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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 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 messed 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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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

My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels

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This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!

Oh look, Gretchen is going to be writing about books, big surprise! Like Kristen before me in this series, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. Books were my escape, especially fantasy books. As conservative evangelical Christians, my parents were all about making sure our little child brains were as free from the ‘corrupting influences of the world’ as possible, hence why I watched so little TV and why it took me so long to figure out I was queer. Fortunately for me, my parents trusted my instincts with books. Granted, I was a compliant child who didn’t go out of my way to find anything subversive. If the cover art wasn’t scandalous and the dust jacket seemed free of ‘questionable content’, I could read it.

With literally hundreds of books passing through my hands over the first decade and a half of my life, if I still remember a scene from a book I read only once and decades ago, it meant something to me. Sometime last year, I reflected on these handful of books seared into my soul. Once you look at them, it’s pretty telling why these are the stories I remember.

The Eagle and The Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey (1995)

Sometime in late middle school/early high school, I picked up one of Mercedes Lackey’s books at the local library and proceeded to devour every available book of hers I could get my hands on. I can’t remember which book of hers I read first, but they left an indelible impression on me.

Part of Lackey’s Bardic Voices series, The Eagle and The Nightingales tells the story of Nightingale a Free Bard (someone who wields magic through music) tasked with finding out why the human king and churches are growing overtly hostile to non-human sentient beings and other classes of people they cannot directly control. She joins forces with T’yfrr a member of the Haspur, a race of humanoid eagles who has an angelic voice. Over the course of the book, the two become not only quest partners, but lovers.

So what? I can imagine you thinking. What does a bard and a bird-man have to do with ‘my first queer’? Fair point, dear reader. On the surface, T’yfrr and Nightingale are differently gendered and so seem to fit a heterosexual mold. However, as a young teen, an interspecies relationship felt as ‘forbidden’ and ‘taboo’ as anything overtly gay. There was something…queer about it even if it featured a female human and a male humanoid eagle. Especially in the story’s context of non-humans being persecuted by the church (*cough cough*) and interspecies relationships being considered taboo by the church but accepted in T’yfrr’s culture. Conversations Nightingale has with T’yfrr mirror conversations Vanyel, one of Lackey’s openly gay characters, has about being attracted to men.

Ultimately, it’s a story about discrimination against marginalized people groups and finding love in unexpected places that your society might find taboo but that’s just their (wrong, bigoted) opinion. That struck a chord with me that I couldn’t label. I just really, really liked it okay? And it made a lot of sense to me and made me feel seen for some reason. (Like I said, really telling looking back.) It was also a really well-written story, the best of the Free Bard series (of which this is the third book), in my opinion. We won’t talk about Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I like to pretend that book never happened.

Admittedly, certain aspects of The Eagle and the Nightingales didn’t age well. While the complicated politics and theme of acceptance are still relevant today, the entire Free Bard series features ‘gypsies’ prominently. Lackey’s characterization of the culture she calls ‘gypsy’ is positive, if a bit stereotypical. The real problem is her use of the word ‘gypsy’ at all. I know, I know. This is a fantasy book from the 90s. In that context, her free use of that word to describe a nomadic, Romani-like people is understandable. At the same time, understandable doesn’t mean problem-free and I would be remiss, even in my reminiscences, to overlook that rather glaring issue.

The Last Herald-Mage Series by Mercedes Lackey (1989-1990)

This brings me to the aforementioned Vanyel. The three books in this series—Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price—tell the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. He presents at first as a bored, coddled, vain pretty-boy disinterested in running his family estate. That veneer hides the reality that he’s an emotionally neglected, highly introverted and intuitive, sensitive child who suffers from his father being overbearing and believing he’s ‘not a proper man’. His homophobic father, who fears he is shay’a’chern, the in-universe term for gay, sends him to train as a swordsman to ‘make a man’ out of him.’

Vanyel meets a Herald-Mage trainee, Tylendel, who is openly gay and sparks Vanyel’s understanding of himself. The two become lovers and lifebonded (aka soulmates), but in a magical tragedy, Tylendel dies (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this). The event also awakens Vanyel’s mage gift. In the aftermath, he learns he possesses all of the Heraldic gifts and becomes the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever exist. Eventually he meets another shay’a’chern couple from the mysterious human clan of the Tayledras, the Hawkbrothers known as Moondance and Starwind. Being gay in their society is not taboo, so they teach him to accept his orientation as normal and beautiful. He also meets a bard named Stefan, the reincarnation of his soulmate Tylendel.

Vanyel dies at the end of the series fighting against Valdemar’s enemies. However, that’s not the end for him. He’s given a choice to continue protecting Valdemar, so he, Stefan/Tylendel, and Vanyel’s psycially linked horse Companion Yfandes (it makes sense in context, I promise; she’s like a platonic soulmate who helps him with magic) become spirit protectors on Valdemar’s border.

Admittedly, Lackey killing of Tylendel to awaken Vanyel’s mage gifts doesn’t sit well after recent conversations about the representation of queer characters. Maybe I’m nostalgic and too kind because of what these books meant to me, but the events never struck me as Bury Your Gays (BYG), even as a kid. Lackey goes out of her way to normalize Vanyel’s sexuality, villainize his homophobic father, an even reincarnates Tylendel in the form of Stefan.

Vanyel’s heroic sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel like BYG either. His death isn’t intended to punish him for being gay, which is the root of the BYG trope. In fact, he gets a happy ending, even in death. He, his soulmate Tylendel/Stefan, and his platonic soulmate Companion Yfandes live forever doing what he wanted most in the world: protecting Valdemar.

