Game of Thrones, "The Spoils of War"




This week on Dear Television:

Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle pull their mint-condition dragons out of the garage and cruise them on over to “The Spoils of War,” the fourth episode of the seventh season of the popular HBO program, Game of Thrones. There are lots of spoilers, but since our beleaguered Attorney General can’t seem to do anything about LEAKS, most of you probably saw this episode sometime last week anyway. 

Confessions of a Long Winter Truther

by Aaron Bady

Dear Television,

In High Fantasy, the “chosen one” narrative is all about an (apparently) unknown princeling who turns out to be the redeemer; in some cases, there is a prophecy, usually there’s a mentor figure, and always there’s a hero’s journey (Narrator: “Hey! That’s the name of the trope!”), but at the end of it, we have some kind of resolution or revolution or total redemption of all the garbage that preceded it. Balance in the force has been restored; Aeneas has founded Rome; the ring of power is destroyed; the internal contradictions of capitalism have reached a crisis point and Full Luxury Communism is here; Jesus has died for your sins, etc. Everything that had become Very Bad has now, finally and forever, become Very Good, forever and ever amen.

And then, before you can explore all the discontents that remain, you cut to black: The End.

In one sense, it’s a story geared towards the perspective of the masses, the people, the land: someone will come to redeem us. Things have been real shitty for a while—a tyrant, a plague, war, general shit conditions—and not only is somebody needed to fix all of it, but that person exists. They are coming! We haven’t found them yet; they are hidden, unknown, immature. Something has to happen—maybe a whole bunch of random conflict and struggle and arbitrary journeying that, when it’s over, will turn out to have been necessary and meaningful—but, in the end, they will come. They will save us. They will fix everything.

But in another sense, it isn’t this story at all, because this is a story about the future, and the hero’s journey is really a story about the past. There’s a lot to say about it—and good lord, have people ever said a lot about it—but I’m going to be a crass materialist reductionist, and assert that it’s essentially a ruling class’s post-facto rationalization about how things got to be the way they are now. It’s the kind of story that a ruling class tells about how the current king saved us from really bad stuff, about how things were really bad until now, so be happy with your lot, peasant. Back to the fields! You don’t like the current regime? Well, let me tell you a story about how bad things used to be before the Good King Status Quo came to power. Man! He really saved us from all of that. Back to the fields, peasant!

To say that political economy is not Game of Thrones’ strong suit is beyond obvious (where did Euron’s 1000 ships come from), but you cannot narrate the long winter without taking some time to think about where the food is going to come from. And so, we’re getting a lot of interesting little gestures towards how many food units will be needed to provision each city per turn. Thus, Sansa sending out for grain from local farmers, presumably by asking very nicely; thus, along with harvesting the gold they need from Highgarden, Jaime and Bronn are collecting grain from all the farmers, asking much less nicely. This is one way that the show is narrating the coming long winter: the ruling class is starting to demand that the peasants give them all their grain.

(Parenthetically, I’m a bit of a Long Winter truther. Winter is here, we were told at the end of season six. Four episodes in and… where is it? Still at the North Pole, as far as we can tell. I’m beginning to think that “Winter is Coming” can be the Stark motto because it never actually comes, not really. It’s the thing you tell children who aren’t old enough to have lived long enough to know that it’s nonsense. I mean, think it through for a second, how would that even work? It doesn’t make even a LITTLE BIT OF SENSE. If winter lasted years at a time, everyone would starve to death every single winter, you can’t build a society on a foundation of All The Peasants Die Every Winter, COME ON, WAKE UP SHEEPLE, THIS IS NONSENSE.)

(Anyway.)

(No, really, wait a second, what the hell, man? How can you have a winter that lasts years at a time? If the usual drill for the long winter is that the ruling class steals all the grain from the peasants, and, thus, all the peasants starve in the cold and dark, how can a society continue? You need peasants if you’re going to have a ruling class! How do you even have farming without seasons as we know them?)

(Now, really, anyway.)

Back to the Hero’s Journey. If it’s the dominant narrative form—not the most common, but the most favored narrative form by those who dominate society—it should only be told after the fact. It only works if you read it back onto the present as a story about the past (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”). If the Hero’s Journey is a story you sell to the peasants—if it’s the butter you use to fry that sweet, sweet class exploit-propriation to make it taste so delicious—then it’s always a story you only tell about the past; if you try to read it onto the present—if you try to tell a story about how a particular person, now, is the prince that was promised—then you’re talking revolution. Which can still be weaponized and implemented, of course, but then it’s not a story, it’s a project. If it hasn’t already been fulfilled—if the story hasn’t already reached its conclusion—then anyone who is not a follower of your particular religio-political crusade can hear your ravings and say: yeah, you’re just saying that because your dude is your dude, but that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Stannis isn’t the Prince who was promised, JON SNOW is the prince who was promised (or Dany, or Jaime, or whoever). You can see the malleability of the story when people are selling it to you in real-time, and the way it needs to end before anyone will believe it. It only becomes a Real Story, in other words, once you’ve put Stannis (or whoever) on the Iron Thone.

Last night’s episode showed us several of the ways that Game of Thrones’ “chosen one” narrative is running out of wiggle room. Ever since The Father Died and The Bad Guys Won, there have been a variety of ways to play this out: someone had to redeem the land, after all. And so The Prince(ess) Who Was Promised has been a prophecy lurking in the background for some time now, as various characters make a variety of treasons. It’s still mostly latent. Indeed, it has to stay latent; because we’ve seen it go wildly wrong—because Stannis got killed dead—we can see that until it comes true, a prophecy isn’t worth the leech-extracted-Kingsblood it’s printed on. The future is a lot of different revolutionary possibilities, and only events will prove which one it turns out to be. The best way to interpret a prophecy is with overwhelming force. Perhaps this is the only way.

Daenerys has, it turns out, overwhelming force. It has been mostly undisputed that if you have dragons, you can torch your enemies and win the war. That’s how the Targaeryans conquered Westeros, and they were overthrown once they didn’t have any more dragons, and so it’s been mostly taken as read that Dragons are the trump card. The big reveal of how you stop the dragons—It’s a really big crossbow!—was underwhelming, because shooting a dragon skull is a lot easier than shooting an actual living dragon, and unless you’ve poisoned the thing, as its name would seem to imply, my money is still on the dragons.

The real question is what force is good for. A lot of people watched this episode and came away thinking that Dany had destroyed Cersei’s payments for the Iron Bank; Tarly tells us otherwise, but the framing suggests it so strongly that it’s easy to miss. The episode even seems to me to be crafted to foster this misconception. At the beginning, we see them loading up a wagon with gold for the Iron Bank (“Did I mention that it’s for the Iron Bank?” Jaime says, helpfully) and then we see a scene where Cersei discusses with the Iron Bank that their gold is on the way (“Don’t worry it will totally get to you, my brother is escorting it personally!” she says, helpfully, “also, here is a gun on the mantel, that certainly won’t go off, I’ll make sure of it”); thus, having established that Cersei needs to get the gold to the Iron Bank, we see, at the end, Dany and her dragons torching a bunch of wagons that Jaime is personally escorting, against a background that actually looks very similar to where they were before. It is so easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, and lots of people did (I did, and I watched it twice); the showrunners wanted you to jump to that conclusion, because it would be quite an ending, solving several different problems. It turns the tide of the war, excitingly, and in the conversation with Jon Snow, Jon tells Dany that if she wants people to believe in her, to believe that she really is the chosen one, then she can’t use the dragons “to melt castles and burn cities.” Dragons, he tells her, are basically only good for inflicting horrific holocausts of death on people; if that’s the only power you have, “you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.”

The ending we want—the ending we might want so much that we overlook intervening facts—is that she might find a use for Dragons that would be different.

I even thought she had found a way to use the Dothraki horde in Westeros: since it had been established that an invasion of Dothraki would mark her as a foreign invader, the only place she could use them would be somewhere like the Reach, where the Lannisters—who nobody likes—had just invaded. If you invade to throw off the invaders, then it’s really a wash. But, as Tarly helpfully expositions—right after saying that all the gold is safe within the castle walls—the setting has changed; instead of being in the recently conquered Reach—with Olenna Tyrell’s blood still metaphorically warm—we are nearly back to King’s Landing, at Blackwater Rush. The Dothraki have come, in other words, as invaders. The siege has begun, it seems.

Imagine what a different episode it would be, without Randyll Tarly’s five seconds of exposition. If she melts the Queen’s gold, then the Iron Bank will take care of her! What a brilliant use of force! What a targeted, surgical strike! THE WAR IS OVER. If the white walkers are climate change, then the dragons are weapons of mass destruction. And the fantasy of WMDs—about our WMDs—is always that we will use them in a way that’s restrained and targeted and precise and won’t hurt any bystanders, just the bad guys.

This is the real “chosen one” narrative at the heart of Game of Thrones: The ultimate enemy of all humanity is coming—climate change—and we will stop it by dropping a nuclear bomb on it. That’s the story it wants to tell, and the story that we want it to tell; what is terrifying about climate change is that it isn’t a foreign invader, but the aggregate of industrial civilization. It is us. How can we drop a bomb on us?

The real story—the story that, to its credit, this episode also tells—is about how weapons of mass destruction are stunningly horrible, impossible to control, and really bad at tasks like fighting the hunger and starvation that winter brings with it. Fire burns people alive, and it sucks to watch it happen because you cannot avoid knowing, even just a little, what it would be like to have it happen to you. You might think you are fighting a war on poverty, but it might turn out that you are actually burning peasants alive.

In the end, no matter how much you want to have a targeted strike destroying your enemies ill-gotten gold—and to end world hunger by dropping a bomb on the bad guy—it might turn out that what you have done is invade, and what you have destroyed is food. The devil is in those details; the devil is you.

My only venture at this moment is reestablishing control over this continent and every person on it,

Aaron

Weapon of Choice

by Sarah Mesle

Dear Television,

When I was a girl, bows and arrows were my imaginary weapon of choice. In fact, it was a revelation when I discovered that not all girls, when imagining themselves in premodern settings, pictured themselves running through woods in leathers with a bow slung on their backs, with like 17 and 18s in intelligence and dexterity. Smart, agile, precise, removed: isn’t that what everyone wants to be?

No! Some lady friends and I were sitting a rainstorm this weekend discussing this very question: some of them chose swords, some staffs, some fists, some spells. It turns out women have all sorts of ways of imagining asserting themselves, protecting what they love; not everyone wants, like I do, to wield weapons from a distance.

Significantly, however, none of us selected as our weapon of choice, “Dragon.” In this we are all different from Daenerys Targaryan, who won the shit out of this episode of Game of Thrones by powering in on Drogon in what was truly one of the most personally stirring moments of television I have seen since Ilana’s sewer back flip in Broad City, or at least since Brienne and Arya’s sparring match earlier in this episode. Ladies! Weapons! Dragons! Ladies with weapon dragons!!

Listen, I understand that dragons aren’t just weapons, but still I think it’s not just the category shift that kept my lady friends and me from choosing dragons as a central possibility in our imaginary arsenal. It’s also that there are just remarkably few examples in stories of women getting to control the heavy artillery, so it’s a little hard to bring to the imagination without prodding. The feeling I had when Drogon came soaring into view over the Dothraki hoards, and then I realized Dany was on his back, not only coming into battle herself as a woman and queen but doing so as the only person who even could bring the best weapon into battle: it’s hard to explain. The only thing I have ever felt that was remotely like it was when I watched Rei pilot the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. It’s a moment when you realize that even when you were imagining yourself with exceptional strength, what you imagined was limited by years of training to imagine small, and someone has just opened a door through which you can imagine big. I do not care one bit here that I sound like an inspirational poster.

As I noted in last week’s episode, women spent very little time together, and the time they did was torturous. This week was very different. Women were together on the battlements (Dany and Missandei), in the crypt (Sansa and Arya), in the courtyard (Arya and Brienne). In public and private, they talked about sex, death, learning, family, and the future. I mean: let’s just pause to notice that this is some really good TV! The range of mobility across space and ideas to which these characters were granted access was startling and exciting, especially because (unlike the very stage-y war counsel scene in episode 2) the scenes seemed to emerge believably out of these characters as carefully developed humans, rather than as symbols of the show’s political grandstanding.

And this is partly why it was so interesting to see Dany on her dragon: she too had to learn how to imagine herself upon it. It’s been a smart thing about this show that’s it’s realized that having the most lethal weapon does not necessarily make you the most powerful participant in a conflict, depending on what you want to win. While Cersei has no qualms about pyrrhic victories (she wants “control over this continent and every person in it,” as she tells us; the show cleverly juxtaposes her dramatic willingness to use wildfire with Dany’s caution about dragon fire), Dany wants not just control but allegiance, love. As Jon said, she wants to differently make the world. Can she make by destroying?

One point of evidence that she can is that although this is the third episode in a row to end in a battle (which: !!!), this battle felt in no way familiar. Everything about it felt new and fresh. Watching it, I thought about my previous favorite Game of Thrones battle, when Stannis came in with his two-pronged attack and trapped the Wildlings; I thought too about the reversal of that battle when Ramsey trapped Stannis the same way a season later. Dany’s strategy here was totally different: her fire cuts through the Lannister line, making a path for her Dothraki warriors to go through.

We could talk a lot about the details of this battle and how amazingly shot and created it was; it’s a testament to the skill on display that the scene contained so many genuine moments of suspense given that we don’t know or care personally about any of the Dothraki. (Could a nameless Dothraki warrior kill Jaime or Bron? Unlikely: except that at several moments I believed it might be possible.) And we might be uncomfortable with how the scene used our feelings about horses, and the injury caused them, as a substitute for feeling for injury caused to characters, except that the scene also made a parallel between the Dothraki on their battle horses and Dany on her Dragon: when your weapon is alive, strong and fierce underneath you, its vulnerability is both your armor and your risk.

