MAY 16, 2016
Previous episode: season 6, episode 3, “Oathbreaker.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 5, “The Door.”
“I’m With Her”
Sarah: Aaron! How excited are you?? This episode had everything. Stirring reunions, political allegories, smoking hot appreciation of Brienne by Tormund, smoking hot and symbolically significant breasts. What more could you want?! The first 10 minutes of this episode were so perfect, so completely gratifying, that I was sure they’d do something awful by the end, but I really felt like they got everything right except for the (sigh) fundamental failure to conceive of intersectional feminism.
Aaron: Failure? I think you mean: ideology approaching pure! But yeah, SISTERS AND BROTHERS, DOING IT TOGETHER! I made an inarticulate vocalization when Sansa kicked down the door, and the whole episode is basically Sansa being the Sansa you always wanted her to be. But more than that, the whole thing works. I’ve been worrying and complaining for the last two weeks that the show has just drowned in its multitude of plots and become a kind of serialism-without-payoff, where each episode is just a sequence of “meanwhile, in this plot!” check-ins, but no plot moves more than one move, and so you just slowly grind forward without anything actually cohering. But this episode seemed to actually be about stuff! All the brothers and sisters reuniting gave it a nice thematic through-line (Maergary and Loras, Jon and Sansa, Theon and Yara, not to mention the continuing adventures of Jamie and Cersei), and even more interesting, the political allegories suddenly clicked into place, and seemed to be actually talking to each other in weird, interesting ways.
Sarah: Exactly, about the political allegories. I like Game of Thrones best when it really ups its 19th-century novel qualities, really uses plot to ratchet up the emotional resonances around family, race, belonging, connectedness. And this was so 19c they even worked in a plot about gradual emancipation! I mean, c’mon: this is some really good Tyrion as Stephen Douglas, keepin’ the nation together and being all “slavery’s bad but war’s worse.” Aaron, this is maybe the time to mention that I have read a lot of 19th century discussions about how to end slavery: I’m going to try to keep it reined in here, but let me say for now that my greatest hope is to see Missandei and Dany get all John Brown/Nat Turner up in this Tyrion “seven years and compensation” strategy.
Aaron: By the old gods and the new, Sarah, I will never ask you to rein in the references to 19th-century abolition discourse.
Sarah: And Aaron, by the Lord of Light, I will never ask you to rein in any references to post-colonial language practices! Between the two of us, we are going to have some things to say about Missandei and Grey Worm, here. We didn’t talk last week about Tyrion’s failed attempt to have witty “conversation!” with those two — like, they just shut that white dude witty banter down — but I am so glad that Missandei is getting at least something a little bit interesting to do, and that the show is making space for us to appreciate that her work as a “translator” requires a conceptual sophistication about a range of political and social identities. She is amazing here. Although I worry about what it means that the show is setting her up against the much-beloved Tyrion. I’m curious how this will play out — if we’ll be allowed to see that Tyrion is incredibly, horribly, brutally wrong, that Missandei is right. I’m going to go ahead and quote some Walter Benjamin, Aaron: “One reason why fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.” TYRION, LISTEN TO WALTER!
Aaron: It’s interesting that Tyrion is so very wrong, and wrong in ways that directly contradict Daenerys’s revolutionary project (see under “breaking the wheel”). So much so, in fact, that he’s reactionary: if he’s Douglas, he’s also the post-reconstruction political consensus on pragmatism and gradualism, the argument that you cannot just remove an institution without preparing a replacement for it! Because that would be chaos! His appeal to the Slavers — “here’s how to end slavery but still keep the power structure intact” — is basically an end-run around Dany’s project, at least as Grey Worm understands it (and as only he and Missandei can understand it).
Which makes me wonder: is he lying to them? Is he just playing for time? Or does he actually believe it? Because you could argue that he knows it’s bullshit, and he’s just trying to get the Sons of the Harpies off their back.
Sarah: Right, and that’s important: to remember that this isn’t just allegory, it’s a story, with its own wisdom.