Oh, and he has four biological children to carry on his legacy, though I honestly can’t remember how the sperm donor thing worked. Twins Brightstar and Firefeather are raised by the Tayledras shay’a’chern couple Vanyel meets. He also fathers Avren, the daughter of lesbian swordfighters in his older sister Lissa’s command. Most important is Jisa, daughter of Shavri, the king’s co-consort. Basically, the king is infertile but no one knows that, so Vanyel agrees to be the donor in secret. As Jisa ends up marrying the heir, the entire rest of the royal line in the Valdemar series descends from Vanyel.

Plus, Vanyel’s story is so central to the worldbuilding and history of Valdemar that without him, the rest of Valdemar wouldn’t make sense. So even in hindsight, I have a hard time labeling this as BYG. He’s just too important a character and everything else about the story resists being boiled down to, “he and Tylendel died because they were gay.”

Anyway, back to why these books were important to me. I related to Vanyel on a deeply personal level. He was introverted, misunderstood, and suffered from both neglect and direct emotional and verbal abuse. He’s deeply emotional and struggles with depression. He’s mocked by friends and family for being ‘moody’ and not fitting into society’s expectations for his gender. Because of the abuse he suffered, he both feared and desperately wanted intimacy yet denied himself the opportunities to open up for fear of getting hurt. Hey! That was me. Reading about Vanyel felt like Lackey had peered into my soul and put what she found on page. And that was aside from him being gay.

Even though reading these books didn’t immediately make me understand my sexuality, following Vanyel’s journey of discovering his sexual orienation deeply impacted me. I got to read it in real time, watch him figure it out, struggle with the implications, and learn to accept and embrace it by being told it was normal. He gave me the first glimpse of something I didn’t realize was true of myself. I just really, really liked and identified with him okay? I was a shay’a’chern…ally.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy (1994)

Before Lackey, there was Lovejoy and Cohen’s Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. I read this in 5th grade, having picked it off of my teacher’s classroom library shelf because it was based on an Iraqi folktale. I loved (and still do love) all kinds of folktales, myths, and fairy tales, especially non-Western stories. Buran’s story became my favorite, though over time I forgot the title and it took me years to track it down again.

Buran is the fourth of seven daughters living in Baghdad. Everyone in the city shuns her father for not having sons; her uncle—father to seven sons—especially like to throw Buran’s family’s poverty and seeming lack of favor from Allah in their face. Not content to see her family suffer, Buran disguises herself as a man, travels to Tyre, and sets up shop as a successful merchant while maintaining her masculine disguise.

Mahmud, the prince of Tyre visits her shop often, and Buran finds herself falling in love with him and he with her, though she’s still disguised as a man. Soon after he realizes his in love with Buran-in-disguise, Mahmud has a moment where he begins to wonder if she is a woman. So, he sets about testing her to prove her gender. Fearing discovery and the loss of friendship and her business she uses to support her family, Buran uses her wits to pass Mahmud’s first two tests. The third, to meet him at the baths, she flees from as it would reveal her identity. Donning women’s clothing, she heads home, encountering two of her male cousins, whose position in life has much diminished since she left. Her family, on the other hand, is rich and her sisters have married well due to her business acumen.

Her family pressures her to marry, but her heart belongs to Mahmud, though she cannot admit it. Rejecting social expectations of her, Buran determines to never marry and leave her fortune to her sisters’ children. However, Prince Mahmud eventually finds her and the two get married and live happily ever after.

Stories about women who disguise themselves as men and have a prince fall in love with them exist in a strange limbo between queer and heteronormative, depending on how the author frames the prince. Lovejoy and Cohen straddle that line in an interesting way. On the one hand, the story lets the prince believe himself in love with Nasir—Buran’s masculine name—for almost two pages. There’s even a highly sexually charged scene between the two of them told from Prince Mahmud’s perspective. But then Mahmud has a rather convenient insight that Nasir is actually a woman in disguise. It simultaneously feels less homophobic than it could have been and as heteronormative as people who don’t want to acknowledge that Li Shang in Mulan was totally in love with Ping and flagrantly bisexual.

Still, as a child, it was eye-opening to read a story about a man who falls in love with another man, only to realize she’s a woman. And Buran was definitely a character I both admired and identified with. I, too, wanted to be more than what my conservative environment said a woman should be. I admired her courage, her intelligence, and her unwillingness to submit to societal expectations for what it meant to be a woman. There’s a bit of Not Like Other Girls, but no more than Vanyel felt like Not Like Other Boys. They’re both characters who didn’t quite fit in and found a way to embrace and celebrate who they were. Once again, to not-yet-aware-of-her-queerness-Gretchen something about Buran and Mahmud struck home.

And then there was the scene where Buran strips naked and looks at herself as a woman after living as a man for years.

“When I got back to my room, my own safe little room in Jihha’s house, I bade the servant leave the candle, and then I dismissed him. I took off all of my clothes, every single piece, and then I stared down at my naked self. I saw the gentle swell of my two breasts, small, but firm and high, with smooth golden flesh giving way to rosy nipples. I saw the slight curve of my belly, which would never, ever be absolutely flat, no matter how thin and hard the rest of me might be. Beneath my narrow waist, my two hips curved like two crescent moons and between my legs, black hair curled in tiny ringlets.” (p. 151-152)

Poor little 10-year-old baby bisexual Gretchen did not know what to do with the confusing feelings reading that passage awakened in her. I’ll be honest, this was the scene that stuck in my mind for years. Until recently, I had no idea why. Looking back now, I can 100% label it as the first viscerally, “Oh shit, I’m queer,” moment of my life. It only took me 20 more years to unpack it, but this book is the piece de resistance of young queer Gretchen.

So these were my first queer inklings. Strange, I know. Two of the stories weren’t even explicitly queer and the other featured a gay protagonist, not a woman-loving-woman (wlw). But they meant something to me. They planted seeds in my repressed, survival-mentality brain that would only come to fruition many years later. For a survivor of CSA and abuse who literally had no framework for understanding being a wlw, these books were the only shreds I had of a part of myself I didn’t have words for. Yes, they were problematic in some ways. Yes, they were imperfect matches to my own experience. But they were literally all I had.

As I said at the outset, these are stories I vividly remembered years later. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of the book, I remembered scenes or interactions that felt…significant to me in some unnamed as yet way. However flawed they are, they hold a special place in my soul.

They’re also the reason why I write mainstream SFF novels. I know there are other kids out there who don’t know they’re queer just like I didn’t. Kids who wouldn’t think to pick up a book explicitly labeled as ‘queer’ either because they don’t think that’s who they are or because their situation at home wouldn’t allow them to. (My parents would have banned any book labeled that way on sight.) Kids waiting to pick up a book about mages or queens or space colonists and see a protagonist who loves in a way they didn’t know was possible.

So in the end, they gave me even more of myself than I ever could have imagined. This is why stories matter.


Images Courtesy of Atheneum Books and DAW Books

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Analysis

Revolution and Spy Work Darken Trickster’s Queen

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Everything seeded in the last book comes to a head in Trickster’s Queen. The novel, published in 2004, brings this duology to a close. It also marks the last novel thus far in which Pierce’s series advances chronologically. The Beka Cooper Trilogy focuses on Tortall’s past, and Tempests and Slaughter focuses on Numair’s past. There are some short stories past this point, but Trickster’s Queen is still significant. As makes sense for such a crucial book, Trickster’s Queen upsets the status quo. The raka revolution come to fruition, and Aly grows into her role of spymaster. Let’s dive into it.

Spoiler warnings for Trickster’s Queen and all of Pierce’s previous novels.

So What Happened?

Aly and the Balitang family return to Rajmuat, the capital city. We discover that Aly trained a pack of spies, and the raka prepared for their revolution over the winter. The Balitangs deal with court intrigue and their great-aunt Nuritin, who’s returned to Balitang house in the capital. Aly deals with Topabaw, the realm’s spymaster. She turns several spies from Topabaw, and begins to unseat him by sowing rumors and with the help of darkings. Jonathan and Thayet sent Tkaa to the Copper Islands, and he brought Aly darkings from the divine realms.

Tensions rise as the raka revolution begins in the outer islands. Sarai grows more popular, befriending the young nobles and a visiting Carthaki healer, Zaimid. Dove discovers the raka revolution, and Aly discovers a luarin conspiracy to limit the Rittevon power, lead by Nuritin Balitang and Duke Nomru. Nawat leaves the capital, feeling useless. The regents kill Topabaw because of Aly’s rumors. The regents try and arrange a betrothal between Sarai and Dunevon, the five-year-old king. The Graveyard Hag helps Sarai and Zaimid run away. On Dunevon’s birthday, the regents send him on a sea voyage and call up a ship-killer storm. He and Elsren die.

Imajane and Rubinyan are crowned, and Aly spreads more rumors. They imprison Duke Nomru, which eventually brings together the luarin and raka conspiracies. They free Nomru, and the rulers blame the luarin nobility. Both conspiracies say the revolution will make Dove queen of the Isles. Assassins strike at Dove when they travel between the palace and their home. The raka riot, and the conspiracy makes their moves. Rubinyan dies in the fighting, and Imajane commits suicide. Ulasim, Junai, and Ochobu die in the fighting. Afterwards, Aly tells the survivors about her Tortallan heritage, and Dove invites her to remain her spymaster.

Character Growth

Aly and Nawat

The revolution changes Aly and Nawat. One of the things that we see from the very beginning is Aly’s growth from a simple spy into a spymaster. She still acts individually, she’s Topabaw’s ‘agent’ in Balitang House and blows up the slave docks. But Ulesim chews her out for the latter escapade, “What I do object to is you taking the command yourself. … But you endangered your people by being there.” (p. 163-4). Being spymaster restricts Aly’s movements, and she chafes slightly at those limitations. Although eventually, she adjusts.

Aly also grows as part of her larger character arc. In the beginning of Trickster’s Choice she claims her only goal in life is to have fun. By Trickster’s Queen that conception of Aly shatters. At the party where Sarai disappears, Aly watches her dancing and compares the two of them and who she was at Tortall. After the disappearance, Aly thinks, “Only a year before, she might have helped Sarai to marry her love rather than be trapped in a political life. … These days I care about duty to those who look to one to lead. These days I care less about fun and more about work.” (p. 265). Her duology-long character arc involves finding work that drives her, that gives her purpose. She finds that in the rebellion and cares more about their revolution than returning to Tortall.

Nawat also grows during the book. He leaves Rajmuat to participate in the revolution more directly, only returning after Elsren and Dunevon’s death. Aly sees, “It was no crow-turned-man who caught her up, but a man, confident in who he was.” (p. 342). This passage allays the power differential between them. Previously, Aly was Nawat’s only link to humanity; now, he has formed an identity separate from her.

Dove and Pierce

The most impressive character arc, or character unveiling, is Dove’s arc. We saw previously that she’s intelligent enough to keep up with Aly. But we never saw how she developed that intelligence and how the political figures of the Islands reacted. Now we know.

When they return to Rajmuat, Aly accompanies Dove on several walks through the city. Dove speaks with merchants, book-sellers, and craftsmen, and she does her best to learn about their work. Her closest friends among the nobility are Duke Nomru and the court astronomer. They fuel her natural intelligence, and she fits in easily with everyone, whether noble, merchant, or beggar.

Shortly after her arrival in Rajmuat, Dove figures out the raka conspiracy and confronts Aly. At her first meeting with the leaders of the revolution, she asks if they have a symbol. “Something that looks like a message, that can be put in places where officials won’t notice it.” (p. 45). Dove also reconciles the luarin and raka conspiracies. They both agree to rally behind her intelligence. After Sarai leaves, Dove struggles with the potentiality of queenship. But with some encouragement from Aly she grows into her new role. She works harder to win the hearts of the common people than Sarai did. Sarai won them with her beauty, but Dove wins them with her kindness.

This book marks character growth for Pierce as well. After Nawat returns following Elsren’s death, he and Aly consummate their relationship. This marks the first sex scene explicitly confirmed in any of Pierce’s work since Lioness Rampant. It further rounds out the more adult world Pierce utilizes in this duology. It also signals that Pierce’s feminism still doesn’t shy away from sexual liberation and contraceptives.

Spy Work

Given our point of view character, this book brims with knowledge about spy work. Aly entirely disdains Topabaw. He began working as spymaster for the Islands decades ago, and everyone dreads his name. Just his testimony proves sufficient to execute anyone, noble or common alike. But when Aly first meets him, his laxity appalls her. “Distant Aly thought, You ham-handed brute. … Ham-handed and lazy, she thought with disgust. … And sloppy” (p. 71). She concludes that Topabaw bought into his own legend and now simply expects that things won’t change.

Aly sets out to bring him down and succeeds by utilizing the power of rumor. She spreads rumors to Topabaw’s spies that the regents don’t trust him. At the same time, her pack spreads rumors to the regents that the Topabaw plots to betray them. Combined with the actions of the revolution, the regents make an example of him at the harbor mouth. The power of rumor mixed with fact also separates Imagjane and Rubinyan. Aly spreads rumors that the Rubinyan wants his son to inherit instead of any children he might have with Imajane in the future. They plant false love letters and an earring, which splits the rulers right before the revolution occurs.

Aly also bribes several of Topabaw’s agents. Vitorcine Townsend in particular is one the narrative interacts with a good deal. Aly and Ulesim discover her sneaking into the ladies private study. At first, they don’t know Topabaw put three death spells on her. When they discovers that Topabaw coerced Vitorcine into spying for him, they binds her in blood to continue to spy for both of them. Aly is kinder to Vitorcine, but even after Topabaw dies, Aly continues using Vitorcine to spy on that household. Vitorcine proves that innocents get caught in the spying game, not just spymasters and those trained for it.

Revolution

The revolution begins when Dove suggests a symbol might be something good to have. The raka leaders talk about how it will make the regents nervous and unite their followers. To let “the common people and the middle classes know that our country is changing.” (p. 45). They pick an open shackle with a few links of chain, “For freedom.” (p. 46). Aly sees the symbol everywhere, made out of vegetables, carved into a glass window or the belt of a conqueror’s statue. The promise of freedom brings many to their banner.

What also brings people to their banner is the death of Dunevon. Although a Rittevon, the death of a child is always a terrible thing. The Honeypot (a district of Rajmuat), goes up in flames for what seems like the twentieth time this book. In fact, The Honeypot proves the pulse of the rebellion, exploding more frequently as tensions rise. The gods also send signs. Mithros and the Goddess realize what Kyprioth arranged and fight in the divine realms. This creates lights in the sky which terrify everyone equally, and the Honeypot lights on fire again.

The imprisonment of Duke Nomru also proves important for the revolution. It is his imprisonment and the subsequent blame of his liberation on the luarin that forces the luarin conspiracy to act. Then and only then do the two interact and start collaborating. Which brings me to another character who changes a lot in the book: Taybur Sibigat, a luarin. Dunevon’s guard, he devotes himself to the young king and survived the storm that killed him. He knew Aly spied for someone from the first moment and pledged himself to her cause after the shipwreck. This culminates in him capturing Imajane and the Grey Palace for Dove. He is the one who opens the gates and proclaims her queen at the end of the revolution.

Conclusion

This book brings the revolution to a satisfying conclusion. It also handles sensitive issues well. The intersectional feminism of this book staggers me. Pierce manages to utilize race, class, gender, and morality to great effect in Trickster’s Queen. Sarai flees because she cannot understand why people hate the raka so much and because she wanted to marry someone who cared about their plight. Racial discrimination among the luarin nobility affects not just the raka but Zaimid, a dark-skinned Carthaki. The lower-class raka in Honeypot make their opinions known through the only means available to them, rioting. Finally, Aly’s morality is darker than Pierce’s previous protagonists.

All in all, the current chronological end to the Tortall series showcases the improvement of Pierce’s feminism quite well. Alanna the First Adventure was feminist on one axis, simply that of gender. This is feminist on several axes. While future books delve into Tortall’s past, this sets it well on the way to advance into the future.


Image Courtesy of Scholastic

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 3×01 Rewatch: Mild Forbearance

Kylie

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Welcome to the halfway-mark of The Wars to Come, the Game of Thrones rewatch project seeking to analyze the show when it was halfway decent. Last week we chatted about Season 2 on our podcast, while this week Kylie, Julia, and Griffin press onto Season 3, with a Benioff and Weiss (D&D) episode, “Valar Dohaeris.”

Episode Recap

We pick up the season with a cold open: the miraculously living Samwell gets chased by a wight, until it is stopped by Ghost and then set on fire by Lord Commander Mormont. It’s the Night’s Watch brothers! Unfortunately, Sam failed to send a raven before they spotted the army of the dead, so their only chance to warn the realm is to all make it back to The Wall.

After the credits, we continue beyond The Wall, where Jon is taken to Mance Rayder’s tent. There he mistakes Tormund Giantsbane for Mance, who stands to reveal himself. The King Beyond the Wall asks Jon why he wants to join them, and after an unconvincing lie, Jon tells him about Craster handing his baby away to a White Walker, and Mormont not caring. “I want to fight for the side that fights for the living.”

Down in King’s Landing, Tyrion is still recovering from his injury. He decides to let Cersei see him, since she points out that a door wouldn’t stop her from killing him if she really wanted to. Bronn, meanwhile, is interrupted from a trip to the brothel so he can come protect Tyrion, if needed. Cersei asks Tyrion what he plans to talk to Tywin about, though he gives his sister only non-committal answers. She storms out before Bronn comes to head with the guards she had brought along.

As it turns out, Tyrion wanted to talk to Tywin about his inheritance, especially in light of everything he did for King’s Landing to save it from Stannis’s invasion. Tywin tells Tyrion (without thanking him) that he can get better chambers, a new job, and a wife as a thanks for his service, but he will never get Casterly Rock. He still blames Tyrion for his wife’s death, and looks down upon him for purchasing the services of sex workers. The conversation concludes with Tywin threatening to kill the next sex worker he finds in Tyrion’s bed.

Speaking of Shae, she and Sansa are watching ships leave King’s Landing when Littlefinger and Ros approach. Littlefinger tells Sansa that he may be able to get her out of the city with him soon, if she’s ready to go on a moment’s notice. Sansa agrees at once. Ros, meanwhile, warns Shae not to trust Littlefinger with Sansa.

Elsewhere in the city, Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell are passing through Flea Bottom in their individual litters when she orders hers to be stopped so that she can visit an orphanage. There she lifts the spirits of the children by telling them their fathers who died in Blackwater were as brave as knights. She lets the owner of the orphanage know that she can come directly to her for anything she may need. Later at dinner with Cersei, Joffrey, Margaery, and Loras, the queen cautions Margaery not to mingle with the smallfolk, though she tells her she’s accustomed to such charity work. Joffrey agrees with Margaery, and it’s clear she’s already gaining influence on the young king.

Just outside the city at sea, Davos is still alive and stranded on a small bit of land. He flags down a ship, and is asked which king he supports, to which he unequivocally answers Stannis. It turns out the ship belongs to Salladhor Saan, who is upset about the battle and done supporting Stannis. He tells Davos to abandon him too, since all he does now is listen to Melisandre, who’s been burning non-believers alive. Davos refuses, and goes to Dragonstone where he hopes to kill Mel. He meets with her and Stannis, and the red priestess declares that if she had been at the battle, Stannis would have won. When Davos tries to lunge at her, he is stopped and dragged away to the dungeons on Stannis’s orders.

Meanwhile, King Robb Stark and his men reach Harrenhal. They’ve grown dejected without a true victory in some time, though find the castle abandoned, with all the Northern prisoners put to death and left out for them. This angers the Northern Lords, and Robb demands Cat be locked up as some sense of justice, despite Talisa’s protests. Then she and Robb find one lone survivor among the bodies: a man named Qyburn.

Finally, across the narrow sea, Dany, Jorah, and the Dothraki still loyal to her have sailed to Astapor in Slaver’s Bay, where Jorah wants them to consider buying a slave army. Dany goes to hear the master of the Unsullied out. He is quite rude, though his interpreter Missandei makes a better case for him. There, Dany learns about the harsh treatment of the Unsullied, who have been castrated, forced to murder a baby in front of its mother, and don’t even flinch when mutilated by the master. Dany is appalled by the idea of owning slaves, though Jorah maintains it’s her best option. As they discuss this, a seemingly innocent child tosses a ball at Dany. She is soon knocked to the ground by a hooded man, who saved her life; the ball contained some kind of poisonous animal. The man turns out to be Barristan Selmy, who asks to join Dany’s Queensguard.

Initial, quick reaction

Kylie: I think I went in expecting Season 3 to be kind of shoddy from the start. And don’t get me wrong: throughout this episode I was reminded of what’s to come and it’s gonna be one journey, that’s for sure. However this episode in and of itself? It was fine. Season openers on this show tend to be, now that I think about it. The zooming around to check in with most people works well to establish a decent pace, and though the stakes are set for the nonsense that will unfold, there’s just not enough detail in it yet to be noticeably bad. I have definite quibbles, and definite frustrations from an adaptational standpoint, but as an episode of TV, this was fine.

Julia: To be very honest, I really didn’t want to watch this episode at all, and had to force myself to do it. And, like Kylie said, it was fine. The time went quite quickly. There was a lot of book dialogue. I don’t think I was screaming at the screen at any point.

Griffin: I didn’t feel it was long, which is rare for this show, but I’m also reminded of the Season 2 opener where I had very similar feelings. It was just, go, go, go, bing bang boom. All set-up, but in a way that made sense because a BIG THING had just happened and we hadn’t really dealt with the fallout entirely yet. New status quos are typically reserved for season openers, as that is the nature of how serialized television typically operates (it’s also easier for the viewers and the production team to work with) but this one wasn’t…really that different. It acted like it was different, but was it really?

