Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle board a massive ship with ornate squid-kraken-festooned sails that takes them directly to "Stormborn," the second episode of the seventh season of Game of Thrones, the HBO television program. There are plenty of spoilers below, but, you know, whatever, who cares, what does any of this mean anyway?
Previous episode: season 7, episode 1, "Dragonstone."
Following episode: season 7, episode 3, "The Queen's Justice."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
My Name is Dickon, and That Name Means Something
by Aaron Bady
The problem with Game of Thrones…
(and I take a breath here, disoriented with all the possibilities)
…is that it can’t decide if it wants to go into full nihilistic doom-and-gloom cynicism, or if it wants to believe in something. This is the big question of the show, and as we crash heedlessly towards a conclusion — because the show actually does have to end, and much sooner than was really necessary, but there are only two more seasons to go — the showrunners are getting closer and closer to the point where they can’t have it both ways anymore, and the ship is starting to creak under the stress. This show is increasingly like Randyll Tarly, talking nonsense to Jaime Lannister about how he’s got to get moving, he’s got an army to mobilize because the name Tarly “means something” and Jaime Lannister is all, “cool cool cool, totally, but by the way, which side are you gonna be fighting on,” and Randyll Tarly is all, “by the way, my name is Tarly.”
War is the constant, and everyone has names, but beyond that, the difference between carving up a pus-dripping infectious madness monster disease and digging into a nice delicious pie is a matter of arbitrary perspectives: you never quite know what you’re cutting to until you pull back and see. Randyll Tarly is going to fight for one side or the other, eventually; he seems confused by the fact that he swore allegiance to the crown and also to Olenna Tyrell — which, fair point, this show is really confusing — but there’s no obvious clear “right” side to fight for. Everything Jaime says about Olenna Tyrell is correct — she really does just want to burn everything down — but it’s also clear that Cersei is no great prize herself. The spectacle of her ranting about the “heathen” Dothraki and the threat that Daenerys will, “destroy the realm as we know it,” while standing under the spot where the sign of the seven used to be, before she destroyed the consensus religion of Westeros by blowing up the Sept, well, that’s quite a bold claim, Cersei! But it makes as much sense as anything else anyone else says in this swampy confusing show, so why not. Randyll Tarly wants to insist that his name means something, but in the event, he seems pretty tempted by the prospect of making it mean, “Warden of the South.”
(Meanwhile, one cut later, Tarly’s dis-owned son tries to help another dis-owned son of a father-figure they share, cut, cut, cut…)
People keep insisting that names mean something because the alternative is just too dark and confusing: we strain to see something in the murky and underexposed blackness — and Lili has histograms, if you need convincing that the show is “dark” in the most literal way possible — because otherwise it all just runs together, and every frame is the same. If you’ve read the books, you know that Martin likes using analogies for all the objects that clutter the narrative, but in my memory, those analogies also tended to run together, as a million different analogic chains for gritty medieval fantasy toughness: the sword “Ice” was black as ice, and Castle Black was cold as ice as black as night as leather as dark as black as cold as ice, and so on and on and on. In Homeric poetry, epithets are a useful technology for improvisation on the fly — gotta keep those dactyls constant! — but Martin uses analogies like the show uses underexposed cinematography: a cool aesthetic bath to make the whole show feel of a piece, like something that was planned and constructed and stitched together, and not just a sprawling high fantasy being composed on the fly.
The overwhelming evidence, currently, would seem to be on the side of names not actually meaning anything. I mean: in this episode, there is a dire wolf named “Nymeria” and also one of the Sand Snakes is named “Nymeria,” and that goes nowhere, plus, the wolf that was gifted to Arya by prophecy and legend, in the event, is all, “nah I’ve got a wolf pack to be queen of, laterz.” But if the “Prince that Was Promised” can also be a princess, because why not, and the guy who insists that the name Tarly means something also named his son “Dickon,” and nobody seems to laugh at him for it, then what’s in a name? Sansa tells Jon that he can’t go to Dragonstone because the last time a Stark was summoned by the King, it didn’t go well, and wow, this argument-from-names is so clearly wrong that even Jon Snow can see through it. We’re faced with an overwhelming army of apocalyptic ice monsters who keep kicking our ass, and also a Mad Queen that hates us and keeps winning constantly, and the perfect enemy of both of them just slid into our DMs but we’re not going to even take a meeting, are you kidding me, Sansa?! Let’s just hang out in Winterfell, basically the only castle that’s been successfully conquered by an invading army in the entire show, that’s just an excellent plan.
The argument from names wants to subordinate all the messy, senseless chaos — in a show whose plotlines are as mixed up and tangled and confusing as a battle between two Iron Fleets of basically identical ships, filled with basically identical pirates, all fighting under the same squid-kraken banner, at night — but regardless of how individual fights turn out, the show is eventually going to have to decide if names mean anything: do bloodlines and names and prophecies actually prove true? Or is it just some bullshit that powerful people sell?
The answer to this question is going to be really unsatisfying.
Meanwhile, there’s Euron, a guy who was introduced into the show about twenty minutes ago — with no meaningful backstory except, “I sailed around the world a bunch and I’m evil and awesome and my goal is to marry the biggest and most awesome queen in the world, I enjoy smiling and laughing and killing” — and he’s crushing it, currently. As Grey Worm’s story seems to indicate, the people who really and truly do not GAF are also the most dangerous and powerful in this universe, and Daenerys might end up regretting leaving Daario in Essos (the only person on her team that comes from nowhere and doesn’t bother too much about worrying if he loses). Euron is winning because while everyone else just talks and talks and talks — and worries and worries and worries — Euron only lives to get radical. I mean, who builds a ship with a big hungry-hungry-hippos mouth cruncher thing and then RIDES IT DOWN? Other than the guy who drowned himself just because that would be a baller move, and because those who die can never die.
(He beat the Sand Snakes, it turns out, because one of the three stayed back to protect her mother: if all three Sand Snakes had been up on the deck to fight Euron, all the finishing blows we see the surviving Sand Snake deliver to various unnamed pirates, below deck, would have been delivered to Euron. Watch it again: we see SS #1 bump, we see SS #2 set, and then we see SS #3 spike the ball… except then the camera pulls back and we realize that it wasn’t Euron she castrated. The implication is clear: if all three sisters had been up there, they’d have won; but Yara told her to stay below and protect her mother, and she does, apparently dooming them all.)
Cersei’s current win streak probably stems from a similar kind of nothing-to-lose attitude. With her, it seems to be the prophecy that all her children would die, and also she’ll be killed by “little brother” (which is going to be the next High Valyrian Translation Puzzler), but in the meantime, she’s living her what is best in life, not because it helps, but because, you know, why not? What’s that, you say; the other side has dragons? OK, let’s build a really big crossbow, because why not see if that works. We’re all going to die anyway, lol.
Daenerys spent the entire episode making a plan in her map room, a plan that’s clearly going to fail; she’s up against two people who aren't looking for anything logical, who can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with; only Olenna, who just wants to watch the world burn, knows how to deal with that. In the meantime, the show is stuck in a place where the only way to win is not to care about losing, and the only satisfying twists and turns are the truly unexpected ones. The show has been teasing us with ICE + FIRE = CLIMAX for the entirety of its existence, but if there’s one thing that’s more boring than Dany and Jon joining forces, or dragonfire against ice zombies, it’s the predictable slide into Chosen One narratives and prophecy nonsense. Like Homeric poetry, Game of Thrones is at its best when something truly surprising happens and we watch intelligent, desperate people scheme an improvised response. But if it’s all planned out, epithets just demonstrate a lack of imagination, the kind of paint-by-number plotting that only has one color paint.
Thanks for the pie,
Loyalty Loyalty Loyalty
by Sarah Mesle
Let’s consider Nymeria and Theon. Here are two protectors who, in key scenes, jump ship. What’s the show doing with these two failed — or are they failed? — moments of loyalty?
I mean, it’s annoying to compare Nymeria to Theon because Nymeria is a gorgeous magical creature beast who I’ve been waiting to see for six seasons and is thus basically the opposite of Theon, who is an awkward black hole of narrative suffering who the show kept making me see, in greater detail than I ever wanted, for basically that same amount of time. (Pause for a moment to imagine a sort of negative-space Game of Thrones, where every Theon torture scene was replaced by footage of Nymeria building her pack: whoa.)
I’m not necessarily happy about comparing these two characters, but since the show set it up for us, I’m interested in the juxtaposition. What do these two scenes say about loyalty, first, but also what do they say about how the show satisfies and denies us? How is it built?
Or, to phrase the question more as Aaron does: what does Game of Thrones believe in? If we think of stories as sort of narrative test cases for how the world works, what kind of world-view is getting bolstered, here?
Let’s consider the two cases. First, Nymeria: the show proposes that the Starks and their direwolves have a deep spiritual bond, connected to their place in the ordering of their world. It’s important that the Stark children found their direwolves at the same time, the same day — the show’s pilot episode — that they learned about the White Walkers. It’s like the puppies were offered up to the Starks by the world itself, as a kind of special assistance in the face of profound danger.
Arya’s separation from Nymeria came about from her father’s ill-fated decision to leave the north and move to King’s Landing. (I’m not sure we can say that this move was a “mistake” on Ned’s part, since there were good moral reasons for doing it, but it certainly was an action that he made without understanding exactly what he was getting into.) The death of Lady — Sansa’s pup — and Arya’s realization that it was better to be separated from Nymeria than to have her die at Lannister command, was one of the show’s first signs that the moral order represented by the Stark family could not withstand the corrupting power of the Lannisters, no matter how well-meaning Ned was. When we look at it this way, it’s not exactly that the show aligns the Lannisters and the White Walkers — just because the Lannisters are at the center of so many lost wolf lives — but it does seem the case that, in the fate of the direwolves, we see some indication of how draining the Lannister wars are on the Stark’s bigger purpose.
For this reason, the reunion of Arya and Nymeria is a matter of intense significance. It matters not only because Arya has been so alone, and because we want so much for her to regain some of what she has lost. It also matters because reconnecting Arya and Nymeria would mean that some of the chaos let loose in Westeros might be reigned in. It would mean a kind of hopefulness.
Also, it would mean YAY GOOD DOG PLOT! I don’t usually like dog plots, very few of them are good, mostly they’re just dog suffering as a narrative short-hand for some lame human’s emotional growth. I hate that shit, and it’s not the most creative part of Game of Thrones that the symbol of moral order is magical poochiness. But still, it’s effective. I mean, pooches, even huge fanged ones: nom nom nom. Watching them gets to some deep primal part of you. Nothing is better than a dog reunited with someone they love.
All this is to say that a lot was at stake as Arya stared into Nymeria’s eyes. A lot of things could have happened! The scene could have ended with Arya sobbing on Nymeria’s neck. And it also could have ended, or the episode could have, with Arya riding to Winterfell with a fucking wolf army at her heels! IMAGINE!!! Sansa and Arya and a wolf army! You’d know that a lot of bad things were going to happen to those wolves when the White Walkers came. But you’d also know that the show believed that human life was worth saving.
What was at stake when Theon looked at Yara, at Euron? What was at stake when he jumped overboard, rather than either fight or surrender?
This is a harder question, because honestly I don’t know anymore what Theon means to this show or why it wants him around. For a long time he was there mostly, it seems, as a vehicle to display two things: the sadism of Ramsey, and the sadism of the show. But since he returned to Ramsey; since he’s helped Sansa and reunited with Yara — what’s he all about?
This is a show famous for killing its heroes, and it’s been pretty successful, too, at dramatically killing off its villains. Many of the characters who remain seem vital to some sort of end game for the show — either characters we love or characters wrapped in the show’s final battles of belief (whether those are for the throne, or against the White Walkers). We’re losing window-dressing characters — Sand Snakes, RIP — like flies.
And then: there’s Theon, still hanging around. What are we hoping to get from him? Is it, like…manhood? Is the show testing around to see if it can salvage some sort of heroism out of the detritus of its own machinations? But what would it mean for Theon to swoop in and rescue Yara, at the very moment when the show is trying so desperately to announce its remember-the-ladies cred?
If Theon had rallied, somehow triumphantly conquered Euron or even remotely helped Yara, what would be different about Game of Thrones’s moral world? Would it actually have been some sort of pushback against the sadism that Joffrey, Ramsey, and now a little bit Euron, represent?
I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m honestly not sure. One thing the show really wants us to know — it has Lady Olenna tell us — is that asshole behavior will spring ever eternal; there’s never been peace from it and there never will be, there will just be periods when it’s kept more in check.
The main thing to say is that Theon and Yara had to go down here not because of any particular belief system, but rather to serve the needs of getting eleven more episodes of television out of this story. If Euron loses, Cersei will lose too quickly: since he wins, we get a more evenly matched final showdown plus some extra awful things happening to women, so that’s going to be really great.
This episode was, overall, a mix of satisfactions and frustrations. Scenes like Dany’s war council of women, and the intimate, lovely encounter between Grey Worm and Missandei (as well as its insistence on her pleasure), felt radical in concept and somewhat forced in execution. Characters seem all akimbo; it’s hard to know anymore who can make good decisions.
Did Nymeria make a good decision? What actually was decided, when she left Arya alone the way that, once before, Arya had left The Hound? Arya seemed to understand. In a rare move, I watched the “behind the scenes” footage of the episode, and Benioff and Weiss pointed out something I wouldn’t have seen (maybe, um, because they didn’t make it clear), which is that Arya’s claim “it’s not you” echoes something Arya had said to her father back in season one, when he wanted her to be a lady: “it’s not me.”
If Nymeria had joined Arya, one order would have been restored. But Nymeria leaving Arya — at least, for now — does not seem to mean that order has been forgotten or rejected. Nymeria, like Arya, is imagining a new path, forging something different than what was set out for her. But she is building. And in that way, she is on the side of possibility.
What I finally dislike most about Theon’s return to Reek-like quivering and cowardice — although, were that really the case, doesn’t it seem more likely that he would have surrendered, groveled at Euron’s feet? — is not so much that he fails to recuperate himself as a man or as a hero, but rather that he lives.
A lot of things would have made this episode better. It would be better if Euron were in any way as interesting as his beautiful ships, instead of just some rando pirate bro overlord with no backstory or complexity. It would have been better if Ser Davos had stayed with Sansa — who, look, is gonna need more help than Brienne can give her — rather than leaving her with Petyr Fucking Baelish. It would have been better if there were something actually awesome about Cersei’s crossbow and if the final battle didn’t look the trailer for some lame video game. (I’m shocked to report that the appearance of Melisandre did not seem, in any way, to make the episode worse!)
But what I really think would have been the clearest way to make the episode more exceptional, more interesting, would have been if the final shot had been of Theon floating lifeless in the water, rather than clinging tenuously to debris from which he will surely be rescued, only to continue the next cycle of weird attenuated narrative unpleasantness. Watching Theon in the water, I thought: why is he still hanging on?
And why are we hanging on? Theon has always been a strange sort of stand in for us as viewers; watching him there, clinging, I felt a sort of exhaustion. Just like: let it go.
But then, there’s Nymeria, fleet and furred in the woods. There’s Arya going home without Nymeria, but — maybe? — to find her sister, to find Brienne. These aren’t the reunions any of them are expecting, and I’m not trying to tie something up neatly with a bow, here, at the moment when the show isn’t sure it can demonstrate what sort of ending will matter to its story. But it’s encouraging that Game of Thrones is making something riveting happen out of Nymeria’s kind of beautiful truthfulness to herself, of loyalty redefined.
Please do not kill Grey Worm,
Previous episode: season 7, episode 1, "Dragonstone."
Following episode: season 7, episode 3, "The Queen's Justice."
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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