Aaron: I think Grey Worm and Missandei seem to agree that everything Tyrion said was wrong, but they did still support him in front of their own people. So what’s in their heads? Are they hoping he’s right? Or are they unable to articulate a counter-proposal yet? Tyrion has just pulled a “Bring the Wildlings South of the Wall”-style move, and if Jon Snow’s experience is any indication, that sometimes has consequences in the rank and file. What if they pretend to agree, but end up killing Tyrion? I can’t imagine the show doing it, but it makes a certain amount of sense (as with all the various bloody killings-off-of-beloved-protagonists).
Sarah: AARON, WHAT IF?! That would be amazing, and there’s no way that’s going to happen. Here’s why: This show still doesn’t have any idea how to write Grey Worm. The actor, Jacob Anderson, has an amazing face and can get a lot of emotional work done by furrowing his brow at us, but he is really limited by the naïve stoicism of the dialogue they give him. I would like to see his brow be given the chance to have some ideas — figure some things out, implement an idea or strategy — rather than just respond to the needs and actions of the white people around him.
Aaron: The show still looks at him and sees him as a weapon. But his connection to Missandei is the closest thing it has done to changing that: after all, given that weapons are phalluses and penises are weapons in this show, the fact that his love — or whatever their connection is — cannot be sexual takes their positional relation into some really interesting places. It’s a class consciousness, almost, but intimate, personal, and affecting, rather than a theoretical abstraction. They get each other.
Sarah: Right, absolutely (I’d say that it can be sexual, but even in imagining sexuality outside of penises, it’s a real departure for what this show makes space for). And let’s push on this weapons metaphor a bit: this episode was particularly fondling in its visual attention to various implements of destruction. It opens with a close shot of John’s sword; it moves to a down-the-shaft shot of Robin Arryn’s arrow; we see Ramsay’s knife and Daario’s. And I think we have to keep all those brutal weapons in mind when we think of the episode’s final shot: Dany, breasts bare, surrounded by flames. It’s a perfect metaphor for what’s best about her plot line, all the many wheels she is trying to break. The scene of Dany and the Khal’s in the temple was written (one of many scenes that was written this way, actually) to emphasize how the men of this world conceive of military conquest essentially as rape: the Khal will fuck Danaerys; Ramsay will fuck Sansa; the slavers will fuck Missandei.
Aaron: And Grey Worm becomes a phallus: not having a penis himself because he is someone else’s. (The symbolic sexual-economy of the Unsullied isn’t quite thoroughly worked out.) But Dany’s whole thing is “Put it away. I have a better plan.”
Sarah: Dany would like to imagine the world differently! It would be amazing, completely radical, except the show cannot separate Dany’s radical potential from her whiteness, and in fact makes her whiteness the key metaphor for her ability to reorient the “primitive” (and brown) masculinist structure of this world. I mean, this is old news, but I guess the show’s going to make us work through it again? Even though the language of Ramsay and the Khals is basically the same, and the script makes it clear that we should see masculine violence as the common problem, the show’s visual logics make the brown skin of the Dothraki the symbol of that dangerous masculinity
Aaron, it’s so annoying: they could completely have gotten around this, or at least really improved the situation, by allowing Dany to forge an alliance with the other widows. But of course Dany can’t respect them because they are “stinking old women” and this show still doesn’t like aging women any better than our culture does. After the beautiful attention to aging Melisandre in episode one, I was really hopeful! But, no. Still not our girlfriend, this show!
Aaron: On that note: Have you noticed that the show doesn’t seem to respect the Grand Dame of the Tyrells anymore? The show loved her before; she was always the smartest person in the room. But now she’s getting wrapped around Cersei’s finger in a really boring way.
But the other problem with the women of the Dothraki is that they are brown, of course, so they can’t imagine a way out of the patriarchy, even the young one. Dany changes the equation and wins hearts and minds by burning their patriarchy to the ground! Shock and Awe! We have killed the Bad Men that were leading you, so now you will welcome us with open arms as your new benevolent overlords! Etc.
