This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle are back to discuss the second episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” I feel like this is maybe also a good moment to put it out there that, yeah sure okay I guess it’s cool that Elizabeth Warren wrote a Thrones think-piece for another website, but, you know what’s cooler? Writing a detailed overnight review of an individual episode of Game of Thrones for a reader-supported, Los Angeles-based online book review. So: Kamala Harris? Kirsten Gillibrand? Pete Buttigieg? Feel free to send your takes to email@example.com. In the meantime, there are spoilers in here, so if you haven’t yet watched “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” please stop making fundraising calls for an hour, watch the episode, and get me 2500 words by tomorrow morning, Sen. Klobuchar!
Previous episode: season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”
Following episode: season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night.”
The Winterfell Listening Tour
by Aaron Bady
Last night was the least Game of Thrones this show has ever been. It was gentle and slow, tender and authentic; no one was cruel and everyone was listening. I enjoyed it a lot! I liked watching Jaime apologize for what he had done, and I enjoyed seeing Sansa and Daenerys act like adults who have a big issue but are basically capable of talking about it; the part where everyone gathers in the same room because someone built a fire (and does anyone have anything to drink? Anyone know a song?) was one of the best extended scenes the show has ever had, everything from Tyrion pouring Podrick a very full half-glass of wine and Tormund’s amazing story to Ser Brienne being knighted and smiling for the first time. Goosebumps. Basically, every part of that scene was the best thing ever. But there was also Sam finally getting accepted into the Big Boy’s Club because he stole a considerable number of books—and properly roasting Ed for celibacy — and Arya and Gendry being sufficiently sweet and earned (and basically PG-13) as not to scan as gratuitous. Sansa having a real moment with Theon was huge. And the onion knight made soup for everyone, because he’s The Goddamned Onion Knight.
No one died. It was the least Game of Thrones this show has ever been.
In the adaptation from books to HBO, A Song of Ice and Fire became Game of Thrones, and what had originally been the title just for George R. R. Martin’s first novel — the one most concerned with War of the Roses-style intrigue, courtly plotting, and power-hungry cynicism — became the blanket title for the series as a whole, of which it has remained. And in HBO’s mouth, the “Game” of the title always had the same cynical hardness as The Wire’s “it’s all in the game,” or even the same lightly-carried violence as The Sopranos’ “this thing of ours.” Thrones premiered only three years and four years after The Wire and The Sopranos went off the air, and it shared in that moment of HBO’s violent entertainments, a moment which started with Oz but which has definitely come to an end. Whether you like Westworld or not, it serves as a perfect climax to that very HBO genre of violent charismatic men whose bloody exploits became entertainment: what if the game itself became self-aware? What if the players became the play-ed? In all of these violent spectacles, a distinct strain of pornographic lust for violence — on the part of the show, on the part of the viewer — gets excused by a cool, feigned casualness, a familiarity with violence that makes it no big deal, just a game, just a thing, just business.
But, of course, it’s always a big deal, isn’t it? Shows like The Wire and The Sopranos don’t always shy away from pain, but the hard, masculine cool is pretty constant, as is the selfishness that drives the drama. But what was nice about last night was that no one was cruel and everyone was listening. Sansa heard what Daenerys was saying, just like she heard what Brienne said about Jaime, just like Jaime would listen to Brienne, and Tyrion would listen to Jaime, and so on; even in a little scene like when Sam is nattering on to Jon and Jon shoots him a tiny look and Sam stops on a dime; he could tell that he had pushed just a little too far, because he was listening. The smartest thing Tyrion does in the episode is go and listen to Bran. Listening is a good way to find out if you’re hurting other people, and how to stop, and in this episode, no one wants to be cruel. Everyone has had enough of that; they’d like to have as little of that as possible, please.
Next week, we’ll probably have a proper Game of Thrones episode, sadistically bloody and wonderfully awful. Darlings will be killed; one presumes that the casualty rate among Brienne, Grey Worm, Ser Jorah, Podrick, Gendry, and the Hound will be high, and some of them will maybe survive, but definitely not all of them. We’ve seen enough of this show to know what it does; it kills people. But this episode was different. This episode was strange: “It’s strange, isn’t it?” observes Tyrion; “Almost everyone here’s fought the Starks at one time or another, and yet here we are in their castle, ready to defend it.”
The great lie of shows like The Wire and The Sopranos is that violence is something you can be casual about, something you can get used to and easy and cool with, that violence is a game or a thing. We’re watching a show about sociopaths killing and murdering, we might say, but it doesn’t affect us, doesn’t change us. And so the violent in those shows only become more violent, easier with hurting; to the extent that they change, they become increasingly sociopathic, defined by the necessary callousness of that trade. Because the game never changes in these shows, because “this thing of ours” is the tradition that links history together, the one unchanging thing, there is nowhere else for the story to go, except increasingly more like itself. And so Tony becomes more of a sociopath and McNulty becomes more of a monstrous trickster; those who don’t die just become more and more the killers that they are.
But violence is strange and estranging and death is the weirdest thing in the world. Death and pain spins you around, both having it done to you and doing it; as Bran observes, Jaime is the person he is because the person he was did the things that he did, and if he hadn’t done those things, he’d still be that person. That’s weird. It’s strange that the people in that room wouldn’t be there to defend the Stark castle if they hadn’t fought the Starks at one time or another, but it’s true: doing a thing, because you are the kind of person that does that thing, can make you into a different kind of person who does different kinds of things. And so, from a show where everyone was evil, selfish, and cruel — where all the good characters died or were scattered — we’re now suddenly watching a show where everyone is good and collected under the roof of the house that was destroyed. Having killed people, they’d all like to see a world with a little less death.
(Not pictured: Bronn, Euron, Cersei.)
It won’t last, obviously. But the show needed a moment to contemplate it, to see how the effect of violence is not to harden but to soften; if you’ve been hurt and survive, you come to learn what being hurt is, and to live with that knowledge, and to connect in new ways to people who share this hurtful world with you. “You were a golden lion; I was a drunken whore-monger,” says Tyrion; in the process of being those things they became different things. Sansa and Arya have both been hurt, but the result has been that under their shells — necessitated by a world that still threatens to hurt them — they are peeled eggs, raw and sensitive; we needed to see that both of them are eager to take off their armor (if they could find a safe place to do it). Everyone is.
Even Dany, the “unburnt” — the show’s quiet counterpart to the Night King, the fire to his ice, and the character who has become the hardest and most implacable in response to how badly she’s been hurt — even she turns out to have been changed by her vulnerability, letting Jon bring her to Winterfell and letting Sansa disagree with her. She’s trying to understand why Sansa doesn’t like her, so she goes to listen; she’s trying to understand why Jon is avoiding her, so she goes to listen. Whether that will continue depends on what is changed by next week’s violence; having fought for Winterfell, perhaps Dany will end up fighting against the Starks. But it might also be that fire is different than ice, in one important respect: ice can melt and re-freeze, but a fire can only burn once. That’s why it’s so mesmerizing, why people gather around it, why they sit, in silence and in song, staring; having happened, it will never happen again.
We’ll be safe in the crypts, which are a very safe place, when you’re being attacked by the army of the dead, the safest place to be is in the crypts, which are safe, we’ll be safe there, nothing safer than a crypt,
“What I Did For Love” (Jaime and Company)
by Sarah Mesle
A moment I liked in Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones was when Sam, Edd, and Jon stood on Winterfell’s frosty and dragonglass-studed battlements and Sam sighed “I remember the time I knew what happiness was” and Edd agreed, “Drink with me to days gone by /to the life that used to be” and Jon sang, with a key change and soaring strings, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story” while looking pensively into the darkness.
Okay maybe Jon didn’t actually sing; musicals aren’t the only genre where, pre-crisis, you get scenes of reflection and loss and hope. But the musical is maybe the form that’s best at those scenes, because musicals are the form that’s most about the difficulty nearly everyone in Knight of the Seven Kingdoms faced, which is the problem of having feelings too big for words. In musicals, brooding tends to slip into ballads; they’re one way the musical genre cues that transformation is on the horizon, and this particular variety happens over and over, whether the transformation coming is through a battle (Les Mis, Hamilton) or a death (Cats) or a big dance audition (personal fave: Cassie’s “What I Did for Love” in A Chorus Line). Nearly all of these songs of loss hold on to a shared sense of what might remain when all else is gone: the redeeming, lasting, power of love.
And so it’s a strange thing to find this special mix of full-heartedness and nostalgia — a sadness that’s mixed with a sense of gratitude for the bad old days — in Game of Thrones, which began, as Bran reminds us, with love appearing as not so much a redemptive force as a force that makes people (Jaime) push children (Bran) out of windows. Comparing Game of Thrones to musicals is not a complaint! I love this part of musicals. But I think the comparison helps get at part of what feels so different in this episode, and both what worked and what didn’t within it. The White Walkers may be a climate change metaphor but they’ve also signaled a sort of slow marching genre change, coming unrelentingly, and now that they’re here everyone has to handle themselves differently, apparently with this near-musical sense of moral elevation.
It’s weird! It’s weird for us and for the characters; some folks are better at it than others. Think about how Jaime finds Brienne out on the training field and acts all nice and supportive and Brienne is like: what is wrong with you? What she’s detecting is the plate tectonics of genre’s conventional norms moving underneath her. Little does she know what’s going to happen forty minutes later!
But of course the episode isn’t all pre-battle ballads. It starts in a different vein, still in the strange time of preparation in last week’s episode, which as I noted was so strangely unmoored in its temporality that I don’t know if it took place over the course of one day or two or a week. (How long does it take to ride to Last Hearth? I guess last episode lasted that long?) This week was less so but it still spent its first half in a world where people had time and energy to work on their relationships.
One thing that struck me watching these scenes was how many of them worked in opposition to the famous “sexposition” scenes of the first seasons, where the show would stage a conversation in a brothel so that viewers could get information and boobs at the same time. In this episode, on the other hand, conversations took place often against the backdrop of a working fortress, where characters carried loaves of fresh baked bread and hacked branches into points and wrapped hilts in leather. I have spent a lot of time fascinated by the material culture of this show and this was one of my favorite, most nuanced, depictions yet of characters making this world work. These background scenes were even more appealing the second time around when I could pay attention to the detail of them: when Jaime and Brienne speak on the training ground, for instance, in the background are a row of characters, none in armor, learning how to lunge with spears. At least two of them are women. I’m sure these women are not excited to be preparing to fight a bunch of ice zombies but then, maybe they are also glad to be able to live in a world where the powers that be can imagine a role for them outside of titillation. Sorry, Littlefinger!
Significantly, the two scenes featuring negotiations between Sansa and Dany also took place in this early and practical half of the episode. The episode opens as Sansa, Dany, and Brienne negotiate for the future of Jaime; Jon is consulted only tangentially and Tyrion speaks mostly to demonstrate his uselessness. A few scenes later Dany and Sansa sit down to try and hammer out their differences. I’ve spent a lot of time railing about the difficulty this show (and, you know, the world) has imagining women as friends; often the most tantalizing friendships are the ones you have to imagine yourself. But I appreciate that the tension between these two women is real, and political, and doesn’t evaporate because of shared womanly humor about the desirability of tall men.
There’s some interesting debate to be had about this scene — about the whole episode, really — and how it leaves the viewer emotionally situated in relationship to Daenerys Targaryan and her potential queenship over the north and the Starks. But I personally don’t at all begrudge Dany her ambition. What bothered me more was the moment when she told Sansa “I’m here because I love your brother.” Really, I ask? I mean, I get the gesture, and I’m sure it’s partly true, but she’s also there because there are fucking ice zombies coming and she would like to rule over a country with a few living people in it. Isn’t this the better reason? Wouldn’t Sansa also think it’s a better reason? What was best about the scene was that neither woman would actually rest in that “anything for love” logic: Dany might be willing to use it an excuse for some things but she’s not actually going to claim, even strategically, that her love for Jon would change her vision for her country. Love matters to her, to both of them; it’s not all that does, and the balance of intimacy and intensity they brought to their failed negotiation was pleasurable to see.
(Sidebar: I didn’t really like how they did that hand hold-y thing, though, because I don’t think either of them are really “let’s touch” kind of people, didn’t it seem like that leaning sort of wandered in from Steel Magnolias?)
But as I mentioned, this conversation happens in the first half of the episode. At minute 28, riders arrive from Last Hearth: the walkers will arrive before morning, the countdown begins, and everything changes. Literally a test catapult flies through the air as a voice over begins and suddenly we are in a different world: a world we have to know we are losing. Dany shifts from her new (very flattering!) charcoal coat back to the white and crimson one, and puts back on that ascot. It’s time, as Tyrion says, for a song.
What would you do, if it were your last night on Earth? I’ve been thinking about how little sex happens, here in this wintry last night in the north. I think it’s worth noticing that the Dothraki are hardly in this episode at all, which is partly because we don’t know who any of them are (I still think this is a problem) but it’s also because I’m imagining that their activities don’t fit into the sort of emotional reverie the show is going for.
And about these reveries, I feel both moved and, sometimes, let down. One reason why the pre-battle ballad works so well in musicals is because a song offers a great kind of sublimation. A ballad signals moreness, muchness, it’s a kind of non-specific overflow that can contain a lot of kinds of desire that are hard to feel much less express. That key change at the bridge is a sign of elevation but it’s also super bodily. So with its ballads, a musical can kind of capture a lot of the audience’s hopes for the characters without having to see those hopes put into practice.
Is that a good thing? Maybe. Would it have been more, let’s say, satisfying to have some of the Arya/Gendry action take place in a sublimated ballad-like fashion, rather than watching them wrangle with their laces in a hay bale? I hate to say it but I actually sort of think so. I mean, look: Arya has had a lot of consummate physical experiences in this show and most of them involve slashing men’s throats. I have always loved this about her and I am not surprised that the most charged part of the scene was the camera’s attention to her scars. It makes 100% sense that her transition to a more, let’s say, conventional sexuality would be somewhat awkward and brittle, but it’s hard to be going for verisimilitude and character continuity when the whole episode around her has shifted to something else.
It’s shifted, that is, to something that makes perfect space for Brienne and Jaime. This is partly because Brienne has always been living in the world of elevated emotion. Her whole frisson with Jaime had to do with the fact that they were always talking to each other across the boundaries of the genres in which their personalities make the most sense. Brienne was honorable but not a knight; Jaime was a knight but not honorable: the beauty of him elevating her to his status is that it elevated him too. The small ritual is a genre in itself; one making room for kinds of commitment outside of romantic love. In its balance of hope for sustaining connection and its recognition that little, limited, acts of touch may be all we have, it was beautiful.
Some other stuff happens after that, stuff that matters, like the arrival of the zombie horses and Jon causing problems by being completely unsavvy and noncommittal about telling Dany that he is her nephew and rival. But I would rather end with the Brienne and Jaime and their friends and comrades in a room, trying to stay warm, overpouring — in a rare moment of Tyrion’s humor still shining through — the wine. Because it’s in these scenes, the ballad ones, not the ones hinting at the coming conflicts, where the characters’ wistfulness and longing is most like mine, and maybe like yours too. Watching Sam and Edd and Jon on the battlements; watching Davos and Tyrion in a room, I too felt how much time I’ve spent with them: how much they’ve changed, how much they’ve annoyed me, how much I’ve changed. How sorry I’ll be to see them go.
I do not want Brienne to die and I am hoping that somehow Sansa kills the Night King,
Previous episode: season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”
Following episode: season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night.”