Welcome back to The Wars to Come, our weekly Game of Thrones rewatch going back through the watchable years. Last week, showrunners Benioff and Weiss (D&D) introduced us to the world of what will become Weisseroff. This week, it’s “The Kingsroad,” presented by Kylie, Julia, Jess (our illustrious Season 7 reviewer), and Dan.
For those who weren’t able to watch, Kylie’s prepared her usually summary of events.
It’s literally go-go-go (for once) in the second episode! Bran somehow survived his fall, but is in a coma, his mother Cat absolutely refusing to leave his bedside. Yet this tragedy doesn’t slow the King one bit, as he sets out with his party back to King’s Landing. That means it’s time for Ned, Sansa, and Arya to leave home, their direwolves in tow.
These are not the only people with Stark-blood leaving Winterfell, however; Jon Snow takes off as well to join the Night’s Watch! Before he departs, he gives Arya a present—a small sword she names “Needle.” He says goodbye to Ned too, getting a promise that he’ll learn all about his mother soon, before journeying north with his uncle Benjen Stark, and Tyrion Lannister, who’s merely curious to see The Wall. On the way, Jon meets two more men set to become his brothers in the Night’s Watch: rapers! Has the high esteem he’s held the order in been misplaced?
Despite everyone leaving, there’s not a dull moment in Winterfell to be had. A strange catspaw assassin sneaks into Bran’s room, intending to kill him. Thanks to Cat, and ultimately Summer, he is unsuccessful (and dead), but that anyone would want Bran murdered further arouses Cat’s suspicions. She is convinced the Lannisters are somehow behind it all, just like her sister had warned her about Jon Arryn’s death, and feels she must alert Ned. But how? His party is long-gone! Cat decides she will ride the Kingsroad herself, taking only Ser Rodrik Cassel as protection, and putting Robb in charge while she’s gone.
Further south on the Kingsroad, things heat up there as well! When the betrothed Joffrey and Sansa decide to go on a romantic stroll in the woods, they find Arya practicing sword-fighting (stick-hitting prime!) with her friend Mycah, the son of the butcher. Joffrey cruelly teases them and begins to hurt Mycah with his very real sword until Arya hits him. When Joffrey turns his rage on her, her direwolf Nymeria leaps to the rescue and mauls Joffrey’s arm.
Arya scares her wolf away in order to protect her, but when she’s brought before the King and Queen to face “justice,” Cersei demands that a direwolf get punished all the same. In this case that means the only one left: Sansa’s direwolf Lady. Ned, disgusted, insists on putting her down himself. As Lady dies, Bran awakes from his coma.
And finallllyyy, in the Dothraki Sea, the new Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen is desperate to make her situation better. She determines the best thing she can do is win Khal Drogo’s affection, and thanks to some sex training from a sex
worker slave traveling with them, insists on intercourse in a manner of her choosing. It may be a small degree of agency, but it’s certainly a start.
Will she be able to “rule the Khal” from the bedroom as Doreah said? Does Bran remember what he saw in the tower? Will Jon commit himself to the Night’s Watch? Find out next time on the Game of Thrones rewatch: The Wars to Come!
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: My reaction was mostly favorable again, and Sean Bean’s performance actually made me emotional. Emotions. I forgot that was a possibility. I feel like I have more nitpicks over all with this episode, but how much ground was covered made me not be overly annoyed by any one thing. Like…this spanned *months*, didn’t it? (Not in a bad way.)
Julia: Cersei did say it took them a month to travel up, I don’t see why they would been speedier down. And Cat said she’s been praying for more than a month.
I see your Sean Bean and raise you all the child actors. Where did they find all these kids? Even lil’ Tommen and Myrcella are so natural.
Jess: Agreed with everything said above! Those kids!!! Mostly positive about this episode save one or two things (namely the full on introduction of Carol), but wow! Colors, characterizing the setting, small meaningful character interactions even in the background! Other than the obvious benefit of majorly following the books in the early seasons working to their benefit, I really think the lower budget forced them to be more creative and focus on what mattered because they couldn’t blow it all on a dragon battle.
Dan: I’d forgotten how much I loved this show until I rewatched this. Everything that brought me in and kept me hooked is here. Dialogue from the books put directly on screen, artful worldbuilding, subtlety. All the characters are as they should be and D&D are just executing an adaptation, not making masturbatory fanfic.
Julia: I can’t think of a moment that made me cringe or embarrassed to be watching, which is how I would judge a lowlight these days, but I can’t say I enjoyed watching a lot of the Dorthraki stuff. There was something about the sex lesson especially that was a little eye rolling. But this episode doesn’t even register on my Game of Thrones (GoT) Cringe-O-Metre as currently calibrated.
My highlight has to be Harry Lloyd again. Kylie mentioned last week how his beaming at the thought of murderous Dothraki weddings characterized him so perfectly. Well, this week it was his “Under my reign you won’t be punished for such nonsense,” to Mormont. The “nonsense” he was talking about was, of course, fucking slavery. It characterized him as a king so perfectly. Just 100% entitlement, and no sense of duty whatever. The polar opposite of what Varys will say is Young Griff’s main strength way in the book!future. Lloyd just gets this across so wonderfully in an instant.
Jess: Nothing registers as detrimentally bad, especially within the episode, but my lowlight would probably have to be the rise of Carol with Cersei’s story about the baby she lost with Robert. It was a weird choice for her character on so many levels because at first you’re inclined to think she’s lying, especially with her wish that Bran should wake up. She definitely doesn’t want that to happen. However, we find out later she’s definitely not lying about the baby. It also is one of the early instances of them erasing a female character’s assertion of grappling for any agency they could get within the context of the patriarchal setting. While I’m not condoning incest, the act of preventing herself from having any kids with her rapist and only wanting the kids she had with the man she consensually loves is a powerful act from Cersei in a position that wants her to remain inactive. But sad, sympathetic mom is more interesting right?
Highlight would probably have to be Maisie Williams as Arya. Contrasting the horrific and emotionless performance she’s being directed to give in the current seasons, watching the pure and natural performance she gives here is really moving. She is Arya. Especially with her show siblings. It feels like a family. There’s a beautiful moment when Sansa is realizing that Cersei means for Illyn to kill Lady, where, in the background, Arya puts her hand on Sansa’s arm for support. And the goodbye scene with Jon always tugs on my heart a little.
Julia: Honourable Mention to that scene with Robert and Ned in the middle of the field. Mark Addy was being wonderful with lots of noise and fury, and Sean Bean was just as good mostly sitting in silence looking deeply uncomfortable.
Kylie: I feel like I should echo Jess’s lowlight as mine, since that was the only scene my brain was incapable of focusing for. But in general I think I’m more bothered by the Dany sex lessons, like Julia. There was something almost comedic about her final scene with Drogo? Again, I have no clue how to translate this relationship. If we start with it being made clear she has no agency or ability to consent in this marriage, which is not necessarily a bad change, we have to get something like this moment where she decides her best play is to utilize her sexuality as a sort of weapon. I think maybe it was the framing: this is her using the only tool in her belt. However, she was vocalizing it as “making the Khal happy” (which I know gets echoed later by Viserys in Tub Scene #1™). And yeah, you can write these things off as POV bias, but given what happens to that concept as time goes on…
Sorry guys, I’m picking Sean Bean as my highlight again. His “I promise” actually made me choke up. I don’t know, I had a long day and there was dust in my eye.
Though another potential lowlight for me is there too: Kit Harington’s Jon. He can’t really help being about five years too old for most of his lines, but boy does he have the range of a woodblock. At least a rewatch is proving that Emilia Clarke can move her face—him? Mouthbreathing confusing out of the gate.
Dan: My highlight in this episode is and will always be Ned and Bobby B at camp, reminiscing about the war before news of Dany spoils everything. Not only are Mark Addy and Sean Bean able to deftly shift from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye, but they do so in a truly human way. The pain in Robert’s voice as he remembers the pain the Targaryans have caused, the subtle sadness behind Ned’s smile. This scene comes almost entirely from the books and is presented perfectly. Second place would be Jon saying goodbye to Bran, thanks entirely to Michelle Fairley’s acting. I especially love how she’s able to channel all of her emotions into her little doll as she tries, tries and ultimately fails, to play it cool around Ned’s bastard.