Sarah: I mean, I was thrilled watching that ending, I really was — so good, to watch her grab those metal sconces. And such a relief, that she fucking handled that situation! — but it left a very sour taste. And let’s note too that the scene ended by making the respect of the Dothraki secondary to the fealty of our dudes, Jorah and Daario.
Aaron: SO GLAD THE BOYS DIDN’T RESCUE HER. They kind of helped? But she really had it handled, which was narratively satisfying. Without that ending, this episode would have still been pretty good, but the internet is buzzing with joy right now because the ending was such a narrative home run: unexpected but consistent with what we know, visually very satisfying, and a total game changer. But that’s, also, a version of the tradeoff offered by imperial feminism: you can have this form of very satisfying emancipation from this kind of un-freedom, but you have to accept these other forms of strict social hierarchy, or overlook their continuation.
Sarah: And in this regard, it’s interesting to think about Dany and Tyrion as offering similar kinds of compromises, and Missandei and Grey Worm being required to reckon with them, being required to bow down, much like the Dothraki. So in a sense, to the extent that the Meereen scenes invited us to be sympathetic to Missandei — which, as I said, is debatable — they’ve written in a critique of Dany, even if they don’t see it.
Aaron: AND SARAH WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DANY COMES HOME AND FINDS WHAT TYRION HAS BEEN DOING?
Sarah: AARON, I DON’T KNOW! I also don’t know how she is going to get there? I guess just ride south? Bigger question, less feasible: How is she going to ride this army up to fight the Boltons OR THE WHITE WALKERS? As Edd says, in scene one: “HARD HOME, NEVER FORGET.” There is a lot of army movement on the table, and I’m really excited by how confusing I find the possible outcomes here.
Aaron: It’s always been unclear whether Dany was as invested in the whole plan of taking back the throne of Westeros as the show seems to expect her to be; season one has some key moments of her not only breaking with her brother but also breaking with his plan to go “home.” This episode brought us back to Khal Drogo’s vow to tear down the stone houses, but also, I feel like Dany has a lot of Essos to conquer first, doesn’t she? And as you point out, how is anyone going to convince Dany that the White Walkers are a threat? Not much climate change in Essos, as far as I can see.
But I want to go back to the gradualism versus revolution problem, because we need to decide how we feel about this show’s allegory to the current presidential campaign. For example, this tweet fascinates me: it directly analogizes Dany burning down the Dothraki house with HRC cleansing the Democratic Party of, one presumes, Sanders supporters. That is a weird analogy if you think about it, even a little!
Sarah: Really weird! Although, I think that metaphor works in a couple of ways: Sanders is the enemy, but so is Trump. And, implicitly (if we want to give the analogy maybe more room than it deserves), the shared quality of both of those campaigns, Sanders and Trump — here I am not saying that Bernie is misogynist, but rather that the rhetoric around his candidacy intersects with a broader culture that is misogynistic — is their shared reliance on our distaste for powerful women. So I read that tweet as more about gender than about Sanders in particular.
Aaron: The analogy is really sticky. It’s more about gender and more about getting rid of the Bernie Bros, but the original figure — Dany in the Dothraki house — has all these other connotations that it can’t help but include, like the idea that a convention is a place for Total Annihilation of The Enemy (or saving the Middle East’s women through American Military Might!). There are too many different threads, so we pick and choose how we reconstruct it, especially when it comes to us in meme-form.
Sarah: And then, of course: Sanders is totally in this episode. When the High Sparrow was orating to Margaery, my friends were like: so this is Bernie’s convention speech we’re seeing here? I mean, that whole scene was really amazing, in the way it both makes space for and really criticizes an idea of Bernie and his bros, regardless of Bernie’s actual policies.
