? Why are we in such a hurry? Does she know she’s only got two more episodes until the season climax, so she wants to move things along quickly?
Nine, on the other side: why doesn’t Jaime capture his brother and throw him in chains? Obviously, Cersei might kill him, and that’d be a drag, but how else is all of this going to play out? What happened to killing his brother next time he saw him? A training sword is not the obstacle here; Jaime, for some reason, doesn’t want to really fight a war against Tyrion. But again: how else is this going to play out? If Daenerys doesn’t kill them all, which seems to be where things are tending, it’s going to be because Team Lannister does some damage of its own; why on earth wouldn’t Jaime seize this opportunity? Of course the main problem is that Jaime has become a total blank as a character; he used to be a convincingly Lannister scumbag, but all of his experiences have made him sort of vaguely not evil, but also not anything else; because his character has become such a cipher, he can be sort of maybe still friends with Tyrion and also still in league with Cersei. But it’s just bad writing.
(Also, no sign of Euron, which, yay! But also, come on. Has this show just forgotten about its entire Iron Island plotline? Theon, Yara, Euron were all in the show and now they’re… not?)
Last, finally, okay, I have to say it: the dragon between Daenerys legs that Jon makes friends with. I mean… this is not a show where the relationship between sex and power is ever very convoluted; most of the time, subtext is just text. So, what has Jon done when he put his hands on her beast? Her beast that she has to explain to him is terrifying to many people, but actually very beautiful? And he’s… well, he’s not totally convinced? The dragon likes him, but it’s not clear that he likes the dragon.
Let’s overthink that. Remember last year when we talked so much about phallic symbols? Sarah, you asked “will this show admit that the phallus is separate from the penis?” and you suggested that “if we want a world where women, too, can claim power — a power that is not a primarily phallic power, based on the ability to cut, stab, and otherwise penetrate — we need a different ethics.” The show constantly flirts with it, but, as you observed, “you can’t commit to overturning the patriarchy and still ask your viewers to unquestioningly embrace what seemed like about 45 minutes of toasting Jon’s dick.”
If there is one thing this dragon is not, it is not a dick. It is also not a phallus, and the fact that it’s a different way to execute people than head-chopping is at least consistent with the sense that dragons are an alternate form of symbolic power to the “cut, stab, and penetrate” kind. Dragons, for Dany, are the ability to take a formed, made thing — a wagon, a body, chains, an institution of slavery, The Wheel — and turn it into an unformed not-a-thing, the same way that Cersei’s wildfire was the power to un-make an entire religion. If the phallus erects monuments to its power, Mad Queens use fire to burn them down.
Does the show have an ethics for this power of unmaking? Certainly, her dragon ethics are different than what Tyrion wants her to do: he counsels imprisonment and she responds that she’s not here to put people in chains. She respects the men who she incinerates, actually, and she gets results.
Until she doesn’t. Until she suddenly starts letting the boys tell her what to do, and falling in stupid love for Jon Snow, whose once unreasonable request is now, strangely, being treated by everyone as if it’s reasonable. And so, I fear that the show is answering your question, Sarah: we have a pair of Mad Queens who have been right about everything and really good at playing the game, and the main dramatic question that the show is investing all its energy into pursuing is, wait for it: will a couple of good Lannister brothers manage to talk some sense into them? Will Jaime get his sister-wife to stop being such a B, and will Jon get his aunt-crush to help him solve the REAL problems? Two utterly overdetermined inevitabilities seem to loom over the proceedings: Jaime will kill his sister-wife, and Jon will marry his aunt. The phallus will take control of the dragons.
I think the problem is that, ultimately, the show doesn’t have any new ideas, especially where the intersection of gender and power are concerned. It has a half-glimpsed sense of the limitations of the old stories, but its critiques of patriarchy and feudal institutions don’t magically turn into a vision for a replacement; it gets a charge from blowing things up and announcing that it will break the wheel, but it can’t really think of a follow through that will earn it.
And so: the show creates a non-penis-based symbolic power, the dragon as expression of feminine potency… but it can only narrativize that power as the power to un-make. Dragons are the power everyone tells you not to use, because it will only make people hate you; dragons are the Trump card you lose the game by playing. This is more than a strange thing to do with the concept of motherhood, which is, of course, the power to create. By subsuming motherhood into negation — and by sidelining the lady queens so as to engineer and focus on a band-of-brothers mission to defeat death — the show turns its burst of fiery dragons into a plot hole.
Your beasts are very beautiful,
Tarly Men Who Don't Listen to the Women Who Are Trying To Save Their Dumb Lives
by Sarah Mesle
Everything Aaron says about the narrative disaster currently standing in for Game of Thrones’ new major plot line is true, and yet it’s not the thing that aggravates me the most about this episode. What bothered me most about “Eastwatch” is something that doesn’t fail the test of making sense; instead, it fails the test of making me happy. This plot point! It sparks no joy! The thing I hate the most is this: Petyr Baelish successfully manipulating his way into Arya and Sansa’s relationship.
Now! I know what you’re thinking! You’re thinking that driving a wedge between Arya and Sansa is exactly what Petyr would do (true) and that manipulating Arya via her naïve assumption that she’s the smartest and sneakiest is exactly how he’d do it (also true).
I’m here to tell you that I don’t care and that this plot line can go fuck itself.
I do not care if it’s “realistic” (gag me) for an older, more experienced man to know more about the world and its machinations than a teenage girl who’s never done anything but go to assassin school, watch her family be violently murdered, and successfully make her way alone across two continents. I also do not care if it’s “realistic” for two sisters, deep in the weeds of cultural misogyny, both of them, to have such deep seated antipathy towards each other’s machinations of gendered power that they would “realistically” let tensions about fancy clothes and bedrooms forestall the chance of growing a relationship.
I do not care about any of it. What I want is to watch Arya and Sansa, under Brienne’s good guidance and bolstered by her support, kick ass all over the north. I want to watch the majestic strength of their ability activate like wonder twins and, mixing cartoon references, leave Petyr Baelish flailing in the air like Wile E. Coyote. I want to watch the lords of the North chant in unison for the unified Stark Daughters, just like they did for Jon Snow. I want their friendship to be as strong as Dany’s dragons, just as potent, and perhaps more versatile.
(I also want Sansa to do all of this while wearing exactly the same leather waist harness and fur shrug she’s already wearing, proving yet again that the Game of Thrones costume team is more narratively on point for this lady viewer than any of the writing staff. I mean, Sansa’s clothes can imagine unconquerable womanly power, even if her plot line can’t.)
Look. Here’s the situation. It’s been a shit week in our country, and even in the time I’ve spent writing this piece that world has gotten demonstrably worse, less secure, more unhinged. It’s possible that by the time you read this the world will be worse again, or still, or more so or something. Things are falling apart; the center is not holding; the rough beast is already born. It’s here now. What it means to me to watch television in this context shifts by the minute.
Meanwhile, my kid started middle school, and I’m busy trying to find school uniform pants with reinforced knees and also to prepare a fall syllabus that gives my students resources for dealing with food insecurity (a growing problem even at my super rich university) and the possibility of active shooter situations (two students were killed last year). I’m thinking about Game of Thrones and watching ever more horrifying details spool out of Charlottesville, while also knowing that HBO has hired Benioff and Weiss to make an alternate history show about “what if” the South had won the Civil War. I mean, really, HBO! What fucking if!
All this is happening and, you know, it’s fine, but we are dealing with enough here. It is enough.
And in the midst of all this, I just can’t sign on for any more screen time in which women’s relationships get fucked with for the sake of some idiot screenwriter’s idea of narrative suspense.
Last week I was so excited about all the ridiculously huge imagining the show was doing, and it just felt so shitty, this week especially, to see all that retract. We can have dudely gangs of misfits plunge into the wild on completely nonsensical plans, but we can’t have two sisters get along. It just makes me hate everything.
Why do women’s experiences, and their friendships, so often carry the ballast of realism for the rest of this show? Why can’t we imagine women as friends?
For instance, here’s a question: where was Brienne this episode? How different would the Sansa/Arya scenes have been if Brienne were there, holding the space for them? Jon gets Davos milling about like some quick-witted guardian angel of conflict management, Jaime gets Bron, and Tyrion and Varys have each other. Cersei has never fucking had anyone (dead mom, don’t get me started) and Dany gets Missandei but not, this season, often enough.
All I want is Brienne to get to do half of what Davos does, but instead I guess she’s off — what? Training Pod, knight of cheerful haplessness? Why is Brienne not standing behind Sansa at the war counsel? (Where even is Lady Mormont? And where is her mom? )
And Gilly! Yes, again, believable, not troubling in the way that the zombie-theft plot is, that Sam would totally let his manly emotional frustrations roil right over the top of Gilly’s major plot revelations; it’s very believable that he would give her a book to read (wife as office assistant, sigh) and then not listen to her read it, but also how boring. How much less interesting, to me, than what could have happened, which is Gilly actually recognizing the content as well as the form of her knowledge and making something happen in this story rather than just nurturing up the next Tarly dude who will, presumably, like his father and his grandfather, not listen when a woman tells them what they need to survive in this world.
I’m not sure even what to say about Cersei’s pregnancy. Women sometimes get pregnant, that’s true and interesting and real, but given that the viewer is positioned with Jaime to discover that news, the show is telling us that the pregnancy is mostly happening to him, is a milestone in his development as a character and our relationship with him. It’s completely unclear what this pregnancy means to Cersei and the reason why is because the show just cares more about Jaime than Cersei.
Really, for real: think about what it does for Jaime to have Bron, what it meant for him to have Brienne. Now think about what it means that the person Cersei has is Qyburn.
There have been times when I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this show has to say about politics, about our world. This thing, that you’re reading right now, isn’t that; it’s not a carefully parsed analogy.
Those are still worth providing, and if you want one, the best and most interesting political writing about Game of Thrones right now is definitely happening over at The Root, where Michael Harriot’s deft analysis reveals Game of Thrones as both comment upon and manifestation of the US racial imaginary (and thus, by extension, the entirety of US political life). Harriot’s work is astonishing and we all should be reading it.
All I’m saying here is that this was an episode of Game of Thrones that was brutally fractured into two very different stories, whereby men get gang-of-misfits heist dramas — even if they are shittily executed dramas of improbable zombie theft — and women get divided, pitted against one another, ignored. Or, put differently, white men with dumb dreams get to indulge their wish fulfillment and women get something like realism. Does this sound familiar, this insistence on making the space for male desire, at all cost? In a normal week it would just be wearying. This week it feels like another turn in the widening gyre.
What I would like, at this moment in history, is for some of my viewerly wishes to be fulfilled, and my viewerly wishes include, at this late date in the show’s narrative, letting the women who have suffered and learned have some chance to triumph, together.
Why not? Is it so impossible that we could have some beautifully made television where the ladies got the super impossible fantasy plotline? Is it so impossible that maybe Arya actually is smarter than Baelish, while also being a virtuoso fighter?
Why do the makers of this show think it’s fun, or in any way entertaining, to sit with the dread of Sansa and Arya hurting each other?
I said at the beginning that the problem with the Sansa and Arya plotline is that it didn’t make me happy. I’ve written about happiness before; it’s an idea around which I have some skepticism. But we are watching television right now in a world that’s falling apart for a lot of reasons, and one of them seems to be that a lot of white men can’t handle the inconvenience of not being constantly coddled, made happy, mollified. Asking for better TV isn’t anything like activism. But I would like the television I watch to acknowledge that my wishes are real, too, even — especially — if they are unlikely to be carried out in the world around me.
Dany may have fewer enemies, but we have more,
Previous episode: season 7, episode 4, "The Spoils of War."
Following episode: season 7, episode 6, "Beyond the Wall."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage