Monday, April 10, 2017

Game of Thrones Rewatch 5.4: "Sons of the Harpy"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.
5.4 “Sons of the Harpy”
Written by Dave Hill
Directed by Mark Mylod
Commentary by Mark Mylod, David Hill, Natalie Dormer (Margaery), and Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommen)

As I see it, the Game of Thrones writers have a bad habit of underestimating the audience. They claim they changed Sansa’s storyline because viewers wouldn’t be able to sympathize with a brand new character (Jeyne had only appeared once in the show) in the Reek storyline. In the commentary for this episode, Mark Mylod and Dave Hill claim Bryan Cogman wrote the Dorne storyline this way to show Dorne through the eyes of an established character, which basically means they didn’t think we’d be able to handle Dorne on its own merits. On the one hand, the complaints I’ve seen about book-Dorne online may bear out that second assumption, but people online complain about everything, and Benioff and Weiss are supposed to know how the story ends and thus why Arianne is important enough to warrant her own POV chapters. I think taking Ellaria back to Dorne and introducing Arianne, the Sand Snakes, Aero, and Doran through her point of view before shifting entirely over to Arianne would have been plenty enough of an introduction without the travesty that is the “Dorne” storyline we ended up with in the show.

Because this Jaime has completely lost all sense of lasting trauma from either losing his hand or losing his father. He mopes a little bit on the ship on the way to Dorne, but the hand becomes a slapstick joke as soon as they hit land. He uses it as an excuse not to help row the boat in to shore, then later to not help Bronn bury the bodies of the random Dornish patrol they encounter. During the fight, Jaime catches a descending sword in the gold hand, where it immediately gets stuck due to the configuration of the fingers and thumb. Rather than a constant reminder of what Jaime lost, a source of neverending frustration because he doesn’t have the motor control he used to have, the constant bad attempts to learn to fight left-handed, we get several moments of silliness. This feels to me like more of Benioff and Weiss’ shove toward traditional (toxic) masculinity; Jaime isn’t allowed to feel anything—but especially depressed or traumatized—for very long at a stretch, because he’s a Real Man™ and Real Men don’t have feelings. Instead of the book issue of men being forced to repress their feelings and this leading to whole hosts of problems with their mental health and the way they treat others—usually violently since that’s the only outlet they’re really allowed—Benioff and Weiss just take at face value that Real Men are big, strong, emotionless stereotypes.

The boat trip also introduces the way Benioff and Weiss see Dorne in its entirety, and it’s a really awful stereotype: in Bronn’s words, “The Dornish are crazy. All they want to do is fight and fuck, fuck and fight.” While this could have been used as one man’s experience of Dorne, his slightly racist view of the people there (not to mention projecting his own personality onto them), Benioff and Weiss (and Hill) have introduced no nuance to this at all. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are exactly the people Bronn says they are, and Doran is set up as weak, wishy-washy, and ultimately dead because he isn’t a fighter, but instead a long-term thinker, planner, and politician. We get an example of the fighting nature of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes in this episode; Ellaria comes to Nym, Obara, and Tyene from her meeting with Doran and tells them if they want to avenge Oberyn, they’re going to have to do it themselves. They have Myrcella and they found out about Jaime being here, so they start making plans, but not before torturing the captain of the ship that brought Jaime with scorpions and then putting a spear through his face.

This isn’t nearly the worst that the “Dorne” storyline gets. Just wait.

In King’s Landing, Cersei is working to consolidate her power, first by sending Mace Tyrell and Ser Meryn to Braavos to negotiate with the Iron Bank. When he leaves, Pycelle notes that the Small Council keeps getting smaller, and Cersei remarks that it’s not small enough. She meets with the High Sparrow again and offers to reinstate the Faith Militant so the Faith can protect itself, then essentially gives him the authority to prosecute the nobility for sins that aren’t actually crimes and thus they wouldn’t be punished for. She hands over Loras immediately, and this is where the whole thing goes sideways.

See, in the books, the High Sparrow is worried about treason, not sexual sins. Nobody cares about Loras’ sexuality; Margaery and Cersei are arrested because Cersei tries to frame Margaery for having sex outside of her relationship with Tommen. When the Sparrow starts interrogating the people Cersei sets up, bribes, or otherwise manipulates into admitting to having sex with Margaery, he uncovers all of Cersei’s indiscretions, as well, including having the previous High Septon murdered. Ultimately, Margaery is released pending her trial due to insufficient evidence, while Cersei is forced to undergo the Walk of Shame before her trial by combat. Also, Cersei arming the Faith creates another faction that the nobility has to try to appease, lest they back yet another claimant to the throne just when they’ve nearly stabilized the realm. However, the sparrows/Poor Fellows/Faith Militant primarily care about the treatment of the smallfolk and the priesthood during the skirmishes in the Riverlands, not about the vices of the people of King’s Landing. Benioff and Weiss have turned them from a group with legitimate concerns to a brutal, intolerant, stereotypically religious Inquisition.

These newly-armed Sparrows immediately take to the streets, breaking ale barrels, smashing idols, busting into Littlefinger’s brothel and beating up the clients and prostitutes. Olyvar takes an elbow to the face, and two clients are called “boy fuckers” and then murdered outright. Lancel, whose branding with the seven-pointed star on his forehead has been intercut throughout these scenes, takes a group of sparrows to arrest Loras, somehow managing to grab one of the best fighters in the realm, armed with a sparring sword and in practice armor, with hardly any fight.

Margaery goes straight to Tommen, who goes straight to Cersei, who denies having any power to release Loras, which takes the wind out of Tommen’s sails for a moment. Then he goes to the Sept and tries to see the High Sparrow, but the sparrows refuse him entry. With no way to get in short of having the Kingsguard slaughter everyone in their way, he backs off. Margaery clearly wishes he’d do just that, and leaves to tell Olenna what’s happening.

In the commentary, Natalie Dormer is asked about the age difference in shooting the sex scenes with Tommen, which is clearly one of her push-button issues. She points out that a) nobody seems to bat an eye at older man/younger woman pairings (depends on the show/context, really); b) Dean-Charles Chapman is of age, so there wasn’t anything inappropriate happening on set; and c) she didn’t cast herself or write the story, so people with an issue should take it up with Benioff and Weiss. She has a point; it’s not really fair for people to keep asking her about narrative choices, because that’s not up to her. The issue I did take with her remarks was that they were trying to stay respectful to “the books, and to George’s original story,” because clearly, if she thinks Margaery’s relationship with Tommen in the show has anything to do with Martin’s original story, she hasn’t read the books. So many of the actors keep saying that they’re staying true to Martin’s vision and clearly they know nothing.

Meanwhile, Jorah is hauling Tyrion back to Meereen, which Tyrion finds hilarious because he was headed that way anyway and all Jorah had to do was ask nicely.

Up on the Wall, we’re getting all kinds of heavy-handed foreshadowing of Shireen’s ultimate fate. Melisandre and Selyse exchange significant looks regarding Shireen’s bloodline, and we all know what Melisandre does to those of king’s blood. Shireen spends some time with Stannis and they have father-daughter bonding time, which is a huge red flag because this show doesn’t give us nice things without yanking them out from under us in the worst possible way.

Then Melisandre tries to get Jon on board with Stannis’ plan; Jon continues to say no. So Melisandre deploys the nuclear option—she pops her dress open and sits on his lap, headed into full-blown sexual assault to try to get him to give her another shadow baby. She puts his hand on her boob and tries to undo his pants while he continues to say no and finally has to physically stop her. On her way out, the writers toss us a book line completely out of context—“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Melisandre does say this to Jon in the books, but after he’s rejected her prophecies and warnings about the upcoming attempt on his life, not her sexual advances. It’s supposed to prove that she’s got some magical abilities because how else could she know what Ygritte used to say to him all the time? It’s also a sideways reminder that winter is coming, and/or a continued warning about death, because it comes in response to him saying that it’s always cold on the Wall when she tells him she’s seen ice and cold and frozen blood in her visions. The cold that’s to come—of the White Walkers or of death—is worse than what he’s familiar with from the Wall. With all the context stripped out, all this does is give her a slightly mysterious air and remind him of Ygritte.

In Winterfell, Sansa’s visiting the family crypt, and Petyr tells her a bit about Rhaegar and Lyanna’s love story. He then tells her that he’s leaving to go keep Cersei off-balance regarding his true plans and she’ll be fine with the Boltons, really. After all, Stannis is going to come in and sack Winterfell and put her up as Wardeness (ugh) of the North. And if he doesn’t, then Sansa can totally just seduce Ramsay to keep him under control. Easy-peasy.

Over in Meereen, Barristan and Dany have a nice moment where he tells her about Rhaegar going out and busking on street corners, then giving the money he earned to the poor. Hizdahr requests an audience, so Dany sends Barristan out, and Hizdahr’s plea to reopen the fighting pits is intercut with Sons of the Harpy moving through the catacombs. They start randomly slaughtering people in the marketplace, which brings in an Unsullied patrol, including Grey Worm. The same prostitute who killed White Rat points the patrol into an alley, where they’re slaughtered. Barristan hears the fighting and comes in swinging; Grey Worm takes a dagger to the ribs, while Barristan is hamstrung and then takes a dagger to the chest.

This is the point where, in my first viewing, I started to really turn off of the show. Killing Barristan was a marker, to me, that they cared very little for the needs of an adaptation, because Barristan has a major part to play in A Dance with Dragons and (at least the sample chapters of) The Winds of Winter. I probably should have gotten there before; I remember not being thrilled with Sansa’s story, but I honestly don’t remember watching the Dorne plot on my first viewing. Barristan’s death is really where my entire desire to watch this show at all took a sharp downward turn. On the commentary, they mention that there was some discussion of sticking closer to the books, but they wanted to up the stakes with regard to Dany’s narrative trajectory by taking away all of her advisors.

The thing is, the books already had this mechanic in place, and they wrote every single bit of it out. Dany is surrounded by people she isn’t sure she can trust; her Meereenese advisors clearly all have ulterior motives, she’s been warned to beware the “perfumed seneschal,” she found out about Jorah’s betrayal and kicked him out, she’s got at least one more betrayal of the “once for blood and once for gold and once for love” coming, and the Sons of the Harpy keep murdering people. There’s plenty for her to drown in and struggle with that doesn’t involve adding more major character deaths to the tally. This is just another symptom of the severely watered-down, oversimplified attempt to adapt the books as a whole and Slavers Bay in particular. In avoiding prophecy to keep from being held to a narrative trajectory (which was one of the first major warning bells about the fate of this adaptation), Benioff and Weiss have sucked a lot of the spirit and magic out of the show. Half of Melisandre’s power is gone, leaving her with the shadow-baby thing and heavy-handed seduction techniques. Half of the tension of Slavers Bay is gone, and taking out the politics, as has been discussed several times already, takes out another quarter, leaving the show with a very visually pretty lump of blah. For me, and for a lot of the fans, figuring out how all the pieces fit together, how Martin set up the pieces without us noticing the first time around, and trying to work out where the books might go from here, is half the fun of reading them. The show has none of that. The show is entirely face-value flat, with very little intrigue (it lost all of that by season two) and really bad politics.

Next week: Daenerys loses her mind. Aemon advises Jon. Everything at Winterfell is awkward. The Baratheons ride out.

Barristan Selmy
Pentoshi captain
A bunch of Unsullied
A bunch of Sons of the Harpy

Images from

1 comment:

  1. You know, I'm lucky in that I've gotten to read as much of your stuff as I have. Seeing how it all fits together is welcome.

    Folks, when Shiloh's book and article come out, y'all need to read them.