Aaron: Right, the interesting thing about the High Sparrow is that he talks class but he acts like a hard-right cultural conservative. His conversion narrative is ostensibly about how he learned to hate the value form, and he has a pretty good critique of the commodity going on there, but he’s not the Jesus who came to kick out the Romans, not really; he’s the kind of Christian who is obsessed with bodily purity and — by amazing coincidence! — with the fact that women have naked bodies under the clothes they try to use to hide their filthy, truthful, naked, and embodied selves. He starts off with “You’ve worn a year of someone’s life” but he pretty quickly gets to a really visceral loathing of the “truth of their bodies laid bare.” If he’s Bernie Sanders, then, the show wants to analogize him to Ted Cruz too, or someone like that.
Sarah: His class critique is completely collapsed into a critique of “femininity,” rendered as anything beautiful, sexual, or luxurious. In this way, it’s like some of the casual misogyny of many leftist thinkers. Femininity is “sin” because it is the opposite of manliness, truth, authenticity. I mean, the Sparrow even throws his own nun-lady under the bus (I’m refusing to look up her name this week because she makes me too angry, even though the show is not wrong that the nun is a totally familiar, painful way that women really do relate to the patriarchy.) This is such a familiar trope!
And it has everything to do with the Sparrow’s homophobia, too. It is gratifying that Margaery is having none of it, but frustrating that the show seems to buy into that same stupid dudeness, by lingering on the Loras’s perceived “weakness.” And also, it’s disappointing to me that the show can’t give any better way for Cersei to express her rage about the Sparrow’s sexual humiliation of her than through stupid class-privilege prattling about the High Sparrow’s “peasant hands.” Cersei was so smart last season, so insightful and so witty, and no lines she’s been given this season give her any real intellectual or emotional depth. Like Grey Worm, she’s most compelling when she gets out of the script for a minute and just talks to us with her furrowed brow.
Aaron: You’re right, but she does manage to forge a shaky class alliance with the Tyrells out of it, which is a neat trick to pull off. She begins with “let’s get his dirty peasant hands off of us,” and when the appeal to class solidarity doesn’t to win the argument, she shifts tactics: she wins over Olenna Tyrell when she makes the appeal to feminine solidarity against walks-of-shaming. It seems to be about class, but it isn’t, or not only; it’s an improvisation, where two kinds of politics are being welded together, and an impressive one.
Sarah: If we read this episode really generously, what’s best about it is the way it shows how so many different kinds of politics align and also how they push against each other. The High Sparrow offers the class critique Tyrion can’t see, but blends it with a masculinist attitude that’s ultimately just the other side of the coin from the violent indulgence of the Khals. Gender unites people, but it also doesn’t: Jon Snow and Grey Worm, for instance, are not the same type of brooding man-sufferers, and Tyrion’s ambivalent drunken grumpiness (not much on display this episode, but still a part of him) plays out differently, because he is both a “misshapen dwarf” and white and rich. Poverty is different for different characters; slavery means something different for Missandei and Grey Worm than it does for Tyrion.
Aaron: Right, and Missandei’s challenge to Tyrion is so pointed and great: “so, remind me again, how long were you a slave?” He wants to pretend that he understands the downtrodden because he lived that life for a couple days. But that was play-acting, and it didn’t last. So, he wants to argue that compromise is necessary, because what they’ve done hasn’t worked; their point is that nothing works. He might “know” what slavery is, but the slave understands something he can’t: that seven years is a long time and that the masters cannot be compromised with. You have to break the wheel. Burn down the house.
Sarah: Any means necessary!
Aaron: I think they have a much better case than Alliser Thorn did for killing a beloved character. Tyrion is fucking up. “Let us sail on the tide of freedom instead of being drowned on it.” C’mon dude, give it a rest. Also: “That has always been the way of the world; I’m not here to change the way of the world.” YES BUT DAENERYS LITERALLY AND EXPLICITLY IS ABOUT THAT. But it’s also an interesting reversal: remember when Dany was struggling to rule and Tyrion showed up to teach and help and advise and fix everything? We now really need Dany to come back, thank him for his service, and fire him.
Sarah: “Fire him”: O ho, Aaron, I see what you did there. I mean, seriously Tyrion, get it together. Oh God, and the way he ends his little “conversation” with the slavers by bringing in the whores, like: look! Don’t worry! Shifting from slavery to a modern economy does not mean giving up your vagina access! Here is the push back, right, against the High Sparrow’s “capitalism is femininity!” fol-de-rol: capitalism treats women like vaginas, just like war-mongering does.
Aaron: Or super rich men who inherited a life of ease and pleasure! Which brings us to: where is Trump in this show? Can this show imagine Trump? Maybe Littlefinger, except Littlefinger is not at all like Trump in any way.
Sarah: Oh god! Trump! I mean, Joffrey? The same kind of petulance, if not the same kind of sadism.
Aaron: Or Robin Arryn, who might become New Joffrey? But no, Robin is sort of innocent in his malevolence. And often scared. Joffrey was something else.
Sarah: I’m glad there’s no Tump. There’s enough going on already. Aaron, I think what we’re showing here is that there is a lot worth talking about in this episode; I hope everyone in the world watches it and writes a think piece for me to argue about on Twitter. Should we get down to our best and worst?
My best is Jon and Sansa leaping into each other’s arms, and my second best is Brienne getting all “I will not forget” on Melisandre. That was super gratifying, although if it means that what we’re going to get here is these two powerful women fighting each other off rather than figuring each other out, this plot line could go south really quickly.
Aaron: Though Brienne’s line was doubly cool because she held back and didn’t actually drop her knowledge bomb: she knows what Davos doesn’t — that Melisandre killed Shireen — and she let Melisandre know that she knows, which was as neat a threat as you’d ever want to hold on to. Stay in line, or I will tell Davos about you! Also, to Davos: Stay in line, because I killed your King. She walks into that conversation and walks away OWNING it.
For my best, okay, obviously it’s Jon and Sansa, but a different version of it: the moment when the other Knight’s watch guy tries to give him the sword (HERE IS THE PHALLUS, TAKE IT) and Jon responds with: “They killed me, my own brothers, you want me to stay after that?” I don’t want to be in this Frat anymore. And then right on cue: the gate crashes open, it’s … his sister! It’s such a great recapitulation of everything going on, with such a neat symbolic economy.
For worst, we’re going to both say Ramsay, again, aren’t we? How pointless was that scene? He’s peeling an apple! Now he’s killing her and peeling the apple again! He is so evil, we definitely do not like this character because he kills good characters a lot and is evil!
Sarah: I did not hate that scene as much as you did! Here’s why: One, I actually had never thought about Osha being the one who finally offs Ramsay, but that was a really pleasing thing to imagine for about ten seconds, even if you knew it was too good to be true, and two: I was actually relieved that the “Ramsay does terrible things to Osha” plot line got dispatched with such economy!
Aaron: Her “Oh, no cannibalism? Cool story, bro” was pretty slick. But I think we’re grading on a curve here: as Ramsay Bolton scenes go, it could have been so much worse.
Sarah: Right, exactly. I didn’t hate watching the scene — but the very fact of the scene points out a bigger problem that is indeed, the worst, which is the show’s dreary spooling out of Ramsay’s sadism. We could have been watching Arya! Although she is dreary now too. Maybe it’s my worst that I was actually happy to have a break from Arya? How could that ARYA BECOMES AN ASSASSIN plot line possibly have become so dull?!
Aaron: Somebody needs to give Arya permission to just give up the revenge thing and go off and have adventures. Maisie Williams is a legit STAR in ways the Arya plot line is never going to let her express: Her social media game is A+, and it’s so annoying that Arya’s character has become totally predicated on Never Ever Having Fun Again.
Sarah: Aaron, let us maybe end there and hold on to that thought until next week, when we will presumably get Arya and also maybe some WHITE WALKERS and also a KINGSMOOT. Aaron! Here’s what feels really good to say about next week: I am excited to see what happens. It’s been a while!
Aaron: Me too!
“Let us sail on the tide of freedom instead of being drowned in it,”
Sarah and Aaron
Previous episode: season 6, episode 3, “Oathbreaker.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 5, “The Door.”