However, what interests me most about the battle just now (which: let’s hope that GoT comes up with a better name for it than “the epic loot train battle”) is what it meant for Dany’s character: the way it showed her to be both confident and still learning as a warrior and leader. She had not done this before! It heightened my appreciation of the battle that she seemed, at moments, both determined and tentative, in the act of growing rather than just strong female character-ing her way through.

A similar sort of pleasure suffused the dueling scene between Brienne and Arya, which had an “I am not left handed!” quality to it that I’m having a hard time remember if I have ever seen two women have the chance to play out onscreen. Brienne’s weapon is broad sword, Arya’s is her needle, they are warrior and assassin, they are not the same, and do you remember how many times I complained that Arya and the Waif were never allowed to have any relationship besides vicious rivals? I do, and let me tell you, the way this scene let these two characters find pleasure in each other’s strength, in the experience of being tested, was a kind of narrative reparation that I enjoyed exactly as much as you would expect. The easy way that Bron and Jaime, for instance, are allowed to be talented together — or Tyrion and Varys, in a different register — rivals but not enemies, felt like a breakthrough in what this show was able to imagine. Two women can test each other, without torture!

But here we come to an interesting question, which is: what is Sansa’s weapon of choice? Does she have one? Is it her hair? I’m going to go ahead and say that this episode featured her best hair ever of the series—long and powerful, glowing and braided in the snow; womanly. When I say that it’s interesting to think of Sansa’s hair as a weapon, I hope it’s obvious that I mean no aspirsions against her; Game of Thrones at its best has been brilliant at charting the kind of sideways wars that many, women especially, wage through appearance, shade, insight, and information. Even as I spent most of this episode reveling in its portrait of women’s direct action, please don’t mistake me as abandoning Braid Studies as a vital interpretive heuristic of political action.

And yet one way to chart Sansa’s growth as a character would be to note that she moved from a character who seemed unable to imagine herself as having weapons — instead, she had romance and femininity, which she failed to recognize as near Dragon-caliber weapons when used aggressively — to a character fully aware of weapons of something not only necessary to have but also as available to her, particularly. This was partly a problem with her and partly a problem with the show, which continued to want us to care about her even as it mostly used her as a prop to show other characters’ development (think about Sansa with Cersei during the Battle of Blackwater, one of the moments when we first came to be interested in Cersei: what Sansa learned then is perhaps only apparent now). But now Sansa seems to have a sense of herself as someone with insight and embodied forcefulness.

It’s worth saying that, of the many pleasures inherent in watching Sansa and Arya’s reunion, one was the sense I had that Sansa had shown up as a character for real; it’s possible that the show will take away her multi-dimensionality again, but it seems less likely now. And nowhere was that more apparent than in the show’s awareness that Arya and Brienne’s duel was not something that mattered just to them, it mattered also to Sansa, because women matter to each other. If it was vaguely annoying from a wish fulfillment standpoint to have Littlefinger there (it’s always vaguely annoying to have Littlefinger there), it was also a fascinating tribute from the show, because Littlefinger’s watching is one of the show’s metrics that something matters. As Littlefinger watched the triangulated attention between Sansa, Arya, and Brienne, the envy and admiration exchanged between them, women’s feelings about each other, to each other, were elevated to a matter of political substance. This felt right, and important, to me.

I’m being a little rhapsodic here, and it’s worth pointing out that what I’m praising about the episode occurs mostly at the level of experiential detail rather than grand scale plotting—what Aaron is saying about the hero’s journey strikes me as right, and I totally agree it would have been more interesting if Dany had gotten the gold and the bank, “arithmetic not sentiment,” as the Iron Banker says. It’s worth thinking about Ser Davos being the one to whitesplain white savior privilege to Missandei, and then also, the very fact of the character-less Dothraki horde is a problem there’s just no getting around.

Still, I loved watching this episode in (most of) its scene-by-scene texture. I loved how it attached action to relationship. Not only was it entrancing to watch Arya and Sansa and Arya and Brienne, it was fantastic to watch Jon with Theon and Tyrion with Jaime—and, in fact, Jaime with the dragon, two not-dissimilar characters whose futures, at the end of the episode, are in suspense. This was an episode that brought people into contact, and it treated women as people, not just as plot points or symbols or even ideals.

I think the “weapon of choice” question is ultimately one about how you imagine yourself contributing to action. This means it’s a question of both plot and character, and in this episode I felt Game of Thrones truly got to a new place, if not a perfect one, in how it was imagining those things intersecting, for all its characters. No one is perfect here; no one has figured it all out; no one taught them how to do it. What they are doing is learning. What fucking great TV.

Cersei also drinks and knows things, and now in pleather dresses!

Sarah


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