The problem with character gumbo is that you have to make people care about the character gumbo. The problem with getting people to care about the character gumbo is that you have to rapid-fire establish the relationships and dynamics between those people. This week in “Beyond the Wall”, Game of Thrones had seven different characters for us to care about: Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, Sandor Clegane, Gendry, Tormund, Beric Dondarrion, and Thoros of Myr.
Some of the dialogue between them was okay. Some of it was not. Let’s go through what wasn’t. Spoiler alert, it all has to do with sex.
There’s no getting past this one. Unlike many combinations of characters in this gumbo, Gendry has history with Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. They sold—not ransomed, sold—him to Melisandre back in season three, like a slave. This was not a great bit of writing in the first place, as the Brotherhood Without Banners was primarily motivated by their attempts to protect the smallfolk, of whom Gendry is definitely one. They did take money from the smallfolk to fund their efforts, leaving probably-worthless promissory notes in their place. What they definitely did not do was sell people. Westeros as a whole is deeply against slavery. But this is just the start of the problems.
While in Melisandre’s keeping, Gendry was sexually assaulted by her. I’m not clear on whether they had sex (read, Melisandre raped Gendry), but in any case, she definitely manipulated him sexually in order to put leeches on his penis without his consent. Which is sexual assault. Gendry regarded this as manipulation as soon as he realised what was happening. As he told Davos in 3.10,
“Never been with a woman. Never talked to a woman, really. And then she comes at you.”
So he’s been clear, and to the viewers as well, that Melisandre preyed on his inexperience and took advantage of him in order to assault him. This character gumbo situation gave Gendry to confront the people who enabled that situation.
Not only were the men themselves entirely lacking regret for their actions (“we’re fighting a great war, and wars cost money,” as Beric said… What a hero!), their new friend Sandor told Gendry to stop “whinging” about it.
GENDRY: You know what she did to me? She strapped me down on the bed, she stripped me naked—
SANDOR: Sounds all right so far.
I’m sorry, what? I couldn’t have heard that right.
SANDOR: Could have been worse.
GENDRY: She wanted to kill me! They would have killed me if it wasn’t for Ser Davos—
SANDOR: But they didn’t, did they? So what are you whinging about?
No, that was definitely Sandor telling Gendry not to make such a fuss about being sold like a slave, sexually assaulted, and nearly murdered, and Beric and Thoros refusing to apologise because money. From there poor Gendry is put in a position where he has to defend himself from accusations of being a whiner. Specifically, he’s not allowed to “bitch” about it because Beric, one of the men who sold him to Melisandre in the first place, has had it worse.
But maybe this is a demonstration of how this society regards sexual assault and rape perpetrated against men?
The show’s history would indicate otherwise. Tommen’s rape and abuse by Margaery was played for laughs, and an improvement over his mother’s care. The show didn’t notice when Ygritte coerced Jon into having sex with her. Just last season we were treated to a minute and a half of random soldiers in the Riverlands sexually assaulting their peers, also for laughs. The show has edited out Littlefinger’s experience as a rape victim, and turned Aeron Greyjoy from a victim and staunch opponent of Euron into a supporter. And let me tell you, I am mightily entertained.
It’s also why I don’t think Tormund’s comment to Gendry that “we have to make do with what we’ve got” complete with suggestive look, was intended to be a reference to fucking a bear. The writers do remember that Tormund killed the last man to accuse him of the horrible crime of being attracted to men, right? He’s even more zealous about persecuting gay people than the High Sparrow was.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont were having a chat of their own, discussing Jorah’s father Jeor. Naturally, this had to touch on why Jorah was kicked out of Westeros in the first place, a topic the show has avoided for many seasons. Jorah, you see, was kicked out of Westeros for selling poachers to slavers so he could buy treats for his wife. He left the country only a few steps ahead of Ned Stark and a death sentence.
In this conversation, he accepts that what he did by selling those poachers into slavery was wrong (no, you think?), and that Ned Stark was entirely correct to come for his head. He cannot overcome his hatred for Ned, but he acknowledges that it was justified. It comes a bit out of nowhere, as does Jon’s declaration that he’s glad Ned didn’t catch this criminal and punish him justly, but otherwise it’s good positive character development showing some nuance and actual maturity from Jorah.
It’s clunky, but the real problem here is who the showrunners have chosen to give this development and why.
In the book, Jorah Mormont is a deeply horrible person. He is categorically unable to accept responsibility for his actions and places all the blame for his exile on Ned. Well into book three, he shows no remorse for his actions, even spying on Dany, and categorically refuses to apologise, insisting instead that she has to forgive him. With Dany herself, he’s a clear sexual predator, attempting to gaslight and isolate her, on one occasion kissing her without permission, and persisting despite her repeated insistence that his attentions were unwelcome.
In the show, his love for Daenerys is portrayed as pure and true. This is in spite of the fact that he continues to hold Dany to an unrealistic and idealised standard (in seasons two and five, he says as much), and continues to disregard her instructions for him to stay away from her. On one occasion he brought a contagious terminal disease back to her city. Because he loves her just that much.
This discussion with Jon is part of that ongoing romanticisation of Jorah’s actions, as Jorah later refuses Jon Snow’s offer to return Longclaw to House Mormont, telling him that the sword was now for him “and his future children.” In other words, Jorah is approving of Jon as a romantic partner for Dany, giving up on her, the sword, and his denial of his responsibility for enslaving those poachers. The decision to change this sexual predator to a hopeless lovelorn suitor, without actually changing several of his most worrying behaviours, is another part of the show’s reprehensible depiction of romance. And its shoddy interpretation of what’s going on on the page.
Between ignoring sexual assault perpetrated on men and romanticising the sexual predation of women, it was a real relief when we got to Sandor and Tormund discussing anachronistic slang for the penis, so that previous joke about Dickon Tarly’s name could make sense.
TORMUND: Ah, cock. I like it.
SANDOR: I bet you do.
Worth every second of screentime.