Monday, October 31, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 3.2: "Dark Wings, Dark Words"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

3.2 “Dark Wings, Dark Words”
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Commentary by Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), Natalie Dormer (Margaery), Vanessa Taylor, and Daniel Minahan

Here’s a new twist—I have almost nothing to say about this episode. For all the stuff that happened, for all the introductions and reappearances of really great characters, this episode was . . . boring. It had a couple of great moments, but didn’t feel like it hung together at all well. Some of that might be because it ended up with a bunch of scenes that were originally written for 3.1, and because the scenes were pretty seriously rearranged in editing.

This doesn’t mean y’all get out of listening to my opinions on some of this episode. There’s three things in particular I really want to get to.

The first is Joffrey and Margaery. A side effect of aging Margaery up is giving her a greater role in the politics involved in the Tyrell-Lannister alliance marriage. She’s old enough to understand the stakes and to be actively involved in getting Joffrey on her side. This new Margaery is incredibly politically astute and figures out exactly the right way to get everyone on her side (except Cersei). She figures out pretty quickly exactly what Joffrey’s passion is (killing things) and uses it to begin a long-game kind of seduction. I enjoy this Margaery; later they turn her into a catty mean girl (not to mention a child molester, but we’ll get to that when we get to that). It’s easy to believe that at this point in the show, she truly enjoys Sansa’s company and helping the poor, even if these things are also politically expedient. I really enjoy Natalie Dormer and I like that, if they had to age Margaery up that far, they got Dormer to play her. She does carry some baggage, coming from playing Anne Boleyn on The Tudors, but that particular kind of actor baggage can sometimes be beneficial (there’s whole studies on the effect of fans following an actor from one show to another and the residue of the first character hanging on the actor. Nathan Fillion comes immediately to mind).

I’ve already talked about how the show treats Renly as a gay man, and some issues arose again in this episode. Several characters talk about how Renly was effeminate—strutting around in silks and apparently throwing his relationship with Loras in everyone’s face, since everyone seems to know about it. Martin doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It’s very nearly unspoken, with only Jaime really making an outright comment about it to Loras, threatening to shove Loras’ sword “up someplace even Renly never found.” Even Stannis, with his very rigid ideas of social structure and gender roles, doesn’t seem to care much, other than a passing comment that Margaery is likely to remain a virgin while married to him. In the show, every time Renly comes up, his sexual orientation does too, often in crude terms. Jaime’s assessment of Renly’s proclivities and Brienne’s crush on him are particularly rough, though he does say that he doesn’t “blame” Renly, because “we don’t get to choose who we love.” Of course the audience knows that he’s also thinking of himself and his relationship with Cersei here and probably making fun of Renly to make himself feel better about his own “degeneracy.” Cersei, and later Joffrey echoing her, refer to Renly as a “known degenerate,” and Margaery throws him entirely under the bus in order to pacify Joffrey and assure him that she’s still a virgin. I don’t blame Margaery at all; she’s having to tread very carefully, and it’s not like Renly is alive to be punished. I do blame the writers, who have to completely define Renly by his gayness and mention it frequently, just as they constantly insinuate that Varys is a pedophile. If I remember correctly, the show’s treatment of Loras just gets worse (and then they kill him. For being gay. But again, we’ll get there when we get there).

You knew we were going to have to talk about Theon. The show takes a wild departure from the books by actually showing his ordeal onscreen. In the books, he disappears for a while and we get only hints that he’s even still alive. When we see him again, he’s a broken shell of a man. Martin uses that gap to create shock value—from the strong, stubborn, kind of asshole of a man Theon was, to the groveling, terrified, white-haired Reek. The show decides to go for the more obvious and basic shock, showing us “medieval” torture. I seem to remember some discussion that just losing Alfie Allen for a season wasn’t something the showrunners wanted to do, but that argument falls apart when they lose Isaac Hempstead Wright for a season later (probably because his storyline isn’t interesting, violent, and sexy. It’s just traveling and character development). Personally, I think Martin’s approach was better; it kept some suspense going and showing the end result of all that torture without showing the process had a much greater impact (in my opinion) than actually showing it.

The entire reason they showed us Theon’s torture seems to be that they wanted the violence and the shock value. Vanessa Taylor says that she suggested maybe not torturing Theon quite so much, and says that David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss) “didn’t go for that.” She, of course, went looking for “authentic” medieval torture devices and came up with the instep borer, which she found on an unnamed “medieval torture website.” Many people, more informed than me, have done a lot of work on the realities of “medieval torture” and how overblown it is in the modern imagination and how a lot of the torture devices ascribed to the Middle Ages were actually entirely made up in the Victorian era and later, so I’m not going to go into that here, but this is a way that the show falls into at least one of the common traps of medievalist thinking about the Middle Ages.

Bonus: let’s talk about that scene with Catelyn talking to Talisa about Jon Snow. This, again, ignores a whole lot of political stuff in favor of defining Catelyn entirely as a woman and a mother. Sure, she’s worried about Bran and Rickon (it’s worth mentioning that by this point in the books, she already “knew” they were dead). But she decides to beat herself up for not being able to love Jon Snow because she was so jealous of the “other woman.” This goes radically contrary to her characterization in the books and to the realities of illegitimate children in a patriarchal society that practices primogeniture. Catelyn’s real problem with Jon is that he’s a danger to her own son’s right to inherit Winterfell from Ned, because Jon is technically older than Robb. She would never have even considered having Ned legitimize Jon because that would mean Robb wouldn’t inherit. In fact, when Robb brings it up so that if something happens to him, Winterfell would still have a Stark to inherit, Cat argues strenuously, even though at that point she “knows” Bran and Rickon are dead, and Robb’s death would leave only Sansa and Arya as possible heirs. While in the north, either one of them could become Lady of Winterfell, Cat was raised in the south, where women are valued far less, especially as leaders.

I’ll have much more to say about inheritance and legitimacy when we get to the end of season six, and I’m sure I’ll have much stronger language to say it with.

RIP: Hoster Tully (off screen)

Next week: Daenerys makes a deal. Craster is an ass (again). The Blackfish makes his grand entrance.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

World Fantasy Awards 2016

The Tales after Tolkien Society extends its congratulations to the World Fantasy Award winners this year. We're honored to have been considered, and we hope to join you next time around!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

CFP: Tales after Tolkien at SWPCA

Our own Kris Swank notes the following:

Anyone interested in joining a proposed panel on Tales After Tolkien for the Southwest Popular Culture Association in Albuquerque, please let me know this weekend: Title, Brief Summary. We need 1 or 2 more. Our proposal is due on Tues.
She can be messaged on Facebook, or she can be reached at

Some Updates

First, thank you all for reading the Tales after Tolkien Society blog, Travels in Genre and Medievalism! We appreciate your continued attention (more than 19 thousand page views as of this writing), and we hope you are getting something out of what we do here.

Second, regular contributor Shiloh is still making excellent posts about Game of Thrones--but there is still room for more. If you have one-off ideas or a thought about a regular column, we'd love to have you; email or with "Tales after Tolkien Blog" in the subject line, and we'll be happy to talk with you. (Incidentally, if you know anyone who might like to have such a venue, please feel free to pass the news along. We're always happy to meet new people!)

Third, I've updated the "Label Search" page on the blog. There's been a proliferation of labels since I last updated the list, and having ready access ought to make it easier to navigate what we've got up here.

Fourth, planning is underway for the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. The last general meeting of the Society took place at an excellent Mediterranean restaurant not far from the Congress; depending on expected attendance and stated preferences, we may return there. To that end, this survey; member feedback is appreciated--and if you want to become a member, email us. Membership is free and open to all interested parties; we'd love to have you!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 3.1: "Valar Dohaeris"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

3.1 “Valar Dohaeris”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan

Last season ended with an episode titled “Valar Morghulis,” clear and obvious companion to “Valar Dohaeris.” The writers haven’t yet told us what either phrase means, though book readers are aware that they mean “all men must die” and “all men must serve.” The phrases are High Valyrian and used most frequently in Braavos; in the books they’re associated most strongly with the Faceless Men and the House of Black and White, where they worship and serve Death in all its incarnations.

So while it makes sense that the episode called “Valar Dohaeris” would follow the episode called “Valar Morghulis,” it makes less sense that this episode would be called “Valar Dohaeris.” “Valar Morghulis” made some sort of sense—Arya is introduced to the phrase and tempted with training to become a Faceless assassin so she can take her revenge on her enemies (and there’s a lot of death in that episode). Even for people who know what “Valar Dohaeris” means, it only kind of makes sense as the title of this episode, and isn’t nearly as blatant a theme as some others we’ve gotten (but isn’t as much of a stretch as yet others).

That said, with a bit of squinting, the episode focuses on service and the people who serve in various ways and with various levels of success. The cold open (the first one we’ve had since episode one) shows the aftermath of the battle at the Fist of the First Men. Sam makes his way through the heavy wind and snow back toward the Fist, and discovers one of his Night’s Watch brothers kneeling in the snow. When he goes around to the front of the man, however, he’s holding his own head in his hands and frozen to the ground. Sam’s attacked by a wight and rescued by Ghost (what is he even doing all the way down here?) and then Mormont, who sets the thing on fire. Mormont wants to know if Sam managed to send word back to the Wall via raven about the attack, and he wasn’t. Mormont yells at him about having one job, Samwell Tarly, then gathers the remains of the rangers together to head back South and warn the entire world that they’re all about to freeze to death. And then get back up. And start eating each other.

So the very first act of service that was supposed to happen in this episode was a failure. And it might cost everyone their lives.

Further north, Jon is riding a raggedy edge with service—he’s serving the Night’s Watch by pretending to desert it and join up with Mance Rayder and his wildling army. After a funny funny mix-up regarding who, exactly, Mance is and how Jon is supposed to treat him, Jon gets a chance to explain what he’s doing here. The explanation is different than in the books, but makes sense contextually. In the books, Mance tells a whole story about how he frequently sneaks south of the Wall and was at Winterfell during the big feast when Robert came north. This allows Jon to use the status of bastards in Winterfell as his reason for changing sides. It also sets up Mance’s attempt to rescue “Arya” in A Dance with Dragons—it’s already been established that he knows Winterfell and can disguise himself as a bard. Obviously we don’t know whether Benioff and Weiss ever intended to follow that part of the storyline, but since they didn’t, not setting it up doesn’t make any difference. Also, it could take away some of the drama from Jon and company climbing the Wall later in the season; if Mance can just pop south, why are the Wildlings making such a big deal out of climbing the Wall? (It’s probable that Mance used the secret gate at the Nightfort, but they didn’t need to set that up here, either.)

Instead, Jon uses the incident at Craster’s Keep for his reason. Mormont knows about Craster’s sacrifices and he doesn’t do anything about it. Jon’s disillusioned by this lack of care for the living and would rather be on the side “that fights for the living.” It’s completely believable, and perhaps an even better reason than the one given in the book.

Davos in particular has a drive to serve his king the best way he knows how. He’s trapped on a rock out in Shipbreaker Bay, but manages to signal a passing ship that just so happens to belong to his good friend Salladhor Saan. Davos asks Salladhor to take him back to Dragonstone, which Salladhor does not want to do because Melisandre has been on a tear of burning people and nobody gets to see Stannis anymore but her. He tries to talk Davos into going with him and becoming a smuggler again, but Davos has an overdeveloped sense of duty and insists on going back to Dragonstone.

Once there, he tries to convince Stannis that all is not lost and argues with Melisandre about burning people willy-nilly because they don’t immediately accept her god. She gets him all worked up about the battle, instigating a reaction that looks a lot like PTSD, then reminds him that she told his son that “death by fire is the purest death.” He pulls a knife on her and is summarily hauled off to the dungeon while Stannis does nothing to prevent it. Davos lost a son in service of his king, and Stannis shows just about as much gratitude for this service as Tywin does to Tyrion later (earlier in the episode; later in this post).

Unfortunately, this scene undermines Melisandre’s power a bit; in the books, she has Davos arrested the minute he steps off the boat because she already knows he’s planning to kill her. Her gift of prophecy has been played down a bit in the show, mostly in favor of the whole demon-birthing thing. (Because that bit lets us see Carice van Houten naked.) Sure, that means it’s several weeks before Davos gets to see Stannis, but it also means that when he does, Stannis actually needs him and there isn’t this weird “I’m ignoring you” vibe going on.

Tyrion’s storyline in this episode sets up differing levels of service but shows that all men must serve—someone. Podrick comes to get Bronn from a brothel (Bronn is deeply unhappy about being torn away from his feisty prostitute), bringing him to Tyrion, whose room is guarded by Meryn Trant and another Kingsguard who isn’t named. Bronn gets sassy with the Kingsguard, bringing up Trant’s willingness to “beat little girls,” and it nearly comes to blows when Cersei leaves Tyrion’s room and breaks up the standoff.

Tyrion summoned Bronn because he needs a bodyguard; first he’s told that Cersei arranged the attempt on his life, and then Cersei shows up at his door with two Kingsguard. The scene between them is really light on content; Cersei’s concerned about what Tyrion might tell Tywin about what went down before he showed up, and they establish that Cersei’s always been cruel and Tyrion’s never been shy about taking her cruelty to Tywin. The only narrative reason I can see for this scene at all is to set up Pod summoning Bronn, which fits the “all men must serve” theme. Bronn, however, doesn’t want to just serve—he wants to get paid for it. Double what Tyrion was paying him before the Blackwater, because he’s a knight now. An unlanded, broke knight, but still a knight.

While Bronn serves Tyrion, Tyrion must serve his father, who presumably is serving the kingdom. Tyrion goes to see Tywin, mostly to remind him that he still has a son, since Tywin never bothered to check in on him after he was injured. Tywin, being ruthlessly unemotional, tells him that Pycelle said he wasn’t in any danger, so whatever. Tyrion reminds Tywin that he was the one who set up the defense of the city before Tywin deigned to sweep in with a fake Renly and save the day, and Tywin tells him Lannisters don’t do things for the recognition. This is, of course, complete bunk; Tywin was recognized before the entire court and named “Hand of the King and Hero of the Realm” while riding his horse right into the throne room. Everything Jaime does, he does for the recognition. This is clearly an excuse to deny Tyrion the recognition he’s due.

Tyrion decides to use this meeting to demand his birthright; Jaime’s given up his rights to inherit Casterly Rock by swearing to the Kingsguard, leaving Tyrion as the rightful heir. Tywin, of course, has no intention of giving it to him. In a speech right out of the books, and delivered magnificently by Charles Dance (whose pronunciation of “whore” makes me giggle every time), Tyrion is informed that he is a disgusting little monster without a redeemable bone in his body, and if Tywin could figure out a way to prove that Tyrion isn’t his son, he’d disinherit him entirely in a heartbeat. He promises him better accommodations and a job worthy of his talents soon enough, but really only so that his shame within the family doesn’t leak to the rest of the court. He’s expected to serve the interests of the family, but is promised no kind of recognition or even respect for it. All of this, of course, is laying the foundation for the end of next season.
There’s a lovely little moment between Shae and Ros; Shae is serving Sansa as a handmaiden and at the moment they’re playing a game, making up stories about what the ships out in the bay are doing, where they’re going, what they’re carrying. Shae doesn’t see the point of it, of course, but she’s clearly fond of Sansa. Petyr shows up to tell Sansa he might be able to get her out of King’s Landing, which gives Shae and Ros some time to discuss how hard it is being women of their station and ever becoming anything more. Ros recognizes Shae’s background as a prostitute/camp follower/mistress, but doesn’t know that that’s still what she is, just in hiding as Sansa’s handmaiden. She may not even know that Shae’s the real “Tyrion’s whore” that got Ros beat up. If she does, she’s handling this meeting very well under the circumstances. She tells Shae to keep an eye on Sansa, especially when it comes to Petyr, and then she and Petyr leave.

To wrap up with King’s Landing, we have Margaery working very hard to make the people love her and ultimately consolidate Tyrell power in the capital. Joffrey seems very much to want to impress her and do better with her than he did with Sansa, though there’s still some of that scared little boy we saw at the Battle of the Blackwater. Margaery gets out of her litter in the middle of Flea Bottom and goes to talk to some orphan children; Joffrey stays in his litter and watches through the little windows. This is where the riot went down, and it’s possible he has some post-trauma stuff going on from it. I really appreciate how much nuance Jack Gleeson gives this role; Joffrey is an awful human being, but he’s still a human being (in a manner of speaking; he’s a fictional construct being written and played by human beings) and Gleeson lets some of that through. Later, when Cersei chides Margaery for stopping in Flea Bottom and cites the riot, Joffrey brushes her off to tell Margaery that it wasn’t that bad. Cersei’s face is priceless when he says that she’s old and thus prone to embellishing tales. She also gives Margaery a hard time about her outfit, which is one of the many on this show that completely destroys any “historical authenticity” credibility they have (for me, anyway), showing a good expanse of her chest and open at the sides. The servant girls’ outfits already bothered me; you can’t tell me anything Margaery wears is based on anything medieval.

The Riverlands get only a quick throwaway scene that introduces a character who’s kind of major-minor; he’s important for the plot of the last couple of books but not a major player. Hi, Qyburn. The issue with this introduction isn’t just that it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but that it strips every bit of context away from the character. In the books, Qyburn is a member of the Brave Companions (also called the Bloody Mummers, if that tells you anything), a de-chained maester who plays with black magic and necromancy. He’s part of the allegiance-switching the Bloody Mummers pull when they decide to stop serving the Lannisters by way of Gregor Clegane and instead start backing Roose Bolton. But since the show cut out a good chunk of Arya’s stay at Harrenhal, they also lost the Bloody Mummers (at least for a little while), so all we know is here’s this little maester who barely survived Clegane’s complete slaughter of everyone in Harrenhal before he moved on. The scene also shows that the rift between Cat and Robb is still very much in evidence, that Rickard Karstark is still pissed off, and that Talisa’s kind of on Cat’s side in the whole mess.

This brings us to Slavers Bay. Daenerys has arrived in Astapor, following Jorah’s advice that they buy an army of Unsullied, the most fearsome warriors available for coin. Jorah’s serving Dany the best way he knows how, but his moral compass doesn’t quite line up with hers. She’s deeply troubled about the idea of buying slaves, but he tells her that she needs strength and the ability to show force, and the remains of her tiny khalasar are currently puking their guts up all over the deck. So Dany goes to Astapor, where Missandei translates some Low Valeryian for a slaver who doesn’t think much of Jorah or Dany, but tells them all about the Unsullied training (skipping the bit about the puppy, thank God). Dany is obviously deeply troubled, but still considering it while she and Jorah walk along the docks. This is the point at which the warlocks take a shot at killing Daenerys and Ser Barristan shows back up again, like a boss. Jorah doesn’t trust him, but then Jorah has never liked having anyone giving Dany advice except him, so…..

We need to talk about Missandei. Lots of the younger characters in the show are aged up because of the show’s sexual content. In the books, Missandei is about ten years old. She has no sexual content. There is absolutely no reason to have aged her up much more than two years, and absolutely no reason besides it being HBO for them to age her up to somewhere between sixteen and eighteen and then put her in that outfit

Yes, she’s a slave. She’s a scribe. She translates. She isn’t a sex slave, so there’s not even a contextual reason for her to be wearing that. It just feels like yet more of the same objectification of every single woman they can get away with. It doesn’t help that she’s one of the few women of color on the show. Irri and Jhiqui were the only other ones, really, and they were written as little idiots who had to be taught better by Doreah and Dany. Missandei is at least smart, but they oversexualized her—falling into the other character-of-color trap. I love what Nathalie Emmanuel does with the character; like most of the actors on this show, she acts her face off even when handed ridiculous storylines and dialogue. And if this were the only example of this sort of thing in the show, it probably wouldn’t be as big of a deal. But it’s not, and it only continues to get worse from here.

RIP: Ser Jeremy Mallister, unnamed Night’s Watch brother, some wildling wight

Next week: Olenna! Jojen and Meera! Oh, hi, Ramsay.

All images from

Monday, October 10, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.10: "Valar Morghulis"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

2.10 “Valar Morghulis”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
Commentary by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Alan Taylor

This is an unusually long post, but this is a really eventful episode, so bear with me.

This episode has an interesting blend of “battle’s over, what now?” and “guess what’s coming next season!” “Blackwater” was the culmination of everything that had been happening in the south, but ignored the north, the very north, and the east (as it should have; this isn’t a complaint, merely an observation), so now the show has to culminate those storylines, as well as showing us what’s going on with King’s Landing now that the battle’s over.

And what’s going on in King’s Landing is, as we are shown so, erm, poetically at the beginning of the second scene, is (to put it delicately) a whole lot of horseshit.

Joffrey hands out rewards to those who helped the crown win the battle, including Tywin (“savior of the city and Hand of the King”), Petyr Baelish (lord of Harrenhal), and Loras Tyrell. In what is clearly a carefully rehearsed political dance, Loras requests that Joffrey marry Margaery, Margaery and Joffrey proclaim their mutual admiration, and Joffrey obtains the permission of the Small Council and High Septon to break his betrothal to Sansa. It’s obvious that everyone involved has been coached to make this look good for the lords, ladies, and occasional smallfolk packed into the throne room, if only because Joffrey’s incapable of being this well-spoken and gallant without some coaching. As mentioned in the last episode, he wants to be like a knight or prince from the songs, but his violent tendencies (and being spoiled) make it really difficult for him. He was obviously carefully coached (no beheading antics this time), and it goes off without a hitch.

What we don’t get from the books is that Sansa was also coached to make sure that she wouldn’t make it obvious how relieved and happy she is that she won’t have to marry Joffrey. She manages this at least until her back is to all the ladies who are staring disapprovingly at her. She gets one brief moment of relief and happiness, and then this jerk shows up to yank it all out from under her:

Sansa is again reminded that men are awful and just want to rape her and probably won’t be able to help themselves because she’s so pretty. Gross.

Petyr’s rise to higher power (which, in the show, it’s not as obvious how empty the lordship of Harrenhal is; Petyr’s like the third lord of Harrenhal in the last few months) has kicked Varys into high gear, and he goes to visit Ros. The opening of this scene is a bit weird, because she invites what she thinks is a client into her room while she’s still putting makeup on to cover her black eye. Unless seeing women beat up is just so commonplace in King’s Landing and/or such a generalized turn-on for the men of King’s Landing (which is entirely possible), this doesn’t make sense. It does remind us that Ros got brutalized by the Kingsguard, which happened two whole episodes ago so maybe the audience can’t be expected to remember that far back (that was sarcasm, by the way), but I’m not one who likes to sacrifice plot and character consistency for little reminder nudges for the audience. (But then, I was a huge fan of Lost, which assumed you were smart and remembered stuff that happened three seasons ago.)

Varys offers Ros a job, and his main hook is that he looks after his people and doesn’t let them get beat up on or otherwise brutalized because of “royal whim.” Kind of ironic considering what happens to Ros next season. Ros isn’t sure about the job or Varys initially, but he talks her around, because he’s very good at that sort of thing.

Varys also spends some time with Tyrion, who has lost everything—the men he was paying to watch his back, his status as King’s Hand, and any recognition he might have gotten for defending the city (thanks, dad)—and assures him that those who matter will remember Tyrion, even if the history books don’t. He brings Shae in, and they have a scene that’s either really touching or really confusing, depending on how you read Shae’s motivations. Is she (as in the books) just out for the money and prestige of being a Lannister’s courtesan? Or does she really care about Tyrion? She offers to run away with him, which would cut him off from his money, so unless she thinks he could manage to make a really good living in Pentos, this seems to be evidence that she really cares about him. He decides he can’t go; he likes the intrigue of playing the game of thrones too much.

Out in the Riverlands, Robb is being the stupidest he can possibly be. Once again, Cat reminds him that crossing Walder Frey is suicidally stupid. Once again Robb brushes her off, but this time he has ammunition in that she just did something kind of stupid, too, and she only wants him to abide by his agreement because she’s the one who made it. So . . . nana nana boo boo? Great adulting, Robb. This is the second time Cat has reminded Robb that as king, he has responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is keeping his vows. Marrying Talisa is a clear and direct violation of his vows.

So he does it anyway.

The shift in plot from Robb disappearing from Cat’s chapters for a bit and showing up having already married Jeyne Westerling without ever having discussed it with anyone again underscores the powerlessness of women in this society. Even in the books, Cat struggles with having her ideas heard; she’s constantly told she doesn’t understand warfare because she’s just a woman. Releasing Jaime is a move born of desperation because nobody else cares about her daughters, and as far as she knows, they and Robb are the only kids she has left. The deal with Walder Frey was the best she could get from that complete jackass, and now (in both show and books) Robb has completely turned his back on that deal, further undermining Cat’s authority as a politician, negotiator, and noblewoman. In the show, Robb’s even particularly arrogant; at least in the books, he clearly knows he’s messed up, but didn’t know what else to do after having sex with Jeyne and not wanting to dishonor her.

Removing Jeyne and putting in Talisa adds another thematic and political shift. Jeyne is nobility—minor nobility, but nobility. Talisa technically is, too, but she’s Volantene and has essentially given up her birthright. The Westerlings are sworn to the Lannisters, which puts even more of a spin on Robb marrying her (and causes some complications later, which are kind of buried in Jaime’s storyline, since Jaime doesn’t particularly care about the Westerlings). Benioff and Weiss de-complicated the politics, but in the process, created a character who allowed them to mouth off about how worthless “girly-girls” are (Jeyne is a poised, polite, and lovely, if inexperienced, young lady) and give Cat even less influence, again showing that women who try to wield political power will fail, no matter how right they are or how good they are (should be) at it.

Speaking of failing at wielding political (or any kind of) power, Theon’s in a bind. Winterfell is surrounded, he has practically no men, and he knows if he fights, he’s going to lose. Luwin tries to council him to escape, run north, and join the Night’s Watch, telling him that he’s “not the man you’ve been pretending to be.” Theon seriously considers it for a bit, then says that he’s “come too far to pretend to be anything else.” Cut to the next morning, and Theon’s rallying his men for battle. He gives an impassioned, rousing speech telling them that they’re all going to die here, but they’re going to die in glory, and live on forever in song, tale, and legend.

And then Dagmer socks him in the back of the head and puts an end to all of that madness.

Luwin appears to ask what the Ironborn think they’re doing and gets a spear to the stomach for his trouble. This has been coming since Theon arrived in Winterfell; the setup of Luwin and Dagmer as the dual sides of Theon’s nature and his struggle over where he belongs could really only end one way. It’s interesting, but not horribly surprising, that Dagmer ends up taking away Theon’s free will, since he’s represented the “I have to do this; I don’t have a choice” part of Theon’s thought process, while Luwin has been the “there’s always a choice” side. Dagmer believes that taking out Theon will allow them to go home, but when we next see Winterfell—when the wolves, Osha, Hodor, Bran, and Rickon emerge from the crypts—it’s burned down and there are bodies everywhere. Presumably Ramsay Snow followed Robb’s orders to kill everyone except Theon, but we don’t get clear confirmation about the deaths of any one particular Ironborn.

Luwin drags himself to the godswood, which is where they find him, and he tells Osha to take the boys north, to the Wall, where Jon can protect them. He then asks Osha for mercy, because dying of a gut-stab is really slow and horrible. Our last view of Winterfell for a while is as the boys, wolves, man, and Wildling woman head out, smoke billowing up from the ruin behind them.

Further north, Ygritte is taunting Jon about all the things Mance might do to him, and thwacking him with the flat of a sword. Jon dodges a thwack and taunts Ygritte right back about not knowing how to handle a sword and looking “like a baby with a rattle.” Qhorin takes the opportunity to lunge at Jon, ostensibly trying to kill him, but actually setting up the situation necessary for Jon to “cross over” to allegiance to Mance Rayder in order to infiltrate the camp—by killing Qhorin. The fight is beautifully choreographed, and the slight pause before Jon drives his sword into Qhorin shows, as Alan Taylor points out, that this wasn’t an accident, that Jon made the conscious decision to kill Qhorin. Jon is clearly in shock afterward, and Ygritte (almost uncharacteristically, but in a very sweet piece of character building) recognizes it and treats him gently as she leads him down the hill into Mance’s—strikingly enormous—camp.

Arya has managed to escape Harrenhal and has a very brief scene with Jaqen H’ghar, who offers her training in Braavos. She remembers that Syrio was from Braavos, and Jaqen says sure, dancing masters are cool, but Faceless Men are cooler. Arya decides she needs to find her family more than she needs to learn how to kill all the people on her to-be-killed list, so Jaquen gives her the means to reach Braavos—a coin and the passphrase “valar morghulis”—before changing his face and leaving her behind.

Brienne is still carting Jaime south and runs into three soldiers who have hanged several women that apparently “shared favors” with Lannisters before the Starks rolled through. The show does very little with the plight of the smallfolk with all this war going on, but this is one of the moments that shows that neither side is a shining beacon of joy and happiness. There’s not a lot else notable about this scene except we get to see Brienne turn into a whirling dervish of blades and killing prowess, and Jaime stare at her, jaw on the ground. Worth it.

Across the Narrow Sea, Dany has chased her dragons into the House of the Undying, which is a much different set of scenes than in the books, but they’ve managed to make it thematically make some sense, anyway. I remember reading somewhere that they didn’t want to follow Dany’s vision quest beat-by-beat from the books because they couldn’t know what plot points they’d keep and which ones they’d lose, and setting up prophecies for things they’d never mention again would be bad storytelling. So instead of setting up the entire future of the books, Dany’s House of the Undying vision quest is, as Taylor puts it, “The Last Temptation of Daenerys Targaryen.” Dany faces two scenarios that force her to decide whether to continue looking for her dragons—fulfilling her destiny—or settling for something else.

The first is a broken, winterized version of the King’s Landing throne room. The roof appears burned and caved in. Snow is falling and coats every surface. The throne draws her, and she almost lays a hand on in when she hears the dragons screeching and remembers her mission. She leaves the throne room through the double doors that turn into the gate on the north side of the Wall, and she heads out into the frozen waste, where a tent waits for her. In the tent, the light is warm and inviting, and Drogo sits with Rhaego on his knee. This temptation is even harder for Daenerys; she wants nothing more than to stay here with her husband and their child in happiness and warmth. But she reminds herself of Mirri Maz Duur’s prophecy/curse (seems to be prophecy in the books, given a few specific incidents that occur in A Dance with Dragons, probably just a curse in the show) and tears herself away from them.

At which point, she finds herself back in the House of the Undying, her dragons chained to a plinth. Pyatt Pree and all his copies chain Dany up, too, explaining that since the dragons were born, their magic is much stronger, and the dragons are stronger with Dany near them, so they’re just going to hang on to all four to make sure they can do their magicky things, okay? Dany’s very not okay with this, and proceeds to have her dragons burn down everything.

Then, she stomps her way into Xaro’s house, where Xaro and Doreah are in bed (a good chunk of exposition about what’s going on with Doreah was apparently cut from this episode and “The Prince of Winterfell”). Dany takes his vault key and opens the vault, only to find it empty. Because of course it is. Xaro tries to convince her that as king, he can really help her, but instead she uses the conveniently empty vault to lock up Xaro and Doreah and saunters off with her dragons while the khalasar strips Xaro’s house bare of valuables.

Which brings us to the final scene of the episode and the season. The part of the Night’s Watch that didn’t go haring off north with Qhorin isn’t getting a lot of attention this season, and they’re still freezing their butts off at the Fist of the First Men. While out hunting for fuel for the fires, Sam, Edd, and Grenn hear a horn. The transformation they go through at each blow of the horn is really remarkable and well-acted. One blow means rangers returning, and Sam perks up, thinking Jon and Qhorin must be back. The second changes the meaning to Wildlings, and they all get ready to fight. The third means White Walkers, and Sam turns white, and all three of them take off running—except Sam, who can’t really run. When figures appear in the blowing snow behind him, he takes refuge behind a rock and watches as the army of wights, in various stages of decay, wanders past him. Most of them clearly are/were Wildlings, but there’s a few black-clad people and Emilia Clarke says she spotted one who looked like a Dothraki. While that wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, lore-wise, it would show the threat these creatures have to the entire world; every man, woman, and child would ultimately become a zombie if the Walkers took over.

Then we get our first look at a Walker. Riding a (dead) black horse, it makes direct eye contact with Sam, who sees death staring back at him. But Sam is inconsequential in the greater scheme of things, and the Walker moves past him, toward the Fist of the First Men. As the camera pans up and back, we’re treated to a look at an enormous army of zombies, with a few more Walkers scattered among them.

It’s entirely possible that Dany’s visions of a destroyed Red Keep and the frozen northern wasteland were a warning about what would happen if she were to turn away from her dragons and fail to use them to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the White Walkers (my personal expectation about generally what’s going to happen in A Dream of Spring). Either way, the final shot of the season gives us a good idea about what the Night’s Watch, and ultimately the world, is up against.

Maester Luwin
Pyatt Pree
Qhorin Halfhand
Xaro Xhoan Daxos

Next week: I take a break to try to get some other work done. I'll be back on 10/24 with season 3.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 2.9: "Blackwater"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

2.9 “Blackwater”
Written by George R.R. Martin
Directed by Neil Marshall
Commentary by George R.R. Martin
Commentary by Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Neil Marshall

Full disclosure: “Blackwater” is one of my favorite episodes. Martin did such a great job of adapting these six or so chapters, keeping the point-of-view swaps, the sense of dread as everyone battens down the hatches, and then the battle itself. Given the budgetary constrictions the show is under, the battle comes out looking really good.

The episode can be broken down into a few major beats: the buildup, the initial contact, the certainty of defeat, and the victory. Everyone has something going on during each of these beats—except Davos, who gets blown off his ship as soon as the initial contact is made and isn’t seen again.

The Buildup
Everyone is terrified (except maybe Stannis). Tyrion knows if his plan fails, he’ll be one of the first nobles to die, whether he’s anywhere near the battle or not. Stannis will systematically murder every Lannister he can get his hands on. Shae tries to comfort him, telling him that she’ll defend him, and he tells her she “can’t fuck [her] way out of everything.” She says it’s worked pretty well so far. Cersei’s getting drunk and collecting a vial of poison from Pycelle, who keeps trying to get back into her confidence and keeps failing. Davos is nervous about entering open battle, given that his entire background has been in smuggling. His son, Mathos, tells him that R’hllor is watching over them, and Davos shakes off some of his nerves by getting in a philosophical debate.

Meanwhile, we finally get to hear the lyrics to “The Rains of Castamere” because Bronn is singing it with a bunch of his gold cloaks while they all get really drunk at a brothel. Bronn has a girl sitting on his lap, and while she’s fully clothed, Peter Dinklage says (in the commentary) exactly what we’re all thinking: she’s not going to be clothed for long. Indeed, Bronn proceeds to stand her up, peel the clothes off of her, and pull her back down into his lap just before Sandor and one of his men come in. Bronn makes overtures, but Sandor’s not having any of it. And just before they throw down, the bells start to ring.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that this particular scene is not a Martin invention. He makes a point to acknowledge that this scene doesn’t appear in the books (because none of his viewpoint characters are involved) and he didn’t write it—it was a Benioff and Weiss addition. Which, of course it is; it involves a woman naked for no good reason.

The bells announce that Stannis’ ships have been sighted, and the low-grade panic kicks into high gear. Varys stares worriedly out a window as Podrick buckles Tyrion into his armor (and Tyrion once again insinuates that Varys has a thing for little boys). Everyone says their goodbyes—Tyrion and Bronn have a great little moment. Sansa tells Tyrion she will pray for his safe return, “just as I pray for the king’s.” (Sansa’s subtle snark game is on point in this scene.) 

Joffrey shows up and demands Sansa’s immediate attention, leaving Tyrion and Shae to say their goodbyes. Sansa continues to exercise her slowly developing political savvy by insinuating that because Joffrey doesn’t plan to go outside the gates and fight in the vanguard that he’s less of a man than her brother Robb, “and he’s just a pretender.” I’m really glad that Martin got to put this bit of character development in, since the other writers seem so intent on defining Sansa as a victim rather than a burgeoning player in the game of thrones. Here, she manages to ruin Joffrey’s attempt at acting out a chivalric romance—in true Joffrey style, making Sansa kiss his sword and telling her that when he comes back she’ll kiss it again “and taste my uncle’s blood.” He’s trying so hard to simultaneously live up to both kinds of pressure on men in this society—chivalry and violent masculinity. The violence comes more easily to him, but he knows that the level of violence he wants to commit and see done isn’t socially acceptable, so he hides behind the grand gestures of chivalry (he’s just not very good at it).

The Initial Contact
Davos decides to answer the bells of the city with drums, and the pace—and heartbeat, if you will—of the episode picks up. Tyrion, Joffrey, Sandor, and Lancel are on the walls, and Tyrion’s adrenaline is up, but Lancel and Joffrey are panicking. Stannis’ fleet has come into view and only one of Joffrey’s ships is anywhere to be seen—drifting aimlessly in the general direction of Stannis’ fleet. We get a wonderful exchange between the four men in which Joffrey acts childish and Tyrion doubles-down on his childishness then reminds him that he’s the one who has the plan, so Joffrey needs to sit down and shut up.

This is where the cinematography gets amazing. We hardly see the direwolves or dragons this season, and this is why: they’ve spent their entire CGI budget on this explosion right here:

RIP Mathos, and we’ll see you later, Davos.

Stannis says “screw it” and tells the remainder of the fleet to land so they can start fighting at the gates. First contact has been made, and now it’s chaos.

The Certainty of Defeat
While the sense of dread leaves the battlefield and gives way to outright terror, that sense of dread hangs in the air inside Maegor’s Holdfast, where Cersei is “protecting” the women of the keep. Hats off to Lena Headey for her acting in this episode because it is amazing. Also, she’s rocking this hilarious little breastplate:

Cersei sits Sansa down and proceeds to tell her all about how sieges work, how if Stannis wins, the women here can expect to be raped, and what a good thing it is that Sansa’s still on her period, because at least when she’s raped, she won’t get pregnant. (Classy.) The Maegor’s scenes contrast beautifully with the battle scenes, which are chaotic and switch from POV to POV quickly, giving us a good overall look at what’s happening. Meanwhile, everything’s calm, if a bit tense, in the Holdfast, until Cersei leaves. Almost all of Cersei’s dialogue is directly from the books, and Headey delivers it wonderfully. Her rants are frequently interrupted by people coming in to tell her how badly the battle’s going, until she orders Joffrey brought back in (against Lancel’s emphatic advice) and quits the holdfast herself. This leaves Sansa to exercise the other part of her newfound political savvy: making herself the strong center of the court by helping to calm the women and taking their minds off the bad news and Cersei’s abrupt departure. Once they’re calmed, however, Sansa also leaves so that if things go as badly as it looks like they’re going, Shae doesn’t want Ilyn to have easy access to her to kill her.

Outside the gates, everything is chaos. Everything’s on fire. Nobody’s wearing their helmets (90% of the reason to watch Martin’s commentary on this episode is his continuing diatribe about nobody wearing their helmets and that being a really good way to get killed. Look at that dude next to Stannis who got his head caved in with a rock. If he’d been wearing his helmet, that wouldn’t have happened). Sandor’s freaking out because of the fire; he’s extremely pyrophobic, because of course he is. He retreats back behind the walls, and both Tyrion and Joffrey tell him to get back out there and fight. He proceeds to tell them exactly what anatomical impossibility they can do with the Kingsguard, the city, and the king himself, and stomp off.

This leaves nobody to go out and fight the men who have now hauled a ram off one of the rowboats and are pounding at the Mud Gate. Tyrion volunteers, though he has to shame the other men into going with him. He has what is probably the best line of the episode: “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!” Tyrion’s wearing his helmet, like a smart person, though he takes it off sometime during the fight, which is when Ser Mandon of the Kingsguard tries to kill him. Podrick kills Mandon, instead, but Tyrion’s wounded and woozy, and defeat seems certain.

Sansa discovers Sandor in her room, and he tries again to tell her how horrible people are, men in particular, and knights in particularly particular. She stares him down and tells him he won’t hurt her, and he agrees that he won’t. He offers to take her back to Winterfell, and she decides she’s safer here. I actually like the shift in the vibe we get between these two; in the books, it’s kind of sexual and kind of squicky, but here he just seems like he’s protecting a lost and abused young girl. I think it comes off that way in the books because men in the books are socialized to interact with things either by killing them or having sex with them, and Sandor doesn’t know what to do with how he feels about Sansa. He doesn’t have any kids, so he wouldn’t have a fatherly frame of reference. It’s squicky, but it’s kind of understandable if you dig a bit into the toxic masculinity of the society and how that psychologically affects men like Sandor. The show doesn’t have time, space, or inclination for that kind of nuance, so it’s good they avoided it at all.

Cersei is also preparing for defeat, taking Tommen to the throne room, sitting on the throne with him, and telling him a story while preparing to feed him the poison she got from Pycelle.


Martin mentions that he had trouble with this scene and the dialogue in it was ultimately rewritten by Benioff and Weiss. My theory (if I may be so bold as to speculate) is that Martin couldn’t write it because this makes no sense with regard to Cersei’s character. Cersei isn’t Medea. Cersei defends her children and their lives with a mama-bear (or mama-lion) viciousness that leads her to sometimes do really stupid things. Killing one of them—even to save them—does not in any way line up with Cersei’s character as we’ve seen it so far. It makes for some good dramatic tension, but doesn’t work for character consistency (which, let’s be honest, Benioff and Weiss haven’t ever been particularly concerned about).

This bit lasts a total of maybe two minutes. Overlaid with Storytime with Cersei (and Some Poison) is Tyrion’s shaky view of Renly and his host riding in and slaughtering Stannis’ men. He’s obviously confused, since Renly is dead, but he’s pretty sure he’s about to be dead, too. Stannis, on top of the wall, starts screaming at his men, who break and run, to stand and fight. He’s hauled off by two of his own men; the battle is definitively lost.

And then “Renly” busts through the doors of the throne room and removes his helmet to reveal Loras Tyrell, and behind him is Tywin Lannister, who declares the battle won, preventing Cersei from killing her youngest son.

Mathos Seaworth
Ser Mandon Moore
So many soldiers

Next week: The House of the Undying.  Robb is incredibly stupid. Theon loses everything.