Following episode: season 6, episode 7, "The Broken Man."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Imma Let You Finish But Don’t Drink That, She’s Trying to Kill You: Or, Swords: Still There!
Aaron: Sarah! So, I always read your quick reaction thing at Indiewire the night after the episode airs, usually before I’ve come to any conclusions about the episode. (I never know what I think until I’ve slept on it). And this week, I didn’t like the episode very much and neither did you: it was fine, but, you know, it wasn’t great; lots of stuff sort of happened, but it was all sort of… non-eventful.
Sarah: All I can say is: wow, I was really bored watching this episode! I’ll admit that I was sort of begrudgingly impressed by it: even while watching it, I was admiring the narrative symmetry of it, and also, look, Arya gets back Needle! That was really great! But admiring the craft of something is different than enjoying it, and I did not enjoy this. I felt that it was...plodding? Grinding? I’m curious: what did you dislike about it?
Also, let me say from the get go that watching the House Tarly dinner party was the most miserable Game of Thrones has made me in a long time: that was almost as bad for me as watching Ramsay with the dogs. Poor Gilly, with the silverware! One thing that scene makes you realize is that etiquette is really just another form of sadism.Aaron: Well, I did think the dinner party was interesting, albeit miserable-making. I liked the brooding silence of Sam’s dad, versus his nervous talkative chatter. And I mean, watching Gilly stand up for herself was… well, no, that was excruciating. She does sort of stand up for herself, but they basically all just sit there and let King WorstDad snarl at them, and what are you going to do, he’s King WorstDad? Sam’s face is devastating, watching him hunch inside his own body (desperately afraid that if he says anything, his dad will throw Gilly out). I was actually very impressed with him throughout, really superb and subtle acting.
I wonder if the problem is that the show has established a certain narrative rhythm over the last few episodes: they’ve really started eating huge chunks of Grand Epic Plot, and if you think about how far the plot has advanced in the last three weeks — where we were then and where we are now — it’s kind of amazing. And this is a show that is sometimes happy to have not so much happen for long stretches. This episode felt like a throwback to that.
Sarah: Conversations in elegant rooms! You know, though, Aaron, I don’t normally dislike conversation episodes. I am really happy to sit back and admire the dialogue and the costumes — speaking of which, one thing I really enjoyed about this episode was the new contributions to Westerosi hair fashioning introduced by the ladies of House Tarly! But I felt like every scene of this episode just went three minutes too long.
Gilly though! You’re right. She is great, and I’ve been really excited about her plot line this season every since she showed up on that ship. Gilly Watch 2016! One of my favorite lines of dialogue this episode was when she tells Sam, “I’m not angry at you…” which is such a perfect line of lady anger-swallowing argumentation! Aaron: I had initially been excited for (what I thought would be) the comedy of manners where Gilly tries to pretend to be a lady and not a Wildling and they try to keep it all a big secret. But I actually like the development where, actually, Gilly doesn’t play games like that, and just says what she thinks. I kind of love that about her; Sam is there chattering away, and she just says — not unkindly — you are talking because you are nervous! There’s zero guile or deception in her, but she’s very perceptive and strong and good.
Sarah: Gilly is great, such a nice counterbalance to everyone else. And, let’s note — here again, I do admire the craftsmanship of the episode! — the crossing scenes of Gilly and Margaery, entering into and out of these class-marked modes of femininity. Just as Gilly gets her fancy dress, Margaery renounces hers. Elegantly done! Though, let’s also note, that whatever the Sparrow was doing to Margaery in prison, he was not impeding her eyebrow maintenance routine. Do you think the nun lady plucks them for her?
Aaron: The other symmetry I liked was between the two “Actually, fuck it, change of plan, Imma get my sword” moments in the episode: first, there’s Sam coming back in to get Gilly and the baby and also his Dad’s sword (because fuck dad), and second, there’s Arya coming back in to scotch the poisoning, and then go and get needle. And that gesture — which we see twice — is great because it’s an actual choice, a choice with consequences, a dangerous choice taken because human beings can actually make choices, so they do: they can decide to not let bad people do cruel things, or they can, at least, decide to try.
Sarah: Yes, absolutely. And let’s also note the other moment that the episode sets up to work in this sequence: the moment when it seems the High Sparrow chooses to let Margaery go, when he seems to back down, and then plays his horrible piety trump card. The episode really built up to the grandness of that moment, and the question of how it responds or reverses the choices that Arya and Sam make — their choices seem to be towards making a world that we root for, and it’s hard to root for the High Sparrow — is really interesting.
Also, can we note the incredible grandness of the overhead shots in that scene? The sweeping perspective of King’s Landing, looking down from the Sept to the sea? They really seemed to be saying: pay attention, this is important! Also also: I want to watch Jaime ride a white horse up the stairs of the Sept every day until I die. God that was fucking satisfying. I hope someone has made it into a GIF I can watch anytime I feel discouraged and need some more FUCK YEAH in my day.Aaron: It’s amazing! Staircases are absolutely great stages for moving actors around as the conversation develops, and they’ve done a good job of that; I’m thinking of Tyrion in Mereen, for example, walking grandly down his staircase to meet with the commoners and the New Red Lady walking up the stairs so she can put a rhetorical arm-lock on Varys.
But also, especially now that the play-within-a-play has become a weekly feature, the show just always feels meta about staging, to such an extent that every scene feels like a battle between different people putting on different plays. In the face-off in King’s Landing, The Sparrow has, of course, set up his play, for the commoners, and the Tyrell/Lannister side tries to set up a counter-play: soldiers! The High Sparrow wins, because of his surprise guest waiting in the wings — Look, It’s The King! — but the battle turns out to be all staging. They brought a sword to a play-fight, and lost because of it.
Sarah: Yes, so many moments of audience this episode: the King’s Landing audience, the actual play audience, Dany’s audience...even the dinner parties (at House Tarly, and also with Walter Frey) were really about how an audience might respond to a spectacle that was being staged for them.
The most interesting of these, of course, was Arya’s moment in the audience: her sense of herself as very apart from the rest of the crowd watching Lady Crane’s play, and then her somewhat reluctant integration into it, as she was moved by fake-Cersei’s performance.Aaron: The part where his head rises from the stage and you realize it’s her hand, underneath, lifting him up? So good! But Arya’s shift from laughing at Joffrey’s death to being moved by a mother’s grief is a really powerful transformation. Her smile fades, and then there’s a little lift of the brow when the actress hits a strong note of grief… And then she claps. She’s also opening up to the play, in ways Arya has so rarely been able to do; for most of the show, she’s had a perma-scowl, because everyone onscreen was possibly about to kill her. Getting lost in the audience lets her be unseen, and thus, she can see? It’s very subtle and good, in very pointed contrast to the broad comedy on stage. Which seems to be an important part of what the play-within-a-play texture is doing for the show: contrasting the satisfying simplicities of “mere” entertainment (Ned Stark is a clown! Tyrion is a villain! Cersei is sad!) against real life, where things don’t add up neatly at all.
Sarah: Okay, can we parse the layers of what’s happening in Arya’s scene, and her decision making? It’s really impressive. Some parallels: Arya and the Waif are two talented women whose access to power depends on a man, Jaqen H’ghar (sp wtf). Lady Crane and the bad actress are also two women orbiting around a man, the inadequate playwright. It seems, because of the staging, that Arya chooses to do the “right thing” because she hears the playwright be such a dick to Lady Crane — but the scene ends by emphasizing the rivalry between women (with Arya accusing the younger actress, and the Waif vengefully heading out after Arya) rather than the way that men create those conditions of rivalry.
I felt a little bit torn, watching all this play out, actually. It seemed to distill the kind of blindness and insight that this show always manifests about gender: on the one hand, being so smart about the bad options are given, and on the other hand, seeming to rely on those same tired tropes for its own drama.
Aaron: Does Arya decide to do “the right thing” because of the playwright? I’m not sure the show is even aware of the gender dynamics of those scenes, to be honest; in that regard, I think its insightfulness is at best a happy accident. I felt like Arya comes back because of [thing that happened in the black box of her mind when she’s off-screen]. Just like with Sam, who literally leaves the room, and there — while he is off-stage — makes the decision to Act.
I think the show is intensely interested in how spectatorship works — how much power there is in watching and in being watched — but in this episode, it was interested, too, in how important decisions sometimes happen in ways we can’t explain or understand or watch; why did Sam decide to come back? Why did Arya decide to come back? We don’t know! Both of those super-crucial decisions happen inside their minds, which is also the show thinking through (and against) the whole pre-destination thing it’s introduced: even if we are in a world with prophecy and time-travel and all that stuff, at least when we’re away from the Wall, characters still have to make choices.
Sarah: Here’s another choice that happens off stage and drives right at these same questions: Margaery’s decision, or realization, or conversion, which took place sometime between her RISE UP! speech to Loras last episode, and her pious and demure self-flagellating with Tommen this episode. And, similarly, Tommen’s “decision” to follow her lead (though of course Tommen wouldn’t do anything else; he just does what he’s told). I don’t think the show in any way believes in the divine power of the Sparrow — it sees the conversions as political, right? The Sparrow is playing a game, and winning: Margaery, I think we have to believe, is being typical Margaery and throwing her weight behind the winning side. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Margaery, by the way: I like her “I want to be the queen” ways almost every time. But I can’t say I’m at all excited to watch this narrative play out though. I mean, I’ve already read The Handmaid’s Tale; I don’t need to watch all that feminine hairshirting play out again in Westeros. Although, speaking of: Margaery has managed to find a very fetching dress of shame!
Aaron: I think Margaery has a plan: we don’t know what it is, but it seems clear that she’s found a way in between the two powerful men — the King and the High Sparrow — that makes her the powerful one. Which is different than throwing her weight behind the winning side; you’re exactly right to note the shift between WE WILL GROW STRONG Margaery of the episode with Loras and this new Margaery who is all repentance and self-reflection. She has a plan. Did you notice when she asked Tommen if he’d been talking with the High Sparrow? I have a feeling she plans to make sure that, in the future, both of them will be talking to each other through her. Especially since so many of her lines to Tommen seem to have double meanings; she says lots of things that seem to indicate she’s been writing a new script.
Sarah: Planmaking! Here are some other plans we should talk about: Walder Frey’s, Jaime and Cersei’s, and Dany’s. Aaron, how do you feel about the coming showdown at River Run? Here’s the one thing that I’m excited about in that: REUNION OF JAIME AND BRIENNE!
Aaron: I’ve completely lost track of all the different midlands kingdoms and who is on whose side; there’s a Riverrun and a Vale and a Fingers? And now the Tarlys are apparently a big kingdom, too? Walder Frey has a bridge-crossing kingdom, but also he seems to have taken over new places, and what about Littlefinger?
I have no idea at all who is actually going to be in this battle for the castle that the Blackfish (he is Catelyn’s relative?) has apparently captured. I’m up for lots of characters finding a random castle to meet around, though; the prospect of the New Starks meeting Jaime Lannister there promises to be interesting. But that will also put Jaime and Brienne on different sides, won’t it? Anyway, I’m excited for all these people to get tossed in proximity — with a big battle for Castle MacGuffin as the catalyst — but I feel like everyone is going to have to wear nametags to keep us all reminded of who is who.
Sarah: Yes, I know! That is the one thing I’m sure about; also, the “next week on” segment featured some more footage of Jaime charging around on a white horse, and we all know how I feel about that. Get it, Jaime!
Aaron: If Jaime is no longer in the Kingsguard, does that mean he can now be the head of House Lannister? And since Tommen is eventually going to be killed — if the prophecy from season whatever is to be trusted — I feel like maybe being kicked out of the Kingsguard puts him back in the line of succession in some way that maybe we should be interested about? Or not?
To be honest, I can’t decide if I care about all the dynastic politics, or if I’m even supposed to. Probably Dany and the dragons are going to show up before it matters, anyway, and we’re going to have the whole Battle of the Five Queens instead, which is definitely for the best.
Sarah: Aaron, I love this question “that maybe we should be interested about?” I feel like that is basically the theme of this episode. Benjen! Walder Frey! Riverlands! Maybe we should be interesting in them? It’s been three seasons, but maybe we care? Who knows! There were a lot of moments when I felt like the show really wanted us to be excited about the appearance of a character — Benjen’s a great example — and I wasn’t feeling quite the expected about of excitement about that? I mean, I am open to being excited about Benjen, Aaron. I am open to getting outraged about Walder Frey. But there’s been so much water under the bridge since we saw any of those dudes: I felt myself flipping through some weird mental Game of Thrones rolodex, to see what notes I’d left for myself about those characters. Benjen: do I like him? Maybe this episode was really designed to boost hits on the Game of Thrones wiki pages.
Aaron: The fact that all these older characters are being brought back is an indication of how the pace of the show has changed: it’s in cleanup mode, trying to tie up loose ends so the ending will, when it comes in two or three years, make a damn bit of sense. But you can also tell that we’re seeing book revelations being compressed. For example, Coldhands shows up and it’s literally one scene later that he reveals himself to be Benjen; I bet George R. R. Martin would drag that out for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Benjen’s line “the dead don’t rest” was a good reference to the literal fact that all these zombies are coming to kill them, and not resting, but I feel like it also functioned as a reference to what a shitty undead life he has, now; it would be a line with much more weight if we actually cleared some space between Coldhands and Benjen, but as it is, it’s just Benjen having seen some shit since before.
Sarah: Right! And, just one final note here: one loose end this episode really tries to dramatize is the final “Dany goes to Westeros!” plot. Aaron, just a couple of quick points on that: 1) Again, beautifully shot, much like the Sparrow’s scene in King’s Landing. 2) Of the many crowd-moving speeches of this episode, we are clearly supposed to think this one is the best, and 3) I mean, I love speech-making Dany as much as the next lady-viewer in her target demographic, but...really, do we think she’s going to be able to implement this plan here? Watching her speechify was a little like watching smart and privileged undergrads orate about how they’re really going to go overthrow capitalism or something: I’m always like, honey, that is so great, I am really with you, and also your naivety is very bittersweet to watch and also, please do not be so blind to your own subject position here. Aaron, the show needs no more white savioring.Aaron: It was lame. Maybe it wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t seen Dany give so many better performances than that, but, you know, we have! This is not even in the top five “Dany Mic Drop Moments,” however hard Emilia Clarke sold it (and she did sell it pretty hard). Another example of a shit scene being almost but not quite saved by good acting. But it was a shit scene. I mean, the staging alone: we literally just dropped into Dany and Daario expositioning pointlessly at each other:
Daario: So! You — who are a conqueror — you have a bunch of armies! You will need this many ships!
Dany: Yes I will! I, by the way, am mother of dragons! Here is my dragon!
Dany: Hordes of Dothraki, will you follow me?
Dothraki: Yes, we sure will!
Dany: Cool! Good! This ending of the episode was sure exciting!
And, as always, the only people who are having an interesting conversation is Dany and Daario; the Dothraki are an army of brown people to be rallied and controlled, and not even interestingly. Dany can’t even be bothered to smash the Patriarchy! Instead: ONWARD TO WESTEROS FOR SOME REASON.
Sarah: Oh God, and the ships just make me worried about what’s going to happen with Dany and old worst-plot-Ironborn over there. I’m trying not to think about it. Let’s not talk about it! Let’s do best and worst instead. My best, besides Arya and Sam with their swords, was Lady Crane complimenting Maisie Williams’s eyebrows. I am totally going to read that as a fourth-wall breaking kind of moment! The show finally admitting that Maisie Williams is a fucking eyebrow management superstar.
Aaron: And the fourth-wall complaints in that scene about actors being stuck with bad writing. Without the great actress, this is just farts! Even though it’s still a badly written scene. Ouch. Lili has suggested that the showrunners are engaged in a long-running campaign to subtly imply that George R. R. Martin is, in fact, a bad writer.
I think my best is going to be the “So wait, what just happened?” scene, where Olenna Tyrell has to explain to Lord Tyrell that they just got out-maneuvered. His cluelessness about what the spectacle all adds up to, what it all means — versus her intense understanding of how power works — is a nice reminder of her political genius.
Sarah: Lady Olenna has been so tragically underused this season. Plus they have her in that horrible tapestry blazer, like she wandered in from medieval Dynasty. It feels like such an insult to everything they’ve let her be up to this point. I mean, of course they got out maneuvered when they haven’t let Lady Olenna do anything except grimace at Cersei!
Speaking of: although my actual worst was definitely the dinner party of etiquette sadism, as I said, I also really want to mention how much I disliked the Cersei and Jaime scene. First, I am made so unhappy anticipating the disaster this “trial by combat” is surely going to be for everybody. Second, I just don’t care if Jaime and Cersei make out when clearly his most important relationship is with Brienne (Cersei’s most important relationship is with her own femininity, as far as I can tell). Thirdly, Cersei too is so underused this season! All last season, she was so smart, and now she’s just on this revenge fantasy autoloop, like a doll with a string in its back, all “we will show them our strength!” and “we will show them no mercy!,” and she never pays attention to anything and is never funny and also rarely drunk. Talk about bad lines. Ugh.
Aaron: Tyrion brought out the best in her, the drunk, the funny, and the cruel. Without him, they just play her against Jaime, and Jaime is not… any of those things. Is it just me or is it an actual problem that Jaime and Cersei don’t have tremendous chemistry? They honestly don’t seem that interesting together. But, to your point: I think both Cersei and Olenna are an example of how the show doesn’t have object permanence when it comes to female characters. They have a way of being one thing, for a while, and then suddenly not being that thing anymore, once the counterpart that brought it out in them is gone.
Sarah: Tyrion! Let’s hope he gets to do more awesome things soon.
Aaron: My worst is going to be Bran’s visions, which seem to be bargain-basement recorded-off-cable VHS recordings of Game of Thrones. I mean, come on, he has visions of everything that happened in history, and the best the show can give us is the exact same shots and angles we saw a few episodes ago? At least mix it up a little. If you’re only going to show us things we’ve literally already seen, at least use a cool Instagram filter or something.
You’re a nervous talker,
Aaron and Sarah
Previous episode: season 6, episode 5, "The Door."
Following episode: season 6, episode 7, "The Broken Man."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage