JULY 31, 2017
This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle discuss, “The Queen’s Justice,” the third episode of season seven of Game of Thrones, and doesn’t it feel like there was already an episode with this title before, is somebody writing all this down? Anyway, there are obviously spoilers below, so if you don’t want to read about whether Jon S. gets sent home after his one-on-one date with Dany or if Euron G. gets an invitation to the Fantasy Suite, then we suggest you watch the episode already.
Rooks and Rookies
by Aaron Bady
I worry we’ve reached the point in this show where everyone is basically, now, what they are: chess pieces with prescribed moves and capabilities. They’ve all come a long way, and they have a lot of scars, metaphorical and not. Their baseball cards are filled with stats and triumphs. But are any of them still on the way up? Still learning? Still being surprised by the world?
I suspect the answer is no, that character growth and change is no longer possible in this show, bereft, as it now is, of rookies. All of the narratively productive and interesting ambiguity and tension that once defined their characters—all the unresolved conflicts in a person that actions resolve or complicate, all the inherent contradictions that make free will more than a word, all of the potential to be lived up to or squandered—I feel like most of that is gone now, left behind by the necessity of resolution. We know what they have all done and we know what they are all capable of; do we know too much, now, for the show to be surprising?
I don’t want to sound too negative. I enjoyed the opening and closing scenes of this week’s episode, because we saw intelligent characters struggling to improvise responses to situations they had not expected to face. Just like I wanted! Olenna’s last joust was, as always, a pleasure—as was the decisiveness with which she drank down that wine, because people being decisive is the best thing on Game of Thrones—but the most narratively satisfying piece of the show was the long, bad, frustrating meeting between Ice and Fire (Narrator: “Hey! That’s the name of the books!”). It was rich and interesting because it was so overdetermined and long-awaited, and it went so surprisingly, stupidly, irrevocably badly. Both Jon and Dany knew exactly what they wanted from the other side, and had good reasons for thinking that their goals were well-founded and reasonable, are fan-favorites, and had plans to get what they wanted, and those plans fail completely. Neither side wanted conflict, but when both of them got it—and couldn’t see a way around it—we got to see growth and change. Watching well-established characters deal with a new circumstance—watching them struggle to rise above what they’ve been, in response—is a pleasure: Jon has to deal with the problem of his brooding, mopey “Jon-ness” and Daenerys has to come to terms with the limitations of being Daenerys “I AM THE QUEEN” Targaryen. Jon has to be more like the subtle Southerner he secretly half is, and she has to be more like the honorable Northerner she has never, in any way, been: no one is less suited for courtly negotiations than the bastard of the north, and no one is less suited to cultivating allies than someone who has been betrayed by basically everybody and still triumphed because of deus ex dragons. So they are at an impasse, with only Tyrion—a terrible Hand, but a good judge of character and intermediary—to bridge the gap.
As for the rest of it, well… as the show hurtles towards its conclusion, we’ve seen rich and complicated characters become, suddenly, kind of one note. Cersei is omnicompetent and infallible, not so much motivated by grief for her children as liberated to an unstoppable sociopathy by the release from the fetters of family. Jaime is selfless and effective, a metal object as useful and inhuman as his hand. Samwell is sweet and loyal and brave; Jorah is robotically returning to his Khaleesi; Euron is magical profanity; Theon continues to be a complete bummer. Sansa is problematically effective—what the show wants us to see as a kind of a self-conscious mirror of Cersei—while Littlefinger is Littlefinger, not so much a guy with desires and a plan as the embodiment of scheming manipulation. And Bran is… kind of a dickhead now?
It’s still an interesting show, and I’ll keep watching, but I can’t help but feel like we’re getting an increasingly efficient, stripped-down, and streamlined version of the extremely baggy and meandering monstrosity that George R. R. Martin is clearly incapable of finishing. But his incapacity to close it out is a function—I am convinced—of what it is that he created: at its core, this is a soap opera. Game of Thrones could have been a narrative framework within which a multitude of characters come and go and scheme and plot and improvise—ostensibly moving towards some kind of grand resolution, but manifestly in no hurry to get there—and for a long time, that’s exactly what it was. Interminable wars go on and on while our protagonists struggle to survive—and when they don’t, new protagonists pop up in new places and struggle to survive in turn—and the show become less like a grand epic than a narrative ecosystem, with a changing and evolving cast, replenishing its stock of story with new story every time a narrative line went dry.
No more: the callous efficiency with which Dorne is being disposed of speaks to the necessity that the showrunners seem to feel about cleaning up all the loose odds and ends of the plot; instead of diverging and branching narratives, everything is converging. And much is lost as this happens. For all the richness of the reunion scenes—after years have passed and shared experiences are stretched and warped by memory—it’s becoming a narrative device with diminishing returns, like we’re harvesting but not replanting. Olenna’s death mirrors Joffrey’s, just as the Sand Snakes’ death mirrors Myrcella’s, nice symmetrical end-stops. Put differently: we’re seeing narrative repetitions, closed-parentheses on interesting tangents, but there aren’t any new ones opening up.
Remember when characters on this show used to just talk and talk and talk? And talk? It feels like they don’t, anymore, which is related to the fact that travel times have been effectively reduced to zero. Every scene moves the plot forward, because all those long journeys that used to drag things out and leave characters with nothing to do but walk and talk and scheme… well, let us observe that Euron continues to be able to teleport his ships around the world so as to get where he needs to go at exactly the right time, and in only three episodes, the war has completely changed its shape; when the situation changes this fast, there’s no chance to ruminate.
Here’s why Bran is now a ponderous dickhead, and why Littlefinger—who used to be a fascinating and ambiguous son of a bitch—is now just a creepy dude lean-leering on a wall: if you reduce the world to a finite set of possible moves and combinations, you’ve radically simplified the complexity of each piece, and made it much less interesting. To see the world that way is inhuman, because you don’t see the world as human either. And as one of the show’s now-trademark beat-you-over-the-head transition cuts has forced us to notice, Bran and Littlefinger have the same general worldview, to see the whole world of possibility as latent within itself, simultaneous and undifferentiated. But that kind of totalizing God’s-Eye gaze has serious costs: the world is, to be blunt, a lot stranger and messier and complicated and rich than that. You only have to take a walk and meet a stranger to learn that.
To make the world into a chessboard, on the other hand, you have to reduce it to 64 squares. To make people into pieces, you have to make them one-note, interchangeable. This is now how the showrunners are clearly thinking; they are maneuvering each piece into their final combinations, engineering a last run into oblivion (and thinking like the Deep Blues that they are writing Littlefinger and Bran to be). But the world of the show didn’t used to be that simple and clear; when the universe was expanding, each new journey into new terrain forced our characters to broaden and expand, as they learned and added complexity (and over-wrote old patterns and habits). They met new people; they became new people. Now that the show is contracting, as we’re removing all the excess pieces so as to create one final endgame, nothing new is being added. The show is finally becoming the kind of high fantasy it always pretended to be, but wasn’t; a world that was supposed to be big, but actually only became smaller and smaller.
And maybe it had to be; the show does, after all, have to end. But you know what? Even if Cersei’s hair never seems to grow anymore, because we need to be reminded that she is Permanently Scarred By What Happened, that’s only how things work in comic book fantasy; in real life, time never stops moving and never stops standing between you and your destination. In high fantasy, everything happens when it needs to. The nice thing about the real world is that the universe never stops expanding, as long as you keep walking and talking to strangers.
I need to learn to see better,
Cersei, Dany, and Tracy Flick
Do you remember Tracy Flick? She’s a main character in the 1999 Alexander Payne movie Election, which I saw again last week for the first time since it came out. In the movie, Tracy Flick, played by a young Reese Witherspoon, runs for student council president at an Omaha high school; Mr. McCallister (Matthew Broderick) her history and government teacher, furtively and not so furtively works to ensure that the school’s friendly and idiotic football star (Chris Klein) will win instead. Both Tracy and Mr. McCallister believe that they are waging a war for goodness: Tracy fights for the side of following your dreams and good governance; Mr. McCallister fights for the side of thwarting annoying young women so their success doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself. In the end, Tracy Flick wins, which means (in the movie’s logic) that she really loses. At no point in the movie does anyone like her.
The point of Election, I think, is that everyone is either terrible or dumb and that misogyny is always already inside you, molding women into differently loathsome types. In this later way, Election is somewhat like The Beguiled, but with mom jeans instead of corsets and Chris Klein’s masculine charisma exposing the gendered order of things instead of Collin Farrell’s (Arguably, Tracy Flick is also a little like Meg March). Election is also a little like season 7 of Game of Thrones, in that it’s a meditation on women in government and in that it’s both about misogyny and so deeply inside misogyny that watching it is often writhingly unpleasant.
Consider these three different examples of narratively disruptive charismatic manhood. (The only place more horrifying to imagine Euron Greyjoy than in King’s Landing is in your average contemporary high school.)
There’s not really a Tracy Flick in Game of Thrones because the tidy and officious mode of feminine power Tracy represents is definitely a modern invention (or rather, my theory would be that the Victorians invented fantasy literature to counterbalance the desexualized mode of tidy and officious femininity that they were also, and at the same time, inventing: anyway, no one in a fantasy novel can be as simultaneously feminine and unhot as Tracy Flick). But the problems she faces—how do you, as a woman, lead a country without making everyone hate you—are all of over Game of Thrones.
Of course, one solution to that problem, as Cersei is demonstrating, is to just lean in to the hatred. Cersei this season is like the Sheryl Sandberg of Westerosi politics, just taking up all the masculine models of success that have been given to her (“You are your father’s daughter,” the representative of the Iron Bank says admiringly) and then painting an unrepentant layer of crazy bitch over them. (I don’t really believe in the category of “crazy bitch” but the people of Westeros do, and Cersei has learned to use that idea to her advantage.) Cersei spent all last season, right up to the end, being sort of useless and unintelligent, so the show has itself an interesting problem right now in that, for the sake of its own machinations, it needs her to be successful. Cersei keeps winning and yet we keep not seeing her be intelligent enough to win. It’s an interesting pattern: both last week and this week (as well as, arguably, the finale of last season) stage Lannister victories as occasions of narrative surprise (as viewers, we’re always watching events unfold with whoever Cersei is against), which means that Cersei’s talent as a leader only appears as a surprise, too. The only hint you get that she’s not just dumbly vengeful is in her excellent new fashion choices and perhaps in the clipped haircut of her handmaiden. Cersei’s toxic femininity, these outfits tell us, is fully weaponized.
It’s interesting to compare Tracy Flick to Dany: both are idealistic young women who like to make speeches about their moral vision and the inevitability of their success. But while Tracy’s speeches are played for comedy, Dany’s are so compelling that they inspire the utmost devotion in men everywhere. What’s the difference? (Do you think a young Reese Witherspoon could have played Daenerys Targaryen? I’m really thinking about it.) Both are beautiful but Tracy seems to think she can achieve through mere intelligence and ambition, whereas Dany imagines, all the time, men looking at her; their attention ripples through her every gesture. Morality and sexuality occur for her simultaneously, and I’m not saying that’s totally a bad thing, I’m just saying that it’s what she’s doing: even at her strongest and most distant, she asks men to imagine her as available, even if not to them.
Noticing this is an interesting way to think about what worked and what didn’t in her scenes with Jon Snow: it’s not that they were bad, it’s just that they were sort of un-riveting, and one reason why is that the show doesn’t know how to make men interact with Dany if they aren’t falling in love with her—and Jon can’t fall in love with Dany because, although they don’t know this yet, he is her nephew. (He thinks it’s politics standing between them getting along; in fact the obstacles are gender norms and endogamy).
Another parallel between Election and Game of Thrones that’s worth noting is how dramatically both illustrate that being a woman leader means being mostly around men. Tracy Flick has very few scenes with other women; in Election really the only way to not have your life organized around male relationships is to completely get kicked out of life and sent to Catholic school (the movie presents this as a happy ending). Election is precisely about the tension between mediocre men and talented women, the way that men want women’s talent to be loathsome when it’s not shaped for their desire, so it wouldn’t have been possible within the scope of the movie to have Tracy negotiate around a woman history teacher, a Ms. McCallister rather than a Mister. (It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine how the movie would be different with that kind of casting—not less vicious, but differently so.)
Instead, Tracy talks to male “advisors” just as Dany, Cersei, and Sansa do. Please remember how just last week Dany was in a war counsel surrounded entirely by other women, and please note how Game of Thrones could both hold that up as an accomplishment and then could not at all imagine how to make any of these women sustainable characters: they’re all dead or out of power now. It’s a tough thing for Game of Thrones to have brought women to power at exactly the moment when it also needs to stage a series of battles, when it doesn’t really know how to let women succeed in battle. Yara, Ellaria—the half-assed way these characters have been developed left no room for them to be actually successful in positions of power. (It’s unclear to me how Lady Olenna was defeated so easily: I’m not sure what went wrong there. Is the point that Jaime is that good? Or that the Tyrells are that bad?) Women, in Game of Thrones, do not wage war for territory; they are the territory. Lady Olenna is identical to her castle; although Dany’s troops take Casterly Rock, the taking of this “impregnable” fortress is both a direct result of Tyrion’s past sexual conquests and a replication of it.
(Let’s pause and appreciate the efficiency of the battles at the end of this episode: I sort of loved how Tyrion’s voiceover just Carrie Bradshaw’d them right out of there.)
The possible exception to all this is Sansa, who as Jon says is “starting to let on” how smart she is; watching Sansa be good at something and not be (immediately) punished for it is the sort of pleasure that we shouldn’t have to feel so grateful for Game of Thrones giving to us. I loved how, in her scenes, the womanly arts of keeping a household fed and clothed are clearly displayed as of key military importance, and I loved her take downs of Petyr Baelish, and I would have loved it all more if she’d had Brienne with her the whole time. Why doesn’t she? And why, if Missandei is as Tyrion says “Daenerys’s most trusted advisor,” is she not there more often when Dany and Tyrion talk? Where are women talking to other women?
Here’s where women, in this episode, are talking to other women: they are down in the dungeon, punishing each other, and each other’s children, for the way each has been wrapped up in struggles for power, which for the women in this show are always familial and sexual as well as political. Precisely to the extent that there is no way to separate women’s bodies from the territories fought over in war, there is no way for those women to separate their love for their children and their love for their lovers from the political violence around them. Intimacy is fucked everywhere, which is why it’s so brilliantly horrifying when Cersei passionately kisses Tyene, collapsing categories we like to keep apart. Jealousy and pain and desire aren’t clean feelings, and the scene knows it; they’re fluid, like breastmilk and poison. They hurt, and they take time.
I have never been compelled by Ellaria or the Sand Snakes—none of the actresses can maneuver around Game of Thrones’s script, which requires women—Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, and Maisie Williams are all brilliant at this—to get most of their character development done with their eyebrows rather than their words. But in the final moments of the dungeon scene, as we see Ellaria and Tyene straining against their chains to get at each other, I thought the show got at something true.
And one of the true things it gets at is that, as Election knows, people are terrible. Women, many of them, are terrible, and not just because of misogyny, but rather because they’re people: misogyny just provides a structure for their terribleness to take. What Cersei does, her cruelty, her selfishness, cannot be accounted for by feminism.
Game of Thrones is not like Election, really: it’s busy trying to figure out how to salvage some sense of heroism, of virtue, out of its messed up world, and Election thinks that ship sailed long ago. But it’s interesting to compare the fantasies of Westeros to our other recent cultural stories about what women, white women particularly, can do with the power they have: not only The Beguiled but also Lady MacBeth and even Get Out. Who do we hate, and why? What machinations can feminism allow us to rationalize, and which can it not? What are the forms we can tolerate women’s power taking? What even are the forms we can tolerate women taking?
No one likes Tracy Flick (except—and I should have said this earlier, because it’s totally the interpretive navel of the whole thing—the schlumpy middle aged man who wants to fuck her), but watching Election in the midst of 2017, in the midst of Game of Thrones, makes me appreciate her. I like to imagine her someplace else, with different possibilities and different role models than those already wrapped up in the categories that trap her. I would like to see her with Missandei or Brienne. I think if I were Lyanna Mormont, I would want her on my side.
Who’s worse, Bran or Euron?