Game of Thrones: Season 4, "Two Swords"
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
- "Reading Needles," from Sarah Mesle
- "The Most Fun Show to Talk About on Television," from AHP
- "Arya Stark, FTW," from Phillip Maciak
Following episode: season 4, episode 2, “The Lion and the Rose.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
By Sarah Mesle
April 8, 2014
HERE'S MY THING about Game of Thrones: I love it, and yet I often have the vague sense that its makers have no clear understanding of why I love it. They’re offering me something that’s a little more magical than they themselves seem to understand.
To wit: this season’s trailers. Each time I watched one, its footage stirred my soul. Arya! John! THE UNSULLIED!!! Friends and I emailed in enthusiastic all caps. WE COULD NOT WAIT! But then whoever made the trailers would bring on some producer type dude who would start talking and say things like, “you will get more climactic events in Season 4 than ever before.” There would be “less build up.” “More danger.”
Let’s be clear: last season ended spectacularly with the death of three major characters and their dog; it also featured a veritable freak show of removed limbs and threatened rapes; a slave uprising; the sacking of I don’t know how many cities. So while my friends and I had some complaints, “too much build up” was not one of them.
I know very little about how TV is actually made; I have no idea if or when or how often the promotional team talks to the producers or if any of these people talk to the directors or the actors or the costume designers, or how often any of them talks to George R.R. Martin. I assume some talking goes on.
But my strong sense, as an enthusiastic viewer, is that the show seems torn between its own competing impulses. There’s the smash-bang drive towards “climactic events” — a plot-driven, getting-somewhere kind of storytelling. All that’s great. But there’s also all this other stuff, stuff that my friends and I spend a lot of time talking about, stuff that works in a very different register. I guess it might count as build up? But it’s not building to anything in particular. It’s a sideways look Brienne gives Jamie; it’s the argument about whether Sam has any purpose beyond being a “gawping” (as one friend maintains) “witness to all things;” it’s a lot of discussion about Daenerys’s clothes. The plot and the details aren’t necessarily contradictory, but the “more action!” tone of the promotional material hints at how complicated they can be, generically speaking, to reconcile. And Phil's column helps get at why.
Phil, I think, is spot on in his claim that the brave brilliance Game of Thrones comes not so much from killing its protagonists, but rather from not having them in the first place. Arya, like John Snow and to an extent like Danny, appeals to viewers not because of her contributions to the show’s overall narrative arch but rather because she could not give two shits about it. Her life is neither narrative “build up” nor “climax” — it’s her life, and that’s why we love it. This episode was triumphant, then, not because it had more climactic events but because it had the right kind of events — the minor character Arya killed another minor character, and it was SO AWESOME, because, as Phil wisely says, it showed “full and rich narratives” taking place “in the margins” of the story. It’s not a protagonist’s grand plot or epic quest that sways us, as viewers — it’s the rich texture of small character’s emotions and daily lives.
Game of Thrones offers this lushness, as Phil says. But then it gets pulled in strange ways back to a “more climactic events” mode — like it’s uncomfortable sitting too much with its own anti-protagonist mode.
Let me make this point by tracking a particular symbol through the episode: the sword, a symbol of action, and particularly of a sort of masculine ability to make action happen. The episode begins with gorgeous and mournful slow shots of Ned Stark’s sword (named Ice; names matter!) being melted down, the evidence of his lost status as protagonist. In the following scene, Tywin gives Jaime a new sword forged from Ned’s metal and an argument between father and son ensues. The substance of their disagreement basically, is this: Tywin wants Jaime to become a new protagonist, and Jamie is (wisely!) having none of it. Dudes, it is precisely as though Jamie has read Phil’s essay! Over the course of Season 3 Jaime became an increasingly sympathetic character, and he did so precisely in proportion to his willingness to embrace life on the narrative margins, as an auxiliary character to the grander arch of Westeros’s fate.
