Sunday, June 16, 2024

Game of Thrones and Trauma: Vile Volantis

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Since I have resumed watching Game of Thrones, the Greyjoy children, as they are adapted by the show, have always been my least favorite characters. In my previous meta on GoT, I discuss how Theon mansplains the hell out of Yara’s Queensmoot, and ultimately both of them fall victim to the screen-writers’ incompetence and Euron’s unsubtle Trumpness. This week presented the opportunity for them to fix this error; a small, intimate scene shared between Yara, a loving sister, and Theon, who was tortured within an inch of his life and barely managed to escape his captors.

There was so much potential for such a scene… But once again the head writers waffled it.

hermione slow clap

The scene begins with the Greyjoy portion of the Iron fleet moored in Volantis, specifically under the Long Bridge. As my colleagues and I are fond of pointing out, there is little-to-no consistency of time-frame in GoT. Two episodes ago, the Greyjoys were on the opposite side of the world; The Iron Islands lie to the north west of the Riverlands, almost on the same latitudes as The North, in the midst of the Sunset sea, literally as far west as is known in GoT. Volantis is quite far east; it took both Tyrion and Quentyn Martell months to get there from Westeros. Of course, most of this episode could be rationalized as taking place over months. Sansa, Jon, and Davos ping-pong all over the North trying to drum up support and Jaime makes it to Riverrun from Kings Landing. However, the episode ends with Arya getting her butt whooped by the Waif, so unless we are meant to believe that Arya was willing to spend months in a city full of faceless assassins who all want to kill her, we must assume that this episode took place over about a week or less.

Moving on from the travel inconsistencies, we begin with Yara getting it on with a girl. I suppose this isn’t too big of a deal, as all the other Ironborn are busying themselves with other brothel-girls, but it should be pointed out that all the girls on display have tear-drop tattoos on their faces. In Season 5, Varys explained the meaning of tattoos to Tyrion, so going on those explanations we realize that the Ironborn are purchasing sex slaves. Danaerys’s whole ambition of conquering Slaver’s Bay is to free these slaves, and Varys’s scene with Tyrion in Volantis is framed and shot to show the hardship and cruelty of the existence that these slaves must endure.

To see the Ironborn furiously buying into the whole thing—i.e. purchasing and raping sex slaves (you see the thing about slaves is that, you know, they can’t give consent)—is very incongruous with the previously established attitude towards slavery. Which yes, they’re hypocrites if we want to bring in book knowledge to discuss the Ironborn’s thralls and salt-wives. But they fiercely do not believe in purchasing people…or purchasing anything. Not that we’d have any idea of this from the show.

During all the shots of the Ironborn paying the iron agreed-upon price to the slavers, we get close-up shots of Theon, showing his discomfort with the whole situation. Let us remember that Season 1 – 2 Theon was an almost insatiable sex addict, and this was something that Ramsay Snow (now Bolton) mercilessly preyed on while Theon was his prisoner. Props to Alfie Allen for really selling the scene; his fear and tension is palpable, and it does not help things at all that Yara has her hands full on the opposite side of the table.

The kind of representation we deserve: titillating lesbians
What empowering representation: rape.

From our previous scenes involving Yara and her relationship with Theon, we can see that she does genuinely care for him. While they are both at Pyke, enduring their father, Balon Greyjoy, Yara is one of the few people who treats Theon kindly. When she arrives in Winterfell to convince him to flee with her, she relates to Theon how much she cares for him through a touching story from his babyhood. When Theon is captured, Yara leads a fleet of Ironborn around Westeros to free him from the Dreadfort, rather than abandon him as Balon would have her do. Yara is a hardened general and a capable warrior to be sure, but she also cares deeply about Theon and his wellbeing. In fact, short of the brief scenes with the Starks in Season 1 and Sansa reuniting with Jon in this season, Theon and Yara were one of the few sibling relationships where there was some measure of genuine affection between the two.


With that in mind, the whole rest of the scene is jarringly discordant. When Theon asks Yara to stop, clearly uncomfortable, not only does she NOT stop, but she says “Some of us still like it.” From the beginning, Yara is mocking Theon for his maiming.

Yara tells Theon to have a drink next, and Theon refuses it. That, apparently, is enough to distract Yara from her sex-slave, however reluctant it seems; she sighs in aggravation and tells the slave “I’ll find you later.” Then she turns full force on Theon and shows how insensitive and heartless this show can be.

Full figured! Look! She has rolls, and she’s beautiful!

She asks him if seeing a woman who “has an ass like that,” does nothing for him. For all you “That’s How it Was Back Then,” people, Medieval and Classical standards of beauty make no mention of the desirability of a woman from the curve of her butt. Helen of Troy had magnificent breasts, medieval illuminations show the idealized pale skin that women should have, late fifteenth-century fashion attempt to create the impression of pregnancy by gathering the fabric above the belly. All sources describe women full of figure as being beautiful. None of them mention gluteal tissue. The closest we get is the width of the hips, which was more useful in determining fecundity and the possibility of safely birthing children. Yara is probably NOT interested in that aspect of female beauty.

Neither is Theon, especially since his internment in the Bolton’s Dreadfort of Fun and Deadly Mutilation.

Theon does not reply, and for a scant second Yara seems like she is about to redeem herself. She apologizes and promises not to joke about it (even though her previous dialogue seems to have a tone of mockery). She promises that she would never hurt Theon, ever. They have a brief moment of small talk, discussing their murderous uncle and how likely it is that he is hot on their heels, mentioning that when he does catch up to them they hope to have their alliance with Daenerys cemented. Everything is going fine, and the amount of douchery that Yara previously showed is not out of place with her character. She is Ironborn and a General; she is allowed to be a little coarse and unfeeling. Besides, no one undergoes sensitivity training in Westeros.

Now that the small talk is done, Yara offers Theon a drink again. Theon declines, saying “I don’t want any.” Yara’s response: “I don’t care what you want. Drink!”

It’s all downhill from here.

Theon takes a sip, then Yara instructs him to drink it all, saying: “You’re Ironborn. I know you’ve had some bad years…” Let us remind the viewing public of what those “bad years” were. After convincing himself to betray the closest thing he had to a real family, Theon was captured by the most evil thing that the Seven saw fit to place on Westerosi soil. He was brutally tortured and mutilated in the Bolton’s dungeon. To ensure that Theon was utterly broken and incapable of escape, Ramsay let Theon escape so that he could be recaptured and tortured again, convincing the prisoner that any future rescues might be a trick set up by his captors. By the time Ramsay was done, Theon did not even use his own name, accepting a new identity as Reek. Suffice to say, those years were enough to warrant more than Yara’s passing “I know you’ve had some bad years…” Theon even calls Yara on this, but she steamrolls on.

Yara next says that she is tired of Theon “cowering like a beat dog.” Theon is not cowering. He is wracked with internal guilt: his failure to bring the Greyjoys to Robb’s side and his aiding of their invasion of the North can be directly correlated to the Bolton’s betrayal of the Starks. He killed two farmer’s children to hide the Stark children’s escape. When his sister came to rescue him, Theon recoiled from her touch and remained with the Boltons, so thoroughly ruined that he refused to leave with her. While he was Reek, he watched Ramsay Bolton brutally rape Sansa Stark, who was as much a sister to him as Yara. Theon has done and seen a lot, and having all this bottled up inside him is enough to cripple even the strongest of people. Theon is not “cowering,” he has been traumatized by years of torment, and now his sister tells him that he needs to get over it, in so many words.

As Theon quaffs another ale at his sister’s insistence, she tells him she needs “the real Theon Greyjoy.” Let us consider that statement. In Season 1, Theon was a vile slug of a man. It was strongly implied that he was about to rape Osha, the Wildling protector of Bran Stark, when she sassed him. He was rough with the sex workers he paid for, specifically Roz, rough enough that she grimaces with pain when he has sex with her. The “real Theon” was a licentious brat who tried to come on to his own sister before knowing who she was. The “real Theon,” betrayed his surrogate family for a father who despised him. The “real Theon” conceived a plan of folly to crown himself Prince of Winterfell, ignoring his sister’s counsel and landing himself in the Bolton’s hands. The “real Theon” was convinced that this same sister desired his humiliation and sought to steal from him. The “real Theon” would betray Yara in a heartbeat if it meant glory to his own name. It seems that the “real Theon” was a dangerous liability more than a valuable asset.

Also, do we need to discuss the ableist implication that someone with PTSD is a “fake” version of themselves??

Another swig, and Yara reminds him that he was the one who escaped the Boltons and made it back to the Iron Islands, and Yara implies that she will do everything in her power to ensure that Theon never goes back. In a vacuum, devoid of the rest of the conversation, this could have been inspirational “tough love.” We see a glimmer of brilliance in the mire that is this script. She assures him of justice, and when Theon admits that justice would leave him dead, Yara gives a very good line: “F-ck justice, then; we’ll get revenge.” If this had been the tone for the whole scene, and the themes of this dialogue continued, this could have been one of the greatest moments in the episode. Hell, done right it could have been one of the best moments in the show.

Then Yara delivers the line that makes this whole meta worth writing. “If you’re so broken that there’s no coming back take a knife and cut your wrists. End it.”

With two sentences, the writers insult every mentally ill person in the world and tell suicidal people that they should take the final plunge. Put this into a modern setting. A veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan returns home after a tour; his platoon slaughtered by an IED, he himself grievously injured, suffering from PTSD. Imagine he comes home to his family, and can no longer work because even a car-horn going off triggers a flashback and a panic attack. Imagine his wife telling him that she would rather he had died. This is not tough love, this is vile abuse.

Yara’s exchange with Theon is no different. Suicidal people often feel worthless and inadequate, rationalizing that their own death would be a relief to others. This line assures them that this is true, that if they cannot make themselves useful or adequate to their loved ones, they are better off dead than continually burdening everyone else. This one line of dialogue demonstrates a level of ineptitude on the writer’s part so unconscionable that I cannot believe no one thought of this. The actors try their best to deliver the lines; without dialogue, their performances are harrowing and beautiful, but the words cannot be unsaid, and it speaks to a much larger problem.

This one line of dialogue is the confluence of toxic masculinity and the popular perception of mental illness. I speak from the perspective of an American, so I cannot say that this is true for the rest of the world, but there is a certain idea that surrounds the mentally ill that I hear all the time: either they are dangerous time bombs, waiting for an opportunity to whip out an AK and blow away a school, or they are weak and deserving of pity.

The first perception of mental illness is exceptionally wrong and problematic on its own, but the second perception ties itself into the cult of toxic masculinity that the writers of GoT are hell-bent on endorsing. Only the weak allow themselves to be broken, only the weak can fail in this way, and only the weak will commit suicide. Cancer patients are called “strong” every day that they survive their disease, praised and lauded when or if they can achieve remission, wasting away as the chemicals ravage their bodies. If the same people suffered with suicidal tendencies or depression, they would be told to get over it, suck it up, that each day that they keep themselves alive is nothing to be applauded; it is normal and expected. Even talking about it is stigmatized, and mental health only ever makes the news after another mass shooting, which happens almost weekly in the US, but for all this noise nothing about mental health is ever done and the stigma remains as strong as ever.

Men in particular are told they must be strong. Any admission of weakness makes you less of a man; whether that is the worrying cough developing in his lungs, or the heartache he feels after a breakup, or the feeling of hopelessness that nags at the back of his mind, a man is never weak, and never needs help dealing with these feelings. Men are rabid and depraved, seeking female company at all times and easily distracted by so much as an exposed shoulder.

All vestiges of toxically masculine strength have been removed from Theon. Kept in chains for years, he is no longer strong of body, and is even missing a few fingers and toes. His genitals are mutilated beyond repair, depriving him of his ability to have sex with women. His mind was broken and, even though he has achieved some measure of recovery, Theon is still far from completely whole.

Rather than embrace this opportunity to show love, to tell the people who suffer the way Theon does, from a lack of muscle, from a lack of desire for women, from a mental health issue, the writers say that such people would be better off dead than to exist in their current state. If they cannot be manly as the writers define it, they do not deserve to live.

And then, Benioff and Weiss have the audacity to state that this tough love “therapy” was what Theon “needed.” That the end of the scene shows us a glimpse of the “old Theon” again “that had been lost for so long.” It was framed as a positive. The viewers were supposed to come away with the impression that this treatment of an abuse victim is not only somehow acceptable, but even advisable. Let that sink in.

For this and all the reasons listed herein, Game of Thrones proves itself to be not just senseless and devoid of substance, but actively damaging. It is obvious why they like Ramsay Bolton so much.

Images courtesy of  HBO

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