Friday, April 12, 2024

Back to Basics on Game of Thrones: Misogyny, Violence, and Bad Writing

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The penultimate episode of HBO’s big money maker Game of Thrones has finally aired and it is easily one of the worst episodes of the series to date. Not so much as an individual episode, although it does have issues there as well, but as a culmination/ending to a larger story. Character arcs are nonexistent, or in a special case, completely reversed. A woman is driven “mad” by the mere sound of bells and we get an hour of brutal violence and war without much to say about it. That’s the show’s biggest issue though, isn’t it? It has nothing to say.

It fluctuates and evolves based on what the writers are feeling in a given moment rather than to serve a larger theme and story. I’m not angry purely because they strayed from the books; I’m angry because they did so without a purpose. This neglect of pure storytelling structure in favor of shock is this shows ultimate downfall and now they are finally being hit with complaints using the word “unearned”. “The Bells” is a messy hour and twenty minutes of television, but more importantly it’s a misogynistic, garbled mess that all the while refuses to focus on the thing that attracted viewers to the show in the first place, the characters.

We find out that after the terribly executed death of Rhaegal and Missandei last episode, Dany has locked herself away in Dragonstone and refuses to eat or speak to anyone. Do we see this from her perspective ever? No. In fact, this is one of the major reasons her turn doesn’t even remotely work in this episode and reeks of misogyny. We see it through the eyes of the reasonable men in her life. Varys is writing a treasonous letter about Jon’s true identity and has a little bird from the kitchens spy on Dany. The handling of Varys’ character the last few seasons has been an utter mess.

Messy hair is a sure fire sign she’s going mad right?

As someone who is always supposed to be three steps ahead of the game, he is now always behind. He serves virtually no purpose on this show and reducing him down to a character who only wants to see the best person on the throne for the good of the realm takes away the interesting complexity at play with him. Especially from the perspective of a slave from Lys coming across the Narrow Sea and rising so high in the ranks. The removal of the Young Griff plot in the show has had more butterfly effect issues than I think were ever anticipated, but Varys is most certainly one of the biggest casualties.

Varys decides to approach Jon right out in the open about taking the crown as soon as he arrives on Dragonstone because Master of Whisperers and intrigue are no longer his forte I guess. And, the shock of all time, someone sees! It’s Tyrion. And Saint Tyrion has to report back to his Queen because he’s such a good hand. Except for when he told Varys about Jon’s true identity behind her back and hasn’t talked to her about it once. In fact, Dany raises this very point to him, but he just tries to backtrack. She’s being completely reasonable in this scene, and I can see what they were trying to do in building her isolation, but it can’t happen in the span of two episodes. Also, her hair is messy so she’s clearly breaking.

Dany feels betrayed by Jon and Tyrion for having both gone behind her back and told others the truth about Jon’s parentage, but instead of Tyrion doing what he’s supposed to do best and actually have a real conversation with her, we just have a half nonversation. This pairing has been one of the most disappointing in the show. It’s essentially always Tyrion just talking sense into Dany or talking over her. He makes all of her decisions but they always end up screwing her over. She’s the unreasonable one, but his reason is never backed by the events of the show. It’s Saint Tyrion to the max because they don’t even write his saintliness into the plot anymore. They just tell us how good we and other characters should think he is.

Whereas with Tyrion’s mindset in the books, I can absolutely see him joining and supporting Dany’s turn towards fire and blood, something that had also been building up over time during Dany’s stay in Essos. Tyrion in the books is a ruined, broken man who wants to see the world burn. Might both he and Dany find the truth of consequence in their actions when we see Westeros aflame? I definitely think so.

However, in the show, he’s there to continually mansplain at her and it’s why this seasons’ ‘Mad Queen’ arc is steeped in misogyny. Perspective. We aren’t seeing anything from Dany’s. We’re just being told by all the men around her how out of control she’s being.

Jon comes to see Dany and she confronts him about telling Sansa. Oh yeah, Sansa’s Littlefinger plot worked so well to unravel Dany, I guess she should be proud? He still insists he doesn’t want the throne and that he loves her. The showrunners and Jon keep telling us how much he loves her and yet in this very scene, he can’t even kiss her. Conflicting emotions are possible, of course, but if you say you’re willing to back her 100% because you love her and yet recoil from her kisses, it’s no wonder she doesn’t feel confident in that claim. Because of this, Dany chooses fear over love, a line that would mean something if we had seen her attempts at the other at all this season. And by that I mean personal attempts with the people she’s hellbent on ruling over, not just Tyrion talking her down from a battle plan. 

They bring Varys outside for his execution and Tyrion apologizes to him. Daenerys doesn’t even speak to him other than to give Drogon the burn cue, and it just further distances her from the audience again. We can’t feel for her or see this turn because the writers don’t care about her perspective in all of it. We only see it through Jon and Tyrion’s eyes. Drogon burns Varys and that’s that.

Tyrion once again tries to reason with Dany about taking King’s Landing, begging her not to kill the thousands of innocents Cersei’s using as a human shield in the Red Keep. Here is where that change in Tyrion only further comes into play. In the books, Jorah often advises her to take what is hers and ignore her heart and morality. With the addition of Tyrion and everything Dany is facing, it only makes sense for her to throw herself at Westeros with fire and blood. However, Weiss and Benioff always have her reach for her own worst impulses, only to be talked down by men.

In the books, Dany’s internal morality and compassion are her strengths. The follies are the men and society around her challenging all of that. The show seems hellbent on framing her as unwieldy and mad, much to the shock and detriment of the reasonable and intelligent men surrounding her. 

However, Dany tells Tyrion that she will show compassion to the future generations by taking down Cersei, and Tyrion begs her that if she hears the bells of surrender to lay down her weapons and halt the attack. She also tells Tyrion that they caught Jaime trying to sneak through their lines, clearly, on his way to Cersei, his loyalty was a lie. She threatens that the next time Tyrion fails her will be the last, and it only further highlights how dumb it is that she is even taking counsel from him anymore after he only consistently failed her since she appointed him Hand, and going behind her back left and right.

Tyrion goes to see Jaime (somehow they have all landed on the shores of King’s Landing despite the Iron Fleet pervading as a threat?) and decides to free him so he can get Cersei out of King’s Landing and save the unborn baby. Tyrion is just such a good guy. But, what made me literally cackle in absurdity and anger was a line that came from Jaime. When Tyrion asks him to try and convince Cersei to changer her mind and surrender to protect all those innocent lives, Jaime literally says “To be honest, I never really cared much for them. Innocent or otherwise,” in regards to the people of King’s Landing.

And that is Thrones in a nutshell. In an episode that has Euron touting the moniker “Kingslayer” at him, did they forget why he did it in the first place? Jaime’s character hinges on him making a choice that defines him for the worst to protect the lives of innocents. I know they love the Larry/Carol dynamic so much, but how did they decide to let all of this– that they even developed on their own show– fly over their heads this badly?

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau wondering what happened to his character’s arc

Tyrion frees Jaime with the promise of taking Cersei away, apparently, they can row a dinghy all the way to Pentos, for the life of their unborn child. The thousands he’s about to see burned by Aerys 2.0 don’t do it for him, but the baby will. I guess nothing should surprise me after he was still all gung-ho on Cersei when did blew up the sept in true Aerys fashion. Tyrion says goodbye to his brother, and Dinklage does some great work that only makes you sad he has had no real character these last few seasons.

The battle starts, no one seems to notice a missing Jaime, and Drogon is a million times more efficient in clearing those scorpions than his brother was last week. In the blink of an eye, the scorpions are all gone, and the Golden Company obliterated. It’s this one-sidedness that also makes a large portion of Dany’s turn an issue that needs either a different angle or better development.

With the battle already clearly won and the Unsullied and North forces ready to face the Lannister men inside the city walls, they all call for a surrender. The bells ring. Dany looks up at the Red Keep and she snaps. Just like that. If anything, kudos to Emilia Clarke because she is really giving it her all to sell this. Despite the enemy’s swords being thrown down at their feet and all the white flags being raises, Dany zeros in on her target and heads towards Cersei on Drogons back. Or so it looks. Benioff and Weiss say that Dany seeing the Red Keep that visual of a home taken away from her, has made it personal.

The face of a man meant to rule

Fair. Let her make it personal. That makes sense after all that she had lost. So she should do what it looked like she was doing and fly head first at Cersei. Let her cruelly burn her after a surrender. A choice that is definitely personal, definitely immoral after the surrender, and probably not just.

However, they have her just start blasting fire everywhere, killing many innocent civilians in the process and destroying the city she is so intent on ruling. And we never hear once from her in this episode about why she needs to make this specific choice at this moment. We just watch it unfold through the eyes of Tyrion and Jon as they stare in horror.

Her army takes this as a sign to start attacking and pillaging. Jon stops one of his men from raping a woman. We see majority of women and children being slaughtered. And speaking of Jon, he’s doing virtually nothing about it. Giving no commands, not controlling or leading his army. And this is the man we’re supposed to want to be king? And worst of all of, this just further proved Cersei right. We see this foreign tyrant come overseas with her army of brown people and they attack the innocents.

Arya and the Hound are also in the city. Arya intent on killing Cersei and Sandor his brother because #Cleganebowl. As they are making their way through the castle and rubble is falling all around them from Drogon’s attacks, Sandor stops her and tells her to leave otherwise she will die here. In D&D’s famous ‘let’s speak our arcs out loud’ ways, he basically talks to her about the futile nature of revenge (as he’s going to get it, but she’s got life left so he’s willing to save it?). She thanks him for it because god forbid she realize her character arc on her own, and tries to escape the city. Cue the rest of the episode of her running around streets, narrowly avoiding the blast of rubble and dragon fire and accidentally killing a woman and her child in an effort to save them.

In isolation, I do like Arya being here and trying to shepherd out innocent lives from the city. I also think the inclination to have people we know and care about on the ground is a smart one. However, having her go there for Cersei, be turned away by the Hound, and then run around aimlessly for the rest of the episode as she gets thrown around wasn’t the right way to go about it. Also, this problem would have been solved even more so if they just had an army with all the people we know in the streets.

Had Brienne, Pod, Gendry, Royce, etc. come to fight, we would have had so many different perspectives on the ground and it would have been that much more meaningful/impactful. Also, it could have gotten Jaime there if he pledged to fight in a cleaner way and then maybe they could have their cake and eat it too as he battles with what he wants.

Cleganebowl is on as Sandor finds The Mountain ushering Cersei to Maegor’s Holdfast and the sight of his brother snaps him out of his zombie mindset. He throws Qyburn down, killing him and, in one of the episode’s most hilarious moments, Cersei just tiptoes around the two brothers in a very ‘oh pardon me, excuse me’ fashion. The brothers fight and just as Sandor is about to get his skull crushed, he stabs Gregor in the eye and throws himself into him, jumping off the building to their death. Or rather, into the fire as Weiss stated in the episode because Sandor needed to die by fire. So poetic. Forget the rest of his arc about revenge and violence though. So deep.

As Jaime tries to find a way to Cersei, he runs into Euron who survived the dragon blast of his fleet somehow, and the two have a very burly fight. It’s kind of hilarious. Euron stabs Jaime two times with a dagger, but Jaime musters it in him to kill Euron, hobbling away to try and get to Cersei before it’s too late. Not to make matters worse, but in this very scene, they have Euron taunt him with the Kingslayer title. Do they just always have temporary memory loss? Oh well, Larry is just a bumbling fool in love with his sister I guess. Forget the last episode with Brienne and four seasons of (admittedly circular) character work before that.

Jaime finds Cersei in the perfect spot. Floor Map spot! It’s meant to be. She hugs him, relieved to see him and horrified to see him bleeding, a development I find hilarious because she sent Bronn to kill him like two episodes ago. Forgive and forget, though.

RIP floormap

Jaime tries to usher Cersei out of the keep through the passageways but rubble blocked the way he came in. She starts to cry, begging him to save her and their baby, but he knows it’s hopeless. Our beautiful soccer mom and soccer dad look at each other one last time, Jaime telling Cersei that nothing else in the world matters, only them, and the true valonqar– rubble!– kills Cersei. But truly, they have done what I thought impossible. They just did a 180 on any character progression Jaime has had and we’re back to where we started. Great writing! Emmys all around.

In the streets, Jon finally gives a command for his men to fall back, although at this point it’s really too late. Arya wakes up amongst the rubble and finds a beautiful white horse to ride away on. Poetry. No, but really, in an episode where she supposedly goes ‘mad’, we don’t even see another perspective on Dany for the rest of the episode.

Benioff and Weiss also talk about this episode representing the devastation the small folk face in this game of thrones and I had to laugh. They have never cared about the small folk on this show. In fact, they have superficially ignored them. Namely, just the other season after Cersei blew up the sept. They would have definitely had a reaction to that. Or even in this episode and the ones leading up to it. They are always portrayed as just sheep in a crowd. There’s no perspective there. For them to pretend to care about it now is just frustrating.

While I still don’t know if I’d call this the worst episode of all time, it’s up there. And for what it means for the greater plot, it might just take the cake. At least we only have one more episode left!

Images courtesy of HBO

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