- "Arya's American Fantasy," Sarah Mesle
Previous episode: season 4, episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 1, “The Wars to Come.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Arya's American Fantasy
By Sarah Mesle
June 20, 2014
NEARLY A WEEK has passed since the Game of Thrones finale. Are we over it? We’re maybe over it. I’ve been sitting with it, watching it over and over, trying to decide what to say; how to end, for myself, this season of writing. I’ve found it hard to let go. When I’m done writing about this show, I have to shift all my writing attention back to my book manuscript, and let me confess to you that I am not entirely eager to do so. As enticing as I find the particular section of American literary history I chart in my other writing life, dragons are, let’s be clear, somewhat more dramatic as subject matter. And further: although many find the blood and gore of Game of Thrones too much, I actually find it strangely comforting in comparison to the sublimated daily self-evisceration that constitutes much of the emotional experience of writing a book. So: I’ve lingered, Dear Television. I’ve dillydallied. I haven’t wanted to pull the trigger.
What’s ironic about my own writerly waffling, of course, is that this episode of Game of Thrones was all about making hard choices. And — maybe it’s just me — many of those choices seemed not so far apart from the questions raised by much of the 19th century American fiction that I have often taught. So let’s start there. Let’s start with someone else who struggles to make a decision, about how to act, and what to say.
The killer moment of “The Children” was the moment when no one gets killed. I write, of course, of Arya’s decision to walk away from the dying Hound; her refusal of his pitiful plea for a merciful death. This decision was the linch pin of the episode, if not the season, if not the series. Ned Stark taught us in episode one, lo these four seasons ago, that a leader has a responsibility to execute the judgments they decree; Arya began this season by reclaiming her sword and then winwinwinning the vengeance she had imagined. But here: Arya sheathes her sword and lights out alone for the territory. Why?
Arya lighting out alone puts me in mind of Huck Finn. But whereas readers are pretty clued into why Huck Finn lights out alone (individualism! Meddlesome aunts! The moral bereftness of institutional slavery!), Arya’s decision remains wonderfully opaque, precisely because of Game of Thrones’ fascinating relationship to the (often banal) values and narratives that we are taught in school and in our literary canon to think of as “American.”
It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it, to think of a fantasy series as being explicitly “American”? Fantasy is (typically) feudal, whereas America was founded by those who rejected feudalism in favor of freedom. But all season Game of Thrones has felt, if often in spite of itself, pressingly relevant. I think that’s because it so often, and in this episode and its treatment of Arya especially, aligns with some of the central difficulties America has in envisioning itself — namely, America’s ongoing struggle to understand what the freedom it values means.
Here’s what freedom means to Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name: “Freedom means making your own choices.” If Arya’s perplexing choice is the episode’s key scene, Dany’s maxim is the value that this episode seeks to investigate. As I’ve said before, Dany’s function in this story has often been to soothe us with narratives of simple liberation; she is a perfect fantasy of emancipation. Dany’s maxim expresses some of the optimism on which American politics are founded: we are free because we vote, choosing our leaders, for example; we are free because we choose our work, where to live, how to pursue our individual happiness. We declare our independence, and it’s ours: so says American politics.
But the literary narratives produced under the condition of “American politics” provoke and push back against these declarations. If American literature often charts the quest for freedom, it is just as often preoccupied with the failure of freedom to live up to its promises. American literature is rife with scenes in which the moment of choice-making is not the moment of possessing agency but rather the moment of encountering agency’s limits. What kind of a “choice” is it, when a starving Mary Rowlandson opts to steal a horse’s hoof from a equally starving child? When Harriet Jacobs can only escape her predatorial owner by “choosing” to spend seven years in an attic crawl space? When Hester Prynne chooses to keep the identity of her child’s father secret? I could, believe me, go on. Basically, what American literature teaches us is that choices aren’t very liberating if you only have shitty choices. And Arya wasn’t the only character in this episode to have to make a shitty choice. It was shitty choices everywhere.
Let’s start at the beginning. We began where we ended last week; Jon Snow making his own hard choice to walk into Mance Rayder’s camp. His march through the detritus of the battle was grimly effective, and Mance’s stern but noble pragmatism in his dealings with Jon reminded us, and John, why Mance is an admirable leader. The scene comes to a head in a moment when John needs to decide how willing he is to kill Mance: BUT THEN! John is saved from decision making by a battle, and such a battle! Never have CG batallions been so stiriring! Banners steaming; hoofs pounding; arrows and snow! Unlike last week, where the collision of forces seemed indeterminate and thus difficult to anchor myself in, as a viewer, here I knew precisely where I was and what perspective mattered: Mance Rayder’s. He was the leader, and he would have to make a choice about whether to attack and die, or live and surrender. So even as the camera dashed up and down, even as I did not know who was attacking or whether I wanted them to win, Mance’s hard decision gave me something to care about. Well played, Game of Thrones!
And the moment grew even more impressive when, in the wake of Mance’s quick and painful realization that he had gone from being a presumed victor to a defeated force in the blink of the eye, horses move through the fog and we see that the man who defeated the King of the North was: Stannis Boratheon. Stannis! I HATE STANNIS! He is always so boring! And yet, here he is, evidently triumphant, leader of the most gorgeous Westerosean battle we’ve seen yet. I hardly know what to think. It is very hard to sustain your boredom with someone who can lead a brilliant two-pronged attack of gorgeous CG horses, let alone with someone who rides a grey horse through the fog, then engages in some excellently synchronized dismounting with Davos Seaworth, and strides through a last-ditch assassination attempt without flinching! Stannis! Represent!
The meeting between the two kings was a fascinating display of two leaders and the way they make hard choices: Mance has to decide how humble to be in defeat, and Stannis has to decide how brutal to be in victory. Stannis is clear about the stakes of Mance’s decision: “I’ll have thousands of your men in chains by nightfall, with nowhere to put them and nothing to feed them.” What happens to these men, Stannis says, “Depends on their king.” But Mance, who is willing to make many sacrifices for the good of his people, draws the line: “We do not kneel.” It’s a hard call, but the viewer easily sees why he makes it: Mance will save his people, but not at the cost of turning them into something they are not. His choice here might mean death, but it does have the feeling of freedom. And Mance’s willingness to make a brutal decision becomes all the more gripping when we compare it to what happens next. Stannis, revealing that he is still Stannis despite his very stirring battle and dismount, does not make a decision about how to respond. Instead, he asks Jon Snow to channel Ned Stark, and make it for him. Now, it is not necessarily a bad call for Stannis to defer to Ned (RIP), but it does reveal that Stannis, poor thing, is never going to be the king he thinks he is.
And what of the man Stannis hopes to defeat? Tywin Lannister, in King’s landing, has no problem making hard choices or forcing them upon other people. What’s interesting about Tywin, this episode helps us see, is that when love and brutality collide — when doing the brutal thing is not dissimilar from acting for the greater good — Tywin has no problem making the tough call. It’s not hard for him, in the way it is for Mance, or even John. And Cersei, in this scene, tells us why: Tywin cares about “the idea of family,” as she says, so much that he’s willing to ignore his “actual family.” Tywin’s willingness to choose abstractions over actualities has always been his strength, but here Cersei brings his priorities down around him. Her incestuous love for Jaime, she finally sees, brings Tywin’s family-first logic devastatingly home to roost, and by using it against her father, Cersei is finally able to make the family that has always controlled her the possibility for her own agency. It’s a bit perplexing to find Cersei so engulfed with desire for the brother she has loathed all season, but her emotions become more legible when we think about them in this context: it’s not perhaps Jaime she loves so much, but rather the powerful choice-making he represents. “You don’t get to choose,” Jaime says of family, but Cersei now disagrees. “I don’t choose Tywin Lannister, I don’t love Tywin Lannister; I love my brother, I love my lover.”
Here, Cersei’s movement from choosing to loving shows the stakes of this episode, in which choosing and love are always connected, but never clear. This is what Dany learns, too. Her three scenes in “The Children” hinge on the break down of the moral clarity Dany, the great emancipator, has had all season, and the effect is a little bit like watching Abraham Lincoln preside over the failure of reconstruction. It’s annoying that the episode couldn’t find a better way to force Dany to encounter the failure of her own ambitions than to have a slave asked to be returned to his generous master, but despite the gross-factor of the show’s racism (racism here manifesting as a failure of narrative imagination, and in an emotional focus on the disappointed emancipator rather than the slave; and yes it’s about race, even if the slavery she is ended isn’t entirely racial), the sequence over all was riveting; mythic. Dany’s descent into the catacombs was partially a kind of katabasis, a hero’s descent into the underworld; it also called to mind Antigone, another royal girl who wanted to follow spiritual laws rather than earthly decrees.
But the shitty choice Dany had to make was to abandon both those roles. She is not Antigone; she is not Orpheus: she has no chance to bring the dead to life. Instead, in order to remain queen, she must sacrifice the dragons that made her queen; to protect the children of her realm, she will sacrifice her own. The dragons aren’t dead, of course, but it feels that way; the episode makes this visually clear by drawing a parallel between Dany’s pained face and John’s, a few minutes later, as he walks away from Ygritte’s funeral pyre. Both Dany and John — it’s interesting to me, the way the show increasingly aligns them — have done the best they could, but both know that the their best isn’t enough for their beloved dead.
About Meera and Jojen and Bran: I have little to say. I’m not interested in killer zombies for their own sake; I’m willing to get excited about strangely Dickensian Magical fire-throwing children, but I have no reason to be yet. So let me just mention: Meera makes a shitty choice, mercifully stabbing her brother. And also: this scene contained some good direwolf action. I always like that. Summer (Bran's wolf) doesn’t know what to make of the Children either.
Here’s what’s not presented as a choice: Tyrion’s murder of Shae. I mean, he does it; he could opt not to. But there’s no moment of decision making, no clear moment when he sees the options before him. There’s just Tyrion’s wretched realization that the woman in his father’s bed is the woman he loves, then her stabbing at him with a cheese knife, and then she is strangled; dead. It’s only in the final moment, as Tyrion concentrates on twisting Shae’s necklace ever tighter around her neck, that the show gives us any evidence that Tyrion is conscious of what he’s doing. And then: he is sorry. The final shot is brutal, and fitting: just as in life, the two of them are looking in the same direction, but not in the same way.
But what I want to linger on, about this scene, which ends with Tyrion’s murder of his father — an act that is definitely presented as a choice — is the attention to the word “whore.” Tyrion shoots his father for using it, but Tyrion himself used it a moment before: when Jaime broke him out of his cell, the first thing Tyrion said to the noises in the dark was “Get on with it, you son of a whore!” It’s strange to go from here to the privy, just a few moments later, with Tyrion murderously defending the honor of the woman he just killed. This moment, like so many others in the episode, brought together love and choice and brutality, and I admired how clearly it emphasized that these two men do feel both love and loathing towards each other. But it’s important — and important for understanding Arya — to think about how they rely on Shae to triangulate their feelings. In their language, Shae is either a woman you love, or a whore; she cannot be both. For Tywin, calling Shae a whore asserts that fucking her was not an act of retaliation against Tyrion; it also gives him a way to show that his feelings for Tyrion are quite warm, by comparison. For Tyrion, defending Shae against the word “whore” allows him to redeem his own violence towards her. Neither man can talk about the broken way they’ve loved each other without using a woman’s vulnerable sexuality as the source of their vocabulary. That this way of talking erases the complexity of Shae completely is not something that seems to occur to them. I wonder: is it supposed to occur to us? Do you think we’re supposed to realize, in this moment, that Tyrion, just like the misogynistic father he (and we) both love and loathe, ultimately buys into a very narrow vision of what a woman can be?
Here’s who I think does realize that: Arya. When Arya first sees Brienne, she has the same conversation Brienne has with everyone who meets her: “Are you a knight?” “No.” The gender confusion Brienne always provokes has special meaning for Arya, who herself has a sort of gender confusion. In fact, watching their conversation made me encounter something I knew but had not recently thought about: that Arya has hardly ever, in three seasons, been around or been able to talk to another woman. Their conversation, about the swordplay they did and didn’t learn from their fathers, was the most world-expanding moment possible for Arya.
Dear Television: I have now finally come to this crucial moment, and I have realized partly why I have taken so long to write this. It’s because I can hardly bring myself to put what I feel about Arya and Brienne’s encounter into words. I’m not sure I can do it justice. I’ll start by pointing out the obvious: that the scene was perfect, that it was perfectly symmetrical to the first episode of the season, which you will remember was called “Two Swords.” The first shot of season four was of Arya’s father’s sword, the sword that had protected her and the North and her vision of the world, split in two; cleaved. Now that sword has come back. It has come back in a new form. It has come back in the hands of a woman, a woman who loves her. Standing before Arya is the care of her mother and the power of her father, united in Brienne, who is maybe the one person in Westeros who could offer Arya some kind of role model for the sort of woman she wants to be.
Or rather: the kind of woman she wanted to be. Brienne has come, but too late. Arya knows too much for chivalry, now. And brutality, too.
Oh, it’s too awful, too awful: I’m sorry I’m reminding us of it. Arya’s web of security, of care, is so small. Watching two of the too few people who are willing to love her, love her as she is, battle to the death was simultaneously some the most riveting television I have ever seen and the most heartbreaking; the most painful. It made me feel like “Dover Beach” makes me feel, except that the people who love Arya were the ignorant armies, clashing by night. The Hound and Brienne were both willing to die for Arya. But if you’re Arya, what good does that do you? What does it show you, about how they imagine love? About the choices your world offers you?
Here’s the thing about the final moment: we know that Arya chooses, and what she chooses, but it’s up to us to determine how to read what she does. Was walking away from the Hound a moment of strength? Cruelty? Collapse? Unlike in the following scene with Tyrion and Tywin, her decision isn’t tied to a particular word. I will point out that nearly all of what the Hound says to her — about his bemusement at being killed by a woman, about his regret (his tone here is strange) at not having the “happy memory” of raping Sansa Stark — is deeply gendered. And the choice to reject Brienne, and the oaths she and her sword wish to keep, seems gendered too.
“Freedom means making your own choices,” Dany says. What I admired most about this episode of Game of Thrones was how, if unwittingly, it used its signature emphasis on the body — the body displayed, abused, slashed open, in love, eye-ploded, enthroned — to illustrate how bound our choices are to the bodies that define us.
When I saw Arya on her white horse, the reluctant hero the first episode offered us, galloping to the sea, I thought of Frederick Douglass, apostrophizing the ships in Chesapeake Harbor; I thought of the Pilgrims coming to a new land; I thought about Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” I thought about Tyrion, also on a ship, locked away. I thought about the most American thing of all: the desire to go someplace else, where our choices will, maybe, be somehow different.
I thought about how Arya, disappointed, brutal, perhaps broken, is kind of like America. And I wondered what she will find. I hope she survives her journey. I hope she finds an honest way to return her wonderfully queer shoulder to the wheel.
Until next year,
Previous episode: season 4, episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall.”
Following episode: season 5, episode 1, “The Wars to Come.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage