APRIL 15, 2019
This week on Dear Television:
Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle meet up in the crypts for a long-awaiting reunion covering the eighth and final season of HBO’s hit series The Game of Thrones Variety Program starring Bran. They’ll be talking about each of the final six episodes here, so stay tuned. (Barring special guests or unforeseen scheduling predicaments, we’ll try to have Aaron’s first essay up by midday Mondays and Sarah’s second essay up by Tuesday morning.) In the meantime, if you don’t want any spoilers for this show or the fate of humanity on Planet Earth, we suggest you watch this episode — “Winterfell” — and then clumsily ride your dragon back to this URL.
Shoot a Ninth Season, You Cowards
by Aaron Bady
How’s it going to end? This is now the question, and the specter of the next five episodes — and the fact that there are only five more episodes — looms heavier over the proceedings than the coming of “winter.” That the world is getting very small is even registered by the new opening credits, in which all our characters have gathered, basically, in two places. But it’s gotten small in another way: we can feel the end of the show coming, resolutely, because it’s quite clearly become a show about Jon and Dany. With only six episodes in total, the first of these has telegraphed a “return of the king” arc, quite clearly. And so, it has turned out to be a show about whether Jon and Dany will marry or kill each other, and about who is the right ruler; something will happen, and then that will have been what it’s all leading up to. Whatever it is, the great Song of Ice and Fire, it turns out, will have been that story all along.
This is the violence that endings do to stories. It has always been a bad idea for Game of Thrones to end; like so many decisions Benioff and Weiss have made, it’s a failure of imagination to give this soap opera a conclusion. Presumably they just want out, and I can understand that; can you imagine spending the rest of your life in Westeros? But still. The idea of ending the thing misunderstands what made it compelling (and why soap operas can and should go on forever): that’s what life does, horribly, even as individual lives come to an end.
“Winter is coming,” for example, was an ominous and creepy thing to say in an era of creeping climate change (and in a human existence in which none of us get out of here alive), but only because we are all living, now, in a moment when the threat is more real that we can allow ourselves to admit. It posed a question that we all know is the question, but don’t know how to address. By contrast, “Winter is here” is just… lame. If the White Walkers arrive, you can fight them, and that’s a stupid way to think about climate change, and about death.
But it’s true across the board that nothing that happens at the conclusion can be very surprising. Killing Ned at the beginning of the show was thrilling because it was unexpected, and because it reflected the true randomness of reality, and the tragic pathos of that; killing Robb and Catelyn at the Red Wedding — in the middle — was a little less game-changing, but still very interesting. But killing everybody else (or anybody) at the end will be deeply unsurprising. If the White Walkers destroy the world, that would be a bit of a twist, but when they don’t (and let’s be real, they won’t), whatever happens will be just one of the outcomes that everyone has already carefully gamed out. Jon and Daenerys getting married is a bit more boring than Jon and Daenerys fighting each other (though I’ll enjoy seeing Daenerys become the Night King’s fire-villain counterpart, if that’s where we’re going); but, ultimately, none of it will be any more surprising than watching a basketball game and one of the two teams winning.
This isn’t Benioff and Weiss’s fault, as such; the problem is forcing this sprawling, excessive show to conclude, and I suspect that the deep falsity of pretending that things like the world have conclusions will ruin the show. There’s a reason that “High Fantasy” lives in the longue durée: books and movies stretch back and forward in both temporal directions, because that forces verisimilitude onto wildly ridiculous material (dragons and ice zombies, oh my!) by embedding it deeply in time, into a world that’s been going on for a long time and will continue even longer. The deeper and longer it goes, the more real it will feel. This is the power of that narrative staging: generations, prophecies, long-foreseen disasters, and ancient enemies will make an incredibly unrealistic story feels old and alive: if it’s been going on for a long time and will go on for a long time more, then everything that happens in it resonates forward and backward. Killing Ned was interesting because his story stretched back, because he’d had a long and interesting life that it brought to an end; killing Robb and Talisa was interesting because their story could have continued, because they had a future. Time made their deaths matter.
Killing Jon or Dany will be as boring as not killing them, I fear, because the story won’t go on without them. We’ve seen most of their story already — they were children when it started — and when it ends with their deaths or coronations, it will be their end. The show will turn out to have been their stories, their lives and deaths contained and narratively packaged by it; a show defined by its mess and chaos and sprawl will suddenly turn out to have always had a center. And centers are false; hasn’t the lesson of this thing been that the stories that power tells to legitimize its brutal grasp on power — that make “great houses” the protagonists of history — are false?
Endings and conclusions are also false in a way that unexpected deaths are not. An unexpected death contains the story it has cut short and the story that could have continued, and that’s its pathos; because a conclusion wraps it all up in a neat narrative container — and makes everything turn out to have been leading up to that — it’s a lie: nothing really ends conclusively. Life is lived and died in medias res, and death is just the beginning of mourning, and the smartest thing GoT ever did was remember that no one is the center of the story; if you think you’re the protagonist, you’ll die and at best it will turn out that you’re just the new protagonists’ motivation, or just be forgotten. But to end the show with the deaths of some and the crowning of others — which is what we all know they’ll do — is to announce that, no, THESE were the protagonists all along. The other lives and deaths just didn’t matter as much, it will turn out; this really was the story of the Starks, or the Targaryen’s, or whoever.
One of the ways you can tell that this thing is ending is all the echoes and mirroring; we begin with a scene that echoes the first season; the child watching the pageantry of an army rolling in, the arrival of southerners to Winterfell; the ending of the episode with Jaime and Bran, just like the ending of the first episode. The symmetry of it is there to remind us that this story is a made thing, artificial; to replicate scenes from an early episode is to remind you that they are “scenes” from an earlier “episode.” But why would we want to remind this show’s audience that they are an “audience” watching a “show”?
What allowed Game of Thrones to trick you into forgetting that was the way it lingered in small characters, in roles and side-adventures that weren’t about whether Jon or Dany would rule, and weren’t about the clash between dragons and white walkers. Everyone has baggage, and they carry it with them, always; at its best, the show never forgot that. So the best parts of last night’s episode were all the wonderful individual check-ins that we got, where proximity finally allowed long-separated frenemies to compare notes: Tyrion sort of awkwardly walking up to Sansa and having the old “isn’t it weird that we were married once?” conversation, and bonding over cheerful memories of Joffrey’s brutal death; Jon meeting Bran and Arya and having to deal with how weird they are now (and bonding with Sansa over same); Arya meeting the Hound and Gendry, and re-negotiating the terms of their ongoing relationships; I liked seeing Daenerys be out-of-place and a little maladroit — in Winterfell, in love, and in gratitude — and even Nihilist Queen Cersei is kind of fun, though I understand why people find Euron to be the absolute worst (he is); Sam’s stuff was a little hammy, but also a well-earned character beat and played as well as it could have been; it’s interesting to see Tyrion reckoning with the fact that — though his entire character is defined by being clever — none of his plans have worked, not in ages; and the prospect of Jaime coming face to face with his blond, child-murdering past was a really annoying cliff-hanger, because I really want to see how that scene goes down: Jaime has been the show’s great “oh he’s kind of good now?” character that has never really had to face the reasons why he used to be so bad; the fact that he’s suffered doesn’t absolve him of the violence he’s done, and the prospect of seeing the character actually reckon with that, well, I hope it’ll be good.
And yet, these check-ins, which should have been payoffs, never really seemed to breathe, were cropped short, compressed and cut off. We got those reunions because the characters all had to be re-introduced to the audience, and it was done with efficiency and economy because it had to serve that purpose. It’s been so long since we were deep into this material that many of the backstories will be dimly remembered, if at all; for the next five episodes to use these characters, we have to remind ourselves what their character arcs even are. Seen this way, these check-ins served to remind us of each character’s salient points, like the “scenes from past seasons” montage that HBO helpfully precedes each episode with.
But it seems clear, as we hurtle forwards to a conclusion — Only! Five! More! Episodes! — that there won’t be much time for that kind of thing anymore. There will be no elephants this season, and there won’t be any more seasons; Game of Thrones’ real apocalypticism isn’t the wars to come or winter. It’s the end of the show. For the first time in the series, everyone is packing light, bringing only what they need.
We Don’t Have Time For All This,
Men Without Hats
by Sarah Mesle
A startling thing about this, the epic final season of Game of Thrones, was that its very first line of dialogue was a joke about balls, specifically about winter freezing them off. It wasn’t a very funny joke—I miss the days, I realize, when Tyrion was drunker, smarter, and funnier—but it was a timely one, because these characters are no fools: they know the end is nigh. The characters in Game of Thrones don’t know what we do about George R.R. Martin or six episode seasons, but through a canny twist, Benioff and Weiss have set them up to reckon with their demise along with us, with the Ice King functioning as a sort of in-world HBO executive. So it’s not just the show’s more tiresome characters (e.g. Euron “we’re the only ones with balls left!” Greyjoy) who have sex and futurity on the brain. The Night King is at the door; winter has come, and everyone else is hoping to.
This is all just another way to get at the sense of an ending that, as Aaron says, all these characters, as well as us, are dealing with. No one can go on, can they go on; this show has always been best with Beckett, and now it’s something else. It’s not surprising that it’s become essentially a wedding plot. I mean really, the white walkers can only do so much, narratively speaking, to end this show. Dany could burn the Night King to a fiery crisp and all his bony hoards could collapse to the ground, but it would never mean as much as Frodo throwing the ring into Mount Doom or Vader pitching the Emperor into his techno-abyss. Westeros, to its credit, is way more sexed up than Middle Earth or the Empire, and it cares way more about bodies, loving and fighting and birthing and torturing. In some genres you win a final battle and defeat evil forever; in other equally “unrealistic” ones, you get married and live happily ever after. Game of Thrones, predictably, is opting to have it both ways. Night King; Jon and Dany; Tyrion making balls jokes to keep it real.
But even if all this makes sense narratively, it makes for a sort of lived incoherence for the characters on the ground. “We don’t have time for this!” Bran crabs at Daenerys and Sansa as they poke and posture at each other, but it’s very unclear in this episode what anyone has time for, or on what logic. Everything has to end but it can’t end before May 19, so there’s a weird sort of hurry-up-and-wait quality to everything, which strikes me as not entirely unlike how life is. Dany has time for someone (who?) to weave her an elaborate braid bonnet while Bran, conversely, has not been able to manage a shower in two seasons; Bran does have time to wait for two days* in the courtyard but not time to turn his raven vision Cersei-wards and thus can’t let us know what she’s doing with her army or how she’s describing her desire for unflattering turnip hair to her stylist. Gendry has time to make Arya a bespoke weapon; Jaime has time to travel the thousand-mile King’s road; Jon and Dany have “a thousand years” to make out by an auspicious icy waterfall if they choose to take it; but Sam doesn’t (again according to Bran) have time to mourn his dead family before telling Jon about his.
Which just takes me back to where I began: things are confusing, and what our Westerosi friends are clinging to, it seems, is family. “She was defending our family!” says Arya; “This fucking family!” says Bronn; “But we’re family!” says Euron. This is both of course about babies and about patrolling the borders of who is in and who is out, who you save and who you don’t, and all of this is just going to get more intense because, Game of Thrones is like, why have just family if you could have an incest dragon family?
Which is all to say: given the centrality of love, sex, and reproduction to how this season seems to be shaking out, a lot of how you feel about this episode and season probably hinges on how you feel about its central event, which is possibly the appearance of Daenerys’s gorgeous red leather gloves but is probably Daenerys inviting Jon to ride her Dragon.
Let’s talk about the gloves first. They really were fantastic. In fact, I was all-around pleased by the fashion choices this episode, even though I have some questions about how the Dothraki managed to forage for all that leather to piece together in such midriff-recalling fashion (in general I would have liked to see more Dothraki, I can’t believe we still don’t know any of their names, except that I guess the focus on the Unsullied allowed the show to focus more on, you know, reproductive anxiety). Sansa looked good with cape and without; I love how Arya and Jon have the same manbun; and I was particularly taken with Varys’s cold-weather gear and am hopeful that at some point he’ll get an excellent hat (he probably won’t).
But clearly the major narrative suspense was around Daenerys’s fashion, which tells you something (I’m still figuring out exactly what) about how gender is spooling out for the other characters in this story. I was reminiscing yesterday about the glory days when Dany wore blue and freed slaves: could anything match her famed blue dress?
I feel that the crimson-lined white fur jacket is a little on-the-nose character-wise but let’s not lie: it is fucking sweet, the irregular hem is a perfect blue-dress homage, and despite her “Southern Girl” unfamiliarity with winter she is really acing form+function winterwear #goals. I actually have a ton of respect for the way Sansa and Daenerys are collaborating-sparring in this episode (unlike many of the other rivalries between women this show has portrayed, it seems both earned and in-check) but I hope that they work it out soon so that Sansa too can adopt Dany’s more practical and non muck-acquiring shorter hemline.
My opinion about Dany’s perplexing silk ascot changed like three times over the course of the episode which for me is some good narrative drama. I mean seriously: where did she get that? Is it warm? Couldn’t she have found something a little, I don’t know, plusher? I think she needs to figure out a different strategy, and also a hat.
The gloves are perfect and I would like some.
Okay, the dragon ride though! There is a lot to discuss. I am inclined to be in favor of this dragon ride as meaningful expression of sexual and emotional growth because I read a lot of YA fantasy novels—if you too read Anne McCaffrey’s DragonDrums particularly you’ll feel me on this one—and I love scenes where erotic fulfillment gets routed through some other, seemingly non-sexual activity (horseback riding, for example, or Adam Lambert), seemingly deferred but actually amplified as it diffuses through the entire body as an erotic surface. I was all here for the potential of this scene. Listen, Game of Thrones! You can run a direct through-line from my attachment to the brooding of Tanis Half-Elven to the brooding of Jon Snow, and I am the one you want to woo with this scene, and I am hear to tell you that slap stick tomfoolery was not the way! I mean, I get it, he is a little overwhelmed by her, it is kind of cute, but it is not hot. If you’re going to commit to the brooding hero, commit: I didn’t appreciate Jon’s weird comedy here, like his dragon skills wandered from some Everyone Loves Raymond middle American dad-aesthetic sexuality instead of from an eroticized mid-80s Tor paperback like all brooding sexuality should have.
What I did like was thinking about everything that was going on between Dany and Jon and her heaving, panting, dragons. Number 1: Imagining Jon getting his shit together so that he and Dany can dragon battle the Night King is hot and exciting to think about. Maybe some of you have read an excellent book by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called Between Men that describes how Victorian novels use triangulated romances to work out the unruly attachments between powerful men; I loved considering all the things that might be at play between Dany, Jon, and the Night King—how it might be unclear who is attached to what, and through whom.
Number 2: oh man, attachment is unruly! Jon is so stressed out about these dragons, and Dany thinks she knows what’s up, but she doesn’t, not really: these dragons don’t just like Jon because she’s telling them to do so; they like him because he too is a Targaryen. They like him because they like strength and appetite. They are Dany’s children but that is not all they are: like beasts, like children, they are driven, erotic, unstill.
I would have done this sequence with Jon and Dany and the dragons differently, but watching the dragons’ flaring nostrils, how antipathy and arousal were equally valid emotions to project onto their scaled surface, I thought about some of the emotional complexity that Game of Thrones, at its best, can bring to bear on topics like love and life and, I guess, hope.
“Winterfell” was an episode that couldn’t always handle what it brought to the surface. But what was best about it was its paired claims that family matters, and that family is hard to parse. Take for instance the brief argument between Sam and Bran about who should tell Jon about his “family”—which one of them is more his brother? The show withholds judgment, and while it’s sympathetic to those (Sansa, for instance) who want to mark family by blood, the show’s sense of the topic is much more expansive than that. Similarly, I was tempted, at the beginning of this essay, to say that the balls jokes were about “reproductive futurity,” but after some discussion realized that wasn’t quite right: sex and futurity matter to this world, but not in predictable ways; pleasure doesn’t always pair with perpetuation, despite what Euron might hope.
It doesn’t really tie any of this together, but I want to end by discussing one of my favorite scenes in the episode: let’s call it the “whores’ revenge.” I don’t personally much like the word whore but this show has loved it (Cersei was making disparaging whore comments even in this episode); accordingly, sex workers have paid for the narrative progress of this show with their bodies, their reputations, and their lives (Ros: Never forget!). I do not imagine that much of Game of Thrones’s endgame will take place in brothels, and so we may have just witnessed the last scene of sexposition this show had to offer. And: how great! Three ladies, naked, tantalized by each others’ talk of dragon-dismembered men, gossip, and, well, scenes from last season on Game of Thrones, as they perfunctorily attend to “Ser Bronn of the Blackwater’s” sexual wishes. “I’m the only man alive who has shot a dragon,” Bronn insists to the ladies, but to no avail.
How beautiful, after all this time, and all this damage—to see a group of women, paid and independent if poxy, who literally don’t care about balls at all.
What do dragons eat anyway?