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Acedia Revisited: GOT, The 100, and the Spring Slaughter

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Spring of 2016 has not been kind to television viewers. Between The 100, Game of Thrones, and the numerous deaths of LGBT women (dubbed the Spring Slaughter), we have a mountain of dead bodies to bury. Almost 90 named characters are dead, many of them minorities, children, and other vulnerable characters. The general atmosphere in many fandoms I’m a part of is one of exhaustion tinged with boredom. In other words, acedia.

A Brief Recap: What is Acedia?

In my previous essay, I mention that acedia is malaise generated when life seems to stretch out ahead with nothing to break the monotony of repetition. In society, the bombardment of global and local violence can lead one to feel that nothing matters beyond one’s personal sphere of influence. If it doesn’t affect me, it isn’t important enough to care about. This stems from overstimulation; there is simply too much to care about. Rather than exhaust ourselves, our very souls seem to shut down. We can’t care about everything, so it’s better to care about nothing, or only those things that affect “me”.

A similar numbing effect takes place when there is too much violence within a particular narrative, all delivered in the same tone. Call it darkness induced apathy if you will; I call it narrative acedia1. The Westeros of David Benioff and David Weiss and their team (henceforth ‘D&D’) is a Grimdark place, full of violence and brutality with little hope or light in it to break through the heavy doom clouds that ever hang on the horizon. This thick cloud of monotonous hopelessness seems to seep into the audience itself, making it difficult to invest or care in the story because it will never change for the better.

Also literally dark. Like, the sun never shines here.

The building up of characters only to hurt or kill them and inflict maximum pain on the audience, I labeled narrative sadism. D&D have created a world that on the one hand dulls the emotional impact of the atrocities they depict, and punishes you for caring on the other. And all of this was something I wrote before season 6 aired. As season 6 has progressed, these issues have only gotten worse.

The Spread of Narrative Acedia

But Game of Thrones is not alone in this particular combination of narrative acedia and sadism. I watched it play out on The 100. This season had more onscreen deaths of primary and secondary characters than every other season combined. The shoddy attempt at humanizing Charles Pike only to kill him off in the season finale smacks of narrative sadism, as does the poor retcon that was the ALIE (anti-) climax. Like D&D, Rothenberg attempted to manipulate the audience into feeling positive emotions about two characters (Pike and ALIE), only to kill them off soon afterward.

The Grounders as savage as the Mereenese!

The transformation of the Grounders from a complex, nuanced society that is more than just violence personified (season 2) into the caricature of brutal savages they became at the end of this season has the same impact. The audience invested in the Grounders as human beings only to be punished for caring about them. The two most prominent Grounder characters were killed on screen (Lexa and Lincoln) and a third tortured off screen (Indra).

The body count for both shows this past season is quite high (46+ for Game of Thrones, 24 for The 100). The season 6 Game of Thrones finale alone had 11 named character deaths; how do you even begin to process that much death in the span of an hour? How are any of those deaths supposed to be meaningful, dramatic, or moving when there are just so godddamn many?

A high body count wasn’t enough. Both shows gave us deaths that I call visually gratuitous. Take Lincoln and Rickon. While these two characters could not be more different from each other, the way their deaths were filmed struck me as similar. Both were given a prolonged death sequence that added little tension to the narrative. Lingering shots of the death and dead bodies contrast sharply with the lack of screen time given each of them this season while they were alive. It felt as if both of them were brought back into the narrative only to die brutally and lingeringly on screen.

He deserved better. RIP Lincoln.

As with Shireen, both Lincoln and Rickon’s deaths were deemed acceptable to show in this way despite the problematic implications. Lincoln was a black male, wrongfully imprisoned, chained, and forced to kneel in the mud. He was then shot execution style by another black male as the camera caressed his dead and broken body. While his killer looks on taunting, Rickon, a child of 11, ran for his life as arrows flew at him for over a minute. The chase ended with him shot in the back and the camera zooming in on his face as he bled out.

The way a death is filmed says as much as the death itself. With Lincoln, the prolonged death scene is humiliating. It is done to degrade his character as much as possible. The proud, skilled Grounder warrior the audience has grown to love dies chained amidst the mud and muck rather than on a battlefield. Rickon isn’t even given that much; his prolonged death is more about Jon than it is about Rickon, just as Shireen’s burning was more about Stannis, Selyse, Melisandre, and Davos. Long death scenes of children are used as a plot device to spur other characters into action.

But death is not meaningful just by existing. Nonsensical or pointless deaths do not have emotional resonance when there is so much violence already present in the story. Lincoln’s humiliating death moves the audience to anger at the writers for such a disservice to his character (and the actor). It actually takes the audience outside of the narrative instead of investing them in it. Likewise, Rickon and Shireen’s pointlessly prolonged death to service the main characters does not Shock™, it numbs.

The randomness of death cannot reinforce the fragility of life when shows like these are already steeped in death and brutality. Rickon, Tommen, Margaery, Loras, the Waif, Lady Crane—they’re just more bodies. By this point in Game of Thrones, the audience has already become inured to violence. More nonsensical deaths are apt to lead to more apathy (or straight to mockery of the poor writing that gave us the death) rather than existential questioning of the meaning or beauty of life.

When the random death occurs to a highly valued minority character like Lexa or Lincoln, the backlash has been rightly directed against the writers for their poor handling of sensitive issues. In that, the The 100 fandom has yet to be lulled into narrative acedia as fully as certain subsets of the Game of Thrones fandom has.

The reaction of LGBT fans over Lexa’s death reminds us that the violent death of children ought to raise outrage as well. But it seems children dying on Game of Thrones is just par for the course. Within only six seasons Game of Thrones has managed to inure its audience to violence to the point that a baby eaten alive by dogs raises not even a murmur of discontent.

“Feminism.”

Instead, Game of Thrones has been lauded this season as a feminist masterpiece for its avoidance of violence against women (an issue Kylie tackled yesterday). Fewer female bodies were violated on screen, yet it has merely replaced violence against women with violence against children and the disabled (i.e., Hodor). Hodor’s sacrifice is called Noble™ and Meaningful™, but is it? It might be noble to die protecting one’s friends, but since the wights catch up to Bran and Meera in the end, it’s everything but meaningful. The origins of a disabled man’s injury is treated as a Shocking Twist™ rather than with delicacy, and his death—like that of Shireen and Lincoln—amounts to nothing more than a plot point.

In a way, it’s not all that different from the overwhelming violence against minorities on The 100. Game of Thrones has not singled out women, people of color, and LGBT characters the way The 100 has, though there are characters that fit that description who have died on GoT this season (e.g. Loras, Doran, Hotah, Trystane, Walda, the Dothraki, and Margaery). What is true of both of these shows is that it is the most vulnerable people who are dying left and right. So much for ‘anyone can die’.

Acedia and Revenge

Whether it be Emerson’s quest for vengeance for Mt. Weather, Bellamy’s revenge-fueled massacre of hundreds of Grounders, Cersei’s desire for revenge against the patriarchy, Brienne’s revenge for Renly, or Sansa’s brutal revenge against Ramsay, we have not lacked for revenge driven plots this spring. It’s the Brave™ story to tell right now, apparently. But what does revenge have to do with acedia, you ask? Like violence, the more we see revenge on our screens, the more the audience is inured to it and the more it loses its storytelling power.

I’m not denying that revenge can be cathartic. There is something truly satisfying as a viewer when you see the villain get their comeuppance. When done well and in small doses, revenge can be a powerful emotional experience for the viewer. Who didn’t cheer when Inigo Montoya finally kills the man who murdered his father? I unabashedly love Gladiator and when Commodus finally dies at Maximus’ hand at the end? I feel the rush as much as anyone.

SO satisfying.

Even revenge against one’s rapist can be cathartic, just watch Jessica Jones. But when literally every single character’s motivation is revenge, it loses all narrative power to compel the audience to feel catharsis. Spending so much time on Ramsay’s own brutality in episodes 5-6 does not automatically make his death more cathartic, especially when the writers have attempted to humanize him via his troubled relationship with his father. His death is just more senseless brutality, more audience induced apathy from overexposure to revenge filled violence. The audience can no more feasibly care about everyone’s revenge than it can care about everyone’s death.

Revenge need not mean violence either. Revenge can be losing one’s station, friends, or wealth. Revenge can be mental or emotional suffering rather than physical pain and death. Justice, even a just death, can even be it’s own form of revenge. That revenge means brutal violence and suffering for writers like D&D and Jason Rothenberg is telling.

And what is the message of revenge-driven violence? Ramsay Bolton, a psychopath, enjoyed watching his stepmother and baby brother eaten alive by his dogs. This is undeniably Wrong. Ramsay is a villain after all. When Sansa Stark gets revenge by feeding him to his own dogs, we are supposed to cheer her on. But why? Objectively, she’s done the very thing that he has done. The act itself is no different, only the person performing it.

The message, then, is that brutality is acceptable as long as the ‘right’ person is doing it for the ‘right’ reasons, namely, a protagonist doing it for revenge. It’s remarkably akin to what we saw in The 100 this season. ALIE using violence to negate people’s choice is wrong, but Clarke doing it is okay since she’s trying to save everyone. Only ALIE was trying to do that too, so…who is in the wrong here? Lexa betraying her agreement with Skaikru to save her people is wrong, but Bellamy betraying the cease-fire with the Grounders to mass murder them is okay because he was angry and hurt.

I am uncomfortable with the implication that using a living human being as dog food is acceptable so long as one does it for the ‘right reasons’. This kind of moral relativism—where a protagonist committing an atrocity is Right but an antagonist committing the same atrocity is Wrong—is the result of poor writing. They simultaneously want a moral framework that determines Good Guys from Bad Guys but are unwilling to commit to the necessary implication that actions are also moral or immoral. Instead, The Right Thing To Do™ amounts to whatever the hero decides to do.

This isn’t to say that Martin’s books are not morally grey, they are. Jaime seems to genuinely love Cersei in the books. His relationship with Cersei is also all kinds of fucked up for both of them. Arya’s journey from frightened, angry girl to emotionless killer is meant to make us uncomfortable even as it fulfills a desire to see the Stark family avenged for its losses.

Very few of Martin’s characters (including the protagonists) are entirely black or white. At the same time, there are morally objectionable actions regardless of who is committing them. Gregor Clegane rapes an innkeeper’s daughter then gives her to his men. This is wrong. Tyrion rapes a sex slave. Tyrion’s rape of the slave is not magically made acceptable because Tyrion, one of the protagonists, is doing it. It’s still morally wrong.

Compare this to what D&D do with Sansa killing Ramsay. Her act of revenge is not condemned by the narrative, it is praised. This is the culmination of her empowerment arc for the past season and a half. It is not an attempt at moral ambiguity or a ‘turn to the dark side.’ It’s the opposite. By feeding her rapists to his own dogs and enjoying it, Sansa has proved herself to be a “woman on top” who is now worthy to play the game of thrones.

Another ‘woman on top’ who got there by killing a man.

The only difference between protagonists and villains, then, is that the narrative tells us whose actions are acceptable. We cheer for Sansa because the narrative tells us she’s a Good Guy and Ramsay a Bad Guy the same way we accept Clarke’s actions but not ALIE’s. Violence itself is not wrong or problematic, it’s the person doing it. This attitude contributes to acedia. When violence begets more violence without differentiation, moral relativism feels more like perversity.

Acedia and the Spring Slaughter

Everyone who comes to Fandom Following is undoubtedly familiar with the repeated deaths of LGBT women that has marked the spring of 2016, a.k.a. the Spring Slaughter. In span of 7 months, no less than 19 LGBT women have died onscreen(Spoilers): Zora (The Shannara Chronicles), Rose (Jane the Virgin), Carla (Code Black), Julie Mao (The Expanse), Ash (Janet King), Lexa (The 100), Kira (The Magicians), Denise (The Walking Dead), Nora and Mary Louise (The Vampire Diaries), Mimi Whiteman (Empire), Camilla (Empire), Cara Thomas (Marcella), Pamela Clayborne (Saints & Sinners), Felicity (The Catch), Bridey (The Familiy), Mayfair (Blindspot), Root (Person of Interest), and Poussey Washington (Orange is the New Black).

On top of the death of these women you have queerbaiting. The LGBT community is desperate for representation given the dearth of LGBT female characters on television. GLAAD reported 4% of regular characters on primetime television identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Producers use this lack of representation to garner viewers by teasing a LGBT romance that they may or may not follow through on. Jason Rothenberg’s manipulation of the LGBT fandom is a particularly egregious use of queerbaiting that ultimately ended in Lexa’s death.

Not that Game of Thrones has handled female LGBT issues well either. Sansa and Margaery were used for queerbating purposes in seasons 3-4, as were Dany/Yara this season. While Dany/Yara might look empowered because the wlw fandom lacks representation, how empowered can it really be when your current f/f ship (and a queerbait-y one at that) is made up of a woman who verbally abuses her brother out of his PTSD and another who is variously emotionless, brutal, and incompetent most of the time she’s on screen? Two savage women is not an empowered f/f storyline, especially when it is no more than queerbait. Is there anyone out there who believes that Dany/Yara is endgame or even that we’ll get a f/f sex scene?

What great ship-baiting potential rep.

Chances are, Yara will probably die, which will mean yet another dead lesbian on a show that killed off the only two canon gay characters (Loras and Renly) and a possibly/queerbaited bisexual woman (Margaery). They hyper-sexualized the canon bisexual characters (Oberyn and Ellaria), but neglected to include the actual canon f/f relationships and scenes (Cersei/Taena, Dany/Irri, and Lady Nym/the Fowler twins). The only f/f ships on Game of Thrones are non-canon and queerbait to boot. This is also the show where Brienne of Tarth must be a lesbian because she’s ‘manly’.

With the death of so many LGBT women, the blatant use of queerbaiting, and the under-representation of this minority group on TV, you would think that so much death would lead to the kind of violence induced malaise I’ve been discussing. It’s a reasonable reaction, to be honest. When you see so little of yourself on television, and most of it ends in death and tragedy, tuning out is not unreasonable. Only that isn’t what has happened.

Rather than apathy, the deaths of these women has sparked a revolution. Fueled by anger born out of underrepresentation and frustration with the Bury Your Gays trope , LGBT fans have donated money to the Trevor Project, funded the production of billboards decrying violence against LGBT characters, and started a con dedicated to LGBT women in media. While there is exhaustion because of so many dead female LGBT characters, there is also righteous indignation. Rather than Hypnos, the LGBT fandom has called upon Nike to come to their side and give them justice. They are tired of the injustice and violence, and they have turned it to productivity rather than malaise. They have steadfastly refused to go gentle into that good night.

Conclusion

In a world beset by acedia, it is easy to give into the numbing effects of violence coupled with consumerism and the distraction of busyness. There is too much in the world that presses us to care, and we can’t. So we watch shows that feed our acedia by numbing us further with Shock and Awe™ tactics, endless and meaningless deaths, and the brutalization of characters that belong to vulnerable and minority communities. These stories both numb us and punish us for caring. Is it small wonder then that so many fans are exhausted?

Yet there is light still. The Spring Slaughter has traumatized many young viewers, and it has mobilized them. They are a beacon of hope in this dark world, a refusal to give into acedia’s numbing lethargy. The Spring Slaughter has sparked a rebellion against the gross storytelling of LGBT characters in media. Though some might use it to guilt others for their lack of care, I choose to see it as a flagship of inspiration. We, the audience, need not accept violence with apathy. We can care, if we dare to, and we can use our anger to change media for the better. We need not slink back into our caves, we can rally our forces and face acedia head on. Narrative acedia need not be the end of the road, it can instead be a beginning.


Images courtesy of HBO and The CW.

1.Acedia as it is specifically discussed by the desert fathers of the Christian monastic tradition is individual, rather than societal. Norris discusses acedia as a societal failing in her book Acedia and Me, which I briefly discussed in my first essay. The kind of acedia I’m talking about here is linked to societal acedia, particularly the way that media inures us to violence and numbs us from caring due to oversaturation. It leads to an inability to emotionally invest in the characters or narrative and emotionally, a kind of malaise or boredom. I’d call it ‘media acedia’ but that seems a bit too rhyme-y to me, so I chose narrative acedia.

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Emily Andras, Wynonna Earp, and the Unkillable Queer – The RaconteurGrimdark and the Daemon Ex Machina – The RaconteurTurf Wars Touts Korrasami, For Better Or... - The FandomentalsGretchen EllisJoshua Hayashida Recent comment authors
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Joshua Hayashida
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Joshua Hayashida

This concept of acedia intrigues me. I’m curious if there’s anything you’ve attempted to do to limit the amount of information or consumption of these numbing things, and if you have if you’ve had any success with it. Personally, after researching more into acedia I find that it describes my personal tempermant better than depression, and I’m looking into ways to combat it.

Gretchen Ellis
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Thanks for your comment! Great question. One of the things I do is to limit the amount of media I consume with these themes, especially for personal ‘entertainment’. My only exception to that is reviewing a show, but even then I keep it to a minimum. I also try really hard to balance it out with intentionally hopeful and thoughful media. Shows like Steven Universe, for example. Or, right now I’m reading my way through the Star Wars comics. Acedia is also a major struggle of mine, and has been for years. I highly recommend reading Kathleen Norris’s “Acedia and… Read more »

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Analysis

Waiting for Katoh: Romancing the Iron Bull in Dragon Age

Angela D. Mitchell

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When it comes to romance and Dragon Age, The Iron Bull's in a league of his own.

Inquisitor: It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.
The Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.

Spoiler Warning for Dragon Age: Inquisition

NOTE—CONTENT AND POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes some respectful yet candid, open and potentially NSFW discussion of The Iron Bull’s DAI romance (and its BDSM elements). Please proceed with caution and full awareness.

Once upon a time, I’d been dreaming of romancing a prince in a videogame. Then I played Dragon Age: Inquisition and stumbled across The Iron Bull.

He was everything I hadn’t wanted. And he was perfect: funny, brilliant, sensual, and caring. I fell flat and (thinking I was on my way to an adorable Beauty and the Beast-style romance for Bull and my little blonde Inquisitor) instantly decided that he would be mine.

Pretty soon I began to realize, however, that this romance was not going to be as easy as I’d expected. Despite his purported availability and enthusiasm, Bull didn’t show much interest in my Inquisitor’s charms at all, and had instead spent dozens of hours in-game smilingly ignoring her efforts. Months, in game-time. Months. My poor Inquisitor was not a happy camper. (Please note that I’ll be generally referring to the Inquisitor as “she” throughout this piece since I’m discussing my own playthrough, but of course as Bull is pansexual, the Inky can be any gender preference the player chooses.)

At first, I hadn’t found Bull attractive—he was intimidating, this big, hulking guy who just wasn’t my type at all. But then, as I described, I started to realize what a fantastic and complex character he was, and soon I was gazing at Bull with glowy pink hearts in my eyes, just like pretty much everyone else in Thedas:

Cole: The Iron Bull, a woman in the last village wanted you to pick her up and take her clothes off.
Iron Bull: Most people do.
Cole: In her mind, you were very big.
Iron Bull: Well, that’s flattering.

But meanwhile, I wasn’t getting anywhere, and my poor Inquisitor’s flirts weren’t seeming to have any effect at all. Then, although I was trying to avoid spoilers, I saw a comment that eventually Bull would show up in the Inquisitor’s quarters when his approval was high enough. So (hilariously) in between flirts, my poor Inquisitor started running back up to her room to see if Bull would show up there. (Just in case you thought this couldn’t get anymore embarrassing…)

But my Inky kept flirting, determined to win Bull’s heart. And then he finally showed up in my Inquisitor’s quarters, and everything changed. And I basically fell out of my chair at the options he presented, because they were a hell of a lot more eyebrow-raising than “So, hey, I got you a rose.”

This was not at all the fairytale I thought I had been pursuing… but it was fantastic writing from Bull’s writer (fantasy novelist Patrick Weekes). And beautifully character-appropriate.

“Last Chance”

First off, the reality: when it comes to romance, Bull’s in a league of his own. I mean, let’s be honest—a few frilly words with Solas and Cullen and you’re making out on the rooftops.

But as I mentioned, Bull’s different. There’s no reaction at all. (I always picture him reacting with faint amusement, like, “Nice try, Boss…”) Until, one day, finally, there’s a reaction. The day arrives, when you’ve made so many overtures that Bull himself couldn’t fail to acknowledge the signals. Victory is yours, on the night Bull shows up in your quarters out of the blue, and he finally makes his move.

But he’s got a proposition for you. And it’s a doozy. He’s not just propositioning you for sex, he’s asking you to enter a world that may scare or intimidate you just a little.

And just like that, BDSM entered the world of mainstream gaming.

Bull’s got a proposition for you. And it’s a doozy.

Terms and Conditions

When Bull finally takes action, it’s fascinating, because from a character and story perspective, he’s risking everything on a very specific moment. If Dragon Age: Inquisition were an actual novel (and not the playable novel I believe it actually is), I’d be fascinated to know exactly what caused Bull to go, “Okay. It’s time.” Was there a specific flirtatious moment? Or was there an outside cause? It would be interesting, for instance, to headcanon a message from the Qun, or even a proactive decision when he recognizes interest in the Inquisitor from a potential rival.

Either way, Bull shows up, and makes his play. If he succeeds, everything’s changed. If he fails, it would be interesting to wonder what his backup strategy might be… if he’s Qun-loyal, does he then coldly seek out Dorian, for instance? Or is he content to continue to prove himself simply as a captain and companion?

But… on the other hand, this is Bull we’re talking about. He knows human nature like nobody else (humans, elves, dwarves, everyone, etc.). He reads signals and micro-signals. He understands how people are wired. Then he acts. And it’s interesting that when he does, he’s continuing his previous “playing it cool” approach—he’s still holding himself back a bit, a little removed and detached.

Most of all, he’s still playing games. Only this time, he wants you to play, too.

I mean, let’s face it, Bull could’ve taken my Inquisitor up on her flirtations, offered her a jolly night in the sack, and he’d have probably been pretty safe doing so. She would’ve been perfectly happy with this, too, on some level—we already know, from hearsay, that such nights with Bull are perfectly satisfying and that he certainly appears to make sure everyone goes home happy. But as with most situations for Bull, he’s thought this through, and he’s determined that there’s only one specific outcome that works.

And he’s quite aware that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps no other character’s romance is as careful about consent as Bull’s, and your character can say no to Bull’s flirtation with zero hard feelings on either side. Spy or not, secret agenda or not, he’s genial and kind in response:

Iron Bull: …I’m not sure you know what you’re asking.  Not sure if you’re ready for it. 

Inquisitor (refusing): You’re right. Flirting was fun, but it probably wouldn’t work out.

Iron Bull: Exactly. So don’t worry about it. Let’s just keep killing things. We’re really good at that. For what it’s worth, though… you would’ve been walking funny the next day. Anyway, nice talking with you. Have a good one.

I mean, Bull handles rejection like a champ here (and elsewhere, as our Inquisitor can turn him down here, break it off the morning after, or when their romance is discovered, among other occasions). I really like that he’s not kidding about there being zero repercussions or hard feelings.

An Object of Obsession

Meanwhile, let’s get back to motives for a moment. If Bull’s motive was simply to seduce the Inquisitor, he could’ve done this months ago (in-universe), couldn’t he? And if his goal was just sex, again, wasn’t this already within reach for him fairly quickly?

Instead, he’s still playing chess, still being strategic to shore up his position in the long game. From a character standpoint, my impression is that he’s willing to risk losing because he’s confident enough in his own skills, his own abilities at reading and understanding human nature, to do so.

My take here, in fact, is that he’s willing to gamble because if he’s right in his assessment here (whether Qun-loyal or Tal-Vashoth, depending on the outcome of “The Demands of the Qun“), Bull won’t just have the Inquisitor as a casual bedmate, he’ll be providing them with a relationship whose demands satisfy a need previously unrecognized within the Inquisitor herself, and in ways only he can satisfactorily meet. In short, he’s positioning himself fairly coldly to be the object of a sexual obsession. And he’ll gain a potential (and high-ranking) chesspiece in his play to both control or affect the Inquisition as well as for his potential return to the Qun as a power player despite his past sins (at least, as an option).

Which is where the BDSM aspect of Bull’s romantic proposition to the Inquisitor comes into the picture.

It shouldn’t be surprising that, in the bedroom, as elsewhere, Bull’s secretly all about power dynamics and exploiting those for his own benefit.

Bull is asking for that absolute trust, that willingness to be completely vulnerable… after he himself has already openly told us, at that point, numerous times, why he himself should not be trusted.

Waiting for Katoh

It’d be one thing for Bull to make his move as an uncomplicated typical romantic overture. Basically, the kind of scenario where he’d say, “Hey gorgeous, Bull here. If you’re agreeable, let’s finally hook up!”

It’s quite another for him to show up in your quarters unannounced (a great and subtle way to start the scenario with the Inquisitor off-balance), to say, “So… I’ve gotten the messages. I get what you want. And it’s tempting. So let me make you an offer in return: What if I promise to give you everything you want, plus that escape you crave, but only on my terms, and at the sacrifice of full control, in a scenario that demands your absolute trust? While, in addition, possibly changing your entire outlook on who you thought you were?”

Um… No big deal, right? The only problem is, Bull is asking for that absolute trust, that willingness to be completely vulnerable… after he himself has already openly told us, at that point, numerous times, why he himself should not be trusted. If we’re paying attention. So it’s a pretty fascinating and fraught situation from a story standpoint, and one that provides the potential for a surprising amount of tension and drama. And if he’s working an agenda, and we don’t gain his loyalty (in “Demands of the Qun”) the outcome of the story that begins here is truly heartbreaking at the conclusion of “Trespasser.” (People, save the Chargers. Just please, always save the Chargers.)

Meanwhile, no matter what Bull’s agenda here, as I mentioned, Bull makes his move with care, respect, and delicacy. He ensures consent—not once, not twice, but three separate times. The consent aspect is important and even somewhat poignant if you think about it, because Bull himself comes from a culture in which sexual consent, at least in the big-picture sense, is nonexistent. In life under the Qun and elements like the Qunari breeding programs, what or who you want personally doesn’t matter. The Qun is all about the collective good. Individuals either assimilate, do what they’re told (or who they’re told), or they die.

All of this is why, for me, Bull’s emphasis on consent here is a vital and very telling character note. (It’s also why criticisms of that consent scenario drive me batty, but more on that farther down.)

The issue of consent is doubly important in Bull’s scenario from a larger standpoint, I’d further argue, precisely because lack of consent has been such a troubling yet consistent aspect of other BDSM representations in popular entertainment, most notably, in stuff like 50 Shades of Grey. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read it, but in researching this, I became aware of the criticisms of the romance and its issues with consent and abuse.) The emphasis Dragon Age: Inquisition places on an empowered and consenting relationship is therefore, to me, culturally important and responsibly done.

We’re Definitely Not in Hyrule Anymore…

In a big-picture sense, seriously, all of this is pretty complex and surprising stuff for a videogame. Because it puts the player/protagonist into a situation in which they might very well react in any number of ways—with discomfort or outright disgust, with amusement or interest, or with enthusiasm and delighted approval, et cetera. (What’s interesting is that the Bioware team was evidently initially very concerned at the reactions from players and was subsequently pleasantly surprised when Bull’s romance was a non-issue for the vast majority.)

Keep in mind that, strategically (if it occurs before “Demands of the Qun”), Bull has everything to lose here in terms of the political coinage he’s acquired with the Inquisitor over his time with the Inquisition. Yet he’s willing to risk it, because he’s gambling as always on his proven ability to read other people. He’s basically saying, “Okay, I’ll give you what you want… but only on my terms… if you agree.” While pretty much already assuming he knows the choice they’ll make.

Right away, when he shows up in the Inquisitor’s chambers, Bull presents her with a series of choices. The short answer? He’s still making sure we’re chasing him (and his approval). It’s all so smart, and so much fun from a writing standpoint. Sure, he’s there, he’s willing… but there’s also that palpable sense that Bull’s also pretty uninvested in the outcome (at least by all appearances). He’s acknowledging the flirtations, but he’s also halfway out the door. It’s calm and deliberate—a far cry from Solas’s, Cass’s, or Blackwall’s passionate declarations of desire or love even against their better instincts, simply because they cannot help themselves. Instead, with Bull, it’s slightly cold, almost amused.

But either way, he makes his offer, and we can respond. And once the Inquisitor consents the third time (in an agreement that’s either more innocent and romantic or that’s more worldly and experienced), we end on a real smile from Bull, an embrace… and then a quick fade to black.

(Honestly, maybe that fade to black was perhaps a little too quick. I’m just sayin’…)

Power Plays

But we don’t jump to the next morning, as we might expect. Intriguingly, instead, we’re shown a moment when The Iron Bull is leaving the Inquisitor’s chambers, and he’s confronted by Leliana, who is stopping by to ask the Inquisitor for input on an Inquisition matter.

Bull’s response there is to tell her no, point-blank. He sends Leliana away—Leliana, our leader, spymaster, and warrior-nun. The person nobody says no to. And he does so with a shrug. It’s intriguing and textbook Bull: “Let her rest,” he says, coolly meeting the eyes of the most terrifying person in all of Skyhold. He’s at ease. He’s also amused, relaxed, and confident. And Leliana, visibly thoughtful about this unexpected development, departs without further comment. (And I love that she never, ever says a word about what she knows here. Nobody keeps secrets like our Nightingale.)

In an obvious sense, Bull’s just done some oddly positive things here. He’s—it’s certainly implied—provided the Inquisitor with the escape and release she needed. He’s also fended off potential interruptions and made sure she gets some much-needed rest.

And yet.

He’s also just made a major power move. He just told Leliana, in no uncertain terms, that he’s now a factor in the Inquisitor’s life. It can be taken as selfish (“I’m someone you need to take note of”) or unselfish (“I’m here to make sure you give her the space she needs”). Or a combination of the two.

For me, the headcanon read on this scene depends on what the outcome was to “The Demands of the Qun.” If we saved the Chargers, Bull has no more need to apply ulterior motives, and he’s simply doing what he’s best at—caregiving and protecting. If we chose to sacrifice the Chargers, however, Bull’s motives immediately get a lot murkier. (So much so that it’s going to have to be a whole separate blog post in the future.)

Meanwhile, my Inky got her night with Bull. And I’m assuming it was fabulous and delightful and probably earth-shattering on a number of levels. But she certainly had some questions the morning after (and so did I).

The best part is? He answers them.

Bull’s actually very approachable the next morning, if we choose to go ask him to talk with us about what happened the night before.

Warnings and Watchwords

It’s interesting that Bull’s seduction has a decidedly cool element, a visible detachment, yet he’s so much warmer and kinder the morning after. This could be an expected result of the intimacy of their previous night together. Or it may also simply indicate that he’s more confident and not feeling the need to hold himself at arms’ length anymore.

Regardless, Bull’s actually very approachable the next morning, if we choose to go ask him to talk with us about what happened the night before. He’s genial, friendly, and open—surprisingly so. (My favorite part of this early conversation is when we first try to talk to him about the previous night, Bull assumes we just want some therapeutic advice on physical comfort in the aftermath, responding cheerfully that, “I can show you some stretches…”.)

Then he realizes what the Inquisitor wants to talk about, they sit down together in her quarters, and just… talk. In an extended, smart, literate, and mature dialogue sequence about what they did, how the Inquisitor feels about it, what each wants, what he’s offering, the rules of engagement, what the boundaries are, and where those boundaries end. He also addresses, bluntly, the psychology behind his choices.

And here’s where it gets fascinating. He reveals to you at this point, fairly candidly, how he thinks you’re wired and what he thinks you need. He admits that he’s using his Ben-Hassrath training to intuit this stuff, but also that he’s using those powers for good:

Inquisitor: I’m still not sure how to react to the things we did.

Iron Bull: If you’re limping, I can show you a few stretches that’ll take care of it.

Inquisitor: That’s not what I meant.

Iron Bull (pausing): You don’t say. Found a part of yourself you didn’t know was there before…

The Inquisitor doesn’t answer.

Iron Bull (more gently): Ben-Hassrath training, remember? Grew up learning to manipulate people. When it’s a hostile target, you give them what they want. But when it’s someone you care about, you give them what they need.

Inquisitor: So if I agree, how does this… work?

Iron Bull: Outside this room, nothing changes. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Boss. I will never hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you are ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, you say “katoh” and it’s over. No questions asked.

Inquisitor (one of several minor varying options): It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.

Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.

My favorite part of this exchange is the way Bull is employing his usual talent for lying with the truth and hiding in plain sight.

Just as he told us he was a spy the moment we met, here he points out that his Ben-Hassrath training is enabling him to manipulate the Inquisitor, and that he is blatantly doing so. But he’s doing so (or so he implies) for good, not ill. For our benefit. And if we saved the Chargers in Bull’s personal loyalty quest (turning him into a true rebel by necessity—a Tal-Vashoth), this is true. If we sacrificed the Chargers and he remains loyal to the Qun, things here are, as mentioned, actually pretty dark. But more on that later.

Either way, what Bull doesn’t do, at any point, is compromise. Instead, Bull lays out the scenario for the two of you going forward. The crux of his approach: To put it somewhat demurely, Bull gets to drive. The Inquisitor will have to agree. He will not compromise, as noted in a further conversation and partial negotiation they may have later on (all of these dialogues were written with his usual eloquence and subtlety by Patrick Weekes, who wrote Bull, as well as Solas and Cole, in his Dragon Age: Inquisition appearance).

What You Need

The Inquisitor can then return to Bull for a third conversation, and this was my favorite of the three, because the writing allows the Inquisitor a variety of character options–they can ask a dozen questions, or they can commit right away. They can show confidence, or admit to vulnerability or insecurity for example, asking Bull if the BDSM is an aspect of any of his other relationships, for instance, with the serving girls or others Bull has bedded in the Inquisition. Bull’s answer there is simple: nope. Because that’s not what the serving girls needed. He’s wired to give people what he perceives they need, so each scenario for him is different and unique.

Bull further elaborates below (note that he starts out with a clear statement that he’s committed to you, absolutely, as of this moment—that there’s nobody else, until or unless you end things):

Iron Bull (speaking about his previous dalliances): I mean, I used to. Long as we’re doing this, you’ve got my complete attention.

Inquisitor: You told me that this is what I needed. What did you mean by that?

Iron Bull: You’re the Inquisitor. You didn’t ask for the job, but you’ve taken on the responsibility. You’ve got thousands of lives riding on your decisions. You bear that weight all day. You need a place where you can be safe, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit. 

Inquisitor: So if this is a conscious decision for you, could you do something else if I wanted you to?

Iron Bull: No. This is who we are. It’d be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way. If it doesn’t work for you, though, I understand. No hard feelings.

Inquisitor: What about what you need?

Iron Bull: Hey, I’m good. I am better than good. You don’t trouble yourself on that front. Old Iron Bull is just fine.

It’s interesting to me that Bull’s highest allegiance here is to what the Inquisitor needs. It’s the thing he’s most drawn to as a nurturer, spy or no spy, that ability to fulfill that, and it’s something he won’t compromise on. He even calls it out specifically, that “It would be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way.” He won’t do otherwise… even if it’s in his best interests politically. And, typical for Bull, he utterly discounts what he himself might need out of the relationship. (I find this weirdly moving, and would certainly of course headcanon that the Inquisitor is generous and attentive regardless of this statement—he deserves it.)

Either way, these conversations while certainly a bit edgy for the mainstream, really shouldn’t be. Speaking as something of a bumbling semi-human toon myself (when it comes to, like, non-pixellated romances), I found them intelligent, insightful, and respectful, and had no issues with Bull’s romantic narrative in any way. Besides, in service to the story, ultimately, to me it’s powerful, it’s emotional, and best of all, it’s also responsibly and affectionately set forth. It’s true to who these characters have been painted to be.

I definitely appreciate that there are (to me, at least) no issues regarding consent, physical or emotional danger, or of power abuse, unlike popular and often irresponsible representations of BDSM across much of entertainment media (cough, 50 Shades of Grey). Ultimately, as someone unfamiliar with that culture, my own reaction to the portrayal of Bull’s romance as a depiction of BDSM, after reading a fair amount of discussion (both pro and con), is that it has been handled here with real responsibility, as well as with sensitivity and a clear understanding of both the characters, the lifestyle, and of human nature by Weekes and the rest of the Dragon Age creative team. I think in that way that the romance storyline is a pretty significant milestone for inclusivity, and should be celebrated as such.

Not everyone will be into what Bull proposes, nor will they take him up on it once he sets the stage for what he wants to provide. And in those cases it’s then, luckily, quite easy to say “Nope,” and move on.

Responsible Representation

However, not everyone agrees with me. Beyond his romance with Dorian (which as I’ve noted, I don’t think was remotely abusive and will address in more detail in the future), there’s been some heated discussion about Bull and his relationship with the Inquisitor. So it was interesting to wade into that minefield. Some felt there were consent issues (which I cannot understand at all, given what we’re provided here), some had issues with his assumption that the Inquisitor is submissive, while still others felt that Bull’s “take it or leave it” approach to the relationship was somehow triggering.

Again, I don’t get any of these critiques or find them viable.

First off, Bull’s assumption that the Inquisitor is seeking a submissive role in the bedroom is an easy thing to address within the story—you can either headcanon that he’s right, or hey, you turn him down. It’s not difficult. Me, I thought it was a believable character note for a number of reasons. It spotlighted Bull’s insights into human nature in an unexpected way (and keep in mind, Bull is shown to be scarily accurate about reading people in this way); it provided a scenario in which our protagonist is actually challenged about their own perceptions of what they want in the bedroom (and how often does that happen in a game?); and it explored Bull’s caregiver tendencies in ways that were complex and even potentially disquieting… and yet lovely, too.

Because Bull’s immediately all in. If we agree, he’s 100% monogamous and focused only on us, on giving the Inquisitor whatever is needed. And this caregiver aspect isn’t just subtext to me, but actual text. The entire relationship is, in my own view, presented as genuinely healing, and so many people miss that about Bull’s romance. Yes, there are power dynamics at work here, of course, but there’s also something gentle about what Bull’s offering the Inquisitor—it’s not ever presented as harsh or scary; it’s not the cliche of whips and chains (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what floats your boat), but is instead rather a safe haven. There’s a genuine element of fantasy and play to it, and we see both aspects, the gentleness and the fantasy element, in the scene where Bull and the Inquisitor are interrupted later on.

And while it’s true that Bull may in fact eventually betray you (if you betrayed him), that happens on the battlefield. Never in the bedroom. No matter what you chose when it came to his loyalty mission, by all appearances he keeps his promise and the Inquisitor’s bedroom remains a safe and separate space.

Regardless. Not everyone will be into what Bull proposes, nor will they take him up on it once he sets the stage for what he wants to provide. And in those cases it’s then, luckily, quite easy to say, “Nope” and move on.

Arguing the Dynamics

I think this is a key point many people don’t get. It’s not abuse for Bull to request a specific kind of relationship while giving us the choice to accept or refuse. It would be abuse if we had no choice, or if he changed those dynamics without warning. But here, he’s being absolutely forthcoming about what will take place if we agree, and we therefore have the power to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s really that simple.
Does Bull insist on a specific sexual preference or dynamic to his relationship going forward? Yes. Yes, he does. And he’s clear about that.
I have no problem with this. I’d further argue that Bull has every right to set forth what he wants from a sexual relationship, and so does anyone else. Our Inquisitors can at that point either agree to his terms and proceed, or turn him down. Again, it’s not rocket science. And there are zero actual problems in how he presents the choice (again, Bull asks for consent and checks in with the Inquisitor on her feelings multiple times, both here and as the romance progresses). The Inquisitor is further given full agency over her relationship and her decisions at every single conversational moment with Bull that follows. She can reject him at any time.
I mean, what more could Bioware have done?
Some people have argued, however, that because the Inquisitor can’t change the terms of the relationship, that this is somehow abusive. Nope. Those who like what Bull’s proposing can take him up on it. Those who want something different, or that he’s not willing to give? You’re simply out of luck. That’s not how people work. Or sex. Or relationships. Everyone has preferences, and difference is the spice of life.
Anyway.

To Speak or Not to Speak

Meanwhile, to me, Bull’s pretty careful, thoughtful and thorough when discussing exactly what their relationship will be like if the Inquisitor proceeds. He provides the Qunari word “katoh” as the ‘watchword’ (or, ahem, safe word) in case the Inquisitor is uncomfortable at any point, then leaves it up to her whether she wants to continue. Bull may have an agenda, but he is also incredibly sincere on the issue of agency in every way.

And speaking of “katoh,” it’s probably my one area of minor complaint in the romance. Eventually, the ‘watchword’ becomes a kind of badge of honor for the Inquisitor—the fact that she never says it, it’s implied in a lighthearted way, is because she’s adventurous, not afraid of her own limits, and because the two of them are having a terrific time together.

However, the idea that not saying it is somehow a good thing doesn’t work for me. To me, the whole point of “katoh” (especially in the case of a character who is new to these scenarios, I’d imagine) should be that expressing her boundaries or areas of discomfort is not just allowable but is actually healthy for both her as well as for Bull as the relationship begins. (I mean, I’d think for most people, there might be, hilariously, “katohs” all over the place to start, as they got comfortable with each other, or maybe I’m just projecting here.) But from a story standpoint, I can see why the fact that she doesn’t say it (surprising Bull, to say the least) also has an emotional component and says something about her trust in him.

The Offer Beneath the Offer

Regardless, Bull’s setting forth the ground rules. And at this moment, if she says that one word (“katoh”), it’s over, no hard feelings. And please note—potential double agenda or no, Bull means this—I’ve played through all the different variations, and when Bull promises “no strings,” he puts his money where his mouth is. He’s even genial and supportive if the Inquisitor moves on after their night together to romance other companions:

Inquisitor: Katoh.

Iron Bull: Understood. I’ll see you later, Boss. (Alternatively: Huh. You got it, Boss.)

But if the Inquisitor questions Bull on his point of view, his reasons, and his goals for the relationship, it’s a fascinating conversation, and one of my favorites with romanced companions across the entire Dragon Age landscape.

This is because Bull’s logic for why he wants the relationship to go this way is pretty irresistible, and it’s seriously the world’s oddest combination of creepy and sweet ever.

Because… what he’s offering your Inquisitor is even more seductive than sex; he’s offering escape. As well as open permission to be vulnerable in ways the Inquisitor is simply not allowed to be in daily life. And, quite possibly, it may be the only true escape they’ve found since becoming Inquisitor. He’s saying, “Come with me, play with me; I’ll take care of you and you can take your mind away from this apocalyptic time, place, and responsibility you never asked for.

I mean, if you’d been catapulted to a position of leadership you’d never wanted or imagined, were surrounded by strangers (many of whom feared, hated or were initially trying to imprison you), had left or lost everyone you’d loved, were suddenly leading a world political power, were managing a magical mark that was also slowly trying to kill you, and the world was falling to hell around you in a rain of demons from the skies…?

Yeah, I’d think that offer would be pretty damned tempting.

“I Cannot Move My Legs”

So the romance progresses, we can ask Bull for kisses outside the tavern (complete with a casual smack on the Inky’s rear that is slyly funny and well animated), and all is right with Thedas. Everyone’s having a great time, apparently.

Then, not long after Bull and the Inquisitor embark on their escapades, there’s a scene where Cullen, Cass, and Josie happen upon them unexpectedly. It is seriously the funniest scene I’ve ever seen in a game, and I laugh out loud every time I see it. But there’s also more to it than you might expect at second glance—it’s actually a lovely and surprising interlude—funnier than you’d anticipate, but also potentially tender (and really sad, as well, depending on your character’s choices). Either way, it’s a revealing moment in the romance if we look closer.

We open on Bull and the Inquisitor, right after another encounter. Bull’s naked and still relaxed in the bed, the Inquisitor dressing in a matter-of-fact, “we’ve been together awhile now” kind of way. And this is where we catch a glimpse of that gentle hidden aspect to the relationship. Bull’s voice is soft:

Iron Bull: There we go. No Inquisition. No war. Nothing outside this room. Just you, and me. (Pause) So. What’d you want to talk about?

