Following episode: season 6, episode 9, "Battle of the Bastards."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Let's not go to Riverrun, it's a silly place.
Sarah: Aaron, do you remember this season’s first trailer? Let me remind you: it involved a particularly mournful cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” a lot of people walking around and looking sad (and, in the case of Jon Snow, looking dead), and some speechifying about piety and terror. It was all dimly lit and grim! BUT, in the middle of it, Cersei makes a grand declaration: “I choose violence.” And then things get all swashbuckling and exciting! Violence is a total game changer, there are knights and swords! I ask if you remember this, Aaron, because this was the week that we predicted would be a total bloodbath, the “choosing violence!” episode! And indeed, this week, Cersei got to say her power line; really her only good line of the season; she chooses violence. But, I think to Game of Thrones’s credit, it didn’t take Cersei’s choice of violence to be simple, or necessarily more “exciting” than other choices. Violence, in this episode, was strange and complicated — but brutal, even when it was defused, or pushed aside, or displayed only obliquely.
Case in point: the big threatened violent spectacle, the battle at Riverrun, completely disappeared: not because someone didn’t choose violence, but because of the kind of violence they chose: Jamie threatened to murder a baby, and prevented a huge, bloody scenario. Or, on a smaller scale: the Brotherhood telling the Hound “We’re not butchers!” so he can’t chop people up with axes — instead he can hang them and pull off their boots, while the dying men look on, faces swelling. Or even the key, Cersei-violence-choosing moment, when The Mountain kills the Sparrow! You can’t say it’s “non-violent” to see a lot of long slow sideways shots of someone manually decapitating another person. But it is a very different spectacle than when The Mountain eye-ploded Oberyn, at the end of season four.
Aaron: Not to mention that the Cleganebowl looks to have been canceled. But you’re absolutely right: how many deaths occurred off-screen this episode? The Waif, the Blackfish, the Very Good Actress? Were there others?
Sarah: The dragon, attacking the fleet!
Aaron: Wait, is that what’s happening? That scene is SO INCONCLUSIVE. Dany doesn’t even say anything, and what is even happening with the dragon?Sarah: Well, either it’s just doing some calisthenics there, over Dany’s shoulder, or it’s swooping around and breathing fire on the fleet? I’d been assuming the later? There was a decent bit of confusion. I do not mean this as a criticism! I really found the “abracadabra” quality of it sort of appealing, particularly since it means that everyone can stop pretending that Riverrun matters to anyone? Also, I think there was a parallel between the oblique efforts at explaining the plot and the oblique portraits of violence.
Aaron: Yes! This episode was all about things happening somewhere else, about violence suggested and then… not happening, or happening off-screen. “Oh, the Blackfish? Yeah, he’s totally dead. So.”
But especially the sense that the real action is happening elsewhere. For example: Lili and I were trying to figure out whether Margaery’s machinations have disappeared and been forgotten — perhaps because the showrunners have reverted to idiotic form? — or if she has been secretly engineering the whole thing behind the scenes, Littlefinger-style. But the fact that we don’t know is actually the key thing: we — like Cersei — have been cut out of the elegant rooms where the important historical conversations are happening, so we don’t even see the Sparrow manipulating Tommen anymore, much less Margaery manipulating Tommen against the Sparrow. We’re in the gallery with Cersei, waiting for the king to make his announcement.Sarah: It’s true: are there any scenes in this episode that are focalized through a character who knows what’s happening? The rogue Brothers don’t know The Hound is coming; The Hound doesn’t know the Brothers are Rogue; Lady Crane doesn’t know about the Waif; Jaquen Ha’gar doesn’t know Arya has needle or killed the Waif; Tyrion and Missandei and Grey Worm don’t know about the ships, or about Dany. It’s a real position of surprise!
Aaron: The entire episode is built like that, now that you mention it; riffs on the narrative principle of “Suddenly, a knock at the door.” Brienne shows up out of nowhere, and Pod gets surprised by Bronn; the Blackfish is surprised by a not-dead Edmure walking up to his drawbridge.
Sarah: Can I point out, nerdishly, that this all feels like a great extension of the moment Cersei calls out the knotted language of her Igor-dude: “Seven Sparrows have been permitted into the Red Keep.” Cersei’s like: cool it with the passive voice, asshole, we all know what’s happening here; The King permitted them to enter. That passive voice, and her frustration with it, is really interesting! It’s a different grammar of violence. Sarah Blackwood texted me in the middle of the episode to point out that things were getting really Discipline and Punish up in there.
Aaron: Wow, say more about that! How do we get from passive voice to Foucault?
Sarah: Well, look, I’m not prepared to offer a fully developed theory of Westerosi biopolitics — but I think the point is that there are a few colliding theories of power happening in the show right now. There’s trial by combat, for instance, which is “punishment” — the revealed spectacle of bodies enacting power, which Tommen declares barbaric compared to the more rational, just, and civilized process of a jury trial. Now, Aaron, you and I would probably agree that trial by combat is barbaric, but in the moment of television, it’s completely clear that the rational mode of social regulation is also strategic, power-bound, and also dramatically aimed at deploying power through the regulation of bodies — and, particularly, Cersei and Loras’s wayward sexual desires.
The passive voice de-emphasizes subjectivity, separates verbs from agents. Similar stuff happens throughout the episode to diffuse agency, through language — like when Tommen says “the crown has decided” to give up trial by combat, or when the Blackfish and the guard argue about whether Edmure’s word’s are really his words, a “valid order,” or the machinations of Jaime. So: I wouldn’t say that that Westeros right now is a fully-developed disciplinary system of productive power, but it is the case that this was an episode about power happening, without anyone particular making it happen.
Aaron: That’s totally right! In fact, the entire question of what it means to be “shit at dying,” as the Hound puts it, is pretty Foucaultian. And the wonderful absurdity of arguing about who gets to kill the condemned men, and how.
Of course, the King and Sparrow are also re-locating The Spectacle of Power away from combat and onto their own non-combative bodies: their soft and gentle and soothing and pacific bodies, which serve as a lens for a different kind of government than Robert Baratheon’s. And given how crazy, violent, or unpredictable the last few kings have been, who can blame the commoners if they’re psyched to have a king who cedes some of his power to the church?
Sarah: I’m sure not going to blame them, Aaron, especially because I have no idea what they are doing, since this show seems to have no interest in King’s Landing real life? Just saying.
Aaron: The episode might also have a Foucaultian slant on history, too; the show’s general narrative focus on the aristocratic elite — the people who, by definition, have power and agency — can sometimes make it seem like History really is being written by aristocrats in elegant rooms, that having conversations is the sum of what makes the world go round. It’s all conspiracies and plotting and plans! But in this episode, we get example after example of elegant rooms being surprised, mid-conversation, by something outside their ken. I wonder, for example, if Tyrion’s entire theory of power has come apart in this episode, along with his tenure as hand-of-the-Queen; after all, he’s fucked it up pretty royally, right? As it turns out, while we were watching people in elegant rooms having conversations, History was actually happening elsewhere.
Sarah: Well, at least that part of history was happening in some other elegant room, elsewhere, in Slaver’s Bay? I’m actually somewhat perplexed by that whole scene. First of all, when the ships showed up, I was like: Yara! No? Euron? How could they have made those ships already? Where did they find the trees? I’m a little unclear how quickly they expected us all to know that the insignia on the sails was not the Ironborn. Also, aren’t we supposed to be anticipating that Yara is going to get there and trap the slaver’s in the harbor? I did not think the execution was great.
Aaron: Remember when Dany was asking about who had a thousand ships and Daario said “no one”? It now kind of feels like everybody has a thousand ships, actually.
Sarah: So many ships! And more than that, I was frustrated that the episode seemed to be punishing Grey Worm and Missandei for having a good time and drinking and getting all zesty and Tyrion-ish. Aaron, the last thing I want is for Grey Worm being all “Boy, I tried to loosen up and have some dialogue and a personality, but immediately things went shitbonkers so best go back to the grimacing and worrying!” I guess this is just another illustration that biopolitics is harshest on racialized bodies? Maybe that’s taking it too far, but the narrative really seemed to be out to get them for exhibiting any interest in bodily pleasure, outside propriety or regulation.Aaron: No, I agree. Whenever anyone suggested that Tyrion was wasting his life in the taverns and brothels, we were always meant to side with Tyrion: the audience is supposed to be 100% pro-jouissance with him. His whole thing is drinking and knowing things; the more pleasure he has, the more effective he is, or something. But while Grey Worm and Missandei were charming and delightful in those scenes, there is a definite sense that they’ve let him seduce them into his decadent ways; no rest or pleasure for slaves, or former slaves. The masters are always just around the corner...
Actually, that reminds me of something I’ve been thinking of since you mentioned the Foucault: can we also note how many different moments this episode had in which primary characters contemplate an escape from the life they’re currently living? The fantasy not of breaking the wheel, but, you know, getting off of it for a spin or two. Tyrion’s little vineyard dream is so well-developed: he already has a name for it! Imp’s Delight! But the pathos behind the “only my close friends can drink it” line was lovely; all he wants is friends to hang out with and get drunk with (which was echoed by the Hound’s line about having no friends anymore, which is why he has to go back to the family business of murdering people.)
My favorite one of those scenes was Arya’s sudden ambition to sail to the edge of the world. It just comes out of nowhere! She has dreams too, and they’re not just dreams of killing people or of becoming an actor or something; her dreams are literally out of this world. A moment after she’s hesitant about whether it’s even possible to remember all those lines, she offhandedly suggests that it would be cool to sail beyond the boundaries of the known world and see what that’s like.
Sarah: Somewhere, there’s a place for us! I loved that moment, and particularly I loved that it was a moment between Sansa and Lady Crane: this brief moment where it seemed possible for women to help each other, or even just listen to each other! Ah, but, no! Here comes the Waif, all vengeful and violent, choosing her status in the eyes of the Faceless God’s patriarchy rather than her possible friendship with Arya!
Aaron, I think is the point where we have to talk about the Arya plotline, and the miracle of her stomach wounds?
Aaron: Sarah, this is a thing we have to talk about. It is not good. It is extremely not-good. It is not good at all.
Sarah: Aaron, I’m going to make a bold claim, which is that I do not even care about the miracle of Arya’s fast-healing stomach wounds! Okay, I cared a little, when she slid under a wagon, actually on her stomach. But I sort of love that the show was like, you know what? This was a bad idea. Let’s pretend that this thing didn’t happen! Leaking stomach bile? NO PROBLEM. My theory is that they didn’t want to stay in the “Arya gets trained to not be Arya, by being hit with sticks” plotline any more than I did. Let’s get out of there!
Aaron: So, here’s my first thought: why not insert one crummy line of dialogue to the effect that “Gosh, since you’ve been staying with me for five days, you sure have had a marvelous recovery!” Or something. Couldn’t they even pretend to care, even a little? This is a show that has generally been pretty strict about this sort of thing, but now, it’s just so flagrantly dismissive!
Sarah: Now now! Let’s not get testy! The stomach wounds really did start to pose a problem for her, the second time she jumped off a building! How is that not verisimilitude?
Aaron: LOL. To go back to the thing about genre, we really have entered action movie territory, haven’t we? Forget about fantasy and anti-fantasy, the role of The Waif was actually being played by the role of the Terminator.
But I’m of two minds here. First of all, I do think that the ludicrousness of those scenes was a betrayal of expectations the show has very clearly instilled in us, in exactly the same way that Jon Snow’s return betrayed an original premise about the finality of death. We are losing another pillar of the Game of Thrones narrative rules if characters are suddenly action-movie protagonists.
But also, maybe that’s fine. And I do like the way Arya has become a free agent for the entire rest of the show, like she’s starring in a separate story that only happens to share a universe with the rest of them. Does anyone else even know that she’s still alive? And does she want them to? After all, in kicking herself loose from the rest of the show, she’s become a fantasy hero by virtue of her singularity. She’s got super assassin skills! She’s going to sail across the world, just because! She’s on her own!
Sarah: Anything is possible! And, to answer your question: Brienne knows that she was alive, and she told Sansa. So I think Sansa is hoping. But then, right now, Sansa is hoping for a lot of people to show up. Aaron, here’s my question for you, in the midst of all this action-movie-ing that’s currently happening here, in the midst of the implausibility of circumstance: what, Aaron, are you expecting to happen next week at Winterfell?
Aaron: I’m nervous. It seems bonkers. From the spoiler-preview, it looks like the entire episode is going to be taken up by that battle, and they do seem to enjoy having those entire-episode-is-a-battle shows. But to be honest, I’m not that psyched about it. I guess the Knights of the Vale will show up and save them? But a lot of times the big battles are actually not that interesting, and this one will have a lot of Ramsay Bolton in it. That’s going to be bad news.
Sarah: Well, also Jon has to brood man-bunishly at Melisandre, so you know I’m excited about that.
Aaron: To get away from having to talk about Jon Snow, can I observe that we have a new contestant in the Worst Man-bun in Westeros category? How do you write seven violent deaths into two scenes, and not one of the dead people is the guy with the man-bun? Now that is bad writing.
Sarah: That guy’s man bun is so much better than Jon Snow’s! It has a real sense of humor about itself, as all man-buns should.
Aaron: It’s true, though you can’t be lenient about these things. Man-buns are never okay.
Sarah: You’re categorically wrong, but let’s put man-buns aside and talk more about Winterfell. We’ve had a real sequence of penultimate episode battles, right? Season two’s Battle of Blackwater; season four’s battle at the wall; season five’s disastrous battle at Winterfell. Mostly, these battles have been won by people with plans: Tyrion’s fire strategy at Blackwater; Davos’s fast-talking at the Iron Bank (also a little bit Jon’s mysterious cult of personality, unfortunately); Ramsay’s scheming and supply-burning in the face of Stannis’s naive piety.
But that’s Game of Thrones of the past, and as we’ve been saying, “plans” and “realism” aren’t really what the show has been investing itself in these past few episodes. Maybe Bran will show up with Benjen? Dany with Dragons? Maybe Arya will take the express train back home real quick and stab Ramsay with Needle?
Aaron: Maybe the white walkers will attack, and Jon and Ramsay will have to put aside their differences? Uggh. My concern is this: we are guaranteed to have a LOT of Ramsay Bolton in next week’s episode. Ideally, the Knights of the Vale will show up and cream the Boltons. But what if Ramsay has a plan? What if he’s been scheming with Littlefinger? What if he uses his ninja-tactics of “sneak into the camp and burn everything down.” I have to admit, as much as I hate that character, I think I’m also a little bit traumatized by him, Reek-style: I kind of can’t imagine him losing. He’s just unstoppable awfulness.
Sarah: Also let’s stop to imagine the show without him: if the Starks retake Winterfell next week, what happens for two more seasons? Though: frankly I don’t think I can care about him for two more seasons. There’s not much new awfulness he can manifest. He’s just not that interesting.
Aaron: Uggh, there are so many possible bad outcomes, here. Are people looking forward to “the Battle of the Bastards”? I am kind of dreading it, to be honest. What’s so great about Winterfell anyway? All the other plots are so much more interesting (with the possible exception of the 11-year-old Queen of Awesome. But at least it will be resolved, one way or another. And the show seems to be in fast-forward now, though I still can’t imagine what the end-game actually is.
Sarah: I agree! You know, for several seasons now, the show has been stoking within us a desire to see the Stark children reunited, at Winterfell. But now that it’s maybe, at least partially, going to happen, all I want to do is close my eyes until it’s over. I am sorry to be in this position! It’s entirely because Jon has become so floppy and uninteresting! Meanwhile Ramsay just gleams out of his demon eyes. I think what would make it better is some sense of planning, or collaboration, and not just Jon throwing himself at death and Ramsay getting out the flaying knives.
Aaron: I worry that they’re going to ruin the Jon and Sansa reunion by making Sansa screw up in some fatal way, leaving Jon with no option to be the glorious and boring martyr. After all, the only planning we’ve seen is Sansa sending a raven to Littlefinger, right? And that has come to nothing, in addition to being flagged as A Betrayal of Her Brother. Unless the Knights of the Vale show up, which… who are the Knights of the Vale, again? Soldiers of some kind, I’m guessing. Sigh.
Sarah: Literally no one knows who the Knights of the Vale are, or what they can do, or how many of them there are. So, you’re right, this plan is not a good one! But at least Sansa’s been like: DUDES, WE NEED A PLAN; all we currently have is a giant, and a giant — as we learned in conclusion to season four — is not the same as a plan! I guess my hope is Sansa and Davos figure something out?
Aaron: Somebody needs to figure something out. But I’m picturing all the good guys in a huddle being like “So, who brought the play?” They might all be too busy having feelings to be properly scheming. It’s like Ned Stark had kids but they lack his ruthless Machiavellian cunning.
Sarah: Aaron, we are complaining a lot, but I really want to get back to the part where: I actually really liked this episode!
Aaron: I need you to tell me more about why you really liked this episode. Other than the Arya video game — which I take issue with — I liked this episode OK, but I think you really liked it.
Sarah: Yeah, I really liked watching it! I think here’s why: most of the episode was conversations, but unlike some of the conversations early in the season, these never felt like table setting to me: in almost every conversation, the meal was being served. Sometimes it was being served by the people talking — such as when Jaime really goes at Edmure, or at Brienne — and sometimes not. Sometimes, as you say, the conversations were pure fantasy! But in all of them, I felt like the narrative momentum of the show was really happening.