BUT. If Jamie read Phil’s essay, not everyone did. In the penultimate scene, our belovedly marginal Arya reclaims her sword — Needle — and uses it to kill a cruel “Lannister toady” (to use Phil’s words). And it’s completely great, because for a moment it seems as though Arya has figured out the thing that Jamie also needs to learn: how to have a sword, and yet not be center stage. But then, in the episode’s final sequence — and oh, it is beautiful, I can’t lie! — Arya emerges from a dark thicket of trees, sword at her side and riding a white horse. A long overhead shot lingers on Arya and The Hound, riding into the charred Westeros landscape. The only word for it is: heroic. It’s a protagonist’s shot.
And here we see the basic tension the show has yet to resolve: we like Arya because she is marginal, because she does not care about the Iron Throne, and because, as Phil says, all she does is win win win. But the show, in putting her on a white horse and placing her against the backdrop of her own broken world, shows us that it doesn’t yet quite know how to tell a story without a protagonist. If Arya is not a protagonist, what is she?
And if she is not the protagonist, and if no one else is either, than what is this goddamn show about?
That is the question that Phil’s essay raises, the one that that generates Game of Throne’s appeal and also its frustration. It is an incredibly complicated formal question, and it is this: if there is no protagonist, can there be a plot? Not just things happening, but things going somewhere?
I think there can. And the answer has to do with Needle. Or more precisely: with needles.
Let’s take the sword metaphor back to the beginning. In the Game of Thrones pilot episode, our introduction to Arya comes as she sits and embroiders, begrudgingly, with Sansa. Arya hates embroidery, and she is bad at it. The first thing that she does in the story is sneak away from the workroom to go shoot arrows with her brothers. Needles are boring; arrows are where the action is.
This is a super familiar moment of characterization, right? The moment when a girl seeks to be a part of the moving mechanisms of her world, and her world tells her that she can have no part of them. It happens in all sorts of books (consider Laura Ingalls Wilder, who can’t climb trees or wear copper-toed boots, or Jo March, who can’t whistle or go to war with her Dad). In fantasy novels, it almost always happens for noble-born girls via embroidery, which none of the cool protagonist girls like to do. That Sansa loves embroidery shows that she embraces the confining gender narrative of her world; that Arya rejects it draws our sympathies by showing that she — like us, modern viewers! — hopes for a radical approach to gender in the world. She wants to make things happen, not just document others’ climactic events with thread.
But here’s the thing about Game of Thrones, the TV show: it has really amazing embroidery.
The first episode pitted action against embroidery. But I would suggest that Game of Thrones is best when action is like embroidery: rich, textured, layered, palimpsestic. If sewing itself is form for the sake of function — binding two pieces together — embroidery is form for the sake of form. It is taking something simple, a bit of thread, and with careful and creative hand making something unnecessarily beautiful happen.
Not everything great about Game of Thrones is unnecessarily beautiful; much of it is unnecessarily grim (one could consider the prolonged and unnecessary torture of Theon, for instance, to be a sort of embroidery of violence). But most of the time I love the show precisely because of its unnecessary dwelling; the way it lingers in its own stylization. The richly embroidered gowns and tunics of Game of Thrones are the visual counterpart, for example, to Tyrion’s wit. His language matters to our viewing pleasure not because of what he says, but because of how he says it.
Embroidery isn’t the show’s only non-verbal language; equally important are the braids. Here too, form follows form rather than function: it has nothing to do with action or story making. Instead, braiding adds texture purely for the sake of texture. Or perhaps, it tells us about character and temporality and sexuality; it leads us to insights about how the show imagines its own difference. Braiding my hair Sunday night for a (nerd alert!) Game of Thrones premiere costume party, for instance, I was struck by how all the characters, despite their different braiding strategies, all remain committed to the middle part. Why is this, I wondered? Is the side part the real dividing line between the medieval and the modern? Viserys, a friend on Twitter pointed out, sometimes seemed to have side parted hair; was the side part thus forever an emblem of Westerosian fascism? Is that why Daenyres avoids them?
These questions are digressions. They don’t matter. They get us nowhere; they have nothing to do with who rules the Iron Throne or the White Walkers or fucking winter, which we keep being told is coming. And that is precisely my point. The story's embroidery and braids aren’t a matter of “build up” to something else. They’re about the pleasure of form, or maybe the question of form: what shape can a robe or a lock of hair — or, vitally, a story — take, to tell us about how people who have little power of the “power is power” variety nevertheless manage to express the worth of their lives?
In Arya, I think, Game of Throne’s two story telling modes — center and margin, embroidery and action — perfectly meld. Which is to say: it’s not that Arya gets the best story because she chose a sword instead of a needle. It’s that her sword — unlike so many others — is a needle. Like swords, it severs. But it binds and layers, too.
So instead of swords, let’s look someplace else: another piece of craftwork. Let’s look at necklaces. There are two, in this episode, and they don’t really matter. First, we see Margaery Tyrell and her Grandmother Olenna shopping for necklaces. They are lovely but not the right kind of lovely, and Olenna uses their inspection to teach Margaery about the strange exchanges of power in a marriage between a king and a queen. “Your grandfather gave me one like this on my 51st name day,” Olenna says, casually pitching it over a parapet. Later, Sansa receives an heirloom necklace from the disgraced knight Dontos Hollard. Neither of these moments decide if anyone lives or dies or wins; Tywin Lannister couldn’t care about either of them, and they are not “action” in the conventional sense. But they are a part of why the show is such a complete pleasure. And more, in the relationships they consolidate, they shift the world that Tywin is trying to rule — make his rule less absolute, and the complex maze of Westerosian power harder to navigate.
It also strikes me that these moments, too, point towards the episode’s conclusion. It has nothing to do with the forward action of the story, and it does not make it more dangerous, but it tells us something about the greatness of Game of Thrones when it lingers on necklaces and then, in the climactic moment, spectacularly displays Arya killing her toady — specifically by stabbing him in the neck.
What does all this narrative embroidery finally have to do with the overall force of Game of Thrones, or why it needs or doesn’t need a protagonist, or what we’re all doing obsessing over this show? Let’s look at it this way. The thing about a plot, conventionally speaking, is that it works as a narrative parameter, right? It gives the sense that there is something — anything — that will make the story end. Like a plot of land: it has boundaries. Plot is events advancing towards a specific limit, a limit where values and meaning must be assigned. (As Annie has said, the great pleasure and danger of Game of Thrones is that there’s so much stuff going on all the time that it keeps us distracted from the question of meaning.)
This sense of plot is particularly true in the Sword and Sorcery tradition, or in the tradition of the Epic — or even in that of the realist novel, upon which Martin’s novel also draws. People always compare Song of Ice and Fire to Lord of the Rings — and the juxtaposition is fruitful because Lord or the Rings has, from the beginning, a clear endpoint — either Frodo will succeed in throwing away the ring, or he won’t, and either way the story will then be over. Protagonists help a plot because their quests let us know when a plot is done, and when its makers promise us “less build up” and “more climactic events,” Game of Thrones seems to believe that Lord of the Rings is what we want.
There’s a horizon in which the story of Westeros might end, I guess. Magic comes from the North, Dragons from the East; winter is coming. But the political and human sagas that intrigue us operate entirely independently of all these end points. All the struggles of the Iron Throne are, in one sense, embroidery. So what kind of fantasy is this? What sort of epic?
Maybe, after all, it’s not. Maybe thinking about embroidery as narrative form helps us realize that the comparison to Tolkien doesn’t really get at the pleasures of Martin’s crazy story. There’s nothing in Song of Ice and Fire that is the equivalent of Frodo’s ring: nothing that will solve the problems of Westeros’s humans.
Here’s the thing about embroidery, the thing that finally makes it different than sewing: sewing has an end point built in, but embroidery is always pure excess — always pure form. It’s never done. It never dies. At some point, you just decide to stop.
It used to frustrate me that Game of Thrones didn’t know where it was going. But now I see that ambivalence as brilliantly productive. There was a joke going around Monday about a “modernist” Game of Thrones — which is hilarious on several levels. But maybe, in its hyper-attention to form, Game of Thrones actually is a sort of modernist text: embroidered rather than experimental modernism, let’s call it. Maybe the best comparison isn’t Lord of the Rings; maybe it’s Ulysses — and there’s no ring, no final climax that rewards all the build up. There’s just one amazing moment after another until the sun, at last, goes down.
Yes I said yes I will Yes,
The Most Fun Show to Talk About on Television
By Anne Helen Petersen
April 8, 2014
GAME OF THRONES is the most fun show on television to talk about — at least that’s how Grantland’s Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan put it in last week’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast. I don’t disagree: there is no better show to bring up at the dinner table, with your students, on the airplane, with the couple you only kinda know from your boyfriend’s work, with the barista at the coffee shop. Seemingly everyone in (middle-class) America watches it, and everyone is equally ready to talk about it.
Which is honestly pretty surprising, given the amount of (truly disturbing) sex and (equally disturbing) violence that have shaped the last three seasons. How, then, do we get away with using Game of Thrones as small talk?
By talking about plot. Think about the discussions you’ve had about Thrones: chances are, they’re not about the ethics of depicting torture, the problematics of whiteness, or the similarities between the Unsullied and drone warfare. People do talk about those things, but those conversations largely take place on academic sites or ones like this one, tasked with asking those sorts of impolite, non-dinner-table questions.
Plot is the primary way we talk about television today, but there are all manner of shows that regularly invite a primary discourse about something other than narrative pivots. The Good Wife, Louie, Mad Men, Girls, Friday Night Lights, True Detective — the most important conversations catalyzed by these shows focus on issues of identity, gender, sexuality, class, aesthetics and characterization. Not what happened so much as how it happened — and its reflection/refraction of contemporary values.
Oftentimes, the conversations that attend these shows aren’t just difficult, but alienating: it’s difficult to have a dinnertime discussion of True Detective without pissing someone off, in part because ascribing to a certain view of Detective is tantamount to ascribing to a worldview.
The discursive minefield is at least in part an effect of the degree of mimesis between the worlds depicted and our own. I might not be a middle-aged Chicago lawyer navigating re-entrance into professional life after my husband was very publicly caught cheating on me, but Alicia Florrick’s America is nevertheless recognizable as my own. The issues she confronts as concerns gender, sexuality, age, and technology are amplified, narrativized versions of my own daily struggles. Indeed, when we say we “relate” to a character or a show, we’re also confessing an investment — a mapping of our own issues onto those depictions — that intensifies discussion, renders it fraught. Because I grew up in a small rural football town, I have to be careful with whom I talk about Friday Night Lights because if someone says the wrong thing about Dillon, Texas, and the dynamics that play out within, it may very well be the end of our relationship — even if we just met.
That tension is part of what makes such shows so electric and compelling. They can wreck you — and your relationships — not because of what happens so much as what it means. When FNL’s Tami Taylor was fired for speaking with a pregnant teen about her various options, I was saddened by what that meant for Tami within the narrative confines of the show, but far more distraught about what it communicated about the current politics of women’s reproductive rights.
Or consider the current state of The Good Wife: when the recent bombshell dropped, I was devastated. Not because I lost a beloved character — but because in that episode, The Good Wife morphed into a show about plot instead of character, about big gasps and Twitter WTFs instead of parsing small revelations about the way contemporary American culture works and fails.
I’ll be the first to admit that this type of holistic investment is exhausting. Being invited to contemplate your own life, identity politics, and cultural worldview takes a toll, which is why many of the shows listed above resist wholesale binging. If you binge a season of The Wire, you also have to be prepared to be the sort of person that no one wants to be around for awhile.
But fantasies like Game of Thrones offer escape from the burden of cultural conversation. Granted, most scholars recognize fantasy and sci-fi as some of the most fertile grounds for mining cultural politics: what we dream of at a given point in time, the monsters and futures we create and fear, speaks volumes about what we idealize and fear in the present. But that’s all sublimated — available for us deep-digging nerds to talk about if we insist, but also easily ignored.
For even if the Seven Kingdoms function as a dystopia of misogyny, greed, and racism, in which women are chattel and men are celebrated for their capacity to kill, scheme, rape, and betray, you don’t have to worry about it: it’s all super pretend. You don’t have to worry about the prejudice against Tyrion or Daenerys's white savior complex, because this is also a narrative with white walkers and giant cannibals. Here there be actual dragons, which means you can talk about anything in that world without ever risking offense.
Again, I’m not suggesting that fantasies like Game of Thrones are actually evacuated of cultural politics. They’re absolutely there for those with eyes striving to see. But Thrones and texts like it do facilitate escape not only from the world we inhabit, but also from our (fairly recent) compulsion to endlessly interrogate the texts we love.
That’s why Game of Thrones is so “fun” to talk about — and why Ryan and Greenwald find such unmitigated pleasure in discussing it. When, in previous podcasts, Ryan emphasized just how much he loves Thrones when it airs directly after Mad Men, he was ventriloquizing what so many of us feel on Spring Sunday nights: for the first hour, we feel horrible and existentially depressed, but then we get to ride a rollercoaster that distracts us from that alienation and ennui.
The intricate plotting of Thrones further facilitates this escape: I’m too busy trying to remember why Stannis Boratheon is so insistent about his claim to the throne, or even who the fuck Ramsay Snow is, let alone why he’s torturing Theon Greyjoy, to get bogged down in the politics of representation. As Phil pointed out, Thrones “likes spending time with characters who are aggressively told they’re not protagonists,” and that decentered narrative quality forces us to spend most of our time juggling plot points instead of analyzing the interactions they produce.
In Sunday’s episode, for example, I was too thrilled about Arya’s rediscovery of Needle — and the opportunity she took to wield it — to think about what her development over the last four seasons suggests about the gendered socialization of children, the effects of trauma, or what we’re supposed to do with this relationship between her and The Hound. She’s a dot in a matrix, and that dot’s movement from one point to the next — its placement within the figurative game of thrones — matters more than her internal development or, by extension, our investment in it.
And then there’s the visual spectacle: the gore, the gowns, the immaculate, beautiful grapefruit-like breasts….the juicy sluice of hatchet through brain matter, the golden opalescence of the capital, each exquisite tendril of Dany’s ethereal hair that only $6 million an episode can buy. Yet I’ve watched the first episodes via HBO screeners, which arrive pre-HD with the FX unfinished and the sound unmixed, and the result is far more reminiscent of Xena: Warrior Princess than one might like to believe.
With the glossy patina stripped away, I found myself far less hypnotized — and, as a result, far less willing to gloss over a scene of classic Game of Thrones boob-age in the name of “fantastical accuracy,” aka “these men’s treatment and choice of fully naked prostitutes is a skillful way to illuminate character!” The last time I was that incisively critical? After the brutal, animalistic sex scene between Dany and Drogo in the series premiere: before, in other words, I’d fallen under the Game of Thrones spell.
There’s a recuperative argument to be made concerning the effect Game of Thrones’s almost postmodern, self-reflexive narrative tendencies — that George R.R. Martin, having surveyed the field, decided to write a text that challenged everything we’d come to expect from an epic fantasy. Anyone can die at any point, no matter the amount of goodwill he or she’s engendered towards them or their plight. Life isn’t fair, or just, or even logical; rather, the universe is inherently chaotic, and the only certainty, as the promotional materials for this season trumpet, is that “All Men Must Die.” That sort of plotting is, in itself, an overarching critique of the immersion that accompanies most fantasy texts.
With that nihilistic mode in place, however, we’re even less likely to connect to our characters: if Sansa could literally die any moment, what’s my motivation to bond with her or think deeply about her predicament? Her life is shitty, sure — that much is clear — but because her death would be par for the Stark-murdering course, it wouldn’t make me authentically sad. I’d just wonder what Tyrion would do, or contemplate the ever-decreasing probability of Stark vengeance, but only the way in which a player considers the remaining pieces on a chessboard.
Last season’s Red Wedding is most indicative of this emotional remove. A King is betrayed and murdered, as is his pregnant wife — all while that King’s mother watches and, soon thereafter, has her throat slit in full display of the wedding party. The overwhelming response the the Red Wedding wasn’t one of sadness, however, but narrative shock. You don’t mourn the Starks so much as fear for the stability of the narrative — which is another way of saying that in Game of Thrones, the resilience of plot will always trump the fate of character, no matter the ideological ramifications.
Which is precisely why everyone’s so anxious about Martin’s inability to finish the next book: it’s not that we want a certain ending for our characters so much as we need the narrative to continue. Indeed, the gravest sin Thrones could commit wouldn’t be to kill a character — even a central one like Arya, Tyrion, Jon Snow, or Dany — but to ease up on the narrative throttle.
I don’t think all television (or our discourse about it) needs to be rooted in the darker, difficult questions of life. But I do wonder how we’ll feel when Games of Thrones jolts to a close. There’s a reason, after all, that everyone wants to vomit when they get off the rollercoaster.
It’s hard to put a leash on a dog once you’ve put a crown on its head,
Arya Stark, FTW
By Phillip Maciak
April 7, 2014
WE HERE at Dear TV have been fairly insistent about our theory that Sally Draper is the secret protagonist of Mad Men. It’s surprisingly easy, over the course of the series, and especially at the end of last season’s finale, to imagine that Sally’s is the important consciousness. Far from being simply one extra point-of-view through which we might see Don Draper’s story, Mad Men adds up to a deeply striated pre-history of Sally, we might contend. We might hope. We might stay up all night dreaming after having watched, for the third time, another episode that sacrifices itself on the altar of Don’s story.
But we’re under no illusion that Don Draper will ever step out of the way. God how I’ve longed for the camera to slowly drift from that Easter Island head of his and land, finally on Sally. Even if Matthew Weiner actually does perceive Sally to be the central figure of the series — which, again, I don’t think is that hard to imagine — the narrative center of the show will always be Don. Weiner dangles Don’s feet over the open elevator shaft time and again, but these are only teases from the pen of the Auteur of the Tease. No matter how important their perspectives, Mad Men keeps its outsiders — Joan, Peggy, Betty, Dawn, Sally — on the outside. (Is it a coincidence that that’s a list of women’s names?) Or rather, he keeps Mad Men rigorously centered. It’s the structure of the show, and, as much as we might wish that Don get killed off, it’s unlikely to happen before the show’s last episodes, if at all.
Game of Thrones is wish fulfillment for people like us. I reviewed the first season over at Slant Magazine, and, in that review, I pointed out what an impression Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark had made on me — after only the six screened episodes — as a side character. By the end of those six episodes, I’d found myself wishing the show were more about her. Ned Stark was a nifty medieval detective and all, and who doesn’t love a rakish knight or an upstart king, but I wanted the show to be about Arya. Last night, as Arya reclaimed her long-lost sword “Needle” and plunged it through the throat of a shit-eating Lannister toadie, I realized, finally, that this show is about her.
I don’t mean this in a figurative way. And I don’t mean it in even a loosely interpretive way. I mean it literally. Everybody likes to talk about how Game of Thrones kills off central characters, how it’s totally unsentimental and, indeed, ballsy about trimming its own branches. Since Ned Stark, the fake protagonist of the first season, was de-meloned, Game of Thrones has been stridently anti-protagonist. It’s an ensemble show, it’s about a whole realm, but, more to the pointy end, it’s a show that punctures the illusion that protagonists can or do exist. Stannis, Renly, Robb, Joffrey, Daenarys — these characters are all eager to claim that they are the monarchs, they are the organizing forces, they are the protagonists of the story in which they participate. The War of Five Kings, Game of Thrones in general, is a lesson in the futility of such claims. To talk about the ballsiness of killing off central characters presumes that central characters exist. Game of Thrones isn’t brave because it kills its protagonists. It’s brave because it doesn’t have any.
In season two, the charlatan Xaro Xhoan Daxos says, “Those on the margins often come to control the center.” And Game of Thrones is a show very very interested in the marginal. Arya is a perfect example of this. She begins the series as the tomboy younger sister of social climber Sansa. She’s a little girl whose desires and personality have basically no future within the old-timey social structure of Westeros. She’s both socially — a girl who wants to fight — and domestically — a girl who can’t sew — of no use to anyone. Yet, after the beheading of her father and the red wedding of the rest of her family, she’s the only Stark not trapped or dead. Her lack of potential or futurity has translated into the only hope of a future the Stark family has. Ditto Tyrion Lannister, ironically the only creative member of a family whose rampant reproduction is really just a feedback loop. Jon Snow is a bastard and one of the only non-idiotic military commanders left on the planet. Bran is basically on a vision quest. And even Daenarys Targaryen. She is a claimant to the throne, but she is — geographically, politically, even biologically — marginal. She lives in the desert, she gives birth to dragons, and the only thing anybody in Westeros can manage to say about her is, “Uggggh, enough about the dragons. I’m trying to pay attention to when I’m going to be killed by surprise.” That the show increasingly has come to focus on Daenarys, Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Arya is not evidence that they are the show’s secret protagonists. Rather, it’s evidence that Game of Thrones likes spending time with characters who are aggressively told that they’re not protagonists. The margins will control the center, and, on HBO, they have for a while now.
To that point, the series, its showrunners, and even its creative nerve center, are in no hurry to push this gang into King’s Landing. While Daenarys will likely eventually make it rain in Westeros, the likelihood for at least Jon Snow and Arya, is that they build full and rich narratives in the margins. In fact, the new season opens with all of these folks either farther from the center than ever before or being forcefully expelled. If King’s Landing — and the lust for its Iron Throne — might be said to be the norm in this world, then Arya, Dany, and the rest of these misfits have become extremely non-normative in terms of their trajectories. The Mother of Dragons, for instance, has turned almost her entire attention to the issue of slavery. Yes, she’s ostensibly en route to some bad-assery in her ancestral homeland, but she’s ever more preoccupied with freeing the slaves of the East than busting the balls of the West. Slavery, the white-walkers, the echoes of revenge — these are no less important than the War of Five Kings, but they will never assume that event’s historical place, even in the context of the show. Game of Thrones is a series about the War of Five Kings whose current main characters are not even remotely involved.
Arya wants to get back to King’s Landing, but only inasmuch as King’s Landing is one of the many spots on her Bucket/Kill List. Arya’s movements are dictated by a personal revenge plot, not the arc of history. She’ll go where she needs in order to get her Kill Bill on. The ending of this Sunday’s episode was almost breathtakingly satisfying. This guy she killed was nobody, but his death was the anchor of our emotional investment in the show’s return. Arya’s victory is not just a dramatically ironic tisk-tisk to all those Lannisters who think the Starks are all dead. It’s a tisk-tisk to anyone who thought that the most powerful Starks, the most Stark-like Starks, were the ones interested in being king. Arya, just like her father, doesn’t give two shits about being king. And as we watch her twist the needle from a low angle, we realize that that makes her the most dangerous character on this show.
Cersei Lannister is famous for telling Ned Stark that, “In the game of thrones, you either win or you die.” Arya Stark isn’t playing the game of thrones. And all she does is win win win no matter what.
Everytime I step up in the building, everybody’s hands go up,
Following episode: season 4, episode 2, “The Lion and the Rose.”
LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage
Anne Helen Petersen is a Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Austin in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. She currently teaches film and media studies at Whitman College.
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.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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