MAY 3, 2016
Previous episode: season 6, episode 1, “The Red Woman.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 2, “Oathbreaker.”
Jon Can’t Go On, He’ll Go On
Aaron: I am definitely Team Jon-Snow-Should-Stay-Dead. My dream scenario for this season would have been for them to keep teasing us with Jon Snow’s resurrection and then never actually deliver. Nope! He’s just really dead! I mean, what is the point of Game of Thrones if our favorite dead characters can just come back to life? What was the point of killing Jon Snow if now he has been un-killed? WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS SHOW?!
Sarah: AARON, YES! THAT IS THE QUESTION! But I guess, before I try to answer it, I feel like I should clarify that I did not expect to be glad that Jon Snow was back. I didn’t expect to feel anything in particular about Jon Snow at all. The whole narrative around Jon Snow’s faux death seemed so tedious to me. It bored me because Jon Snow was clearly alive; it bored me because I did not believe his resurrection would be, in any way, meaningful. Most importantly, it bored me because even when Jon Snow was alive, most of what he had done recently was boring! This is not to say I disliked Jon Snow as a character; I almost always like the tortured self-righteous fantasy dudes. But his story, for the last while, failed to grip me: his back-lit romance with Ygritte and his ill-planned battle scheming at The Wall seemed like it had wandered into Westeros from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Aaron: Why, to you, was he so clearly alive? See, I have two thoughts: on the one hand, yes, he’s Too Big To Fail, so the show had to bail him out and make him not-dead-again. R+L=J! The chosen Jesus of the North! And so on. But on the other hand, isn’t this sort of fan theorizing about What Must Happen — which I’ve become totally fascinated by, actually (#theMaesterConspiracyisReal) — the sort of high fantasy convention that the show was so great about subverting? Ned Stark is not going to come back, is he? No sign of Lady Stoneheart, and even she is A) Not Catelyn, and B) Scary as hell.
Sarah: Aaron, truly, you are driving at the most important questions here, which is: what kind of thing is this, that we’re watching? Is this one story, with an ending, or is it just endless seriality, things happening one after the other, forever? Is it plot, or is it something more like…life?
That’s a real question because the problem that Game of Thrones sets out to tackle is so broad and complex. It’s not interested particularly in the problems or desires of one person, or even one place, but rather in “politics.” And politics is something that will never end. If we think of a “plot,” either in the story sense or in the spatial sense — as in, a plot of land — the whole point of a plot is that it has a limit. But politics has no limit. (Aaron, I feel like I should note here that I made exactly these same points in my very first recap of Game of Thrones, two seasons ago. Is it good or bad that we haven’t resolved them?)
Aaron: YES. Especially since “politics” is the sort of hellscape of mostly only bad things happening; the idealistic people get killed first, and what even is the point of it all? “Politics” tricks you into thinking you’re watching a story about characters with a plot — who is the good guy? Who is the bad guy? — but really it’s just an endless machine that instrumentalizes everyone’s desires and idealism, and uses them to keep things going forever and ever and ever and ever.
Sarah: Aaron I love that we have gone really quickly from “it’s just life” to “it’s a hellscape of mostly only bad things.” I mean: I guess those are the same? Everyone dies; nothing ever is resolved; sometimes people move to Braavos. Whatever!
Aaron: Essos is kind of the escape from the Westerosi machine, isn’t it? Arya is off on her own plot now, and even though Dani’s plan is to go to Westeros (and “break the wheel!”) it kind of feels like she never will, and that’s probably for the best? Is “breaking the wheel” ending politics and bringing about a final resolution to the seriality of life-as-struggle? She wants to end it all.
(Parenthetically, why on earth are they sticking to the HBO “7 Seasons and out” model? Why not 20 seasons? Why are they trying to end it, and thus, ruin it?)
Sarah: But are they trying to end it? The story feels torn between the “seven seasons” model and the “milk this shit for all it’s worth” model. And that’s fine, except that at some point they need to cue the viewers in on what way we’re supposed to be watching this show, what details we’re supposed to pay attention to.
Aaron: ALSO: when will we all come to accept that George R. R. Martin has no idea how he’s going to bring this turkey in for a landing, and — now that HBO has taken over the story — he’s no longer even nominally in charge. He seems happy enough to be a figurehead; I bet the small council still listens politely to his ideas before he is ushered out so they can get down to the business of actually running the kingdom.
Sarah: Totally. For my part, I will say that I accepted that (or at least, came to an angry awareness of it) about 100 pages into reading the first novel. My general sense, though — and this circles back to your very important question of why Jon had to be alive — is that HBO wants to keep the possibility of an endgame on the table because it wants to keep the intensity of viewing that comes when you feel like you are getting somewhere rather than just floundering around in some sort of Beckett play (although, of course, Game of Thrones also wants us to know that it’s all over its Beckett). And there’s just no sort of coherent endgame that can take place in this story without Jon Snow; that is my take as a fan. We can do without Ned and Catelyn and Rob but NOT, finally, without Arya, Jon, and Dany. At least two of those three have to be alive in the final episode or it’s just Waiting for Godot.
So I guess Aaron, my question for is: do you want them to double-down on the Beckett? I feel like I can’t hold out that long.
Aaron: Now you’re making me question how much I want that. Because that’s a really good point: if we lose the Chosen One narrative, does the narrative go slack? Am I taking the prophetic stakes for granted? Though part of me really does want it to go Full Beckett. My dream scenario for this season would have been for them to keep teasing us with Jon Snow’s resurrection and then never actually deliver. Nope! He’s just dead! And maybe, in the meantime, we could have developed some other new characters we would have come to love just as much?
Sarah: See, now we’re getting back to why I am pleased that Jon’s alive, despite my ambivalence about the whole thing setting out. I wouldn’t care so much about Jon Snow if the staging of his return weren’t so interesting: what I’m excited about is Jon’s immersion in a situation that’s suddenly not all about his brooding, and instead (I hope!) about his interaction with a truly compelling set of characters: Davos, Tormund, the newly-not-terrible Melisandre, and, of course, Ghost. So even if this isn’t fully endgame, I feel like it’s at least going to be good tv! Like, this keeps the possibility of an endgame alive while also rejuvenating a series of plotlines (and characters) that had fallen completely flat.
So hey let’s broaden this conversation to talk not only about Jon but also the real nemesis-building they’re doing, with Ramsey.
Aaron: Ugh, Ramsay, so boring.
Sarah: Aaron, that is the best response to Ramsay I’ve ever heard. “Okay, here we go again with some kennel murder!”
Aaron: He was so damned scary back when he was fucking with Theon for absolutely no reason, though. That part where he saved him and they bonded about their backgrounds and then he just leads Theon back into the torture room? That was hellish and awful and great Game of Thrones-ing. But then he got all of the things he wanted and became a real live boy! And now, he’s just Joffrey redux. Sadistic princeling murders innocents, etc., story at 11.
Sarah: So, in a sense, what you’re saying is that Ramsay was a provocative character as a manifestation of a sort of loose human evil — and is less compelling now that his cruelty is bound to the forward-motion of the narrative? Or, put differently: now that his evil is actually antagonistic — working, that is, against the protagonist Jon Snow — it’s less riveting?
Aaron: Yes, that’s exactly it! He had just been a loose end in someone else’s plot, the Bolton son who didn’t matter, and it made him into a Mad Dog that someone should have really had put down by now. But because they didn’t, he just festered and was left to cause senseless purposeless mayhem. Which is somehow even more scary than purposeful mayhem?
Sarah: We should note that the show is really working gangbusters to set Ramsay and Jon up as flip sides of the coin here. I know the dog stuff this episode was completely miserable — Alyssa Rosenberg came down really hard on it, and for good reason — but it felt like the show really wanted to hammer us over the head with the reversals between Jon and Ghost, and Ramsay and his kennel.
Aaron: I totally hadn’t seen that. You’re so right: illegitimate semi-princelings with dogs. But the wolf is good! The dog is bad! It’s a little on the nose. And Lord Bolton’s second to last words are basically “Wow, you certainly are a wild mad dog, metaphorically, and those are things that one generally wants to treat with caution lest they kill you. Oops, you have killed me!”
Sarah: Not the most clever staging. Also, the pacing: Ramsay’s not going to kill the baby — OH NO WAIT, he is! Jon Snow’s not coming back to life: OH NO WAIT, he is! But I must tell you: I DID NOT THINK, watching the whole Melisandre-washing-Jon scene, that Jon was actually coming back to life! I really felt they were going to milk it a while longer.
Aaron: I was so pleased, at first. I had my “Well Trolled, Game of Thrones!” thinkpiece half-drafted.
Sarah: Also I found the scene quite beautiful, especially because of its attention to Melisandre. I am hugely impressed that the show placed Melisandre’s emotional life almost on par with Jon’s. There were two questions here, and “will Jon come back?” was only somewhat more important than “Will Melisandre succeed?” Also: let me pause again to note how completely gobsmacked I am that I no longer hate watching Melisandre.
Aaron: Me too! Which might be a little unrealistic. I am not quite on board with my man the onion knight being suddenly on Team Red Woman, for example, and I can’t figure out what his motivation is supposed to be. But her failure humanizes her so much. Her various spells and prophetic knowledges and general air of knowing the story behind the story made her an uninteresting character. But that really changed when her agelessness got portrayed onscreen as “Wow, it really sucks to be extremely old and maybe to have wasted multiple lifetimes on a prophecy that maybe isn’t true.”
Sarah: I agree completely — especially because, as I said last week, of what that says about the show’s treatment of women, in their bodies.
And I guess that makes a good pivot to something else I like about this episode: all these young women! Sansa, Meera, Yara, even Lyanna — after several seasons of letting Arya get all the “women imagining the world differently” story, we’ve got some interesting things on the horizon here. I am trying not to get my hopes up because we all know how south things went for Sansa last season, after the very auspicious going-goth-and-drinking-beer early episodes, but genuinely I’m excited. One of the many truly excellent moments in this episode was when Brienne and Sansa were catching up about Arya, and Brienne says in a tone of great clarity, “She was with a man; I don’t think he hurts her.” What an amazing thing, in this world! I’m not sure that’s still true of Arya — I’m having a hard time anchoring into her plot right now, and she is pretty hurt — but it is true of Sansa and Meera, and maybe the other two as well. That’s four women, out from under men’s control, and, maybe, possibly, with some room to maneuver.
Aaron: Did Sansa even know that Arya wasn’t dead? I’m suddenly stuck on the bittersweet momentousness of that moment, and the reunion it could promise. Those two never got along before, were such polar opposites; in the way of siblings who take each other for granted, they hated each other. But now, after so much has happened, what would their relationship be like? What could they be to each other? Neither of them have ever been able to grieve their family, have they? But with each other, they could. And even get some of what they lost back!
But, to your point, once Sansa escapes from being in perpetual danger, we can start to imagine totally new linkages and alliances. Sansa plus Brienne is a game changer; Arya has learned that she’s only safe by herself, but imagine if she came across these two? Suddenly, there would be a safe place in Westeros, the first she’s come across.
Sarah: Right, and even without Arya! If it’s Sansa and Brienne and ANYONE at The Wall — and especially if Arya ever gets there — talk about endgame! Talk about good tv! I mean: I care about every possible thing that could happen in that situation. It’s like the opposite of wandered-in-from-the-WB Sand Snakes vampishly killing off who ever they’re mad at this episode.
Aaron: “Wandered in from the WB” is such a good burn. They’re supposed to be the Ramsays of Dorne, aren’t they? The loose-end plot children who have gone feral as result of being locked out, but they don’t have any of Ramsay’s darkness. He’s legitimately a messed up dude; the “this is good meat” moment was actually a moment of the show knowing what to do with that character. But the Sand Snakes are always so interchangeably Hot and Strong and Glib.
Sarah: They could be so interesting! But instead of interiority they just have boobs. Which, you know, I like boobs fine — and I like the WB! (as does my friend Morgan, who coined the phrase). But when that sort of campy WB aesthetic brushes up against GoT, the humor and play wears off, and what’s left just feels mean-spirited or cheap. If they’d let the Snakes be actually funny, like Tyrion, it’d go a lot better. Maybe they think boobs and humor are incompatible? Have we had a funny woman yet in Westeros? Just Lady Oleanna, I guess, and that’s probably the exception that proves the rule.
Aaron: Sarah, that’s such a good point. Lady Oleanna’s humor is that she’s seen so many things, and done so many things, and gone around so many times on the machine that she really gets the brutal arbitrary horror of it all. Humor is a product of pain, a coping mechanism, the way people live through the traumas they can’t talk about. But for the Sand Snakes to be funny, or even witty, they would have had to actually suffered, and they lack the backstory for it.
Sarah: All this to say: the lack of Sand Snakes was one of the stronger parts of this episode. And, this is a good pivot to talk about Cersei, and her sorrows — Cersei is also very often funny, now that I think about it! And God, Lena Headey is so amazing. This episode, the stand off with the King’s Guard in the hallway, was such a painful reversal of her famous “power is power” moment in season two.
Aaron: It was, wasn’t it! Was it even in the same corridor? I can’t remember, but I’m going to decide that it was. Although, don’t you think the Zombie-Mountain would have killed all of those guys? Wasn’t part of it that she chose not to precipitate the conflict?
Sarah: Absolutely — but I think that was part of what was painful about it. She could have killed all those guys, but it wouldn’t have gotten her what she wants. And part of what’s wrenching about that is it’s not clear what she wants: revenge, certainly, but also a reordered world. The Mountain is like the personification of her “power is power” logic, but some things can’t be accomplished with power. Or at least not power of that kind. I’m not totally sure where this King’s Landing plot is going just now — I guess towards battle, if the teasers are to be trusted — but the whole sequence was worth it for me, just to watch that opening shot of Cersei sewing at her cuff. Such an intimate detail of care and uselessness and also beauty, and needling pain.
Aaron: Before the battle, I guess we’re going to get Tommen’s machiavellian education. “I wasn’t strong, but I want to be. Help me?” was quite moving, as a reunion between mother and son, but also, Tommen seems like a weirdly normal and decent kid. (Did Joffrey get literally all the evil genes in the family?)
Sarah: Oh man, Tommen. Can we just get Margaery out of the High Sparrow’s clutches, already? Where is this going, Aaron? And WHAT DOES IT MATTER? Here we are back at the beginning: if everything at The Wall feels like a completely riveting narrative machine, down at King’s Landing, it’s just wheels spinning. And I could dig that, potentially, but I think they’re going to have to connect it to something broader for me to really have feelings about it. Lannisters vs. Puritans isn’t a show I’d sign on to watch just for it’s own sake.
Aaron: The show doesn’t seem interested in that, either. It’s so hard to tell who’s running things in King’s Landing, or if there are things that need to be run, and are, or if they aren’t, but presumably, the zealots are now in charge. What’s that like? How is daily life different, as it must be, for literally everybody in the city? But the show is never nearly as interested in politics as it pretends to be, and this is a good example: Cercei got rid of most of the small council and brought in the theocrats — and I liked all of that maneuvering when it was happening — but it sort of feels like the city has been put on pause while the family drama plays out. I’d be interested in watching the Lannisters work their way back into power by harnessing people’s resentment of their new religious leaders, but I’m not sure the show is laying any groundwork for that.
Sarah: So maybe, given that King’s Landing is a narrative boondoggle we’re unlikely here to solve, this is a good place to stop and give our best and worst for the week?
If we’re bracketing the more emotional moments of Jon, and Brienne, my best is easy: the truly amazing action sequence at Castle Black. From the anticipation in Jon’s room, with Davos’s dry humor and Ghost growling, and the swords, to the nested narratives of the two doors — room, and castle — being smashed in sequence, to the Giant’s SMASH BANG WOMP! Of the archer, that was completely satisfying. And poor brave Ollie, now locked in a cell! Aaron, tell me all that wasn’t just as thrilling, if not more so, than the whole battle in the castle last season.
Aaron: The random chaos of that scene was the best part. Are they going to fight? Are they going to surrender? Nobody has any idea what’s going on, or who is on which side or why or what. And the guy who shoots the giant getting smeared across The Wall was so unexpected, but so conclusive.
Best, for me: the dragon slowly turning its neck to let Tyrion unlock it. It was such a small gesture, but it shows the intelligence of this animal that, up until now, we really haven’t seen much evidence of. Dragons are unpredictable and powerful and sometimes eat babies! But it was so recognizable. And Lili and I both thought of our little dog, immediately.
Sarah: Oh, man, absolutely: that dragon’s stretched neck was the most elegant exposure. It got me right in the gut.
There was not a lot of worst, for me, in this episode?
Aaron: We could be boring, and pick Ramsay’s dogs killing mother and child.
Sarah: Yeah, that was pretty sucky.
Aaron: But was it even interesting enough to be worst? Or was it just MoreTerribleThing?
Sarah: It’s kind of worst in that the show couldn’t even make us care about it? It’s a painful thing, to realize you’re sort of expecting this kind of misery to happen, and aren’t even supposed to worry about it very much. And, in the vein of the slow misery machine this show sometimes indulges in, I want to pick another, much smaller, worst moment: the scene in the King’s Landing pub when the drunken man is telling the sex story about Cersei.
Aaron: “Peasants! They sure do suck!”
Sarah: It’s another instance of the show being so lazy: “Hey! You know what’s realism? Men being gross about women and sex!” It seems so unaware that it’s just pouring salt in the wound of all of us who’ve barely gotten over what they put us through last season.
Aaron: If we were going to have a picture of Ordinary Life in King’s Landing (which we haven’t had much of in a while), it would have been a great opportunity for the show to tell us about what everyday theocracy feels like in the city. Or literally anything else. Instead, we got another episode of “Dicks Sure Are Gonna Dick.”
Sarah: Right, exactly. And that makes me worry about what’s coming down the pipeline, plot wise, for all the ladies. But let’s not worry about that just yet: for now, I’m eager to see what happens with Jon and Melisandre and Sansa and Ghost!
Don’t eat the help,
Sarah and Aaron
Previous episode: season 6, episode 1, “The Red Woman.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 2, “Oathbreaker.”