Content Warning: This article discusses verbal abuse, sexual slavery, and rape as depicted on Game of Thrones.
After torturing myself with a rewatch of the sixth season of Game of Thrones, (hey it’s okay to hate watch!), I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘adaptation’. While I think we can all safely say that the show has moved so far off from its source material that ‘adaptation’ might not be the right word anymore, the process of adapting is still one of the greatest means of critiquing our media today. It gives us a grander view behind the curtain at all the cogs and machinery that go into the choices the creators make. On an original show, one doesn’t have the privilege of comparison. Filmmaker’s intention and the implications of the material can be more difficult to pin down without a source material to compare it to.
With Game of Thrones (“Thrones” from here on out) we have the ability to see when changes or omissions were made, what they entail, and thus what they mean. It’s the widest view into creator intention that could possibly exist, and it’s what makes Thrones criticism some of the strongest and most comprehensible criticisms of part of the art that doesn’t always resemble the finished product: the development.
Creators, when adapting already written material, make a choice when they cut something or change something. Whether that choice means they didn’t think something was important, they didn’t think it was good enough, or they thought they had something better to service the story, it all leads back to initial developmental decisions that reflect on the creators.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made all kinds of choices when adapting George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. From the smallest changes that might have you asking as a book reader “Are they doing this just to spite me?” to glaring changes and omissions that say a lot more. One of the most personally frustrating parts of the show and its current place in pop culture is its depiction of sexuality, which is what I want to address today.
After Yara’s latest hitch as a swashbuckling rapist lesbian this past season and the treatment of Loras Tyrell, it’s clear that the sexuality spectrum has never been their strong suit. And let’s not forget Oberyn “I have to grab every ass in the room to prove to you I’m bisexual” Martell. However, in the books, there’s more fluidity. There’s more truth. That’s not to say that A Song of Ice and Fire is a beacon of light for LGBT+ representation in fantasy literature, but it’s leaps and bounds above its television adaptation. Suffice to say, the final result doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the movers behind the cogs.
For starters, the primary characters that the show has chosen to depict that are within the LGBT+ community are limited to the three mentioned above. None are depicted in well-rounded or positive ways in the adaptation. One was reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality alone, losing any and all characterization (Loras). Another become no more than the caricature of their sexuality that they were intentionally putting out as a front (Oberyn). The third was reduced to representing a letter in the acronym to check off a quota and, in doing so, became representative of the toxic masculinity that is so often forced upon the community by people who have never navigated it (Yara).
Sexuality is important and it’s a topic that Thrones, which claims to be a progressive force of fiction, continually fails to handle well. Loras’ character has been reduced to his sexuality ever since Renly’s death on the show. After being reduced to one part of his identity, he is then condemned for it, confesses to having sinned, and is mutilated as punishment all before he gets blown up with a mass of people at Kings Landing.
In the books, Loras is a knight. He’s proud, dashing, a great warrior, short-tempered, headstrong, and very much resembles a younger Jaime Lannister. They’re fascinating foils for each other in the books. Loras’ attempts to balance his journey as a knight and member of the Kingsguard with his love for Renly, a love that lasts more than a scene or two in the books in terms of grief, shows Jaime who he was and who he could be. Loras, Jaime laments, is stubborn and a little vain, but he is truthful. He is worthy of the title of knight and because of the heart, honor, and pride that guide him, he will most likely end up on the great pages of the White Book. He will thus secure his place in noble Westerosi history, a place that Jaime is trying to rewrite for himself.
“He is proud and reckless and full of piss, but he is not false. Not yet.” – A Storm of Swords, Jaime VIII
Moreover, Loras Tyrell’s love for Renly runs strong and true, so much so that he says, “When the sun has set, no candle can replace it.” In the show, they focus on his sexuality more than any other characteristic. He sleeps around after Renly’s death (there are jokes about him sleeping with every stable boy in King’s Landing), which perpetuates the stereotype that gay people are more promiscuous. In the books, Loras has this beautiful arc about coming to terms with Renly’s death that runs parallel to his virtuosity as the ideal picturesque vision of knighthood. All of that nuance is lost on the show.
Oberyn’s sexuality on the show is essentially as heavy handed and offensive as Loras’. The writing of Oberyn evinces the horrible trope where bisexuals are hyper-sexualized. In order to prove to the audience that they are bisexual, writers feel the need to depict them in bed with both sexes repeatedly. It’s why Benioff and Weiss set practically all of Oberyn’s scenes in a brothel. Such damaging stereotypes about bisexuality, as well as the oversexualized POC imagery they are pushing, are all fronts Oberyn puts on for the people at Kings Landing to shock them. However, Benioff and Weiss took this act seriously (probably because they didn’t end up adapting the POV character that breaks the racist caricatures of Dorne) and in doing so, made his sexuality the punchline, just as Loras’ was.
