Monday, August 7, 2017

Game of Thrones Watch 7.1: "Dragonstone"

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

7.1 “Dragonstone”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Jeremy Podeswa

Here we are, so far past the text of the books, even the sample chapters, that they’re barely making any kind of impression on the show (not that they’ve been doing that much for the last season, maybe two). While the episode as a whole actually wasn’t . . . terrible? (I know!), there are some lingering and/or repeated issues from previous seasons that continue to pull down the quality of the storytelling.

The majority of the episode is a catching-up, where-are-they-now that does some really weird stuff to the timeline. How long has it been between seasons? Arya-as-Walder says it’s been two weeks since the last feast (when she killed Walder), but Dany has managed to sail all the way from Meereen (a trip that, in the books, takes several months and in the show so far can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of minutes, depending), Euron’s built several thousand ships, Sam’s been in training for what looks like several weeks, and Jon is just now getting started on ruling. So the only solid piece of timing we have is that two-weeks remark, but the rest of everything that’s happening looks like it’s anywhere from a day to two months later (with Euron as an outlier, because frankly that should have taken years). Now, the showrunners have repeatedly said that they’re not trying for consistency in the timing because that would mean some people’s scenes would be just traveling for half a season, but now that everyone’s on the same continent, shouldn’t we maybe settle on some kind of synchronicity?

The portrayal of the women also continues to be an issue. Arya murders the entire male Frey population, which, okay, vengeance. I think the little smile she has when she leaves the hall is meant to echo Sansa’s little smile after killing Ramsay, and that’s concerning. While Arya sees it as her duty to avenge family and friends by killing everyone who’s harmed them, I don’t get the sense from the books that she enjoys killing. She enjoys the setting-up, she enjoys a plan well-executed, but not necessarily the killing itself. While I can almost work with the idea that women need to become violent in order to survive in a violent world, the idea that every woman who does so enjoys doing so is disturbing and further reinforces the celebration of toxic masculinity we’ve seen in the show so far.

Similarly, Brienne is “training” Pod, and said training consists of him swinging at her and missing and her smacking him, knocking him down, and yelling “no,” while smirking at his ineptitude. We established in season one with Alliser’s training versus Jon’s training that this is not the way to teach people to fight. So why is one of our heroes doing it that way without being called on it? Why is humiliating Pod something Brienne finds so hilariously enjoyable? Not only that, but when he takes the opportunity to actually hit her when she’s distracted by Tormund, she gets angry and punches him. This prompts Tormund to tell Pod he’s a “lucky man” because being punched is foreplay for Tormund. (We apparently narrowly escaped Tormund telling Brienne about his sexual escapades with a bear. Darn.)

Over in King’s Landing, we have Cersei, who’s never exactly been a women’s libber, detailing the armies that surround them: in Dorne, Ellaria Sand “and her brood of bitches,” in Highgarden, “Olenna, the old cunt,” in the North, Jon and “that murdering whore Sansa.” Since Cersei’s never met Daenerys personally, it’s Tyrion who gets her ire on that front. Now, this perfectly fits Cersei’s character. She’s internalized the misogyny of Westeros to the point that she doesn’t think women are fit to rule—other women. Not her. She’s not like other women, you see. So her gendered invectives against the other “women on top” are perfectly consistent with her character. However, when every other woman is also buying into the patriarchy and following the rules of toxic masculinity, it makes her not that much of an outlier, but instead just another example of how sexist this show really is.

Just in case we needed a reminder that women are useless unless they’re willing to act like men, we have Lyanna Mormont declaring that she’s not going to “sit by the fire and knit” if the White Walkers show up. Because remember that “women’s work,” regardless of its function, is ultimately useless and silly. I mean, it’s not like knitting could produce socks and sweaters that could keep the fighters warm in the coming winter. Once again, the writers overlook the fact that work coded “female” is incredibly important to the continued functioning of society.

Meanwhile, it’s not like the men are doing a great job, either. Jon’s turning out to be a terrible leader, you guys. He introduces the idea that everyone will be trained to fight—boys and girls—which Lord Glover isn’t too keen on but causes Lyanna’s above outburst. He sends Tormund and the rest of the wildlings to man Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, completely ignoring the fact that he isn’t Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch anymore and therefore doesn’t have the authority to do any such thing. He puts Alys Karstark (hey, there she is! Entirely too young and not marrying a Thenn, but she exists!) and Ned Umber in charge of their respective family homes—the two castles closest to the Wall on the eastern front. Two children, from families that betrayed the Starks and served the Boltons. He puts the two most important castles, which barely have garrisons left and will need some serious leadership to prepare for war, in the hands of two kids not more than thirteen and nine years old. Not only that, but the kids are able to swear on their swords because for some reason, family members of men who turned traitor are allowed to bring weapons into the presence of the King in the North. The security here is a joke. He also manages to get into an argument with Sansa in front of everyone because she disagrees with returning control of Karhold and Last Hearth to the families that have proven disloyal.

Later, he tells her she needs to stop undercutting him in public, but it’s clear that he didn’t discuss this decision with anyone beforehand, so when was she supposed to disagree with him? And yet she assures him that he’s doing a great job; he just needs to be smarter than Ned and Robb, who made mistakes that got them killed (kind of a harsh verdict for Ned; fair-ish for Robb).

So, let’s look at Jon’s track record as a leader:

  • As Commander of the Night’s Watch, he failed to convince them that his ideas were valid and ended up murdered
  • Failed to convince Lyanna Mormont to back him against the Boltons; Davos did that
  • Failed to convince Lord Glover to back him against the Boltons
  • Refused to listen to Sansa regarding Ramsay
  • Refused to listen to Sansa regarding needing more men and possibly approaching more of the northern lords and/or waiting for backup
  • Nearly lost the battle for Winterfell; Sansa’s Vale army saved him
  • Named King in the North because Lyanna says he should be
  • Failed to convince the men that they should train their daughters to fight; again, Lyanna does that
  • Failed to solicit or accept advice from anyone (let alone Sansa) before meeting with his lords

So, no, Sansa, he’s not a good leader. He gets one or two loyalists who end up doing the work of leading for him. Not in a delegate-y way, either, but in a “this isn’t working so I’ll step in and yell about it until y’all agree with what Jon just said” way. There is absolutely no reason, either by strength of his name or strength of his leadership skills, that Jon should be King in the North.

Another weakness this episode has is in not explaining how people have some of the information they have. Arya knows details of the Red Wedding that it doesn’t quite make sense for her to have, even with two weeks masquerading as Walder Frey. Cersei knows that Tyrion’s been named Hand of the Queen despite Varys not reporting to her anymore (and I doubt Qyburn has the same contacts in Essos that Varys did, even if he has taken over the little birds). Daenerys somehow knows that Dragonstone has been completely abandoned and she won’t have to fight for it.

There are other unexplained details, as well. Why did Stannis, who’s supposed to be a military genius to rival Tywin, leave Dragonstone completely unmanned? Since he did, why did nobody else take it, particularly the Lannisters? Jaime points out how strategically important it is in this episode and yet they’ve let it sit empty for at least six months without putting a garrison of their own in there or giving it to a loyal Lannister bannerman. No wonder they have no allies. Why are books of history locked up in the Citadel’s restricted section? Who cares if the trainees learn about the history of the Long Night and where some dragonglass is located (on Dragonstone, surprise surprise, because Stannis told Sam it was there but for some reason he didn’t remember or didn’t believe him)? Why does a completely random Lannister soldier apparently compose “Hands of Gold,” a song written (in the books) by a minstrel aware of Tyrion’s relationship with Shae and used to blackmail Tyrion (only for said minstrel to end up murdered and presumably added to the mystery meat in Flea Bottom’s cookpots)? How does Sandor Clegane manage to see anything in the fire? Can any random person in the presence of a Red Priest/ess just see fire-visions now, regardless of their level of belief in R’hllor?

One other question I had throughout was, why is everyone wearing black? (And, more specifically, what in the world is Euron Greyjoy wearing?) Black has very specific symbolism and connotations, and they’re clearly not being used consistently in this episode. Is it for mourning? Then Cersei’s black makes sense, but Dany-and-company’s doesn’t, Euron’s doesn’t, and the entire Northern contingent’s doesn’t. Is it for evil? Then again, Cersei’s and Euron’s make sense, but nobody else’s does. Is it just to show how Serious™ everything has gotten? That’s way too meta of a reason for me to accept; there needs to be an in-show reason for it, and there doesn’t seem to be. That’s not even getting into the fact that there’s an entire faction in this show known for wearing black—the Night’s Watch—that would add another layer of in-universe symbolism to it, and nobody seems to care that “taking the Black” is a thing. I could almost see clear to giving the North a pass on this, cause maybe Jon’s just so comfortable in black that he doesn’t get out of it after leaving the Night’s Watch and everyone else imitates him, but that again doesn’t explain everyone else wearing black.

Whoops, did I say this episode wasn’t terrible and then proceed to point out lots of systemic problems? I must be grading on a curve. But seriously, there were several scenes that, standing alone, were actually really good.

Sandor with the Brotherhood in the Riverlands was poignant and an example of the kind of character development I’d like to see more of. He recognizes that he was an awful person and made a mistake in his treatment of the farmer whose homestead they use as a camp. He sees that his actions have consequences and feels bad about those consequences without the narrative or other characters laughing at him about it. He even gets a stint as a gravedigger when he buries their bodies, which is a nice callout to his book role in A Feast for Crows, which they completely skipped over in the show. It’s richly ironic that he’s fallen in with a group that worships fire (and there’s a very very brief passing acknowledgement of that irony), and I’d love to see that explored in more detail. He’s finally having some character moments that don’t require him to hit things (though he does still have a mouth on him). More of this, please.

Despite its flaws (convenient knowledge-having and Cersei’s outfit), the map scene with Jaime and Cersei is generally well-done. It sets up the conflicts for the season—everyone vs the Lannisters—establishes where Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is right now, and gives Cersei a moment to explain why she’s refusing to really process Tommen’s death (it’s a selfish reason, but very believably Cersei). Sure, they’re stomping all over a painstakingly-detailed, still-in-progress painting of Westeros on the floor, but when has consideration for the labor of others ever been a Lannister trait?

But then. Here come the Ironborn, and Cersei is aware that Euron’s going to want to marry her. It’s a given for an alliance of this size. Euron, who is still a pale shadow of his book antecedent and more laughable than frightening, whines about his niece and nephew running off with the entire fleet, but he’s managed to build a new one in mumble mumble amount of time, so whatever. His alliance proposal is similar to Yara’s with Dany; he wants to rule the Iron Islands independently of the Seven Kingdoms, and in return he’ll help her take the rest of the Kingdoms. He wants to marry Cersei, of course, as was established in the last scene, but Cersei turns him down. Instead of reacting in any way sensibly, he promises her a gift to woo her and leaves to go find said gift.

Then there’s the now-notorious Ed Sheeran scene. (For the record, I hate “Shape of You.” Hate. It.) There have been other musical-artist cameos on Game of Thrones before. Not once have they ever zoomed in on said artist’s face. This whole scene felt very much like it was written for Ed Sheeran to show up, not for any good plot- or character-development reason. It doesn’t help that his appearance in the show was hyped all to heck before the season aired, so there was no chance of treating him like just another character. This was the Ed Sheeran Cameo™ and there was no disguising it as anything else. And, again, it makes zero sense for him to be singing a “new” song called “Hands of Gold.”

Speaking of unnecessary scenes, Sam’s montage of shit-soup-books was just overly. We get it; training isn’t what he expected. That scene could have been half as long with zero as many close-ups of human poop. Heck, that scene could have not existed, because the scene with Archmaester Ebrose does the work of showing that maestering isn’t all Sam expected it to be and he’s not doing the duty he feels he owes Jon (finding ways to fight the White Walkers). Also, why does he need to reshelve books that are supposed to be chained to the shelves? Also also, you know why they’re chained to the shelves and/or locked up? To keep people like Sam from running off with them, that’s why. You had one job, Citadel librarians!

Finally, there’s the Dragonstone scene. On a surface level, it’s a lovely scene: Dany’s finally home. She’s getting to walk through the keep her family held for thousands of years, the keep where she was born. She’s finally in Westeros (marginally) and about to unleash all hell on the Lannisters. But there’s some emotional stuff here they’re reaching for that I don’t feel was quite earned, and that’s partially a side-effect of everything being so external; Dany’s feelings about “home” are conflicted in the books, and we don’t get much of that in the show. When she tells Viserys she wants to go home in the first book/season, she means the house with the red door where Ser Willem Darry took care of them for a chunk of her childhood. She doesn’t remember Westeros, let alone Dragonstone. She doesn’t have the emotional connection to the place, just the sense that she needs to take it back because it’s her birthright. So this very standard homecoming scene, with the touching the ground and the walking through the keep, doesn’t quite match the emotional timbre of what’s already been set up in the show or the books. Show-Dany’s sense of “home” has always been connected to her family—Viserys, Rhaegar, Aerys—instead of a place. Not to mention that everyone keeps stopping to let her explore rooms so there’s this weird stop-start-stop-start that makes sense the first time (let Dany go first and experience this alone) but after that just gets distracting.

It’s definitely not the worst season premiere Game of Thrones has ever had, and it starts us off with a definite sense of building momentum that will hopefully catapult us through the next two seasons. Also, no nudity!

RIP: House Frey

Next week: Nymeria! Hot Pie! Sand Snake snark! More random character-culling!

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