Then Cullen inadvertently walks in. And he realizes what he’s walking in on and his body literally tries to march him backward out the door on its own. It’s fantastic. Then he settles for covering his eyes against the sight of a naked Bull as if he’s a vampire faced with sunlight.

Then Josie comes in. And she freezes in place, mesmerized by the glory that is, evidently, Bull’s junk (amusingly and thankfully hidden by the Inky and various other elements as the scene progresses).

Josie’s “I just had three shots of Novocaine” face is seriously the best thing ever (“I cannot move my legs…”)

Then comes Cassandra as the capper on the scene, and her patented disgusted noise here is probably the best example of that classic Cass-reaction in the entire game. Because she’s not really disgusted, just exasperated. Like she’s going, “Inquisitor. Bull. The world is falling down and NOW you decide to do this? I am disappointed.” And she’s of course raising one perfect eyebrow in judgment at the same time.

Anyway, it’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever see in a video game, as all three are mortified by the situation and yet cannot look away. Josie’s “I just had three shots of Novocaine” face is seriously the best thing ever (“I cannot move my legs…”), while Cullen’s little snicker adds a much-needed dash of humor to our often stoic Commander’s personality. (Seriously, when he giggled at this, I went, “Okay, fine, Hot Templar Man, I’ll romance you” and added him to my mental list behind Solas.). Cassandra (perhaps funniest of all) is simply irritated at being faced with the entire situation.

She doesn’t give a crap about sex or safe words or orgasms. She’s just wondering why you’re wasting your time when there is WORK to be done. And given that Cass is DAI’s die-hard closet romantic (not to mention there’s the matter of her occasional flirtations with Bull in their banters), it’s kind of weirdly adorable. I almost wonder if there isn’t an element of her protesting a bit too much, but there’s no hint of that, so I think ultimately it’s simply her allegiance to the Inquisition that’s causing her extreme disapproval here. (At least outwardly.)

A Dignified Exit

But it’s not all just fun and games. We can commit to Bull here, proud of our relationship with him and absolutely fine with people knowing. Yet, meanwhile, for the unexpectedly sadder ending—if we express embarrassment at being discovered with Bull, it’s much more bittersweet, as Bull sacrifices his dignity without a qualm—but only to a point:

Cass: I apologize for interrupting what I assume was a momentary diversion.

Cullen (snickers): Nothing wrong with having a bit of fun.

Josie: Who wouldn’t be a little curious? 

Inquisitor: Responds either affirmatively (“Bull and I are together”) or ends things, with “This was just a fling” (“Iron Bull and I were just blowing off some steam”).

Iron Bull (if option 2 is taken): Yeah, the Boss wanted to ride the Bull. Nothing for anyone to get excited about. 

Inquisitor: Right.

Josie (flustered): I’ll just…

Iron Bull (after a pause): Hey, Josephine… you busy later?

Josie actually does pause momentarily (and personally, I hope she looked him up), then they all leave.

Iron Bull: Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.

Inquisitor (being a total jerkface): We don’t have to stop.

Iron Bull: Yeah. We do. I was trying to relieve your stress. Not add to it. If you’re ashamed of this, I’m doing a crappy job.

Inquisitor: Bull…

Iron Bull: Don’t worry about it, Boss. I’ll see you later.

I love this moment (well, I hate what the Inquisitor’s done, but I really like Bull’s reaction). I love that Bull will actually turn down the Inquisitor here. So much of Bull’s persona is about his support and willingness to give, but at the same time, there needs to be a limit. And the quiet way he walks away in this moment (as he should) when faced with the Inquisitor’s shame at being with him is a perfect and necessary character note. He may be a caregiver but the guy has the self esteem to expect better of those he sleeps with… and he should.

However, if we do commit to Bull, it ends very sweetly and on a much happier note:

Iron Bull: You okay Boss?

Inquisitor: You know, I believe I am. But since we have a moment… 

Iron Bull: What’s that?

Inquisitor: It’s a dragon’s tooth, split in two. So no matter how far apart life takes us, we’re always together.

Iron Bull: Not often people surprise me, kadan.

Inquisitor: Kadan?

Iron Bull (pulling her down into the bed): Kadan. My heart.

And as I’ve mentioned, I may have actually let out a cheer at this, because I headcanoned that my original Warden was in love with Sten (and vice versa) even though they both knew it was hopeless. Their only outlet, I believed, was his use of that word, his one way of expressing his hidden feelings. So, in other words, every time Sten called her “kadan,” I plotzed a little.

So this was fabulous. (And yes, yes I know that “kadan” can be used in a nonromantic context. I just can’t hear you over the la-la-la sounds I’m currently making to ignore that.)

Nobody Says I Love You…

Bull’s romance continues to evolve through the DAI story after this point, and again, I found it so refreshing that the game dared to explore the dynamics of a relationship that began with sex and evolved into something more complex. Bull and the Inquisitor are still evidently having sex all over Skyhold, including, evidently, one or two occasions on the War Table itself (Cole informs a delighted party of companions of this fact in one of his highly revealing little banter dialogues about Bull’s romance with the Inquisitor, and Blackwall’s response is especially funny: “I look forward to informing Cullen!”).

But there’s still something that hasn’t been said—those three little words that determine that there’s emotion involved here, and not just sex. And as we know, there’s no room for love and sex to occur at the same time traditionally under the Qun.

Then, however, we get a post-coital conversation between Bull and the Inquisitor about how their relationship is going (everyone’s very happy, let’s just say), and about his surprise that she’s never used the safe word he provided. The two then proceed to banter about the potential safe words of our other companions, and as always, it’s an opportunity for Bull to show how insightful he really is when it comes to reading other people. There’s a brilliant little moment when his use of a particular Orlesian phrase about Blackwall says volumes about how much he’s already figured out about the mysterious Grey Warden and his true backstory, which for most has not yet been revealed at this point in the story.

It’s interesting to note that while Bull and the Inquisitor wonder aloud about the safe words and predilections of many of their companions, a few notable omissions there include Solas (interesting, since I definitely think he’d have one at the ready—as he directly implies in an early flirt scene with a mage Inquisitor), and Dorian.

Side Note: I would have laughed so hard if Solas’s suggested safe word had been “Fade.” Come on. Admit it. It’s funny. He’d never have even made it through the door on your very first date. And it would’ve been hilarious.

I think Dorian’s omission here, meanwhile, occurs for many reasons—first, because it’s another subtle example of Bull judging others and what they need, and I think the implication is pretty clear that Bull doesn’t think a BDSM scenario would be ideal for Dorian (with his history of rejection and betrayal, I’d agree, although it’s also implied that there are elements of kink to the relationship in other ways). I also think Dorian may not be discussed because he’s an alternate-timeline choice for Bull as a romance, and his omission keeps the two stories wholly separate.

This interlude can end on a few different genuinely touching emotional notes. In one, the Inquisitor implies love and thanks Bull for being with her even if they don’t survive.

Bull interrupts this speech, however, and his broken “Katoh. Stop. I can’t… We’re coming out of this together.” is one of Prinze’s most beautiful moments in voice acting the character of Bull. What gets me is that Bull is the first one to use the word in earnest here; he’s giving us the rare glimpse of the guy who survived Seheron… and then broke.

Sex and Love Beyond the Qun

All variations on this scene end with the two falling back into bed together, but the differences in each conversation thread choice are fascinating because the scene can end in exactly the same way each time, yet in one instance it’s slightly emotional and intense (the Inquisitor fearing death and Bull comforting her), in another sweetly affecting (the Inquisitor telling Bull she loves him, and him returning the sentiment after responding teasingly), or even playful (as the Inquisitor ends on a lighter tone, telling him this was fun). And it’s all lovely and moving… as long as he’s Tal-Vashoth.

Because, if he’s not, once again, this is all empty. An act. Depending on whether we saved the Chargers, or doomed them.

If we saved the Chargers, then I think part of the reason Bull genuinely allows himself to love you is because he’s in a freefall of relief at Krem and the Chargers’ survival (his family), secret relief at being free of the Qun, while also still navigating his total fear and despair of what he’s supposed to do now. All combined with the constant fear that he will go “savage” and become Tal-Vashoth.

And of course, add in a healthy amount of guilt because he now must wonder how many Tal-Vashoth he hunted and killed for the Qunari were simply good men like him trying to break free. So to me, it’s natural that Bull is more open to the romance and actually allows himself the possibility for love and even commitment. That is, if you saved the Chargers. And saved the part of himself that had allowed himself to feel and love.

As I’ve written before here, Bull is innately generous, a giver at heart. The Qun, once upon a time, warped that impulse into something darker and more controlling. Then came the Inquisition, and his own “last chance.” Sure, Bull was playing a delicate game at first, and balancing both potential outcomes. But at some point, somewhere along the way, it all became real. He returned to his core self, abandoning power and politics, turning to something he’d never been allowed to imagine existed—real intimacy, commitment and trust.

It’s ironic in the end, that while Bull offered our Inquisitor the possibility of escape both emotionally, psychologically, and sensually, the person who achieved the actual escape in the end was Bull himself. And we’re the ones who gave it to him. By saving his self-built family, we saved Bull and (unknowingly) ourselves. And that’s the opposite of cold; it’s something that goes beyond sex, power, or obsession and is simply about love and trust on truly absolute and unshakable levels.

And that’s always going to be greater and more powerful than any demands of the Qun.


Images Courtesy of BioWare

This article is a reprint (with minor modification and expansion) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 1×07 Rewatch: You Play the Game or the Arse

Kylie

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Hello and welcome to The Wars to Come, the Game of Thrones rewatch project by… You know how it goes.

Today, Kylie, Julia, Danzie, and Griffin take on the seventh episode of Season 1. But first, a recap for those who haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

Episode Recap

This week in “You Win or You Die,” the stakes are certainly life or death, particularly for Daenerys Targaryen. After failing to convince her husband to help her take back the Iron Throne for her family, she sets out to the market, for what she thinks is a day of innocent shopping. Yet not all is at it seems. For one, Jorah creeps off and gets handed a royal pardon for spying on her. For another, a wine merchant outright tries to murder her with poison! Jorah thwarts the attempts (pardon in pocket), and the entire ordeal incites Khal Drogo, who declares his desire for vengeance against Robert Baratheon. He will sail to Westeros after all!

Jon has his drama to deal with. For starters, Uncle Benjen’s horse returns to The Wall…sans Benjen. Then at the graduation ceremony for Night’s Watch School, Jon is told that he’s going to be a steward, not a ranger. He’s always wanted to be a ranger, and as a steward he certainly won’t be in a position to help his uncle!

He’s just about ready to quit when Sam points out to him that clearly the reason he was assigned as not just any steward, but Commander Mormont’s steward specifically, is that he’s getting groomed for leadership. Jon sees the logic in it, and the two friends take their vows together at a heart tree north of the wall.

We briefly visit Winterfell, where Theon tries to demand sex from Osha, before Luwin puts a stop to it. A guest or a prisoner? Luwin points at that Theon of all people should know the distinction may not be huge.

We make an equally brief visit to the camp of the Lannister army, where Tywin Lannister berates Jaime for not finishing the job during his fight with Ned by killing him. Their House was slighted by Cat kidnapping Tyrion, so clearly it is only right that Jaime take a force and capture Riverrun. Boy, feudal politics are as charming as ever!

Nowhere is that more apparent, however, than in King’s Landing. Ned finally confronts Cersei about the illegitimacy of her children, and urges her to flee with them before Robert returns from his hunting trip, as he plans to inform the King immediately. However, it turns out the opportunity will never arise; Robert drank too much wine and in an attempt to drunkenly hunt a boar, got himself lethally gored. Ned is able to take down his final will, which names him as “Lord Protector of the Realm” until Joffrey comes of age. Despite Robert saying “Joffrey” explicitly, Ned simply writes “my rightful heir.” Robert also changes his tune about wanting to kill Dany, but when Ned tells Varys to put a stop to it, he’s informed that it’s already in motion.

Elsewhere, Littlefinger tells two of his sex workers about that time he dueled Brandon Stark because he loved Cat.

While Robert slowly dies, Renly seeks out Ned, telling him that he must act now and take Cersei and her children into custody before she can act. When Ned speaks of naming Stannis as Robert’s successor, Renly says that he should be named instead, despite being the youngest. Ned dismisses this plan.

He also dismisses Littlefinger’s suggestion to make peace with the Lannisters, bow before King Joffrey, and merely sit on the incest secret unless they need to expose it. Instead, he asks Littlefinger to secure the gold cloaks for him, so that he’ll be able to properly confront Cersei when the time comes.

That’s sooner rather than later; Robert dies, and almost immediately Cersei puts Joffrey on the throne, where he calls upon the Small Council to pledge their fealty. Renly’s fled the city, but Ned heads to the throne room, where he presents Robert’s will. Cersei tears it up, and when it’s clear that she will not yield, Ned calls on the gold cloaks to arrest her. Instead, they murder all the Stark House guards, and Littlefinger puts a dagger to Ned’s throat.

Initial, quick reaction

Kylie: I feel like this episode was a bit stronger than last week’s. I mean there is the one scene of just sheer horribleness, but otherwise it felt somehow more focused, maybe. I suspect a lot of that was due to the King’s Landing plotline just utterly dominating the episode. Sure, we had a few scenes with Jon and Dany, Tywin’s introduction, and even a delightful moment with Theon in Winterfell. But so much stayed with the main action, which was quite enough to drive things forward well. I may just be complimenting the pacing here, but I at least had more of a positive reaction, I think.

Griffin: I don’t even remember what happened from when I watched it. There was Robert dying, Jason Momoa’s awesome scene, and they cut the apologizing assassin. I was bummed about that since I liked how stupid it was from when I read it, and I wanted to see them do it since it is so stupid. It’s just so ridiculous but for some reason it felt like it fit within the world of the book, which defies all logic. I vaguely remember something about Jon Snow, mostly because he apparently wasn’t in the previous two or three episodes? I mean, it says a lot that I didn’t remember he wasn’t there at all. Was Sansa in this one? Arya? This show is bafflingly forgettable sometimes.

Julia: I agree that it was a much stronger episode than the previous one or two. I remember this being the first time in my life possibly, that I noticed nerdy things like “blocking” and “shots.” The extreme close ups in the wine-assassin scene, and the odd blocking and pacing of the Ned-Cersei scene were an education.

Also, did you know that Ned is into honor?


Danzie: Aside from that scene, I actually really love this episode. Baratheons being well represented is my kryptonite. See D&D? I’m not that hard to impress.

I have a couple nitpicks but, yeah, this was an overall winner in my books.

Highlights/lowlights:

Griffin: I guess my highlight is probably Jason Momoa developing the amount of screen presence he looks like he should have. Pretty much every other scene that wasn’t killing Viserys was just “big dude is big dude” for him. I’ve been wondering if that was just a writing issue, or if he just didn’t have the physicality to really make the role work. Turns out they just needed to actually write a scene where he does a thing for him to, well, do the thing. Seriously, even with the “golden crown” it felt kinda…deliberate? Like, Drogo had planned this to happen, and was sorta casual about it.

As for the low-point, it has to be the Sexposition. Jesus christ that scene was atrocious. Littlefinger had to literally yell his origin story over the ever-loudening moans of women fucking on his explicit orders. Seriously, dude? I mean—he’s not even getting off on it. He’s just yelling. For no reason. I couldn’t even pay attention to whatever nonsense he was spouting because the staging was so unbelievably awkward and random. I cannot imagine being the sound mixer when editing that scene; it’s like a visual representation of why their job is necessary and integral. Did they get paid more for that one? God, I hope so.

Kylie: I definitely second this low-point. It’s just…in terms of quality it’s not even that far removed from the low-points of Seasons 6 and 7. The only saving grace is that it’s one contained scene with a relatively shorter story on the exposition scale. I’m worried it’s going to overtake anything else to do with this episode for this rewatch, that’s how bad it was.

I had a personal highlight, and that was watching Emilia Clark move her face in the market scene. I don’t exactly think it was the episode’s best moment, but it was so refreshing that I felt invigorated.

It doesn’t even seem like she’s in pain!

I think objectively my highlight is the throne room sequence. I know it’s obvious, but it was well-executed. You really get a feel for the farce of all courtly politics, and Barry’s sad little face when Cersei ripped up the letter was a highlight unto itself. It was this kind of tension that made me fall in love with the world and really want to engage, and I think this was a case where it was blocked and written well.

Julia: Yeah, the sexposition scene was the worst. The Worst. But in the interest of variety I will pick the scene where Ned confronts Cersei. Just, like, this is such an effective scene in the book, but here it’s just so odd. I mean, the pacing is bizarrely off, and the shot-reverse-shot looks unnatural. It’s not especially bad, really. Just, comparing it to the source material makes me sad.

Highlight? I really liked Cersei’s costume in the throne room. It was so interesting and different, and maybe even what a queen would wear.

Danzie: Sexposition was not only bad, it was a scary look into the future for this show. Jesus, what a bummer in an otherwise good episode. It’s an example of how D&D don’t trust their audience to pay attention without an ample supply of nudity. I think it’s easily the lowlight of the entire first season for me.

I have so many highlights though! Sam and Pyp truth bombing Jon’s whiny ass was pretty satisfying. Luwin (who I forgot was such an amazing cinnamon roll prior to this rewatch project) shutting down Theon’s creepy behavior with an epic burn was also pretty amazing. Renly being, like, a CHARACTER and not a gayreotype made me happy too. I stanned the heck out of my Baratheon trash-baby basically being the only one smart enough to get the hell out of King’s Landing before all this went down. See you next season with your awesome beard and crown, bro. <3

In the end though, I have two winners. The first is Robert’s defining moment as a character, where, moments from death, he finally decides to grow up and let go of his fear and anger towards the Targs. I know this is more a compliment to the source material, but Mark Addy nailed the hell out of this scene. We need to start an Emmy-snubbed list.

The second is the Jaime/Tywin scene. Charles Dance was such spot-on casting for Tywin. You start to learn here why the Lannister kids are so fucked up. Even Jaime who is his “favourite” has unrealistic expectations put on him. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t with a dad like Tywin. Also, this was the scene that made me decide to get a replica Jaime sword. I’ll include a pic. 😀

Quality of writing

Julia: Not too bad? The sexposition stands out as horrible, but other than that, most of the scenes were too straightforwardly adapted to have the opportunity to be horrible.

But that scene though. What I suspect happened is that the director just saw this stupid Bond villain monologue, and thought, “oh no, this is just two pages of him explaining his evil plan, and the virginity pledge he took! How do I make this interesting?” And since the director seems as incompetent as the writers this week, he landed on male-gaze girl-on-girl in the background?

Reasonable.

Danzie: Haha, with the exception of the darkest timeline scene that I’m sure I can (and will) rip into, I’m pretty happy with the writing. Turns out that when you just stick to adapting the books things turn out pretty well? Who knew.

Kylie: We’re at least definitively still in the world of conversations. Spy vs. Spy was getting close to nonversation territory, but here people still talk like people. Well…Westerosi people. I’d say the quality was overall very decent. Now play with her arse.

Griffin: I’m pretty sure I hated the characters I was supposed to hate. But I’m not sure I like or empathize with the characters I’m supposed to like. The biggest problem remains that they aged up the children, at least to me. This makes it really difficult to believe Jon’s plotline in any way, unless he’s the absolute dumbest person around. It makes sense he’d be groomed for command, but not that he wouldn’t understand that and needs it spelled out.

Aside from that, in terms of writing, I guess it was fine. There’s nothing really that stands out as great writing, but they have an entire cast of amazing actors who can really elevate the material. Like Jason Momoa’s scenery-chewing moment. So really, the writing is probably mediocre, but they just have really good actors. But they shouldn’t need to constantly lean on that; that’s not sustainable.

Our 8th grade book report (on themes)

Griffin: What was the theme of this episode? I guess it was “honor” and “survival.” And how those two don’t mix. That’s just sorta the whole point of Ned’s story though, if I recall correctly.

Kylie: I’m trying to specify it more to connect Dany and Jon and Ned here. I mean the theme you hit isn’t exactly wrong, but more just overarching for the season. Then again we’ve talked before about how maybe episodic themes are more incidental than anything else.

Julia: I think maybe you can connect Dany and the King’s Landing stuff with the idea that a desire for the throne makes you do horrible things? Like, even Ned slightly changed the wording of Robert’s last wishes. Might be a stretch.

Danzie: The theme I got was “what makes a good leader?” Is it military prowess? Well clearly not, because Robert was an amazing fighter but a terrible king. Is it bloodlines? Not when you look at half the crazy Targaryens. Is it a lawful king like Stannis or a diplomatic and well loved person like Renly? Is it conquerors like Aegon I as Dany suggests?

These are all archetypes and ideas that will come into play during the war of five kings and beyond… or y’know, they would’ve, but the show decided to become terrible.

Kylie: I think to that theme, Danzie, it’s hard to super connect Jon’s scenes to that. We get that they’re grooming him for leadership, but Jon’s struggle this episode is more just his inability to think anything through, apparently. Or to think. He commits to the Night’s Watch, but it’s less to do with leadership and more to do with his bros talking him into it. What makes a good leader? Apparently not the smarts.

The issue with “doing bad things for the throne” is that Ned doesn’t want the throne in any way, and changing Robert’s wording was less horrible than it was protecting a dying man from something that would really upset him, while still trying to honor the laws of the land. I’m worried I’m making a special pleading case for Ned with that, because it is a slightly deceitful action, that’s for sure. But even his lie was…not without honor.

Dany convinces Drogo to fight for her throne after almost getting killed, Jon pledges to the Night’s Watch even without necessarily liking his post because of future ambition maybe, and Ned tries to do the honorable thing in ensuring the proper line of succession, only to be betrayed. I think what we have are three people doing things at various levels of political power, all tied to a vague sense of duty. But it’s okay if it’s a bit scattered.

Also it feels completely random that this is the episode we learned Littlefinger’s backstory. “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them” was his thesis. Is that linked to anything here?

Julia: Well, that’s what Ned should have done, right? Play a game where he can control Joff and Cersei because he knows their secret? And Dany literally fucked her way to getting Drogo’s army. #femaleempowerment.

Kylie: So the show validates Littlefinger’s worldview. Neato.

Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)

Kylie: Putting aside the elephant’s arse in the room, I think one of the bigger cracks that starts here was actually something relatively well-executed: Tywin’s introduction. I love Dance in the role, and I think what he was saying gave texture to what we’ve seen of his three children.

That said, it’s kind of baldly the beginning of their more obvious Lannister favorism, and the Tough but Fair Grandpappy Tywin we’re going to get much more of next season. Maybe this belongs more as an adaptational grievance, but the scene in and of itself was fine. It’s knowing where it leads that makes it more difficult on a viewing now.

Julia: It’s also the beginning of the crack (well, maybe it began with the Spy vs. Spy) that I call “These people have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.” Like, last week we learned that the feudal order was dumb, right. And that honor specifically was dumb? Well, now we have Badass, tough but fair Tywin telling us why we have to go to war because of the feudal order, and because another family insulted a member of his. You know what that’s called? A matter of honor! So, either we’re all dunderheads who can’t appreciate how their Tywin is not, in fact, being portrayed as a reasonable actor and generally sympathetically, but is instead a biting critique of all the things that come out of his mouth. Or, D&D have no idea what any of these ideas, or their implications, actually are.

Because as it is, it does seem like favoritism. Protecting the feudal order is dumb, unless you’re the Lannisters, they can’t look weak to the other houses. The line of succession is dumb, unless you’re the Lannisters. We wish them well in their attempt to build a dynasty that lasts 1000 years. Honor is dumb, unless you insult a Lannister, then it makes perfect sense for them to kill all your peasants.

At this point, it’s still just a crack, and a more balanced interpretation is possible if you look at just this one scene. But knowing how they’re going to set up Tywin as this ideal player of the game, it’s a crack.

Also, this is the start of Tywin as this earthy, pragmatic, thrifty type, with simple tastes, so unlike those decadent Dornish. Like, maybe Tywin would butcher his own venison, but where are the rubies on the hilt of his hunting knife? And where the fuck is his cloth-of-gold cape?

Danzie: The Lannister favoritism does start to spin out of control later on, but if you look at the Tywin/Jaime scene framed only by what we’ve seen so far in the show’s run up to this point, it’s fine. I think it gets across Tywin’s character quickly and well for what it is. I also think that one person’s perception of honor isn’t the always the same as someone else’s. Ned’s is humble. Tywin’s is prideful.

That being said, the points you make are more than valid. D&D don’t actually understand or care about exploring the themes they Ctrl C + Ctrl V from the books. They’re just copying homework and handing it into the teacher without understanding the assignment. I’d love to live in a world where I can give them credit, but the jig has long been up.

It’s at this point that I’d like to link to Kylie’s wonderful article.

In the end, we’re all a little crazy for even trying to make sense of a show where the creators are pretty clearly not even trying (even when it’s accidentally good by virtue of the strong source material), but on we march.

Kylie: I love that it was the empowered ladies of Horn Hill that pushed me to writing that one.

All I can add is that at least we’re still in the stage of viewing where we can sit back and enjoy Charles Dance’s Tywin for what it is. And yeah, the dude is a huge fucking hypocrite. But the showrunners shouldn’t be; not if we’re supposed to uncritically accept “honor gets you killed.”

Um. So. Should we talk about the arse crack in the plaster, or does it speak for itself?


Danzie: Damnit, Kylie. XD

Remember adaptation?

Julia: They’re still doing pretty well here. They still feel the need to add “honor” to everyone’s lines whenever they’re talking to or about Ned, but there were only two original scenes that I can think of. The first was the scene with Tywin and Jaime, which worked because of Charles Dance and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but was really kind of nothing—like, they even started killing all the peasants last week, so it’s not like we needed that exposition, and then there was that scene… Other than that, it was mostly a dramatic reading of A Game of Thrones.

Omg, I forgot. Sam really misses girls, you guys. Not his mother and sisters, mind you, who love him for who he is and all that junk, but girls he can ogle without their consent. What great character changes.

“I miss girls. Not even talking to them. I never talked to them. Just looking at them, hearing them giggle. Don’t you miss girls?”

Danzie: Yeah, those lines felt a little weird coming out of Sam’s mouth. Like, I’m sure even book-Sam misses girls to a degree, but I think that a rich boy from the South would be far more concerned with, y’know, SURVIVING his time in The Watch. Even stewards face brutally long days of work in incredibly harsh conditions. It’s not like, an all boys Christian summer camp where you spend half your time sitting around being bored and then go kayaking. He’s settling in remarkably well considering one of his superiors ordered another recruit to beat the shit out of him a couple episode back. But not having tits & ass to look at would suck, am I right young male demographic?

Speaking of the Night’s Watch, this is indeed a big example of where aging up the characters runs into problems. You can’t take the actions of a fifteen-year-old and apply it to someone in their early 20’s/late teens without the context changing massively. A young teenager throwing a fit over not getting what they want is pretty understandable, but when you have a very adult actor depicting these emotions? It gets a lot harder to be sympathetic because a grown-ass man is suddenly throwing a hissy fit on screen over something he really should have known was a possibility before he signed up.

Robb goes on to suffer in the same way. Breaking a political marriage promise by jumping into bed with someone else makes sense (and you could even argue is an almost inevitable action) for someone that young. But when you’re like, twenty-two, the expectation is that you should really know better given what’s at stake.

Griffin: Jon really comes across as the biggest idiot around. According to Kylie that’s not going to change much?

Kylie: I think D&D read “You know nothing, Jon Snow” at face-value.

Danzie: “Jon really comes across as the biggest idiot around… that’s not going to change much?”

Poor, sweet Griffin…

Well, all 2.5 books in Griffin’s case

Julia: At least they’re getting Drogo pretty well. If only there were more people to see that…

Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?

Kylie: A very, very turned-off Cersei? Wait, no, weaponizing her sexuality is like, Cersei’s MO with men, which is why she has so much self-hatred, too. She sees it as her only use in society and viable card to play, and it’s rather bizarre that they cut her making a pass at Ned.

Then again, they also cut Ned saying, “For a start, I do not kill children.” That was rather crucial to his character. So I’m suspecting D&D didn’t super understand that scene.

Otherwise Cersei was very Cersei in the throne room. Barry’s face when she ripped up Robert’s letter was perfect.

Julia: Yeah, turned-off Cersei is a good way to phrase it. I was watching that scene thinking how Carol she was, how she makes incest seem so reasonable and what any good person would support, but then I realized how she was just quoting Cersei and that made me question everything. I guess it just goes to show how things that seem subtle and unimportant—a couple of omitted lines and actions, a tone—can be so huge.

The throne room scene was perfect, though.


Danzie: Agreed. Mostly book-Cersei, with a dash of Carol.

Griffin: There is no Carol in HR! (I still don’t know the difference, but Carol sounds nice?)

Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?

Danzie: Next question, please.

Kylie: “I do believe my lord’s in love.” / “For many years. Most of my life, really. Play with her arse. And she loved me too.”

I’m sorry; I can’t move past it! I know there were decent things in there, like Dany navigating Essosi trade, and the Night’s Watch vows, but oh my god that overshadows just everything. EVERYTHING.

Julia: They did a much better job in their other scene, but that wasn’t what you would call elegant either. “You will take half our forces to Catelyn Stark’s girlhood home.”

Griffin: I don’t want to talk about the sexposition. Frankly, it’s hard to tell where the character moments end and where the exposition moments begin on this show in general, and not in a good way. I didn’t feel like I was being spoon fed too much, but it’s also hard to keep track of motivations in individual scenes sometimes.

Julia: I’m also not too happy about how Jorah is always explaining Dothraki things to Dany. This is a problem in the books too, as I recall, but you have three Dothraki around her with speaking roles, even apart from Drogo. Use them for god’s sake.

How was the pacing?

Julia: The pacing of the episode was fine, I think. I don’t remember noticing it, and that’s usually a good sign. But am I crazy about the pacing of the Ned-Cersei scene being odd? Please, reassure me/encourage me to seek help.

Kylie: I forgot it opening the episode. That seemed an odd place for it. Then you add in the shot-reverse-shot soap opera framing, and yeah… She kind of jumped to “you win or you die” after a couple back and forths; the heavy hitting moments of that exchange were cut anyway, and then it was done.

Danzie: Yeah, more time really should have been given to the “you win or your die” scene in general. It’s kinda like… one of, if not the penultimate moment of the entire first book. It felt a bit too glossed over considering its importance.

Though, apparently Lena Heady was pregnant during the filming for this scene, which kinda explains the weird shots/editing.

Other than that, I think the pacing was pretty strong.

Julia: I mean, pregnancy tends to last for longer than the time it takes to film one scene. But I guess that’s why she’s been standing with those giant sleeves in front of her all season.

Griffin: It was better than last week. So, “fine”, I guess?

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Danzie: Okay, we’ve done a lot of complaining, but let’s really break this down:

  1. The quality of sex is determined by loudness. By this logic, one should always be screaming directly into one’s partner’s face. Anything less and they’ll just assume you aren’t into them.
  2. Lesbian sex must always include one of the women acting as “the man”.
  3. Make sure your boss is in the room telling you his tragic backstory.
  4. Haha, wait. There’s a “one-eyed Joe” at the Night’s Watch who works the stables?
  5. 70’s porno lighting.
  6. ????
  7. Profit.

Also, while listening to Littlefinger’s friendzoned speech it suddenly dawned on me why certain… sub-sections of the internet champion him. Not that that’s show-Littlefinger exclusive, I just… don’t know how I didn’t realize until now.

Aww, poor guy!

Julia: I like how Ros is mostly just concerned with the cleanliness of her hands throughout the scene. I think I love her.

Griffin: Danzie lays it out better than I could, but it’s just…no. And also somehow incredibly boring and unengaging. It’s like they all sat around a table and thought up the single least sexy way to sex ever. And then did it. REALLY LOUDLY.

Kylie: Well, the point was that it was merely performative, so to even characterize it as lesbian sex is already not particularly accurate… I really don’t know why I’m trying.

Julia: I believe I’m the only one here who’s not female attracted (correct me if I’m wrong) so I don’t think me reiterating how unsexy that scene was will help any. But god, if that scene was meant to titillate, it failed miserably. And can we talk about Littlefinger’s virginity pledge?

Kylie: If there’s one thing I gathered from Littlefinger in the books, it’s that he’s totally sexually reserved because of his pure love. /s

I think “hideously unsexy” is a good way to phrase it, but can I just complain about something really stupid with it for a second? Littlefinger had Ros and the other sex worker practicing on each other so they could practice their moaning that they do with customers. Ros sounded “ridiculous” or something, so he had them switch. Other sex worker moaned while Ros got her off. Then Littlefinger liked that performance, so he said “you’re both working tonight.” But wasn’t Ros’s awkward moaning the problem in the first place? So why is she cleared for work? Doesn’t she still need to practice moaning to his satisfaction?

Why am I analyzing this aspect?

Julia: No, no. I think you just found the plothole that makes the entire season fall apart.

There was also full frontal male nudity this episode. And I think we can all agree that seeing the floppy fish of a man about to be dragged to death is exactly the same as the “play with her ass scene” and the female nudity therein, so all accusations of sexism are invalid.

In memoriam…Robert Baratheon & Stark House guards

Julia: Oh Bobby B. Murdered by a pig.

Kylie: And now everyone gets to taste the boar that got him. I kind of always felt it was weird that Robert’s hunting trip and death scene were split into two episodes. Renly running in like, “come quick!” always felt so random to me.

Julia: Remember a few episodes ago when he was afraid of blood, and now he’s covered in Robert’s and doesn’t seem fussed at all?

Danzie: I think it all would have been a bit too rushed if it was all in one episode. At least Robert got a better death than Stannis. Not that I’m in any way still salty over that…

Griffin: I really don’t understand why they waited to kill the Stark guards in that scene. That whole conversation was a complete waste of everyone’s time if their end goal was to make sure Ned didn’t have the chance to fuck everything up. Shouldn’t Cersei know by now that his commitment to honor is immutable? Shouldn’t most of the higher echelon in King’s Landing?

Kylie: I guess it’s part of highlighting courtly farse? That the whole thing is so performative, and Cersei was trying to give Ned a chance at that. This is, of course, something in the books too. Maybe this is feeble, but sometimes we do need certain dramatic moments as part of storytelling. I don’t think it necessarily violated Cersei’s character in any way. Maybe Carol’s though…

But that’s a good place to leave it. What did everyone else think? Were the big moments here as impactful this time through? Was the arse crack in the plaster as distracting as we’re making it out to be? Let us know in the comments below, and we continue to wish you good fortune in The Wars to Come.


Images courtesy of HBO

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Analysis

Reflections on ‘A Single Pale Rose’

David

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Spoilers for “A Single Pale Rose” ahead!

It’s been about two months since Steven Universe upended the apple cart of fan expectations again. The show has a habit of getting people into a comfortable rhythm and then completely changing the way the viewer sees the show. Revealing that Rose Quartz was Pink Diamond in the episode “A Single Pale Rose” was probably the the biggest bombshell the show has ever dropped. For days afterward, the fandom was left scrambling. Now that some of the dust has settled (and it’s been confirmed that Steven Universe will be back July 2nd) I think it’s time we took a look at some different opinions on the episode. I’ve collected some opinions from our contributors. Some are positive, others less so.


Kylie:

I’d say overall I had a bit of a mixed reaction to the reveal itself. Theory-crafting in the Steven Universe (SU) fandom is a little bit tiring for me, and nothing I engaged too deeply in. I certainly heard the Rose=Pink Diamond (PD) theory before, but I dismissed it off-hand because “Rose had a quartz gem” (and going with a twist like a Herkimer diamond seemed cheap to me). Obviously the disguised appearance makes a lot of sense; there was, however, a part of me that felt a little intentionally lied to, and a la Westworld “twists”.

That’s not to say this was my entire reaction to “A Single Pale Rose” itself, because the damn implications of the reveal was what really interested me, and I adore the way they were presented through the Pearl-ception. Steven’s throw-away line about “deeply repressed war memories” really hammers on it—this deception has had its impact, particularly on our anxiety-coded bird-mom suffering from PTSD. To that, the episode held no punches, though it ungrounded us further with the surreal, dreamlike quality of it all. It felt truly unsettling, and thinking back on what we know of Pink Diamond only increases the unease.

It makes me genuinely excited for where the show is going to go, particularly Steven reconciling this since he is the very literal embodiment of Rose’s…let’s say “redemption” arc, to simplify. He’s the one that carries this burden and still needs to work to fix her mistakes (at least, in his mind).


Griffin:

I kind of always assumed that Rose was Pink Diamond. I didn’t expect her to have gone all Emperor Palpatine and play both sides of a war that never needed to happen and have it explode in her face, which I loved, but at the same time…this fits. Ever since “Mr. Greg” (and a little bit with “Sworn to the Sword”) I’ve had a distinct feeling that Rose’s relationship with Pearl was really, really unhealthy. That, and Bismuth creating a sword that poofs, not shatters—honestly this wasn’t surprising to me. Then there was the trial with the Diamonds and y’know, it was very well seeded. All of it was there. That doesn’t make it any less as a story beat towards the narrative and the relationships between the Crystal Gems, as it is extremely important to explore the fallout of that revelation, but it’s like, y’know, what else could this have been?

That being said, I do love the idea that Steven is the actually the kind of person that Rose convinced everyone she was, but truly wasn’t. He’s this idealized beacon of hope, optimism, freedom, tolerance, acceptance, and love because he was raised by his dad and the Crystal Gems…who were following a false example that proved to be more powerful than the truth ever would or could be. So, in a round-about sort of way, Rose did become that inspirational, aspirational figure she saw herself as and presented herself as. Just, only after she died and created an entirely new life. And only after it wasn’t her. It’s kinda neat to look back and see all of the Homeworld Gems calling Steven Rose Quartz when we now know for sure that it’s more true than it ever was with the “actual” Rose Quartz.

It’s messed up, but Steven Universe has never been a show that treats its characters as infallible or unrealistically idealized without that crashing down. Even Garnet’s future-sight is nowhere near as useful as it seemingly should be. Sure, she runs around trying to jump herself to the world-line with the most absurd levels of causality and probability possible because she’s bored, but isn’t that super irresponsible? For, you know, the fate of the planet?


Bo:

For so long, I resisted even considering that Rose and Pink Diamond were the same person. There was always something more to Rose and especially Pink Diamond’s shattering, but I didn’t like this particular theory. I think it was around the time of “Jungle Moon” that I finally bought in and realized it was happening. And you know, I kind of feel bad for ever doubting that the Crewniverse could make it work. I always worried that Rose=PD would invalidate Rose Quartz somehow, or strip the Rebellion of its shades of gray. Instead, the reveal made everything even more complicated than before.

We’ll see where it goes from here (and I kind of said a lot about it already). We still need to see how SU handles the change in character dynamics, the reveals to other characters, and what Steven being Pink Diamond ultimately means to the story. I don’t really have any doubts, though, because why would I? It only took a single rewatch to understand how well seeded this reveal was and why it has inspired the fandom to levels of satisfaction I haven’t seen since season 3.

The Crewniverse nailed this.


Gretchen:

I’ll admit, Rose as Pink Diamond has been one of my favorite crack theories ever since we first saw the crumbling pink diamond insignia in “Sworn to the Sword” (2×06). I still remember when the first big meta about Rose = Pink Diamond came out. I devoured that shit. It made so much sense to me. But somewhere in the middle of S4, I started second guessing it. The more we saw Steven struggle with Rose’s legacy, the more I believed that Rose being Pink Diamond would undermine his growth. I didn’t want Rose to be vindicated, at least not fully. I wanted her to be as messy and complicated as the show had already clearly made her to be.

Looking back now, I had no reason to worry. Of course the Crewniverse wouldn’t gloss over Rose’s crimes or the position of privilege she occupied if she was, in fact, Pink Diamond. If anything, Rose and Pink Diamond being the same person has increased the complication of Steven’s current existence. He’s no longer adjacent to the struggle between Homeworld and Earth. He’s no longer a passive observer of the systems of oppression that Homeworld perpetuated. Rose, his mother, wasn’t just a rebel, she was a diamond. And that means Steven is a diamond.

While there are significant implications for literally every character on the show, I’m most impressed by the delicacy and nuance thus far. Far from out of the blue, the reveal is well-seeded and the payoff enormous. I have no qualms saying this is Steven Universe’s Red Wedding moment. It changes everything, but makes perfect sense. It makes you watch, or rewatch, differently. And I must say, as someone who never romanticized Rose/Pearl, I’m really, really glad I never invested in it. All we have now is time to unpack the implications for everybody, including Pearl, but I’m 100% convinced it will just as messy as I want it to be.

All in all, very satisfied and excited to see what comes next.


Julia:

I’m the kind of reader/viewer who tends to accept twist and plot points as they come, and not really question what could or should have been. This is mostly because I never see this kind of stuff coming. Oh, in retrospect it’s always obvious, and that’s what makes a good twist good, but successful theorycrafting has always eluded me, even the very few times that I’ve indulged in it. Like several other have said, I’ve seen this theory around for a while, but it was never differentiated in my mind from the hundreds of other in the galaxy of SU crack theories.

All that being said, I love what this reveal has already done for the characters and the way I see the world building. Steven has been struggling with his personal responsibility for his mother and her actions when he thought she was a rebel, and now she was the oppressor too? Heavy stuff. And Steven is more than insightful enough to ask all the questions about her character and motives, and all her relationships with her “friends” that the fans have been asking for the past few weeks.


Antoine:

“A Single Pale Rose” shattered me, and I’m still trying to pick up the broken shards of myself. I was absolutely devastated over what it meant for the rebellion narrative I was rooting for, but specifically for Pearl. Because this means Pearl was always her slave.

So many gems (and humans too) suffered: Lapis, Bismuth, Jasper. Then you have the unnamed gem casualties: all the other bubbled Rose Quartzes, the broken rebels rape-tortured into forced fusions, all the gems who were corrupted. The, there’s the creepy human zoo, and the Cluster. God, the Cluster. I can’t stop thinking about them all.

I know Rose and Pearl didn’t see it coming—that’s what war-flashback-Pearl inside Pearl basically reveals… But still. Devastating.

It felt like Garnet’s beautiful message: “Rose had to shatter PD so I could be together and Pearl could be free” got thrown out into the vacuum of space. Pearl was NEVER free, and Garnet didn’t even know it. No wonder Sapphire breaks apart in the preview for the future episodes (yeah I feel you, Sapphire). Remember her reaction to the forced fusion experiments? That’s on you too, Rose.

I used to be a strong believer in the Rose=PD theory, until the direction of the show took me elsewhere prior to this episode. I got used to the idea that she was like Rey: a nobody rather than secret royalty on the run. Not Leia or Sailor Moon, no matter how much I like them. I thought it was about the rebellion. But now it feels like it was less about love or freedom, and more about Rose having fun and doing what she likes and wants without thinking of the consequences. AS ALWAYS.

I always resented Rose for various reasons, but this is worse than anything else. At least now I guess I feel vindicated in that I was always right: Rose was a selfish monster.


David:

And that just leaves me. What do I think of the episode? At first, I was aghast. I had always hated the ‘Rose is Pink Diamond’ theory, whenever it cropped up. I thought it was, at best, a crack theory. At worst I thought it was lazy writing. But as I re-watched the episode with a few of my friends, my opinion on both the theory and its implementation changed. It was, and has been always about one thing:

Love.

Rose Quartz loved the earth. She thought her sisters didn’t love her, which is why she thought they would just walk away if Pink Diamond was shattered. The other diamonds so loved their ‘dead’ sister that they brought ruin down on the earth, and then damned it to a slow death. And Rose so loved Greg and Steven she gave up her life so that he could exist. She has made mistakes, but I think the true image of Rose Quartz we should keep in our heads is the one from “Lion 3: Straight to Video.” A woman who loved everything, while never really loving any one person. If the Crewniverse can keep this up, the show is in good hands.

So there you have it. Seven different takes on the same episode. It speaks well of the show that even after five years, one episode can spawn so much discussion. I personally hope they can keep this track record up so we can have more to discuss and debate and argue about in the future.


Images courtesy of Cartoon Network

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