Welcome back! Last time, the fusion of editors Kylie and Julia, Julie, provided you with a thrilling play-by-play of the events that took place in Cheryl’s Landing—a reminder so that we might immerse ouwhorselves showrunners’ David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D)’s vision.
This is the section where we talk about said vision, and the implications of the story told. As we began to write this analysis, we realized that the plot-holes and contrivances of this particular arc were so thorough that we also needed a Part 3 dedicated entirely to the lack of logic in Cheryl’s Landing.
We may bring in some of our knowledge about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire where it relates, but overall, we will be judging this Game of Thrones (GoT) plotline on its own merits. We’re certain Emmy voters will be applying the same level of scrutiny in a few weeks!
What was the story in Cheryl’s Landing?
Yes, we all just spent time reading through it and remembering the plot points. And out of that, it’s rather apparent that the central tension was The Faith/High Grandpa vs. everyone else. Cheryl emerged as the only main survivor of this story, and we’re quite comfortable calling her a “villain protagonist” in this case. And credit where credit is due: D&D actually scripted her like a villain, unlike last year.
So, we could call this whole thing Cheryl’s story, wherein she grieves for her children and struggles with how to approach her upcoming trial. Her situation becomes perpetually worse (or at least, the probable outcome is assumed to be increasingly dire), so then she decides her best recourse is to burn the mothafucka to the ground. Which is why she’s a villain.
But she’s also the central protagonist; there’s really no question that High Grandpa serves as the antagonist for the audience. If we’re ever meant to sympathize with him, it’s beyond us where and when we’d do that exactly. When people paid him for making shoes maybe? He basically spent the entire plotline being a sexist, homophobic asshole, whose mistreatment of the Tyrell siblings bordered on hilarious, given the rest of their family’s inaction. The best that could be said about High Grandpa was that he had ideas for a more progressive tax code, but given that the only thing we ever saw him proactively do was sick his thugs onto relegated women or gay men to mutilate, it’s a little hard to connect to his supposed populist leaning. In fact, we’d go so far as to call it an informed attribute.
He bullied everyone, gained more power, and then at the trials—really the culmination of his plans—he got randomly stupid (or maybe tunnel-visioned in his eagerness to maim Loras). Then he blew up.
So that’s the good guy and the bad guy, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also point out a third actor in this plotline, who was accorded a good deal of narrative space: Marg Boleyn. She was definitely meant to be a sympathetic character, though she was not the protagonist given the fact that at the end of the day, her plotline bent to the needs of Cheryl’s, and not the other way around. Which is fine; stories can have deuteragonists.
So in that sense, the “B-plot” of Cheryl’s Landing was Marg struggling against the Faith’s oppressive control of the city, doing all she could for one sole purpose: to save her brother. Then she blew up.
It’s clear to us that Marg and Cheryl are meant to be contrasted. But it’s not at all clear how, or on what parameters. Let’s give it an honest try.
What Marg and Cheryl have in common is that they are women who are trying to not only survive, but also to exercise power and influence within a very patriarchal system. They both find themselves in positions where they’re royally screwed over by the Faith. But, whereas Cheryl “chooses violence,” Margery attempts to work within the system, trying to turn it to her own advantage. And she seems to do this to avoid violence. Particularly towards her brother, but also more generally.
So we have to assume that Marg’s function within this narrative is to be a foil for Cheryl. It’s meaningless to talk about them being in opposition, like they clearly were last season. For one thing, they didn’t have a single interaction. For another, Cheryl says more that once that she’s putting her thing with Marg aside for the sake of the monarchy in this power struggle with the Faith, and truly seems focused on taking down the High Sparrow over the Tyrells—even allying with them on multiple occasions. But we’re supposed to look on Marg more favorably, right? Cheryl is a villain protagonist, after all.
But Marg gets blown up and the villain wins. Okay.
Olenna kind of has an arc, but her status as a secondary character can’t really be disputed. We guess she learned that she was wrong not to be vengeful towards Cheryl from the start? She opposed
the Military Creation Act teaming up with Cheryl, then she didn’t so they could have their dramatic set piece, then she did again when the plot demanded it. Probably this was all mostly set up for the tail end of the series. We can’t wait.
Larry also kind of has a story in Cheryl’s Landing, and it’s one of abject failure. Also telling Cheryl over and over again that they should fuck everyone who’s not them and choose violence. Until the set up for the next season’s plot (or so we assume) needs him to be super concerned that she took his advice. We’ll have more to say about Larry when we get to the riverlands though, so let’s just leave that there.
There was certainly a Qyburn/Pycelle tension set up, but given how infrequently they appeared, and that Qyburn was really just acting as Cheryl’s lackay, it’s difficult to act as though this is an arc for either one of them.
However, it is worth discussing Tommen’s.
From what we could tell, the entire season was characterized by him being heavily influenced by whoever spoke with him last. He had a mini-arc in the first few episodes where his tummy hurt over not having been able to protect (or possibly control?) Marg and his mother. Then he made the choice to trust in Cheryl, who promised to help him. Emboldened by this, he screamed at High Grandpa, and this is where he began to get sucked into that dude’s evil plan. TomTom reunited with his statutory rapist wife (though she was mercifully not so into that this year), who immediately used her hold over him to manipulate him (FUN!), leading him to commit to this idea of a union between the Faith and Crown that was somehow different than how the city had been operating last season.
We think this was supposed to weigh on him, because in the dressing Montage of Significance, he’s clearly not happy with the situation.
Then his mom blew everyone up, and he committed suicide. That was his tale.
What was the result of the story from a thematic and character perspective?
Now that we know what D&D were trying to show us, and about who, we come to the why section. What was being explored, and what were the takeaways for the viewers?
Cheryl and the Violence
As Cheryl is our protagonist, it’s only fitting for us to consider her story first. And quite frankly, we can’t make heads or tales of this. Like, Cheryl is clearly, clearly a horrible person. She’s a mass murderer who was shown deriving pleasure not just from watching the controlled demolition from afar, but also from actively torturing poor Spoonella, before gleefully leaving her to one of the most implicitly horrifying fates on this show to date.
Those of you who’ve been following our take on GoT for some time know what we thought of Cheryl’s scripting in the past: that she was Carol, the struggling super mom who had to battle the patriarchy. She was a highly sympathetic character, who, while more than willing to verbally threaten people, hadn’t actually done anything that bad? Especially since Season 3 on? Yes, arming the Faith was myopic, and it’s a little unclear if we should pretend Carol knew she’d be able to get Marg in a perjury trap by setting the Faith on Loras, or if she was just using homophobic extremists to win points in a cat-fight. And, as we discussed last year, that plot point made so little sense that considering its implications for Carol’s characterization is essentially impossible.
But there at least was the strong implication of her story for the past two seasons, and not a wholly unintentional one: that of Carol as a victim, shut out of power, who was helpless to protect her murdered son, who had no recourse to help her daughter being threatened in Porne, nor her younger son who was being actively abused in front of her.
Look. We’re kind of used to D&D just resetting personalities at the start of a season. Darth Sansa’s transformation into Sansa the moron, who couldn’t ask basic questions about the world’s worst plan, from Season 4 to 5 comes to mind. But in this case, these guys knew Cheryl’s arc this season was going to culminate in her blowing up the joint. Yet for reasons we still can’t fathom, they continued the Carol narrative.
And it’s not like we see her begin to slip or anything: the woman couldn’t catch a single goddamn break the entire season, until D&D decided she could just not face any repercussions for murdering a member of the Faith with multiple eye-witnesses, could magically orchestrate caches of wildfire being put into place, (or were they already there? Was that the implication?) and could extract the nun tailing Marg for torture fun times, all while under house arrest. Then all of this was ultimately rewarded with her ascension, despite having no claim to the throne, despite having no heirs, despite her brother being alive and no longer sworn to the Kingsguard, and despite the fact that you’d think the denizens of Cheryl’s Landing would probably have given more than a few fucks that their entire government and place of worship had blown up. D&D seem to have Cersei’s opinion of the smallfolk as a political force, we guess.
We think the most important scene for the Cheryl narrative, both from a Doylist and Watsonian perspective, is the scene where Olenna called her the “worst person” she had ever met, and “truly vile.”
From a Doylist perspective, we believe this demonstrates D&D’s understanding of this character. They truly think they created a villain worthy of such a description, and that the woman who murdered her oldest son and encouraged Marg to sexually abuse and manipulate her youngest one possibly had ground to stand on when she said that. And don’t give us the “this is their moral ambiguity” horseshit; it is utterly disingenuous to pretend that they don’t want us on Olenna’s side. She pops in for sassy retorts, and she represents the Tyrells, who we like, because the marketing tells us we should.
The point we’re trying to make, however, is that to D&D, Cheryl doesn’t sit in contention with Carol. They had her threaten to burn cities to the ground in between calmly fighting the patriarchy and trying to protect her children from harm, so of course she’d choose violence, and then really choose violence. It’s not at all unreasonable to them that Tommen would think that Carol would murder Trystane. It doesn’t matter that the last time we can actually remember her harming anyone was, like, Robert in season 1. We guess she was mean to Sansa during “Blackwater”. Characters keep calling her “evil” and “violent”, and so does the marketing, so we guess that means she is. We don’t understand why it is that this is so widely accepted by the audience, unless, perhaps it relates to that one word beginning with an “s” and ending in “exism.”
From a Watsonian perspective, the scene literally ends with Olenna saying, “what are you going to do, kill everyone yourself?” So here’s where we’re supposed to assume is the inception point for Cheryl’s Big Boom. Or at least that’s the framing of it. We talk logistics in Part 3, but from a character perspective, it seems as though this is the story of someone who had her back to the wall. Cheryl had no formal power and no one respected her, the one attempt to do something about this serious problem was a miserable failure thanks to the incompetence of Larry and Mace, and then to just keep piling on, trial-by-combat was outlawed, heavily increasing the chance of her…you know, fucking dying, by a whole lot.
We’re not trying to say mass murder is justified or anything, especially when fleeing was an option, but then add to this the strangle hold these horrible people have on TomTom and the crown, and it’s almost as if the Carol narrative was still going strong. Until she was gleefully sipping that wine and then ignoring her kid to go torture a septa, all while claiming she was a hedonist, which had literally never been in evidence before. Were we supposed to take that at face-value, by the way? It’s just so stupid and random. You can frame anything in those terms. We rewatch D&D’s cruddy show because it feels good to us to write snarky recaps. We feed our sons (feline and human) food because it feels good to us to not have them die. Hooray!
We’re actually at a loss to figure out what takeaway D&D were even going for, though. Rising to power must come at a personal cost? Well…that’d be maybe something, except that TomTom’s suicide was completely contrived, as we’ll explain more later.
But Cheryl’s story was supposed to be about personal cost, wasn’t it? We found the direction given to Lena Headey in the scene where she’s staring at TomTom’s corpse utterly mystifying, but it was clear her final look to Larry was not the face of someone who was pleased. And his look back was something along the lines of “unease,” right? Concern?
However, the only loss Cheryl dealt with was TomTom, and again, we’re back to the contrivance issue. If this was the takeaway D&D meant for us to have, it didn’t pan out. But what else is there for us to get out of this plot? That inside the most reasonable and sympathetic person is a mass murderer waiting to snap?
Not that she was totally unreasonable, especially with the whole outlawing the trial-by-combat thing. Like…not to pull this card, but what should Cheryl have done? Flee? We guess flee. But you know, sociopolitical implications of allowing the Faith to stay in control. Ah whatever.
Can we actually take a minute to talk about Septa Spoonella? Because even given how fundamentally unstable Cheryl must be, we still don’t get why she felt it so necessary to single the woman out for special torture and death, especially when she was working for High Grandpa. Though, we’re a little torn, because it actually is a little Cersei-like that Cheryl doesn’t understands a chain of command, not that we’ve seen Cersei on our screens before. Or are we maybe expected believe that Spoons actually is overzealous with all that…scripture reading we saw her doing.
Cheryl seemed pretty convinced of this:
“Beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement. You did it because it felt good.”
But was this supposed to have been in-evidence? The haircut last year was stupidly rough, we’ll give Cheryl that. There were also two other septas taking part in it. The dehydration thing was clearly a tactic to break her, and there’s really no suggestion that it was above and beyond what High Grandpa asked of her. Then he was the one who ordered the walk itself.