Dany is still running around somewhere else, the Lannisters are still in King’s Landing, Robb is still banging that hot time-traveling field nurse, and Jon is still beyond the wall. Stannis is still Stannis, I guess. A few circumstances and specifics may have shifted, but overall it wasn’t this huge change that the episode structured itself into being about. It was fine, though, I guess. Watchable, but not super engaging.

Highlights/lowlights

Kylie: Can Emilia Clarke act? This wasn’t a highlight, but I did have a moment of feeling stirred during the Astapor scenes because it was clear she could understand what was being said, and her emotions were easy to pick up. I’d call this a “nice surprise.”

Margaery was actually my highlight, and I say that absolutely hating what this character’s function is, what the implications are for how the setting is scripted, and certainly what ultimately becomes of her. However, Talisa already blew the hole in the wall, and Marg just walked on through, with her delightful grin and easy grace. She’s a character that’s effortless to root for, because she too has been beamed in from a different time, but at least she’s fun, you know? I’ll take anything I can get. Plus it’s clear that her “charity work” schtick is self-serving, and I’m always drawn to flawed characters like that. Do D&D have a single clue what they’re doing with her? Of course not! Does her employ make any sense as time goes on? Of course not! But I do enjoy the way she shakes it up for now, especially with Joffrey and Cersei’s dynamic.

Everything else felt kind of beige to me, if I’m being honest. I guess Davos’s mini plot was a lowlight, if only because I feel the least engaged with that plotline altogether. Though I do love how Carice Van Houten continues to be far too good for this show, with her absolutely selling Mel’s convictions and self-assuredness.

Julia: I noticed Ms. Clarke’s face too! I was so proud of her! Like, when they do have the “reveal” that she understood Valeryian this whole time, it will neither be a cheap shock, nor will it have been spoon fed. Good job, boys!

That might actually be my highlight. That or Missy’s debut. And the fact that we got an extended book scene like that. There were quite a few book scenes, like Tywin and Tyrion and Davos’s sub plot.

I know you like it, Kylie, but Marg’s stuff is a large part of my lowlight: that random sprinkling of tiny anachronisms that were just enough to drive me a little nuts. I know, I know, the Kool-aid man’s already been through, but for some reason it stuck in my craw. First there was Marg’s Lady Di charity stuff, that was immediately preceded by her ruining a dress that probably took someone hundreds of hours to make, because she’s so progressive. (Has there ever been a clearer indication that they don’t understand this world?) Then there was the dinner dress itself, which might as well be her running around naked as far as Westerosi would be concerned. Also, what kind of climate do they even have in King’s Landing. Marg and Shae are walking around with exposed backs while Sansa is totally covered chin down. They can’t both be comfortable.

And then there is Talisa. Dear, you’re a queen now, at least brush your hair.

And lastly, it was a very small thing, but it got me. Mel was all, “what would you have us do with the infidel, Ser Davos?” No! Stannis didn’t burn dudes because they didn’t believe in his dumb new magic friend; he executed them for treason or murder or whatever, and used a method of execution consistent with his religion. He may be an asshole in the show, but he’s not goddamn ISIS.

Kylie: Everything you’re saying is more than fair and a very good criticism of how they approach this setting. But I just…don’t really like most of these characters, even at this point. Ugh, it’s probably a bad sign that my highlights are already dipping into silly, ironic territory.

Griffin: I don’t know much about any of that, but I guess my highlight had to be…nothing? Nothing really stood out to me as “good” aside from the CG on the dragons, which looked fantastic. Seriously impressive what they did with shot composition; same with the way they meshed practical and digital to make that giant look perfect. There’s no way his beard wasn’t a practical effect. Hair can look good on computers, but not that good. Especially not in direct sunlight surrounded by reflective surfaces. As for lowlight, uh I guess Sansa and Shae’s little game sort of existed.

Quality of writing

Julia: The difference between the scenes that are just a copy-paste from A Storm of Swords and the original material is like night and day.

Griffin: Tyrion is still Tyrion, and thus more or less the one bright spot within this show that is never not entertaining. Other than that, I guess Davos was fine? He seemed more like his book counterpart than any other moment in the series so far.

Kylie: There is that unevenness, for sure. I may have enjoyed Marg as just a break from what we normally get, but she sticks out like a sore thumb with how she’s written. I’d also point to Sansa and Shae’s boat game as an excellent example of an original scene that has very clunky dialogue, especially when Ros comes over to get in on the action.

Julia: D&D are into the social mobility of sex workers; aren’t they great guys?

Kylie: Is “the truth is either terrible or boring” a trailer line? It kind of sounds like it was crafted as that.

Griffin: Now that you mention it, it does sound exactly like that. That and part of Tyrion’s whole thing about saving the city and not being remembered. Or did Tywin say that? Either way, that kind of thing.

Julia: He said that all Tyrion did was waste his time drinking and with harlots or something? And poor Tyrion is such a saint he didn’t defend himself.

Our 8th grade book report (on themes)

Kylie: Episodes that jump around like this are always super difficult, but I guess “self-image” is one? Dany struggles with what kind of ruler she wants to be viewed at and the implications of a slave army to that, Tyrion wants to be recognized as politically important and worthy of his titles given his actions last year, Marg wants to be loved by the smallfolk, Robb wants to be seen as just to the point of locking up Cat, and Davos…more thinly ties in here, wanting to fight for Stannis without having to also support burning people alive, I guess. I can’t fit Jon in, though, and that’s mostly because this show actually doesn’t make the case for why he’s committed to the Night’s Watch in the first place. What he said to Mance is like, “…yeah. Good point. Defect, Jon!” So it didn’t really seem like he was grappling with much, even if he’s supposed to be.

Julia: New threats and challenges? That might be a bit “no duh” for a season opener. Dany has to deal with this new ethical dilemma while she more actively seeks power, Cersei has a new rival, Sansa has a new plan, I guess. So does Jon.

Griffin: I kind of saw it as “none of this matters, neither high-born nor small folk” because of the whole impending doom from eternal winter and undead hordes. A curiously comprehensive rejection of the feudal system that cannot possibly have been on purpose, since it’s my understanding that the showrunners really have a hard-on for it. It’s not super explicit, but showing us so many different facets of a broken system, and then also showing Jon making a choice to say “screw that I’ma do something that matters” is…important if the show was as smart as it thinks it is.

Julia: Yeah, I can totally see that. And Tyrion’s material ties into how unjust this non-merit system is. And even Marg doing all this work on her own and still having to pay lip service to Joffery’s wonderful “leadership.”

Cracks in the plaster

Julia: I feel like we should rename this section. GoT is fully formed except they happen to have some book scenes sprinkled in.

Shae as Sansa’s unironic defendant is giving me feelings.

Kylie: I can’t believe it’s not thematically relevant! I know we harp about Sansa’s arc from the books getting scrapped, but it’s in full evidence here. And nothing comes of it. Shae throws her under the bus to the point where Sibel Kekilli had to join the ranks of actors telling D&D to write something that made sense.

Sorry, ~spoilers~. We could just rename this section “the butterfly effect.” It’s already pretty clear Talisa set the stage for Marg, you know? We’re also seeing the results of Robb as the foregrounded lead. What to do with Cat then? I guess lock her up. Then, of course, there’s D&D’s infatuation with their own created characters. Ros was originally just to offer a grounding, smallfolk viewpoint, and now she’s playing the game and offering snappy advice to canon characters.

Julia: I’m for the name change.

Kylie: I swear it will be done. Also please note the butterfly effect on Bronn, who will get increasingly one-note.

Remember adaptation?

Griffin: I don’t think the show really gave the audience, or Jon, any actual reason to not see the Wildlings as the objectively superior faction to join, like Kylie said. The whole thing with Craster was, as I recall, not totally explicated in the books, but even then that dude was a disgusting monster that the Night’s Watch declared a necessary evil. Meanwhile, the Wildings rape and pillage the seven kingdoms pretty much every time they get past the wall, and we’re, if I recall, either shown or told that in the books by this point.

Mance Rayder used to be a Ranger, yes, but…the show makes them out to be the plucky good guys, and I don’t think that was entirely intentional. Like, it seems almost comically ridiculous that Jon even has trouble choosing between the nihilistic self-defeatist jerks who loathe him and literally any level of emotion…or the pseudo-tribal union of people seeking freedom and not dying from an undead horde everyone else is too petty to pay attention to. If Jon’s primary motivation is honor, and it is, then the honorable thing would be to sacrifice his vows to the Night’s Watch and fight alongside the Wildlings to defend the realm. Y’know, what he literally signed up for.

Kylie: Definitely agree. The Night’s Watch has been done zero favors by this show for two years, and it’s kind of getting to the point where I’m realizing how little the audience has to go on at all. It’s the world’s worst penal colony, and Jon hasn’t yet articulated any of what’s important to him other than “fighting for the living.” Well hey, that is Mance.

Julia: I wouldn’t be surprised if even attentive watchers thought Qorin wanted Jon to defect earnestly. Like you said, so he could actually fulfill his vows.

If I recall, in the books, Jon’s “reason” for defecting was basically “the feudal system screwed me over,” but it was preceded and followed by extensive internal monologues about how confused and offended he was by the Free Folk and their wacky, democratic, sexually liberated ways. So it’s clear that he’s nowhere near challenging the feudal order in any meaningful way, and he never loses his commitment to the Watch. Here, why wouldn’t the audience believe him as much as Mance does? I suspect this will be important for the remainder of the season.

Kylie: Okay, okay, let’s talk Marg as an adaptation. I realize the book character’s performance of pious maidenhood isn’t as plucky and fist-pumping as a sass-talking boss-ass-individual who wants to be so intimately involved that orphanages come “directly” to her, but yee gads is this not what makes sense for the setting. I did like the mention of the Tyrells bringing food with them, since that’s legitimately a way to appease the smallfolk and what happened in the books (with the Tyrells also having been the ones who cut off the supply in the first place). But that entire point was overshadowed by Cersei’s zingers about Marg’s bare midriff, and…well, Marg’s bare midriff.

Julia: I mean, this is exactly the same thing they did with Jeyne Westerling, which is really the same thing they did with Sansa. They reject any notion of traditional femininity as politically useful in this type of setting. So even something as “soft” as Marg doing charity work has to be tinged with sexy dresses and the implication that she looks over the non-profit’s books herself.

I’m still not over the “let’s walk through this alley with no guards and walk in shit puddles!”

Not just because the lack of care it shows for the people who will have to clean the poop from her shoes and all that, but, like…if this is supposed to be a cynical move to be popular with the small folk, then wouldn’t you make a huge show of this? Bring guards, then more people will come to watch. Go talk to the orphans out in the street where everyone can hear you. The way it’s shown, as a spur of the moment thing and just to be nice, implies that Marg’s charitable efforts are…earnest? Which, are they supposed to be? Is she a good guy sexual manipulator?

Kylie: According to Nat Do, she is a shrewd politician who sees the benefit of helping others, but also does like doing it and believes in it. So I guess she’s sexually manipulating for the greater good! As for the lack of ceremony around that visit, Joffrey was there so he mattered in terms of seeing it, and I guess the idea was to start associating the Tyrells with aid. And grinning at kind of creepy looking men!

It makes some sense to me, but this definitely sets the stage for the High Sparrow, who believes his beliefs but also is a shrewd political player (and is the only honest man in Westeros, except when he’s not).

Julia: Yeah, except when he’s not. I guess that applies to Marg too, who seems to forget all this charity stuff as soon as she actually becomes queen. Too many brunches.

Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?

Kylie: Carol is emerging, and will soon take over. We didn’t get confirmation this week about Joffrey giving Moore the orders, but that’s coming. However for her, it was a relatively nice conversation with Tyrion. Cersei is still there though, to a degree, at least to slut-shame Marg.

Julia: I thought that conversation with Tyrion was pretty Cersei-like. “Oh, someone tried to kill you, how sad.” She was even a little drunk sounding. I think good ol’ LH remembered some of that “Blackwater” magic.

Kylie: I guess mild paranoia too? Fine, I’ll give it to Cersei this week.

Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?

Julia: The one big dump was probably the Unsullied and their introduction. And it made sense that it was the way it was. Maybe I’m only saying that because it was a book scene.

Griffin: I remember reading that scene extremely vividly because it was so long, or at least it felt that way. I initially read that chapter in the book, took a break from the books, and then started listening to the audiobooks starting with Book 3 during an hour-long commute I used to have. That scene, combined with all of the other extensive mentions of genital mutilation over and over and over and over again exhausted me and tanked my mood so much that I had to quit listening because it was honestly making me miserable. WE GET IT MARTIN. YOUR POINT IS MADE. DEAR GOD JUST STOP.

But he didn’t, and that’s why the Unsullied scene here was so, so, so, so, so, so, so, much better in terms of execution, at least from my point of view.

Kylie: I don’t remember it being quite so drawn out, though Dotrice certainly makes you hear every word. I thought that cutting off the nipple was very effective to quickly communicate everything, though as Julia said, it was clearly an adaptation of that scene. This is also a benefit of a visual medium, where you can get a lot across in few words.

How was the pacing?

Griffin: Weirdly consistent, to be honest. I don’t recall it being too fast or too slow in any one moment, and I didn’t ask “how is this not over yet?” once. And I do that a lot.

Kylie: I know, I hear it. I didn’t catch you looking at your phone once either. I think the Davos scenes were the closest I came to that, though it’s through no fault of Liam Cunningham. There’s just literally no reason to be excited about Stannis on this show. I do think this is about as well-paced as any Game of Thrones episode gets.

Same.

Julia: Yup. I didn’t even notice how much stuff we haven’t touched yet. No Arya, no Brienne and Jaime, no Theon. Though the longer we’re without Theon the better.

Kylie: No Bran, too. The longer we’re without Bran, the better they think we are, so…

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Kylie: We had Bronn get interrupted by Pod, and then I remembered what’s coming with Pod and sex workers and my soul left my body. I have nothing to say other than, “oh wow, completely unnecessary nudity.”

Julia: I was, like, “Oh wow, she actually has lines and isn’t just chilling with her tits out in the background. That’s how you know this is season 3 and not 5.”

Kylie: Also Bronn was able to have a conversation without the word “cock.”

Julia: He did call the brothel an “establishment,” though. What is even with that?

Griffin: They think it makes their show seem fancy and mature because they believe usage of that term carries the overarching effect of making literally everything sexual in their narrative sex-positive and empowering towards women. At least, that’s my read on it.

Kylie: ‘Cock’ or ‘establishment’? Why are we still talking about this??

Griffin: Establishment, as Julia so aptly established.

In memoriam…those Northerners at Harrenhal

Kylie: This is where I think we’re really feeling the effect of cutting out Arya’s actual A Clash of Kings plotline. That she was in a place with many, many Northern/riverlands prisoners of mild importance was kind of crucial. Now the impact is lost, because it’s just some random pile of bodies that feels disconnected from everything. And then that this find results in Robb getting mad at Cat all over again is just stupid. Jaime Lannister quite obviously had nothing to do with this.

Griffin: Wait, that was Harrenhal? Holy crap, I thought that was Winterfell. That’s…were there any kind of identifying markers to signify that? It was cold, there was snow. Robb and Cat looked horrified, so I thought, “oh they went back to Winterfell that’s weird.” I don’t even think we got an establishing shot, which would have cleared this up real quick. Did we? I don’t recall seeing one, but I could have blinked at the wrong moment. Kylie tells me I missed one, but even still I didn’t think they’d find bodies like that anywhere else aside from Winterfell.

Kylie: That makes sense, though I promise there was an establishing shot, and a quick back-and-forth with Roosey B. about how the Mountain would hold anything Tywin tells him to.

Julia: Imagine if Arya had bonded with a Manderly rather than Grandpappy Tywin.

Kylie: You mean that sad old dude on a bench? Nah.

We do have to wrap things here, though I feel bad since we barely touched on Sam. I guess the wight died? Either way, we’re eager to hear your thoughts. Was the episode as fine as we stated? Are there obvious highlights that we missed? And was Emilia Clarke really moving her face muscles?

Let us know your thoughts, and we once again wish you good fortune in The Wars to Come.


Images courtesy of HBO

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