The only lowlights I really find in the first run of episodes are the Dothraki scenes. Between the uncomfortable Orientalism and the blatant fetishization of Dany’s sexual stockholm syndrome, I usually zone out or fast forward through these on normal rewatch. Thank god for Harry Lloyd, who only has a small appearance but is just so wonderfully slimy.
Kylie: Thank you for those succinct labels too, when I’m trying to express why those scenes are so bothersome. Though let’s be clear we’re saying “literary stockholm syndrome,” since the medical syndrome itself is…well, the dialogue is fraught.
Quality of writing
Julia: At this point, I could still believe that D&D are competent writers.
Kylie: What effusive praise, Julia. I’d venture to even say “good” based on this episode. Granted, as with the pilot, so much of that is thanks to Martin’s dialogue. It just sounds right for the setting, and most of the actors can really deliver on it. Though the added goodbye between Ned and Jon didn’t fall into their normal D&D Original Scene™ traps even a little bit. I guess it wasn’t long, and there’s an element of, “Well what else would you write there?”, but I’ll give credit where credit is due.
Julia: It didn’t even fall into the trap of, “Oh no, we can’t give them any actual clues or it might wreck the shock!” I loved Ned’s conversation with Jon, and Ned’s conversation with Robert. The latter is just a book scene that D&D get no credit for, but they need to get credit for that Jon scene. Like, how did these two bright kids go so terribly wrong?
But…then there’s that scene of Cersei monologuing about her dead baby. What the fuck was that?
Jess: Yeah this episode reminded me of several good show invented moments in the first season. I even liked that scene between Jaime and Jon. It’s a really great moment that shows an understanding of Jaime’s character that they seemed to lose once they decided to forego the Kingsguard arc…but I just can’t wrap my head around the Cersei monologue. What were they going for with this? Did they just skim her storyline for all future books?
Julia: I’m sorry, I’m still on the Robert/Ned scene. They so didn’t fall into their usual trap there, that they actually lead into that scene from the scene where Jon asks Ned if his mother is still alive/cares. And we get the “answer” that she’s some random chick. It’s like they’re inviting the audience to ask questions, like, “why would Ned hide that from Jon? Is there more to this story?” They would NEVER do that in the later seasons.
And was it just me or did Tyrion seem less insufferable this episode? He was a dick to Jon on the road, but the family breakfast scene was very sweet. Also, Joffery getting slapped. It’s rather complicated, since we’re talking about hitting a child, but you believe he could be the Good Guy Lannister.
Kylie: It might just help that you and I have recently reread Tyrion in the first two books, and we were treated to seven pages of him congratulating himself for sticking it to Benjen by taking a cloak he had been offered. However, Dinklage is wonderfully charismatic and can do well with material that has actual depth. He and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau sold that sibling dynamic perfectly, and it was actually nice to see some familial affection there, even if it’s reserved for only a few family members with the Lannisters.
I’m as flummoxed about the dead baby monologue as you are, Jess. This was too early for them to already be taken with Lena Headey, so I’m not sure where the motivation came from to script it, entirely. I’ll blame it on the hair color reveal.
Jess: Yeah, it’s probably a fall back on lazy writing without thinking about it affecting the future of these character arcs (something we know they fall into frequently in the later seasons). I guess when in doubt they went the cheap and easy route, just like the CSI Cat scene when she finds the one blonde strand of hair in the tower.
Julia: Omg, that was hilarious. I’m also not sure if the magic doll mandala Cat made is on the same level as the eye stones, either.
Dan: You may read me as honeypotting, but I always viewed that scene as Cersei telling Cat what she wants to hear. It’s Cersei trying to put up the face she feels is expected.
This whole episode just seems to work better in hindsight, as this was when the show actually built up its twists and revelations, instead of shitting out deaths and resurrections every week to get Twitter worked up. So, things like Robb’s line about the next time he and Jon will meet, The Hound’s interactions with Sansa, and yes, even Cersei’s little speech on her child. It all pays off in some way later in the season or the show as a whole. D&D are probably on their best behavior because their writing has to line up with the book/Martin’s writing; they can’t just let it go off into bullshit as it would stand out a country mile.
Kylie: It’s definitely a honeypot, Dan, but it’s not the worst I’ve heard for the scene. I’m just gonna stay here yelling, “it’s Doylism!”. Hair color seeding. I’m putting all the jellybeans on it.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: Um… power? Or, like, finding agency? Or a role? Cat thinks her role is to be the neurotic concerned mom, but then she discovers she supposed to be the Mama Bear? Dany finds agency through ruling in the bedroom? Ned finds a way to let Lady die by his own terms? Best I can do.
Jess: I feel like even in the better episodes they’ve never been great about thematically connecting all story points in a single episode. I guess we know why. I think Julia found the strongest line in finding agency within an oppressive, unjust system. Even though I think they also worked against it by steering in the complete opposite directions for Cersei and Cat’s character. It definitely works for Dany, Sansa in the trial scene, Arya’s resistance, Jon choosing the Wall, and Ned. The rest I don’t feel so strongly about.
Kylie: Well, Benioff’s famous “themes are for eighth-grade book reports” quote was specifically in the context of a critic asking about if there was intentionality that could be inferred from the season as a whole. It doesn’t shock me that there’d be even less concern about thematic cohesion for individual episodes. There’s a few exceptions, like in “Home” where you can go, “look these characters are talking about their homes or in their homes,” but even those are shallow. Critics have said, without irony, that “boxes” is a theme of an episode on this show.
I can live with “female agency” being the strongest thread, though most of me assumes it’s happenstance.
Jess: I would also argue that thematic threads within individual episodes that pop up, especially in the first two seasons, are probably an accidental result of grouping chapters from the book together, that Martin intentionally wrote with thematic connection, on screen.
Dan: Along similar lines, the “others” are the focus of this story and the way that the patriarchal structure robs them of the agency Julia touched on. Whether it is the women of the story or the men who rank lower in the social hierarchy due to their birth (Jon, Mycah) or appearance (Tyrion). Cat and Cersei represent opposing examples of the type of woman who might be able to survive in this sort of world. They’re paralleled multiple times in this episode, but by the end of the season we’ll find out just how successful Cersei is compared to Cat.
I’d argue that even Ned and Bobby’s scene works to play out that idea of agency and control, especially as it relates to female characters. Women are, to Robert, playthings at best. Even as he finds joy in sex with the barmaids of his past, he demonizes Dany for sex as well purely because her “breeding” plays a direct threat to his power where a barmaid “spreading her legs” poses no danger to him.
Even the title ties in here. All of the characters (Dany aside) are traveling to meet what they think are their destinies. But the only way they can get there is the Kingsroad, a direct line to the seat of power robbing them of all of their agency.
Most of this, like Jess said, is probably because they’re still sticking to Martin, so the sorts of things he was doing are still intact.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: There might be a bit of a crack in the way Doreah and her sex lesson was framed and filmed. Ya know, two women having sexy-times in a very heterosexual context.
Jess: Oh yes the sex lesson! The overall framing of it in the story was better handled than most of their similar content, but it still felt incredibly male-gazey in terms of how it was filmed. A lot of focus on the bodies.
Kylie: It was Dany’s college experiment!
May I just add, CAROL!!! She makes her shy debut here, though I’d say she doesn’t fully form until Season 3. I’m not sure if this is a crack in a plaster officially? It’s definitely indicative of what’s to come with Cersei (she’s just a sad, put-upon mom, guys), but their penning of her was more a choice to write someone entirely new than like, “we’re erasing Cat’s political ambitions.” Which was also a thing this episode again.
Julia: The very first Put Upon Carol Monologue cannot be ignored.
Jess: Most definitely the Carol Monologue! I kind of forgot how both bad and strange of a choice it was. What a fundamental misunderstanding of her character and that’s right off the bat. If they were in love with this monologue so much I wish they would have at least intended it as disingenuous. The Cat stuff is pretty bad too. Motherhood has to be the only defining trait for these female characters.
Dan: It’s 100% the sex stuff. It’s where they get their sexposition in, which was the single biggest recurring red flag this season. Plus, we’re already getting hints of Deadpan, as Emilia is having to spend some time outside of “scared and confused foreigner,” and she just can’t really do it. Some say she’s still trying to emote to this day.
Kylie: She wants to, she really wants to. Her face moved in the Solo trailer, didn’t it?
Kylie: CAROL!!! No really, was there any reason you can think that they gave her a dead brown-haired baby with Robert other than to awkwardly seed the parentage reveal? Had they just forgotten A Feast For Crows (or assumed they’d never adapt the prophecy)? Is there a reason this is the change I’m fixated on? (Yes.)
Julia: It’s a very odd choice.
Jess: Yeah…that’s my answer for a lot of these questions. It was certainly the point of the episode that stood out like a sore thumb. In the “Inside the Episode” Benioff says he thinks she’s manipulative, but he “believes her” devastation over the loss of her son. What is she trying to manipulate here or gain? I can understand her needing to feign sympathy to avert any suspicion and do her queenly duty, but they make it out like this moment is supposed to mean something more and certainly give it the time to do so. Also, we are well into the beginning of the staring off into space monologues with emotional music.
Julia: Good point. You kind of touched in this earlier Jess, when you asked if they just skimmed Cersei’s later material. I feel like FeastDance made me know Cersei and the way she thinks quite well, but I can’t imagine how that character would have convinced herself that what she needed to do was randomly tell Cat Tully about the greatest trauma in her life. In fact, Cersei never confides in anyone ever, I don’t think. The closest I can think of is when she tell Sansa about how Robert would always fuck off when she went into labor. So they never understood this character at all, or they never thought she was worthy of their show.
Jess: Yeah, Cersei very rarely reveals truth or trauma about herself. She never wants to be vulnerable. The few times she does you can tell it’s because she feels so in power in the situation, and is considering the other person such a nonviable threat, that she can let down some of her defensive guard without repercussions (i.e. with Sansa). Cat is an adult and the Lady of Winterfell. For Cersei to ever choose to be emotionally vulnerable here, especially given the wider situation with Jon Arryn and Bran, really just doesn’t make sense from a character perspective. And, you can tell from how D&D talk about it that they have no idea what her motivations in this scene are.
Dan: The most glaring change to me is the way they’re handling Khal Drogo and Dany. In the book, the two have affection for each other from the get-go, and Drogo is not some wild beast man for the pretty white girl to “tame.” But D&D decided to go with that, along with a dash of a weird empowerment narrative and just a pinch of over-sexualization. It really lessens the impact of Drogo and helps him seem more villainous than he was in the books.
Kylie: Though of course…in the books given the inherent exploitative nature of that situation, he’s not exactly my nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Definitely a different tone, no question.
There was a lot of movement and time passing in this episode. Did this work, or was it hedging into Jon and Sansa on a bullet train territory?
Julia: I think it did work. They actually put effort into reconciling it too. Like, the Dany stuff and the King’s party travelling was clearly happening over a longer period of time, but the stuff in Winterfell could conceivably be in one day. So they went out of their way to say that Cat’s been praying for Bran for more than a month. Nice.
Kylie: Yeah, I agree with you here. Sure, tuned out audiences may not be able to really grasp distance, but there was obviously still a thought to it. Like, “hey if this is all that happens in Winterfell, won’t that seem weird to viewers?” Game of Thrones today doesn’t give the slightest shit, where we get Arya clearly not experiencing more than 24 hours, while Jon and Sansa are on a journey that should be taking months.
Jess: Yeah exactly! It was so strange to also see them consider travel time and location. The title sequence with the map really worked to help establish Dany’s distance from the rest of Westeros and track her journey for viewers. It also helps the viewer feel the separation between the Starks as they all part ways. It just seemed like they cared about establishing it for viewers, but also only sped up time when it made sense for the characters. Everyone is in a state of flux (Cat grieving, Dany’s suffering, Ned and the girls finding their ground in the King’s party, Jon leaving) until the story catches up with them at that moment of change.
Dan: God bless Littlefinger and his jetpack. Can you imagine if they’d stuck with the speed of this episode for the whole show? They wouldn’t have been able to get away with near as much bullshit. They’re using the movement the way it’s supposed to be used, as a time to develop the world and the characters that inhabit it. Not having episodes like this really create a lot of problems later on in the series.
Related to the Carol Monologue: Do you see any Good Guys and Bad Guys emerging here? Or is this all a giant Grey mass?
Julia: Well, the Starks are definitely Good Guys. The whole murder plot set up would imply that the Lannisters are the bad guys, but then there’s that stupid Carol Monologue…ugh. I think the only person who seems a total Bad Guy might be Viserys? But even then, Robert isn’t coming across great, so it’s not like we’re rooting for him to stay king or anything.
Kylie: Even with the Carol monologue, I’d argue Cersei is still fairly villainous. Like, her advocating for Lady’s death was quite clearly driven by pettiness that Robert wouldn’t cut off Arya’s hand, or whatever it is she had been hoping for. The tragic backstory undercut it, sure, but let’s just call her “Thanos.” Because who doesn’t like an open cans of worms?
I guess Drogo is now out of the “bad guy” category since he liked looking at Dany during sex, though I’m not sure how entirely comfortable I am with that framing to begin with. Viserys certainly is “bad guy.” I’m not sure what to make of their framing of Jaime, since he’s been an asshole to everyone but his family and flung Bran from a tower. That’s “bad,” isn’t it?
Jess: I would say in this episode, as per Jack Gleeson’s insane performance, Joffrey is pretty bad. Especially when he takes a blade to Mycah and Arya. The Lannisters overall seem to be the closest we get to “bad,” but they counteract that pretty quickly with Tyrion and Cersei’s sad monologue. Jaime is still being framed as pretty bad, especially with him belittling Jon, but then we get that breakfast scene where we’re shown the bond he shares with Tyrion. It’s that level of greyness where we are still able to root for some over others (the Starks) but have the waters muddied enough that it’s not a hard line. They’re people. Which is nice compared to the villains we get later on in the series. There was less focus on it, but the Hound riding down Mycah also seems quite villainous, and we haven’t gotten any moral ambiguity from him yet. “He ran” is quite the ‘bad guy’ line. Especially when framed against Ned’s righteousness and morality.
Julia: I forgot about Joffery. But it’s hard to see a kid that way. Same for Sandor. Like, it’s clear he’s a henchman more than anything.
Dan: Overall, though, everyone is still occupying actual grey areas. Jaime is pompous but a good brother and seems a little respectful of Jon. Cersei is positioned as a victim of the system like Cat or even Sansa, and even Joffrey is still a petulant idiot and not the complete monster that he’d become. He’s Draco, still, not full Voldemort. Robert would come off a lot worse if Mark Addy weren’t so good. Plus, Lena Headey plays Cersei so villainous that you almost pity Robert even as we see him as a violent, sexist boor. This episode really makes Sansa come across as more of a villain, as the show clearly wants us to empathize with Arya more. Which kind of just starts the trend of the show not knowing how to handle Sansa.
Kylie: It’s also indicative of the “what even is morality” to come. Good guys and bad guys end up doing the same shit, just to different musical cues. At least for now this is a useful question.
Though on the Sansa and Arya point, Dan, Ned is given a line next episode to explain Sansa’s actions in a decently adequate way. It’s not perfect, but people point to the early books as having Arya-favoritism, too.
How was the pacing?
Kylie: I thought the pacing last episode worked. Then this episode came along and I was thinking, “Wow this is much more engaging somehow.” I don’t know…it wasn’t less “dead air” or anything like that, but I think I forgot how much time passed (and still felt like it was passing) and how much ground was covered. My brain was never zoning out or thinking about what lunch I wanted to pack for the following day.
So in a word: good.
Jess: Agreed. The pacing really sped up in this episode without skimming over character moments. It was engaging from start to finish and I think showcases how much you benefit from basically only including what’s necessary and not spending most of your page count trying to fit the run time.
Julia: It was a little overwhelming when thinking of my highlights and lowlights, how many things happened in this episode. But it didn’t feel rushed in the slightest. And it certainly didn’t feel like character was being sacrificed for the plot or anything.
Dan: Agree with all of the above, not much to add. It’s fast paced in some ways as it covers multiple plot threads, but its still relatively slow as episodes go. It leaves plenty of room for character and worldbuilding.
Let’s talk about sex, baby (if applicable)
Julia: Were there even any sex workers in this episode?
Kylie: There was a sex slave, does that count? I don’t think we get Ros flashing Theon until next episode though.
But no, all we’ve really got is Dany’s sexual education, which we touched on already. So a very chaste episode of this show, when you get down to it.
Jess: Surprising lack of sex, especially considering the reputation this show has. However questionable it is, at least the Dany stuff was tied directly to character.
Dan: I don’t care for how they messed with Drogo to make this episode’s stuff work for Dany, but I think there was most likely a conscious effort to limit the sex stuff to as it was written. Vague “feminist” points.
Is it holding up?
Jess: I would say it is for sure and I feel most of the first season will. It feels like intelligent storytelling and looks like it’s made by people who care about the material. I’m sure some of that comes from a lower budget on such a high production value show, making it a passion project by default, as well as sticking closely with the successful source material. This episode was so enjoyable and I definitely miss feeling that way about the show. Still, the little cracks stand out like craters now knowing how big they grow and where they end up.
Julia: Yes, for sure. There was a lot of world building in this episode and most of it felt very natural. I like the bits about dragons especially.
Kylie: And that was without anyone in a tub! (No really, I’m excited for that scene.) But yes, this is again, a decent adaptation, and a decent show. I’m finding Dany’s storyline far less convincing than I did the first time around, but contextualized by everything else, I would think it keeps the show in the “let’s wait and see how this plays out” category for most first-time viewers.
Dan: This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, and I don’t know if I can really say why. It just has so many good moments. I mean, think of just how many memes this episode birthed (whether they were in the book at first or not): The Tyrion Slap, “wear it like armor, “a mind needs books,” Tyrion’s eyebrows, and most of what Bobby B said. Might be a bad omen considering how obsessed with being memetic the show became, but it really was a great episode then and holds up now.
In memoriam: Lady, Mycah, and “You’re Not Supposed to Be Here” Catspaw
Kylie: It doesn’t matter that I knew it was coming and I knew exactly how it was staged, Lady’s death hit me like a truck. I had to keep telling myself, “It’s okay, Sophie Turner adopted her in real life,” after the episode cut to black. Ugh. I feel bad that this overshadowed Mycah, but damn it’s effective.
Jess: Lady’s death will never not be sad. Sophie Turner acts her face off in this scene and Sean Bean’s stoic solemness, trying to hold in all the anger, sadness, and guilt really hits hard. I also wish Mycah’s death had its time for the audience to process but Sean Bean is so good here that he kind of does it for us, building up to this suffocating feeling of danger and grief.
Julia: I’m a horrible person, but the Catspaw was more funny than anything. Why would you draw attention to yourself like that? What did he think would happen?
Dan: The catspaw just looks like a Frey, which kind of makes his fucking up understandable. Mycah was whatever, because we’ve no real attachment to him. Lady, yeah, that was rough. But I’ve always loved what Lady’s death meant for Sansa and what it represented for of the direwolves. So it’s a sad death, but it’s one of the most important in the first season.
Kylie: I’m team #ThrowRocksAtDirewolves. Come on Ned, join that club.
Thus concludes another chapter in The Wars to Come. Please let us know your impressions [re]watching it below. Do you think it’s holding up as a solid episode? Are we over-blowing the cracks in the plaster? We have such questions, and as we’re on this journey, an eagerness to continue. We’ll see you next Tuesday.
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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