So really, Spoonella’s “overzealousness” is just another informed attribute we’re supposed to accept, probably because D&D thought it would be cool for Cheryl to have a Bond villain moment, and they think her fulfilling her threats made in desperation is poetic or some shit. We’re just so sad Cheryl never had Marg strangled in her sleep.
Marg’s ‘Subversive’ Strategy
Oh Marg. We have been confused by this character since season 2, but since, as we mentioned, character motivations like to randomly reset at the beginning of seasons on this show, let’s just consider her arc this year.
Though, one thing about this character that is consistent is that she has always been someone who has relied on her ability to manipulate others. At the beginning of the season, Marg found herself in a dilly of a pickle, imprisoned for perjury (we think) by a bunch of fanatics. Honestly, it’s been more than a year and a half, and we’re still not sure if we’re supposed to think that charge is ridiculous or not. High Grandpa seems to take it seriously when he announced it to the crowd before the non-walk. Are we supposed to see this as some kind of commentary or take it at face value? We have no clue.
At first, Marg is defiant, but then after conversation with High Grandpa, and finally seeing just how bad things are for her brother, she seems to make up her mind that she needs play along in order to help Loras. Then shit happens off-screen, and next thing we know Marg is outwardly converted enough to get a bath and a trip to the hair salon, and she’s preaching the gospel to Tommen.
We hear that she’s embraced the Faith and is totes okay with the fact that she’s going to have a slut-shaming walk (again, for perjury.) But then we find out that this was all part of some deal with the High Grandpa to get herself and Loras out of this mess… by sacrificing Loras’s claim to Highgarden and giving the government over more or less wholesale to the very fanatics who are responsible for putting them into this situation. And she’s so confident that this plan is ace that she doesn’t take the opportunity to ditch it when her father arrives with an army. Why not? We have no clue.
Then she continues to play along, even agreeing to unreasonable demands, like having a septa follow her around everywhere and supervise all her conversations. (We remind you again, her only crime was perjury.)
Marg is so confident she’s got this that she sends Olenna, the person whose advice and judgement she’s been shown to be dependent on for three seasons, away (though that was also for her safety, we guess). But then at the trial, things go wrong for her. We think. It seems like it was no longer going according to plan. There’s really no way for us to tell, since we have no way of knowing what her plan is exactly.
Then she blows up.
Really, because so much that was so fundamental to this plan happened off-screen, it’s very difficult for us to discern what the message even was. Like, if the High Grandpa had a candid convo with her at any point about how best to tag-team TomTom, this really changes our own views on Marg choosing to work within this system. But in absence of any of those details, what are we meant to think of this story at all? That she would have been better off not trying to help her brother and stop the abuses he was suffering? Because truthfully, we can’t see even Cheryl blowing up the place in absence of Marg’s shitty shitty deal.
As we said in the previous section, the only real way to make sense of Marg’s place in this plotline is as a foil for Cheryl. We know for sure we’re meant to view Marg in a positive light, and Cheryl in a negative light. But…it’s the villain (protagonist) that wins. This is a bit of a disturbing message for the audience, because it seems to be endorsing Cheryl’s means as the way to survive (and prosper) in this world. Whereas allowing yourself to be guided by empathy and a desire to protect loved ones through bloodless means gets you blown up. Or even before blowing up, Marg clearly felt as though she got fucked over by the High Grandpa with Loras’s mutilation. She lost. She thought she could help, she picked the path that seemed to make the most sense and come with the least harm to others, and she was fucking wrong. Cheryl won.
The best that can be said about Marg’s arc is that at least she got a bit of a Crowning Moment of Competency before she died. The same can’t be said for her bro, Loras.
Highgarden May Be Screwed
This is another character that’s confused us from the beginning, but our concern has grown with every season. What we mean is that Loras had no hope of being anything but “the gay dude” ever since they inexplicably cut that scene with him and Marg from season 2. (Seriously, it’s less than two minutes long, they could have fit it in.)
Since at least the end of the second season Loras, and his homosexuality (now his only discernible trait) was mostly used for laughs. It may have been him talking about fabulous wedding decor with an oblivious Sansa, or his long distance flirting with Showberyn, but it was fairly consistent that “he’s gay, now laugh” was the thing.
But in this season, (and Season 5 we guess, though to be fair, he was hardly in either) it was less, “he’s gay, now laugh” and more “he’s gay, and he must suffer.”
And suffering is all he really does. Loras doesn’t have an arc or a story. He hasn’t had one since, again, season 2 when Renly was around. And even that was truncated to preserve the shock of the Tyrell/Lannister alliance in “Blackwater”. He is just the token gay who suffers so that we know how evil the Faith Taliban are. He suffers so that straight characters like Marg and Olenna can react to it. Loras as a human being simply doesn’t exist for any intent or purpose.
And the implications of the way he was scripted, even as just Generic Suffering Gay Man, well… they make us uncomfortable. The narrative never misses an opportunity to tell us how Loras fails to measure up to the toxic masculine ideal—an ideal heartily endorsed by this show at large. (We would talk about how this is in contrast to his book characterization, but what would be the point?) This extends from Loras’s general aura of whininess in the fifth season, to the way he crumples under pressure from the Faith in the sixth. In contrast to Marg, who never breaks.
And then there was his trial… We ask you: if you’re going to blow up the man anyway, why not give him a Crowning Moment of Awesome—a last chance to assert himself and be strong? Why did he, and the audience, have to be subjected to public humiliation? Homophobia is bad and the Faith Taliban are evil, we get it. We did not need too see him scarified with a religious symbol to have that point dawn on us. And we really didn’t need the close-ups of the blood dripping from his face with doleful piano notes plinking away. We get it. He exists solely so that we can consume his tragedy. Fabulous.
Olenna is also worth discussing. We’re going to save most of her for when we tackle Porne, but she was actually in this plotline quite a bit. Her defining qualities this year seem to be cattiness and stupidity. We suppose it’s understandable that Olenna isn’t Carol’s biggest fan, given the perjury trap, and we’ve already discussed her one-on-ones with Carol and Marg ad nauseum, so there’s really only one point to make. D&D; this character isn’t nearly as funny as you think she is. Her continually insulting and threatening other women might be sassy, or whatever, but it was old around the time she was chatting with Tywin about how her super-gay grandson likes to “swallow swords”. That is all.
Who else is there to talk about in the Tyrell bloc? Mace? We guess singing his way to competency didn’t work out. To be fair, his antics are kind of funny, we’re just not sure why he exists, given that he does nothing but make a speech and then get blown up. And where’s Alerie Hightower?
Living on a Prayer – And Also Thugs
Like we noted, the High Grandpa is also one of the primary actors within Cheryl’s Landing. As the antagonist, maybe talking about his arc and the takeaways for the audience is a little unfair, since an antagonist exists for a protagonist (or in this case, both Cheryl and Marg) to act against. However, people both within and without of the narrative treat him like this nuanced dude, able to provide commentary on Weisseroff not previously accessible. We mean, Marg and TomTom were so in awe of him that they forgot all their adjectives.
Are we, the audience members supposed to think, too, that High Grandpa is “a lot more…”? To us, this dude is just a completely unreasonable sexist asshole with goals that are never clearly defined. It’s pretty clear that he wants to spread the Faith to nonbelievers, even by force. He wants the Faith to be a fundamental part of the governmental structure in Weisseroff, apparently in a way that’s more involved than whatever the previous system was. And he really, really wants men to stop having sex with each other. And for women to stop having sex in general, unless they’re patiently staring at the ceiling.
Unfortunately, the details of what he actually hoped to accomplish were simply never there, and only further muddied with every speech he gave. He hated the feudal order, and felt that it inherently involved sinning because some people were rich. So, was he trying to break the wheel? How was putting seven-pointed stars on the Kingsguard uniforms going to accomplish this? He berated Marg for loving her family, so what was it he was hoping she’d do?
The best that could be said about him is that he was at least consistently scripted as a sexist, homophobic asshole. Like, sexist to the point that Larry off all people had to point out the misogynistic hypocrisy of his approach to governance (or preaching, or whatever he was doing). So if that’s the case, the takeaway is…if you’re too bigoted you’ll end up blowing up? Maybe? Or that you should never sacrifice political pragmatism for absolutist ideals? Though from what we can tell, he was handed everything he wanted and more by Marg for doing the latter, and his only mistake was not bothering to set a septa on Cheryl as well. (We’re still waiting for an explanation of why that was, by the way.)
Is the takeaway just “don’t fuck with Cheryl,” or “it was wrong to underestimate her”? In some ways that’s exactly what happened to Marg the season before, so maybe it’s intentional, which is almost exactly why we say it’s probably not best to talk about his arc as the antagonist, because he exists to feed the needs of Cheryl’s arc. Whatever that was. The High Grandpa was a really, really great schemer when it was him vs. Marg, but then the plot required him to be an idiot for Cheryl’s plan to work, so he was. The end.
Speaking of Endings: Tommen
The last Baratheon king of Weisseroff is hardly a protagonist; as we said in the recap, he spent the entirety of his short life being manipulated by everyone but his cat. But we need to talk about his arc, one of our favourite examples of what we like to call a “reverse honeypot”. It’s when there’s a story on our screens D&D didn’t even realize they were telling! (Think Hizdahr zo Sansa’s awesome resistance narrative last year.)
Tommen was basically a non-entity until Joffery’s death. And after that, one of his first scenes was Marg trying to get on his good side by being sexy. (Or something. Alluring maybe? She wasn’t being maternal, that’s for sure.) Then from there the character he seems to have the most in common with is Loras Tyrell. Except he’s suffering and being used for comic relief at the same time.
It’s flabbergasting, but we’re still quite sure that D&D don’t know what they wrote with Tommen and Marg. Hence why we call it a “reverse honeypot”. This is a story about a child being sexually abused and cynically manipulated. Not just by Marg, but by everyone. The sexual aspect of the abuse mercifully goes away (at least on-screen) in the sixth season, but the emotional manipulation is alive and well.
The problem isn’t that this story was told; the problem is that it was told without sensitivity, or even awareness. The confusion (or, like, lying) about Tommen’s age, and what exactly his relationship with Margaery was in the source material, kind of proves that they simply weren’t expecting this objection to come up. Then the way his enjoyment of his rapes was framed as a hoot (and something Marg later used to be catty towards Carol) just adds insult to injury.
It’s tempting to see Tommen’s suicide as a response to his trauma; that his situation is an object lesson as to why statutory rape laws exists in the first place. But that was before the showrunners came out and said that Tommen’s suicide was entirely Cheryl’s fault.
“Meanwhile Tommen’s alone. This fragile, malleable, devastated child, basically, is sitting there without anybody to comfort him. And if she had been there he wouldn’t have gone out that window. She failed him and she alone failed him here.” —D.B. Weiss
What the fuck, D&D? The only reason Tommen was left alone in that room was because you wrote it that way, and you know it.
Why this story even exist?
We hope we don’t sound incredibly patronizing when we say this, but we talk about themes and character arcs because that’s like…why something is written. At this point, it’s not really a problem to us that Game of Thrones is thematically opposite to A Song of ice and Fire; that’s just more of an annoyance. But what this plotline made completely clear to us is that there’s really nothing they’re attempting to say, past “oh wow what a shock!”
We mean, yes, there are overarching themes of this show, such as “honor gets you killed”, “revenge is cool”, and “everything is bad and you should feel bad”. But from the perspective of the character arcs, there’s just no meaning to be had.
If this was supposed to show Cheryl’s dissent into madness as a result of getting pushed more and more, it failed, for one, because she was super reasonable until she randomly wasn’t, and for two, because the Tyrells and their way less severe crimes had it so much worse. The idea that she’d snap and hit this breaking point just wasn’t earned by the narrative, especially given the whole Bond-villain-septa-torture-moment.
It could be a story meant to demonstrate how violence is the only reasonable course of action, but then there’s the issues of the utter contrivances that backed Cheryl into the corner in the first place, something we’ll explicate further in the next section.
Plus, also, in what way is that a story worth telling? Just so we can revel in the EVHUL and GRITTY world they created? Because if so, we’re back to the problems with the hilariously inconsistent setting of the show.
We tried, we really tried, to understand what it was D&D were even going for here, but any possible message was either so muddied by the show’s own inconsistencies, or so horrifying as a concept, that we prefer to assume these guys put no thought into it at all.
So all there is for us to do is shake our heads, deal with the fact that the most meaningless (in the strictest definition of the word) show on television is considered the height of contemporary drama, and move on to Part 3, dissecting the supreme amount of illogic that permeates every scene.
Images courtesy of HBO