In the books, when Oberyn comes to Kings Landing, he puts on the facade of being the racist Dornish stereotype everyone thinks him to be. He flaunts his sexuality and progressiveness in front of them all because he wants to make them uncomfortable and knows that it will. However, the stereotype Oberyn perpetuated to disquiet everyone with his presence was quickly broken down by the narrative. The Dornish no longer seemed a stereotype once we heard his deeper conversations with Tyrion. Even less so once we got Dornish perspectives in the story.
Yara, however, is probably the most offensive of all and so incredibly frustrating. In a perfect world, the possibility of a character that I am emboldened by as much as I am by her book counterpart being apart of the community I identify with would be a jump for joy moment. Instead, it was a disastrous series of events as the writers took Yara’s book counterpart and made her revolting rather than empowering.
My immediate emotional reaction to the Volantis brothel scene in Season 6 was revulsion. I sat there dumbstruck at how they could have made this scene even worse than I could have possibly imagined it after the release of the trailer. I could not understand how people online were shouting happily about the fact that Yara was a lesbian and how great of a piece of representation what they just saw on their screen was. It took me a moment, because of this disparity of opinions, to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t exaggerating. I realized that people are so starved for any form of representation on screen that validates their identity that even the most disgusting, problematic portrayal seems like a victory.
Moreover, the primary dialogue around the show seems afraid to actually critique its flaws, so I questioned whether or not I was making something bigger than it actually was. I wondered if my read on the situation was plagued by bias and assumption that the creators and writers meant something more sinister than they actually did. However, once I watched the “Inside the Episode” and deconstructed the choices they made, it was clear that the implications didn’t happen by accident.
One of the biggest problems I have with the show in general is framing, which brings me to the age old battle of depiction versus endorsement. You’re allowed to depict something horrible, as long as the lens through which you tell your story doesn’t endorse it. Context must clearly communicate the act as horrible. With Yara, while it would still be disgusting character assassination and bad representation, if they at least framed her actions as negative, I would have been more comfortable with watching it play out on my screen. If Yara’s verbal abuse of an already abused victim and rape of a sex slave was looked at through a lens indicating that what she is doing isn’t right and highlighting her wrongdoings, then it wouldn’t be as problematic. Instead, her actions were framed as positive.
This Yara is saturated with toxic masculinity. The reaction Yara has to seeing her brother again this season has been incredibly jarring, disturbing, and virulent. Her relationship with Theon was previously established on the show as one of love and care, so much so that she was willing to shake all responsibilities and the will of Balon to attempt a rescue.
“I’m going to pick the fastest ship in our fleet. I’m going to choose the fifty best killers on the Iron Islands. I’m going to sail up the Narrow Sea, all the way to the Weeping Water. I’m going to march on the Dreadfort. I’m going to find my little brother. And I’m going to bring him home.”– Yara, 3.10 “Mhysa”
This doesn’t sound like a person who would subsequently tell her brother, when he is in the most need of her support and care, that he should kill himself or forget his trauma. There’s uneven characterization in general. Where previously Yara combated the Ironborn ways of life, commenting on the futility of reaving, she tries to earn support at the Kingsmoot by pledging to command the biggest fleet the Iron Islands have ever seen. While an arc of wanting to change a damaged and futile system emerges early on, it begins to quickly disappear.
It’s lazy storytelling in general, crafted to fit the needs of the plot rather than character driven journeys. Especially when compared to the takeaway for Asha’s (Yara’s book counterpart) reaction to seeing her brother again for the first time, albeit under different circumstances, which is much stronger and sweeter. In a show and story that so rarely gives us beautiful and supportive relationships between siblings, where we get either the toxic incestuous relationship between Jaime and Cersei or even a seed of discourse stirring between Jon and Sansa after reuniting, showing this, especially in a people like the Ironborn, would have been beautifully meaningful. In a sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, the unreleased next installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Theon describes Asha’s reaction to seeing her brother and hearing his story.
“You have to know your name,” he’d told his sister. “You… you told me you were Esgred, but that was a lie. Your name is Asha.”
“It is,” his sister had said, so softly that he was afraid that she might cry.
–The Winds of Winter, Theon I sample chapter
Asha turns her initial disgust at a creature she believed to be pathetic to endearing sincerity, care, and sadness for a brother she thought lost and a brother who had been broken apart.
Not only is Yara verbally abusive to Theon, but all of her interactions with the sex slaves tell a story of sexual abuse. In Volantis, slaves are marked by tattoos. Varys even explains this last year in his chat with Tyrion.
Varys: “Yes. The Volantine masters are very organized. Flies for dung shovelers. Hammers for builders. Tears for whores, lest they forget.”
–Varys, 5.03 “High Sparrow”
We are even told the specific tattoo that makes a sex slave: a tear drop. The woman Yara kisses has been marked with said tattoo and thus, is a sex slave. It’s information being directly fed to us on the screen, and it’s undeniable.
Yet, the fact that this “glorious” bit of representation was a depiction of rape, not sexual agency, is completely missing from the dialogue regarding this scene. The sex slave has no agency. She is someone’s property who uses her as a good or service like an object, and Yara continues to treat her that way. She’s not free to make the decision to kiss Yara. She’s not free to act on her own accord. If someone is not psychically free, no matter what face they are putting on, they have no agency to make choices that dictate their life. Kissing a sex slave in a brothel isn’t a scene of proud sexuality and consent. If one person can’t properly give consent, it’s rape.
The worst part is, either the writers neglected to realize it’s rape, which they’ve done in the past, or they forgot what they had already written. Further along in the scene with Tyrion and Varys in Volantis, they show up at a brothel where Tyrion proceeds to turn down sex with a sex slave after charming her with his ‘wits’, because he’s too good for that narrative. God forbid we paint Tyrion in a negative light because on the show, he’s turned into a “Mary sue”-eqsue character who can do no wrong. He can’t bring himself to have sex with a slave because he knows she has no agency, and he’s jut too good of a guy to ever do that.
Either the writers forgot or expected their audience to forget the tattoo that marks the sex slaves, and so when this scene happened, they expected raves and cheers of support for their great instance of ‘representation.’ They chose not to frame Yara’s interaction with the sex slave as clear rape within the narrative when in the past season, Tyrion’s instance of refusing to partake in sex with one furthered his endless Nice Guy arc and continued to confirm him as a hero who can do no wrong. There are worrying implications from both a writer’s standpoint and a storytelling standpoint. Virtually the only instance of lesbian representation on this show is one of rape. At the same time, a straight hero was previously placed in the same situation with a more complicated underlying narrative wherein he chose to take the ‘moral’ high ground. This is more than just a commentary on the problematic Ironborn way of life.
This scene was one of the only scenes of sexual nature between two women, other than the brothel scenes with Littlefinger where they are all for the male gaze, and yet this felt just as gross. This one and only scene, a scene that had many people cheering, was a moment of rape and toxic masculinity internalized tenfold. I don’t think you can call it good representation when the lesbian character we’re supposed to identify with and support in the narrative is a rapist and a sexist who believes the women she is raping are things. Even without directly naming the slavery aspect in this episode, she calls the girl that she is going to “fuck the tits off of” “this one,” as if the slaves were an object. She’s not ‘navigating’ this patriarchal society. She’s perpetuating it here with rape and looking at sex slaves as objects, not people.
Within the structure and narrative of the Ironborn culture of the books, I could see Euron, Balon, the book character and other Greyjoy uncle Victorian, and even the past-Theon saying this, but Asha (Yara’s book counterpart)? Asha who was born into this lifestyle and culture but as a woman who had no interest in being a Salt Wife. Asha who had to grow up combatting the inherent sexism within her society in order to find a way to rule. One of the best examples of her attitude towards the Westerosi patriarchy and toxic masculinity in general comes from her POV chapter in A Dance with Dragons.
“Cunt again? It was odd how men like Suggs used that word to demean women when it was the only part of a woman they valued.”–A Dance with Dragons, The Sacrifice
Asha has been on the receiving end of a million “cunts” and a victim of sexism all her life. Living and growing up on the Iron Islands only multiplied it. A woman in her position, who’s had to navigate the Ironborn her whole life and earn their respect, knows how it feels to be mistreated for because of her gender. She had to work hard within that structure to prove herself as a a good ruler in order to get the type of support she wants, especially at the Kingsmoot, but this applies to Balon’s support as well. However, if Theon hadn’t been a victim of war and been taken by Ned to be his ward at Winterfell, I don’t doubt for one second that even one of her greatest supporters (Balon) wouldn’t have given her a second glance or anywhere near the amount of attention and respect that he did.
All of her “masculine” traits that she pushes in the books were products of fighting against the sexism of the Ironborn culture. She is forced to navigate it because she lives in it, but she also combats it. How else would she have been accepted and respected as the warrior and leader she had come to be in the Iron Islands? By taking Theon’s place and learning how to fight her battles against the system from within, she became the heir Balon had lost.
Instead of that narrative, where she’s a tough Ironborn but a victim of the system and culture that she must navigate and overcome, we get internalized misogyny multiplied and shot back uncritically. In the books, she is a captive of Stannis’ army, and one of her guards is Alysane Mormont. A relationship that begins as captive and captor turns into respect and earnest warmth. That journey of mutual female respect is documented through the names Asha uses to refer to Alysane. What starts out as “the She-Bear” becomes “Alysane” and eventually, “Aly.” This is not a woman who treats other women like things.
Yara is an abuser. From rape to verbally assaulting her abused brother Theon, she has become a grossly toxically masculine person, not just navigating but embodying all the bullshit she’s had to combat to command Ironborn ships and be respected as Balon’s heir. Why are we even supposed to favor and support her over her uncle Euron, who is just as toxically masculine and cruel? They think, behave, and internalize their culture to the same extent, and are virtually the same. Minus Euron’s kinslaying, which no one has an issue with anyway. It’s no wonder the Kingsmoot picked Euron after he discussed the size of his penis, since Yara’s mindset is consistent with that same dude-bro patriarchy brain.
I also have to mention that in the books she is straight, and vehemently so. Usually, I would be one of the first people jumping for joy at the notion of one of my favorite characters representing something so rarely represented on screen. However, I can’t help but think that the decision to make Yara, a less stereotypically feminine female character, gay reflects a stereotype that the show runners and creative team perpetuate in their heads. It’s at the very least consistent with Alex Graves calling Brienne, also a non-conventionally feminine character, a lesbian. It is also worrying because in the books, her heterosexuality is one of the few instances depicting female sexual agency and choice of partner for a woman in this society, contrasting all of the arranged marriages we see. In the show, Yara’s sexuality is changed to represent a different minority, but is showcased in such a way that she is the only one in the act with any agency.
And That’s It
This is all the representation we get? This is what websites are cheering about? This is what the show is getting applauded over? Thrones has never been good with diverse representation, especially not representation of sexuality. While it’s not easy to maintain every secondary and tertiary characters’ arcs, they should still be fleshed out and fully rounded people. Loras was gay. That was the only characterization they gave him and the only thing his scenes ever indicated or told us. They continued this pattern with Oberyn Martell and Ellaria Sand, both of whom are bisexual. Most of their scenes took place in a brothel. The show fell into the trap of equating bisexuality with hyper-sexuality, an offensive, harmful, and ridiculous stereotype. Yeah, they both could enjoy sex and engage in it often, but that’s not all they do. From the show, we wouldn’t have guess that. It’s one of the biggest issues they fell for when adapting Dorne in general.
A desired subversion of these stereotypes never comes on the show, and these people are all reduced to their sexuality. Thus, while another sexuality might have technically been “represented” on our screen, it was more harmful than honest and positive. Yara’s character and the situation in the brothel is downright damaging, yet it’s cheered in the critical and cultural dialogue. Furthermore, it’s supported in the narrative, as Weiss and Benioff don’t seem to see the toxicity in their relationship or the blatant abuse here as being harmful. After all, abusing an abuse victim is just “tough love” (according to their “Inside the Episode”). Rape is apparently a badass and brave form of lesbian representation, too. The writing refuses to frame Yara’s interaction with the sex slave as clearly negative and wrong, yet, they had no issue doing so with Tyrion. They reduced lesbianism down to a gratuitous representation of her sexuality, while also characterizing her as the toxically masculine face of sexism that stains Ironborn culture.
From the mess of what they chose to adapt to the nuance and character exploration of what they didn’t (i.e. Jon Connington or Taena Merrywhether) it’s clear that they made a choice. A choice that, in the end, resulted in both a stunted and harmful depiction of what little representation the LGBT+ community can claim in this blockbuster of a show. Choices matter, and as we move toward the end of the show, a show that some people are lauding as a beacon of feminism and representation in fantasy, it becomes clearer that what Benioff and Weiss are actually interested in adapting is not a genuine attempts to represent diverse communities as people. They seem far more interested in representation points, even if they perpetuate problematic stereotypes and falsities, in order to create the spectacle without heart that Thrones has become.
Images Courtesy of HBO
My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels
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
Revolution and Spy Work Darken Trickster’s Queen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Game of Thrones 3×01 Rewatch: Mild Forbearance
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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