It’s worth comparing, maybe, this week’s episode with “Blood of My Blood,” two weeks ago. That episode was also really talky, but nothing seemed to be getting done. When Cersei sends Jaime off to fight at Riverrun, not only did it make no sense, but neither she nor Jaime were displaying Cersei or Jaime-ness in any kind of new or convincing or interesting way. They exchanged lines with each other that they might have said in season one, when each of them was a substantially less interesting person. In this episode, when Jaime talks about Cersei to Edmure, he was more convincingly a complex, changed person.Aaron: He also comes off as capable and devious, and clear about what he wants and how he’ll get it; he legitimately wins the battle in a clever and smart way, and gets what he wants, which is to win and gtfo. But the fact that he does it in such a self-revealing way was very good; he truths Edmure into submission. And aligning Cersei and Catelyn as mothers — which Edmure doesn’t want to hear — also resonates with the way the Very Good Actress plays Cersei on stage but plays Catelyn with Arya. His monologue at Edmure is Jaime at his best: brutal without being cruel, and perhaps a kind of remorselessness that comes without seeming to have much ego? Post-amputation Jaime is very focused on What Matters, and this scene brought a lot of other things in the show into a clarity that they had lacked.
Sarah: My best is easy and obvious: Arya slicing the candle! Maybe that moment — and the one following, with Jaqun Ha’gar — is a real litmus test for what we want out of Game of Thrones, I don’t know. I get that it was pure wish fulfillment, and I don’t want to be the person who is always on the side of Game of Thrones being Dragonlance instead of its more complex self. But this show has been so miserably withholding for so long — and as we discussed last week, that’s it’s own kind of antirealism. I was really happy to get exactly what I wanted.
Aaron: I got exactly what I wanted with Arya, too: it was her little moments of non-utilitarian character. Sailing to the edge of the world was fantastic, but also the part where she worried about not being able to remember her lines: just like when Tyrion already has a name for his fantasy vineyard picked out, it shows that Arya has thought a lot about whether or not she could be an actress. And that’s what I want from her: indications that she is a person underneath that ball of suffering, trauma, survival, and training montage.
That moment is actually like an anti-training montage: instead of everything about her story being reduced to a singular Sense of Purpose and the Telos of Awesome-Ninja-ing, we get a tiny sliver of daydreaming, along with an (adorable) fear about how hard it must be to memorize all those lines.
Sarah: It’s a really amazing juxtaposition with Arya at the end of last season, when she displayed her personhood by being such a wonderful sociopath and just slaughtering Meryn Trant and gauging his eyes out and slicing his throat and everything. Though I loved that moment too.
Aaron: Right! It’s not resilience, or Strong Female Character-ing, it’s just… healing. Finding joy and normality. Dreaming!
Sarah: Well, before we get too much into normality: maybe we want to think about the Waif’s face, on display in the hall, and remember that it, too, was bleeding from its eyes?! More off-stage insanity! But I think the point still stands. Is your worst Arya’s “stomach wounds”?
Aaron: Oh, yeah, I didn’t think of that! Sarah, she blinded the Waif. Uggh. And generally, the Waif is probably the worst? So evil! So pointless! Such a predictable Female Foil.
But I think I have to name the big jumps as the worst part of the episode. I feel like they could have written that whole sequence in a way that might have still stretched credulity a little, but wouldn’t be blatantly spitting in its face. I mean, not just one wild jump, but two! Maybe just have a foot-chase! Maybe have the Waif be so overconfident that she toys with Arya, letting her get away just long enough that she’s able to get to her secret dark cave. You could have still had the surprise reveal, but it wouldn’t have felt like the show was just flaunting its wish-fulfillment.Sarah: Fair enough! My worsts aren’t that bad this episode, really? I’m annoyed that Cersei got to say her big line but still didn’t get to be smart or interesting or make anything happen. I’m a little annoyed that, while Jaime got to be complex and brutal, Brienne felt a little flat footed, and underused? I didn’t want her to get into a big useless battle with Jamie, but Gwendoline Christie is such an amazing actress when she’s given a hard choice to make, or a Hound to battle, or a bear, that it seemed like a failure of imagination just to have her wave plaintively from a boat. And I wish Lady Crane and the Blackfish weren’t dead. I like them! Let’s keep some witty characters around!
Aaron: She did have some good lines with the Blackfish; he doesn’t do what she wants, but I’m not sure Jaime is right that he’s more stubborn than her. The scene where she’s following him around his castle and He Cannot Get Away From This Woman is pretty funny to watch.
“In the darkest region of the political field, the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king,”
Sarah and Aaron
Previous episode: season 6, episode 7, "The Broken Man."
Following episode: season 6, episode 9, "Battle of the Bastards."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage