Previous episode: season 5, episode 10, “Mother's Mercy.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 2, “Home.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
If I Were Your Girlfriend
THIS WEEKEND I HAD A PROBLEM getting ready to watch Game of Thrones. The problem was this: I had a hard time caring about whether or not Jon Snow was alive, when I knew that, for sure, Prince was dead. Why watch Game of Thrones, I thought to myself, why spend a minute caring about the fate of a stompy pious crow, why spend a second wondering about whether or not Melisandre was going to nudely revive him with the vampish machinations this show sometimes uses as a standin for sex, when you could be listening to Purple Rain? Prince’s masterpiece knows just as much about suffering, and a lot more about sex, than anything that has ever come out of the mind of GRR Martin. And unlike Game of Thrones, Prince’s music knows how to go straight at the heart of loss without sacrificing pleasure. Unlike Game of Thrones, Prince, even at his most unedited, never stopped being fun.
I don’t mean to set this up as some sort of false equivalence, or easy-to-resolve parable. We don't have to choose between TV and music, or hold one to the other's standards. But I want to raise the question of my own ambivalence, because we don’t watch Game of Thrones in a vacuum: we have to choose it, here in this world, this world where most of us are still unclear what proportion of our grief about Prince was sweated out during our weekend dance parties. So my question heading into this season was: after all of last season’s cruel shenanigans, could I come back to a place where Game of Thrones had some pleasure for me? Game of Thrones was always brutal. But it had sometimes used its complex narrative layers to get at stuff that mattered. Could that happen again? Could its dense narrative web become some sort of comfort or release, some kind of meaningful harbor for the grief and rage and love we ask art, when we are feeling loss, to shelter?
My answer is: maybe. This wasn't a great episode, I think we can agree. It felt mostly like a recap, with only a few advancing plot points. But it was an episode that tried to deal directly with grief — and rage and love, too. And the show’s best moments were those that tried to think through how powerful emotions matter for women. Women feel, but, in Westeros as in our world, are limited in how they can act. If you want revenge, or transformation, or renewal, how as a woman in Westeros can you manage it? How do emotions work for women, when you have to move men into action on their behalf?
As this episode knew very well, for Westeros’s women, how you feel and what you can do about it have a lot to do with how you look to the men who might take action for you. Nowhere was this episode more compelling than in its final moment, so let’s start there. Melisandre’s naked and aging body was the most remarkable thing to show up in Westeros at least since the Dragons — and not just because her role here was so much more intricate than the spectacle of her body. In this scene, Melisandre ceased to be the narrative means to Jon Snow’s possible non-end, and instead became a story in herself. As others have pointed out, what was most shocking about the scene was not the discovery that Melisandre is much older than she appears, but rather the camera’s lingering attention to her nakedness, and to the embodied experience of her age. How do we read the camera’s long gaze upon her? Is it gloating? Judging? Is it simply observant? Is it possibly compassionate, or kind? Is it, maybe, awed? When Melisandre looks at herself in the mirror, whose evaluating gaze is she imagining?
Here’s a thought experiment for you. What if the person gazing at the naked Melisandre — gazing at all the women in this episode — was Prince? (I don’t know that Prince was a Game of Thrones fan, but I don’t know that he wasn’t. If we can imagine he drank Yak’s milk, surely we can imagine he subscribed to HBO.) I like to think of Prince as an imagined viewer here, because part of what was so special about Prince was his willingness to see women without either idealizing them or despising them: I think of Prince as someone willing, at his best, to see women as real. Think about the lyrics to “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” “Is it really necessary 4 me 2 go out of the room / Just because U wanna undress?” Prince sings. “If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?/ Would U let me see U naked then?”
The fantasy in “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” as I’ve always understood it, isn’t just of a role reversal. Instead, it’s Prince imagining himself into other ways of relating to women, ways that might be more intimate because they would be outside the power of heterosexual manhood. It’s a song about how patriarchal power, and its attendant power to see and display, can stand in the way of getting close to someone. The lyrics use “girlfriend” as a short hand for this — but here’s the thing. Girls and women aren’t outside of patriarchy, even if they’re not the recipients of its benefits.
And that’s maybe what this episode was best at showing us, sometimes without realizing it. Think, for example, about another moment that hinged on the idea of women’s nudity. “Seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time,” claims Khal Moro, Daenerys’s Dothroki capturer, is “among the five best things in life.” Khal Moro revels in the patriarchal force of his desire — a force that disperses through the scene, poisoning the possibility that Dany might form other relationships. It’s partly because of their desire to be like the Khal, to possess women the way he does, that the Dothraki soldiers fantasizing about Dany’s “white pussy hair” treat her so viciously. Worse still, for Dany, is that the Khal’s wives know their only access to power is through the Khal’s desire for them, so they can only see Dany as a rival, never an ally.
It’s not news, of course, that men express their power over women through the way they desire them: that’s Prince’s point exactly. But the scene with the Dothraki was painful to me because of the way it both pointed out the perniciousness of the Khal’s desire and, at the same time, asked us to identify with him — because of his jokes, and his comparative gentleness — rather than with his wives. The show, in that scene, buys into and reinforces the logic that keeps Dany and other women apart.
Other moments felt similarly reductive. I’m still frustrated that Arya and the Waif, the nameless girl who might have been her friend, are always so needlessly at loggerheads. The Waif’s envy towards Arya is everywhere apparent, and it makes little sense to me: how is she supposed to have advanced in the House of Black and White, when she’s still harboring the vengefulness Arya is being punished for? Why can’t the show imagine a different way for them to relate to each other? The Sand Snakes and Ellaria are only rivals with each other in the most frivolous senses, and I was happy to see them do some of the ass-kicking we’ve been promised, I guess. But there’s still nothing about these characters that seems real or fleshed out; I still don’t see much in the wandered-in-from-the-WB orchestration of this plotline than a flattened fantasy of preening womanhood, using a sort of faux-feminism as a guise. Here again, don’t you think we’re supposed to sympathize with poor murdered Prince Doran, rather than the women, even if we see their violence as desirable?
Other moments were smarter though. Margaery’s power struggle with Septa Unella — and the High Sparrow’s manipulation of it — mirrored Dany’s triangulation between Khal Moro and his wives, but resisted letting us forgive the High Sparrow too easily. Roose and Ramsey Bolton were forcefully dangerous, and in their conversation we see how their power struggles hem in Sansa (and also Walda Frey) at every side. They care nothing for Sansa, but need the symbol of her: here, Sansa becomes a victim of the misogyny that idealizes women and their wombs, at the same time that she is also a victim of Ramsey’s sense that women are fundamentally degradable.
The scene, too, shows how living in the Bolton’s world pitted Myranda against Sansa, in much the same way that the Khal’s wives are pitted against Dany. I have no love lost for Myranda, but it was chilling to hear Ramsey recount his love for her: chilling because his love for her (“she was fearless”) is so intimately bound to his sense of her as consumable (“she’s good meat”). In Ramsay’s warped mind — a mind that’s an extension of the broader cruelty of his world, sadly not an exception from it — the only response to a hurt woman is to hurt more women: the terrifying poetry of Ramsey’s line “Your pain will be paid for a thousand times over” was a carefully-metered microcosm of this show’s brutalizing economy.
Melisandre is no stranger to this economy of pain. She knows the role of women’s beauty within it. In her moment of defeat — in her misreading of the fates of Stannis, and Jon — is it her assumed beauty, or her actual age, that she is finding most responsible? Watching this scene at the end of this episode, I felt a great tenderness towards her. As I wrote elsewhere, the scene “tells us something so wise about being a woman in Westeros: that it is fucking exhausting.” Alone in her room, Melisandre remains crowded by the expectations of men — even good men, like Davos, thinking of her in a room nearby — and for the first time this show has made me interested in her, by letting me see her own ambivalence about the way she makes men see her. Am I Melisandre’s girlfriend? Could I be? Could the show make a way for me to connect to her, rather than to see her on the other side of a zero sum game of male attention?
And this leaves us, of course, with the episode’s highlight: the only moment when two women are actually able, and only after much struggle, to see each other: the moment when Sansa and Brienne lock eyes, and bind themselves together. And I thought: look! They are seeing each other! Perhaps, maybe, they can be each other’s girlfriend? I watched this moment, born out of so much grief and loss for both of them, thinking about how grateful I am for every visual culture moment like it: moments like this between women are still so rare. It reminded me of Rey and Leia embracing in The Force Awakens; it reminded me even more vividly of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which I had just watched, on the same channel as Game of Thrones.
And it made me think of Prince, too. I’m not sure that anything about this episode of Game of Thrones got as close to wisdom as Prince did every time he even glanced at a guitar: I’m pretty sure that very little of it got as close to Prince as Beyoncé did. (Nothing makes Ellaria and the Sand Snakes look worse than airing right after Beyoncé, swinging her bat.) On a scale from zero to Lemonade, where does Brienne and Sansa’s oathmaking score?
It’s a question I’m a little hesitant, at this point, to answer. There’ve been too many times when I got hopeful about Sansa, only to watch the show’s confidence in her evaporate for no reason. I don’t have much confidence that Game of Thrones will treat its characters, or us, as satisfyingly as Prince would: I’m still unsure if the show’s makers understand what it would mean to see its women watchers as if they were our girlfriends. But the good news is that at the end of the episode, I was more excited about Game of Thrones than I was at the beginning. I’m feeding a tiny spark of enthusiasm about what the rest of the season might bring.
Previous episode: season 5, episode 10, “The Wars to Come.”
Following episode: season 6, episode 2, “Home.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage