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.

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1 comment:

  1. Again, it is a pleasure to read your insights on the series!