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The Fallacy of GoT’s Women on Top Part 3: Empowerment

Kylie

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Welcome to the third and final installment of “Sexism and Season 6,” the essay series seeking to counter the distressingly abundant claim that Game of Thrones (GoT) overcame the charges of sexism previously levied at it and delivered a feminist season. This particular section tackles the misguided notion that violence as a path to empowerment is in any way feminist, especially when it’s the only path offered by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, and their creative team (D&D).

Those who follow me on social media have probably heard me mention the fact that I have an “Unsullied” (non-book reader) brother who is a fan of the show. I was at his house recently and GoT came up, along with the whole concept of its “women problem” and if Season 6 had successfully “fixed” it. I told him that I hated this season and found it pandering, and he threw up his arms in exasperation and said, “so the show can’t win!”

But see, this season was pandering, and not subtly so. For all D&D claimed that “not one word” of their scripts had changed as a result of criticism, it is very obvious that just about every plotline was shoved full of characters and moments that D&D thought would appeal to their female viewers. We had women sassing men, women declaring war on weak men/men who didn’t think women should rule, women being put in positions of power, women getting revenge… Even women “burning the patriarchy to the ground.”

Now, I explained in Part 1 of this series how the setting against which these women triumph was so meaningless that the idea they’ve been largely punished in the first place is nearly inexcusable, while Part 2 tackled the actual scripting of the female characters and how it was full of sexist tropes and assumptions. Still, I think the truly offensive element of this season to me is that what was presented to us—what I just described in the paragraph above—is what I was “supposed” to want. It was what women were supposed to want. And clearly it worked for a bunch of people; I’d never argue otherwise.

But what I would also argue is that the “empowerment” Season 6 offered was, at least in my opinion, utterly sexist at its core. However, before that can be expanded, it’s important to clarify what “empowerment” even is.

Simply put, to “empower” someone in a sociological sense means to enable a marginalized individual to combat the discrimination they face and to be in a position to achieve greater influence, (literally “to bestow power”) or to be involved in the decision making processes from which they were previously excluded. What does it mean when we talk about an “empowered woman” in literature and scripted media? A woman who displays qualities and/or acts in a manner that is challenging to the socially discriminatory processes/systems/institutions that oppress individuals based on gender identity, and/or a woman who has obtained power within said systems.

D&D’s version of female empowerment, however, was not in any way challenging to any social system, because it was rooted in their own privileged assumptions about how the world works. It’s what two white dudes with a pattern of not listening to criticism, of not bringing in a diversity of voices to the writers’ room, and of not making any noticeable effort to understand their own privilege conceive of as feminism. Don’t get me wrong: I truly believe that the men working on GoT are trying to do right by women. Sexists aren’t just those wacky old dudes talking about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Sometimes they’re very educated individuals who think of themselves as progressive, yet never allow a space for their worldviews be challenged, and are insistent on being allies by talking over everyone to put forth the story they believe is the most compelling/best for everyone. Which is sort of exactly how privilege works.

This issue isn’t just restricted to sexism, by the way, especially in Season 6. Look at how the story of Loras vs. the strawman homophobes was all about the straight people acting and reacting to the events. Loras was an object; a passive victim whose suffering was meant for us to voyeuristically consume, so we could shake our righteous fists at the Faith Militant.

Or do I need to remind you of the show’s treatment of disability and mental illness this year? Hodor’s condition was presented as a “whodunit” mystery, and Theon’s PTSD was screamed away when it inconvenienced Yara. She outright told him that he should kill himself or get on with it, and the narrative confirmed that it was apparently what he needed to hear in that moment, because that’s how trauma works.

And boy was Tyrion’s plotline perhaps the most meta of them all: he spent a full season explaining slavery and how to navigate the situation to Missandei and Grey Worm. He was proven wrong for a millisecond, but that was quickly fixed the next episode to show how once again, he was the only person with the ideas and answers that Slaver’s Bay the Bay of Dragons needed.

The story is so progressive when it comes to race, as long as white people are the ones triumphing or saving the day. It’s so progressive on LGBT+ issues when it’s straight people who are fighting the homophobes. And it’s so wonderful and inclusive when it comes to depicting mental difference by showing that there’s a reason/inception point for why everyone is the way they are, and that trauma should be treated as something to “overcome” so people can return to their “old” selves! There’s no other way to put this than to say: this is a story written by the privileged, for the privileged.

So of course when it comes to writing a “pro-woman” story, D&D are just as unsuccessful. These men (including writer-producer Bryan Cogman and staff writer Dave Hill) cloistered themselves away in a room, determined to “ignore criticism” to the point where they didn’t even attend SDCC last year, and then churned out a story that they thought would appeal to women without bothering to check with a single woman. Or have a woman serve as a director. It’s like they wanted to shut the critics up by “fixing” this problem, but had no interest in what the actual dialogue about said problem was. To this day their creative team doesn’t know what the actual complaints about last season even were.

And I’m in no way saying, by the way, that men can’t be feminists, or that any woman brought onto the creative team would have automatically been one herself. But what I am saying is that when you’re in a position of power like D&D, working on a show that has a proven track record of issues when it comes to the portrayal of women, having a writing and directing team of only other men is not too flattering. In fact, it might be what I’d call “faulty allyship.”

Just as we got a story about LGBT issues heavily rooted in the straight-gaze, Season 6 gave us a “feminist” story heavily rooted in patriarchal values.

I think it’s important to tackle the argument “well women have to behave in this way to gain power because that’s the setting.” Not to be too repetitive, but Part 1 of this series covered how “the setting” holds no meaning. However, even if we can somehow pretend that D&D managed to do a very good job in this department, there’s the issue of their confusion when it comes to depicting a toxically patriarchal world versus endorsing, through their narrative, the qualities valued in such a world. In the books (just hear me out), George R.R. Martin portrays some really awful things that happen to his characters as a result of the heavily misogynistic society that they live in, and that can be really upsetting to read about. But he bends over backwards to show that the society itself is completely unstable and untenable:

“…[Martin] uses the setting of Westeros to really highlight the issues that arise from the characters navigating such a toxic patriarchy, as well as the inherent hypocrisy that comes with the worship at the altar of the “chivalrous knight” and the “maiden fair.” Chivalry, despite being all about “treating women right” and placing “virginal” women on a bizarre pedestal, is sexist. Benevolently so, yes, but still sexist.”

D&D…do no such thing. There’s no examination of the toll that embracing these awful ideals has on their characters. How can there be any exploration of the way in which every highborn woman in society is groomed and utterly lacking in sexual agency when The Reach is portrayed as the sexual liberation capital of the world where Olenna can poo-poo a betrothal to a prince, sleep with her sister’s betrothed, and the dude would find her assertions of her desires so endearing that he’d agree to screw over both of their Houses by marrying her? Sorry, I mentioned the inconsistent setting again, didn’t I? (It’s part and parcel, I promise.)

Even if this was something that Olenna was supposed to have done behind everyone’s back because of how oppressed she is, the fact doing such a thing would even occur to her betrays, if nothing else, D&D’s complete lack of care when it comes to scripting how a woman would reasonably think and act in this setting.

And truthfully, this isn’t just about how women act. The issue is that D&D seem to completely buy into the concept of “toxic masculinity.” As a quick review, this is the assumption that masculinity, viewed as the compulsory gender presentation for men, is unemotional, sexually aggressive, and violent. Men who present outside of these gender norms are emasculated, and thus not treated as “real men.” It’s not that there aren’t aggressive and violent men, or that anything is wrong with masculinity in and of itself. It’s just that this socially constructed gender expression is viewed as the only acceptable option for men, and that’s where the danger lies.

Needless to say the scripting of every male character buys into this notion. As I pointed out in an earlier piece about GoT’s sexism, D&D completely scripted away Jaime’s struggles with PTSD from the book because they thought it’d be more fun if he had a wacky fight where his golden hand stopped a sword (and apparently in their first draft they forgot entirely that losing his right hand would have been a handicap for him until George R.R. Martin pointed that out). Similarly, Tyrion’s alcoholism was made out to be a joke and his depression was magically fixed by spotting a dragon. Sam was “fixed” from the source material so that instead of devaluing his own skills despite proving his strength time and time again, he spent Season 5 walking around, bragging about getting laid and killing a Thenn. Men’s victimization at the hands of women was played for laughs, such as Tommen’s rape and Bronn’s torture. And of course, any man that did not present as traditionally “manly” in speech or actions was mocked for weakness, such as Hizdahr.

I suppose one could claim that it’s to a point, and that we’re supposed to be horrified by what the setting leads to in terms of this compulsory gender role, but…no! That’s not the show we’re watching at all. We’re meant to laugh at Tyrion’s drinking jokes, to cheer when Tormund kills the Lord of Bones because #nohomo, and to agree with Dany’s remark about that wuss Hizdahr. Men aren’t allowed to show weakness,  nor are they given the space to explore (or even understand) their own victimization… Heck! Jon barely seemed to remember his own death!

Perhaps what best exemplifies Benioff and Weiss’s perspectives on their scripting of men comes from a Scriptnotes Podcast episode they were on back in February. The host asked them to match up GoT characters to American politicians, and jokingly suggested Ramsay was a good choice for Ted Cruz. Benioff disagreed, saying:

“Ramsay is actually kind of a badass. Like Ramsay fights…yeah.”

Yes, this was a joke aimed more at Ted Cruz’s proactivity than anything else, but clearly, D&D think they did something quite special with that character. That scripting scene after scene of a violent abusive asshole somehow made Ramsay “badass,” and what we should be in awe of him, or at least respect him, because “he fights.” And D&D have certainly bent over backwards to ensure that Ramsay was the perfect villain to the point where he is fits entirely the fanfiction trope of a Villain Sue: he’s a better tactician than Jon, he’s an amazing fighter to the point where he’ll be surrounded by a field of corpses, he’s a better politician than his dad given the way the Northern Lords fell over him this year. He would have won the Battle of the Bastards too if not for those meddling Vale Lords. Over and over again, the show sought to impress on us how much of a total threat Ramsay was. And apparently a badass as well.

Yes, I’m aware that Ramsay is a villain so it seems like it’s a depiction vs. endorsement kind of thing, but these are the skills that are valued and rewarded by the story at every turn. The skills that are the height of badassery, apparently, so any other character that we’re supposed to take seriously also commits acts of violence. Only difference? The good guys just use violence to gain revenge, and revenge is noble. Revenge on GoT is also inherently violent, because violence is what’s respected by the narrative, or at least taken seriously (see the “badass” quote again).

Stannis deciding to attack Winterfell was framed as his ambition, a “bad” thing, and one that he was ultimately punished for—punished so thoroughly that it bordered on ridiculous with his terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. On the other hand, Jon seeking to attack Winterfell to avenge his family was framed as noble and “good.” Jon’s revenge on the Night’s Watch mutineers was one of the primary things that earned him his Lord Commandership (at least that’s what Sam’s speech to the brothers seemed to imply). Olly stabbing Jon was bad, but Jon hanging Olly was justice.

And if it seems like I’m picking on Jon a lot…I am, because he’s more or less our Designated Protagonist™. So it’s not as if we can even try to pretend that there’s any grander commentary on the futility of revenge nor a condemnation of violent means to an end.

This all comes back to what “empowerment” means on GoT. Violence as empowerment is, as I’ve been saying, what’s clearly being endorsed here, and that’s a toxically masculine-coded path. Being a victim makes a man feel weak (and thus emasculated), so he regains his sense of power through violence since that’s what’s respected in a patriarchal culture. This is truly the harm of “toxic masculinity”: that Men are expected to Act from a place of physical strength, and can thereore be blamed for their own victimization if they lack the “skills” to gain power back. Real Men™ wouldn’t find themselves in such scrapes. It’s almost as if the sexism of GoT isn’t good for the male audience either.

However, this problem simply doubles down when it comes to the way that women find empowerment on GoT, because all D&D did was apply the same exact rubric to them. Women on the show get hurt/abused/killed, so they hurt/abuse/kill men in return, and this is how they end up being Women on Top™. The “feminist” message of the Season 6 was that violent women are empowered because violence is respected (and male-coded), and apparently feminism is when women demonstrate that they can be just like patriarchy-approved men. Which is an understanding feminism straight out of either the 80’s or an MRA meeting.

What’s particularly distressing is that quite a few women on GoT started out this season well on their way to being empowered without buying into this violent revenge-worship narrative. Or as I like to put it, “actually being empowered,” since such a path comes with an inherent challenge to the system in which they’re oppressed. Yes, the setting is so inconsistent across the board that challenging it is meaningless, but there was a chance for it not to be, at least in discrete storylines.

Yara is perhaps my favorite example, because for a hot minute I had a character I actually liked on the show. And I don’t mean Cersei, for whom my enjoyment of was due to a narrative D&D had no idea they were telling; I liked Yara as a character within the story we were meant to enjoy. I legitimately found her conversation with Balon, where she pointed out the futility and utter bull of the reaving lifestyle, compelling. She refused to be cowed when he tried to shame her for attempting a rescue of Theon, and it seemed like she might actually be a person who could elicit positive change in such a world.

However, the next scene we saw her in was when she swore revenge on the man who murdered her father. Which was one hell of a guess for her.

“I’m going to find out who did this. I’m going to feed them to the sharks while they live.”

Reasonable. I already detailed in Part 2 how her scripting then went from bad to worse with her abuse of Theon, her passivity at the Kingsmoot, her purchasing and rape of a sex slave, and ultimately, her alliance with Daenerys to “murder an uncle or two.” Because Real Feminists will murder any guy who isn’t a good ally!

Lady Crane is another great example. The sheer ridiculousness of her randomly asking for acting advice from Arya just because she had “nice eyebrows” did distract a bit, but in general it was hard not to be a little won over by the way Lady Crane handled herself, how she dealt with sexism in the workplace, and her total compassion and willingness to help an injured Arya, despite not knowing her all that well and clearly understanding all the red flags following her around.

But two problems, of course: 1.) Lady Crane was purposely propped up to be a sympathetic and likable character for yet another “oh no they didn’t this show is sooo evil” shock death, and 2.) they felt they needed to explain her ability to stitch someone up, and the best option to do so was by giving her a history of mutilating her lovers that cheated on her. What. I guess that’s how we know she’s “badass.” And sure she can sew, but she can’t cook; she’s not too girly, amirite?

Arya, though, is actually the most interesting example this year. Stick-hitting complaints aside, you could really have read her arc as her utter refusal to turn towards violence anymore. If so, the implication would be that she had learned her lesson with the Trant situation last year, and perhaps the catharsis she may have felt in the moment had taken a toll on her.

For instance, in her training montage she tells The Waif about “Arya Stark’s” revenge list, and The Waif seems to beg for an invite onto it:

Which Arya doesn’t do. She seems to be determined not to get dragged down by the Waif’s pettiness. Secondly, we see her question the entire concept behind being an assassin, and deciding that this isn’t the career for her; killing someone as nice as Lady Crane (lover stabbings aside) didn’t sit right with Arya’s moral code; she did what she had to do in order to escape that assignment, and at least try to protect Lady Crane. Unfortunately, that meant seeing Lady Crane’s grisly demise, and being forced to kill The Waif (in what can only be seen as self-defense), but perhaps this could have been another part of her sharp lesson. Afterall, she joined the Faceless Men to kill everyone she wanted, and now she’s learning why that’s not a desirable thing.

The logical endpoint for her arc this year was when she quit the guild. Except that it didn’t stop there. Her storyline concluded with her warping to the riverlands, carving up two Freys off-screen, and feeding them to their father before murdering him in the name of revenge. This is one of the most extreme instances of violence on the show, and we were expected to enjoy it because it was a “good guy” committing it. And we were also probably meant to think of her as a Badass.

In past seasons, women could gain empowerment not just through violence, but also sexual manipulation…another sexist trope, for sure, but compared to this year it might have actually been refreshing. That’s the kind of show we’re dealing with. As such, Margaery Tyrell, the Sexual Liberation Pioneer was most certainly presented to us as a Woman on Top. Though I found her Season 5 scripting incredibly concerning, it might shock you to learn then that this year, I had very little issue with what they were going for with her, at least from a feminist perspective. She was going to do whatever it took to get her brother to safety, even if it was against her self-interest, her House’s interest, and actually the interest of the entire kingdom with this whole “new alliance between Faith and Crown” that looked none too promising.

There was a problem with its execution given that the deal she settled for was actually so destructive and horrible that she ended up looking entirely daft, but ignoring the details and looking just at the message, it was a story of sisterly love — the story of a woman who had no recourse (because perjury is a very serious crime) and did what she could to navigate her situation and squeak out as much agency as possible. She did it without violence. In fact, she put an end to the violence that probably would have made the most sense for her, her brother, and the kingdom. But Margaery broke the trope I’m complaining about, so that’s a good thing, right?

Well, what happened? The narrative punished her for it, fiercely. In fact the only silver lining of her storyline from this season is that she managed to convince Olenna to leave the city, putting her now in the position to seek violent revenge and get that power back for House Tyrell. Or just not the Lannisters. Which I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to want, as viewers.

It’s like the narrative bends over backwards to punish those who don’t choose a violent path and embrace toxically masculine ideals. Consider the examples I just gave: D&D shoved every person in one plotline into a room and exploded them, Arya outright warped to the riverlands and accomplished everything she needed to do to set up her full revenge on Walder Frey off-screen (she had to have taken over the kitchens to make those pies…), Lady Crane left a trail of mutilated exes and apparently harmed a colleague and no one seemed concerned, and Yara literally argued the opposite points to Dany that she had made to her father earlier in the season. This isn’t even going into the fact that The Waif had no motivation whatsoever for hating Arya as much as she did to the point where she delighted in the moments that she was able to inflict pain on her.

It’s not just that GoT endorses this violent badassery—it’s that it defies all logic to do so. That’s how desperate D&D are to push forth this world view. Though one needs look no further than Sansa’s storyline for the past two seasons to truly understand that.

As a crash course, last season at Littlefinger’s urging, Sansa agreed to marry Ramsay Bolton to get revenge on his family for murdering hers. But somehow this master plan went awry, especially because Ramsay was kind of a badass a cruel and sadistic person who ended up raping her on their wedding night, as well as subsequent nights afterwards and kept her locked up. Theon helped her to escape Winterfell, where she then proceeded to go North and find her brother, Jon. She convinced him to raise an army of Northern Lords to fight Ramsay and retake Winterfell from the Boltons for their family, while rejecting help from Littlefinger and his offer of the Vale troops. However, the Northern Lords weren’t really signing onto this effort, so Sansa decided to eat her words and accept Littlefinger’s help. Jon’s army won the battle (pretty much entirely as a result of this), and Jon himself left Ramsay alive for Sansa. She decided to lock him up in a basement and feed him to his own dogs. Then she sat quietly while Jon was elected King in the North and raised not a single objection, yet still closed the year with a slightly miffed expression on her face.

Now, “Sansa vs. Jon” was a tension definitely set-up this year, and promising to continue into Season 7. So I don’t want to act as if Sansa’s plotline was entirely one-note. However, there is no denying that the thematic climax of her arc was when she killed Ramsay, and killed him in a brutal fashion. Her story for the past two seasons was all about reaching that moment.

I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t survivors who wouldn’t do exactly what Sansa did in that position. That it wouldn’t be satisfying or even cathartic on some level to do horrible things to one’s abuser. For that reason, it’s not like feeling validated by Sansa’s actions is this awful thing, and I’m never one to say “she’s just as bad as Ramsay now!”; that’s simply a false equivalency which ignores the fact that many survivors lash back because it’s how they feel compelled/equipped to defend themselves. There is no one way any survivor looks, and though I’m about to be quite condemning of the narrative, it’s due to the messaging and presentation, not a desire to only accept certain responses to abuse.

However, there is a reason #BreakTheCycle exists. Because perpetuating violence in any form, even as means to achieving “noble” revenge, is damaging to one’s self. We can bring neuroscience and biology into this if we want, but I think it’d be missing the forest for the trees. The issue with Sansa’s story isn’t a simplistic “violence is bad” deal; it’s that this was her path to empowerment.

Which yeah, patriarchal values, the confusion of what feminism even is…everything I’ve been saying up until this point. But what mystifies me is that D&D felt that this path was even needed in the first place. Like, did they watch their own show? At the end of Season 4, Sansa claimed her agency for herself, and it was almost solely through the use of her intuition. However rushed that moment may have seemed given the trajectory of her arc leading up to it, and however ridiculous her Outfit of Empowerment was, there’s no denying that the moment she lied to and played the Vale Lords…she was getting what she wanted. She understood her hold over Littlefinger, she understood the value of her name, and she earned herself powerful allies in case anyone would think to take advantage of her.

Look at how this is framed: the most commanding voice in that room of Vale Lords belongs to an teenage girl.

In short, she was an empowered “player.” So why in seven hells did D&D dial back her character growth and have her blindly trust in Littlefinger again the next season? What did her going to Winterfell actually serve, especially in terms of her character? No…frankly, for anyone’s character? Because I’ve been running with the assumption that it was for the benefit of building up Ramsay’s villain-status, but in what universe would his treatment of Osha and Rickon this year not have accomplished that anyway?

The messaging of this creative decision is horrific: that Sansa thought she was a player in control of the situation, but when she faced her first real trial she learned she wasn’t ready and was horribly punished for it. Then, thanks to her brutalization she learned who she was truly dealing with and could face the grim reality of that world with a hardened attitude. Rape was her teacher; she became a player because of her rape, not despite it.

There’s no part of me that thinks anyone would willingly write a story to make that point, it’s just too awful. It’s actually more generous to assume that D&D didn’t even consider the messaging or Sansa’s past characterization, and instead focused solely on the fact that they knew she’d eventually triumph in this situation. In fact, her inevitable vicotry was something Bryan Cogman almost outright promised in the Season 5 DVD commentary:

“It’s an upsetting scene, it’s a horrifying scene, it’s meant to be … [But] the accusation that our motives were [that we] just threw in a rape for shock value, I personally don’t think the scene as shot, or as written, or as acted by our wonderful actors, supports that argument. Nor do I think the aftermath of the scene supports that argument. Not only in these episodes, but also in future episodes. This story is not over. This is a long ongoing story. Sansa has a journey ahead of her, and what happens to her in that room is a huge part of that journey, and one that we’ve thought through.”

This was aided by Sophie Turner’s remarks on Sansa’s character, since for some reason she was expected to defend the storyline during the 2015 SDCC panel.

“[If] there’s one thing that Sansa still is, despite what happened to her, [it’s] strong.”

Don’t worry, just stay tuned! They’d never make a story about a rape survivor who wasn’t strong! There’s going to be a TV-ready conclusion! And again, it’s not to say there aren’t survivors who would reach the same conclusion or project strength in the same way, but it’s the fact that it was the One Promised Path that makes it an issue. The immediate dialogue basically trampled over any survivor who doesn’t feel so strong. And that was never even given a chance to be viewed as a valid reaction for Sansa, because that’s not enjoyable to the TV-audience. Even if it’s kind of exactly the story George R.R. Martin told in the supposed source material with Jeyne Poole and Ramsay, who deals with her abuse by trying to avoid more harm, rather than acting in a “hardened” manner and fighting back. But the assumption was made long ago that the viewers couldn’t care about Jeyne.

In fact, another remark of Cogman’s from the DVD commentary really emphasizes their notion of marketable storytelling:

“Basically, when we decided to combine Sansa’s storyline with another character in the books it was done with the idea that it would be hugely dramatically satisfying to have Sansa back in her occupied childhood home and navigate this Gothic horror story she’s found herself in and, of course, to be reunited with Theon – setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story.”

I’m sure you’ve seen me make ironic use of “dramatically satisfying” before, but need I remind you that Sansa’s rape was basically the only plot-point in Winterfell last year. Sansa’s rape made Myranda jealous. Sansa’s rape made Theon want to help her. Oh, and Stannis was coming and Ramsay wanted to prove himself a worthy heir to his father by handling this threat, but that had literally nothing to do with Sansa. So the above quote is Bryan Cogman straight up admitting that they found the idea of Sansa being raped and then getting violent revenge for that rape to be quality entertainment. We, as the audience, were expected to just consume this because Rape is Drama. But it’s only good drama when it also spurs the woman to become a major player and get her revenge.

Exploitative, sensationalist hogwash.

And not to beat a dead horse here, but D&D had every reason in the world, and in their own damned story, not to rape Sansa. There’s the fact that she already had the motivation to want to reclaim her home (or even if they felt the Red Wedding wasn’t enough, Rickon was about to turn up). There’s the fact that no matter how you spin it, marrying an enemy is not actually a path to revenge and no person with a working mind would agree to such an arrangement, especially knowing that said enemy was about to be attacked by a large host. Heck, there’s the fact that Sansa staying in the Vale this whole time actually would have made more sense with how her 11th hour save at the Battle of the Bastards played out, since sticking her in the North required her to withhold crucial tactical information from Jon.

Tell me one thing about where Sansa is now that couldn’t have been accomplished without her rape.

So we’re back to the fact that D&D felt *this story* was crucial to tell—this story with this particular endpoint where Sansa got a spectacularly gruesome, violent revenge on Ramsay. She could have sentenced him to death and had Jon behead him. She could have brought up any of his other victims to at the least give us a small sense of justice in the framing (I guess she mentioned his dogs, to be fair, but funny how Rickon, Theon, Lord Cerwyn, the “North Remembers” Lady, or the thousands of slaughtered Northmen didn’t come up). But no. This was the dramatically satisfying story that needed to be on our screens, and rape was the plot device that needed to spur Sansa to become a smarter, stronger woman.

Which…okay, it’s the story they wanted to tell, and like I said, there are survivors who respond violently to their abusers. But this is also the story they’re telling with every character in the show, which makes its inclusion just completely superfluous. Or sorry, Cogman, but “gratuitous.” We get it: violence and revenge is the path to empowerment. Women who are violent can be On Top, just like men! I guess it’s possible that there’s going to be an exploration in the toll this takes, but given that we’re six seasons in and so many moments of violent revenge were framed as a very strong positive… Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

Actually, case and point of this might be the fact that the few instances where someone committing an act of violence was framed as a negative were virtually indistinguishable from the moments we were meant to cheer with, a point Gretchen hammered on beautifully in her revisiting of “acedia” in current media.

As an example, I know that when Cersei “chose violence” in the hallway scene with the Faith Militant, we weren’t supposed to side with her. But why not, exactly? A bunch of destructive fanatics who oversaw her sexual humiliation wanted to drag her out of her home and present her to the man who ordered it in the first place without giving a single reason. Why isn’t it noble for Cersei to want revenge (or in that case just defend herself, really), but it’s okay for Sansa to feed Ramsay to dogs?

Even blowing up the sept or having Septa Unella tortured…yes, these were completely over-the-top acts of violence, but is it so very different than Arya killing two men, grinding them into pies, feeding them to Walder Frey, and then slitting his throat? With the sept, it’s almost more justifiable given that Cersei was backed into a corner and had no other recourse; it was clear the trial process was complete corrupt if Loras’s trial, or the inquisition hearing of last season, was anything to go by. So what was she supposed to do, exactly?

But no, any time Cersei wanted revenge, or tried to claim her own agency, we weren’t meant to side with her. The best example of this disconnect might be in a scene with Olenna. Cersei suggested combining forces and taking out the Faith (even though they just had done exactly that the episode prior and it failed), and Olenna refused, calling Cersei “truly vile” and one of the worst people she had ever met. Even ignoring that Olenna literally murdered her son so there’s a pot and a kettle situation here, why is it then that when Olenna decides to team up with Ellaria and Varys for revenge, we’re meant to agree with her, but when Cersei suggests basically the same exact thing, only for a threat that is quite a bit more present and actively harmful towards Olenna’s family, it’s unsympathetic? Because the only thing I can think is that Cersei is a designated “bad guy” and Olenna is a designated “good guy.” Which means that there’s actually nothing separating protagonists and antagonists but marketing. Or sometimes costumes.

This is because everyone needs to be motivated by violent revenge, or else they’re going to go the way of the hapless victims who weren’t Tough enough to survive, like Loras, Margaery, or Septon Ray.

Daenerys burning down a culture’s social structure and gaining followers = good. Cersei burning down a culture’s social structure and gaining followers = bad. I guess we can talk about the dark grey vs. grey nature of these social structures, but it’s not as though the Faith Militant’s homophobic crusade allowed for much more lightness in the palette. Though what’s truly mystifying to me is that good or bad, both of these actions apparently supported a very feminist message because the women ended up triumphing as a result. Like, the narrative has to completely contort itself so that they do, as I pointed out in Part 1.

To be perfectly honest, the only reason I didn’t fully mention Ellaria and the Sand Snakes murdering their own family is because I still have no idea if we’re meant to take it as a positive or negative. When the first episode aired, I immediately argued that these women are evil and not supposed to be gaining audience sympathy, but now I realize that perhaps I had been too generous, and that Ellaria’s “weak men will never rule Dorne again” remark was supposed to be taken at face value? That we were supposed to agree about how useless Doran and Trystane were for trying to bring about peace, and applaud these women for their initiative. Because as villainous as this seemed, they’re now teaming up with Daenerys and Olenna, who are unquestionably protagonists, though damn if I know why. It’s team #WomenOnTop defeating the patriarchy through violence! Even though said violence is upholding the very patriarchal values they supposedly object to.

Quick: are they wearing shoulder pads or not?

Quick: are they wearing shoulder pads or not?

Actions don’t matter, just who’s doing them. And that’s because actions on Game of Thrones are a foregone conclusion. It’s impossible for there to be a remotely feminist message when all characters are locked into a violent and revenge-worshipping mold. Because if actions don’t matter between protagonists and antagonists, they sure as hell don’t matter between men and women. It’s not women on top of this show; it’s David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s mold for the ideal hero — a mold of toxic masculinity that is utterly sexist no matter what gender is cast into it.


The rest of the series can be found here:

Images courtesy of HBO

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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[…] The final part of this series tackles the concept of “violence = empowerment,” and why this is not the pathway to a feminist narrative. […]

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[…] a corner” Stark is a more accurate descriptor, let’s be honest). I close out this series with Part 3 by discussing how each woman’s “triumph” in Season 6 was the result of an act of violence, and how it […]

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[…] If the film was wholly a comedy, that would be fine, but why should we regard the endangering of human lives by the designated bad guy as terrible, while the one by Newt as just a bit of fun, if a little misguided? Because he does it in a light-hearted manner? Because he doesn’t have evil intentions, just suffers from an amount of irresponsibility that is beyond fatal? It’s the Game of Thrones syndrome: the good guys are good because they tell us so. […]

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[…] an opportunity to tell us how Loras fails to measure up to the toxic masculine ideal—an ideal heartily endorsed by this show at large. (We would talk about how this is in contrast to his book characterization, but what would […]

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[…] scene moves to Hip, a fully-realized GoT-certified empowered woman (cause she’s murdered someone you see), preparing to jump off a bridge. She has even set up a […]

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[…] That show, in my opinion, handles the topic in a horrifyingly superficial manner, and uses it as a cheap device to drive drama, rather than a pointed exploration of something still disturbingly prevalent, and thus quite […]

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[…] writing was shit before, and now it’s not? Are we supposed to just be automatically onboard with revenge as an awesome plot device to spice up a […]

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[…] has already tackled the way violence isn’t actually empowering, and Jess got into this as well, but there’s no denying that we were meant to find Sansa’s […]

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[…] Why this discrepancy exists without explanation, we can’t tell you. Unless it’s so that the writers can also punish Marg for daring not to choose violence, like all empowered women are supposed to. […]

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“Ramsay is actually kind of a badass. Like Ramsay fights…yeah.” So Ramsay went from literally being a clumsy bastard with a scary side to a flanderized Sephiroth-style supervillain. Adorable. It’s like these guys never read the books. Ramsay is good at breaking and scaring people. He isn’t a virtuoso in the battlefield like Jaime or Ser Barristan, neither is he a tactical genius like Randyll Tarly and Stannis Baratheon. The fact that this brat even won against Stannis shows how flanderized and out of touch the show writers are, not only with the lore of Game of Thrones, but with… Read more »

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[…] Essentially the exact opposite of the nuance or complexity that was being demanded. *Cough cough Game of Thrones.* Most of the time that has to do with the fact that these films and characters are being crafted […]

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[…] to with that Ed Sheeran cameo. We’re supposed to see Arya’s badassery (I mean we even get the smirk of female empowerment) but then have her call into question her morality line with the Lannister scene. But neither allow […]

Analysis

Image Comics “DIE” is an Instant Dark Fantasy Masterpiece

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There are so many factors that have come into play when I first heard about Image comics newest release, DIE, that it is hard to pinpoint the real reason it intrigued me so heavily. Who am I kidding, it was all the reasons. Most importantly the staff on it.

For one, it features two of my favorite Image Comics alum. The first being Kieron Gillen, the mastermind that gave us the brilliant comic The Wicked And The Divine,which is one of the best ongoing comics at the moment. On the art work is the incredibly talented Stephanie Hans whose realistic and beautifully shaded and colored panels were also featured in The Wicked And The Divine‘s 1831 one shot as well across other comic distributors such as DC with Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love. The two coming together again like in 1831 is a match that builds this comic up to be really something special.

Image, in the last few years has really been producing some special and important books in the past few years, among them being The Wicked and the Divine, some of the more acclaimed include Saga, Blackbird, Paper Girls,and Infidel, the company takes a proud departure from Superheroes that dominate the comic industry and opt for more fantasy or science fiction stories with adult and political themes.

Lastly, the plot was incredibly unique and original. When it was advertised as Jumanji meets It, I was instantly interested. While not being a player of table top games myself, I can certainly see the crowd this book is trying to reach while also showing the fun about these games with an added horror twist that is sure to be remembered after the first issue.

The story really does follow a similar timeline to the mentioned Stephen King novel since it follows a group of friends during two periods of their lives: as teenagers and as adults. As we are introduced to each member of the group, we notice nothing in particularly strange about their characters, other than a shared love for table top games and science fiction and fantasy themes. The group has gathered together to celebrate the birthday of their friend Dominic by playing an apparently hard to find game called Gormenghast.

We learn a little about each character based on their choice of created characters. Dominic himself creates a diplomat woman that’s apparently a cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli, the Dictator. Matthew, a magical warrior of empathy, the Grief Knight. Angela, a cyber punk, Neo. Isabelle, an atheist with gods as pets, Godbinder. Chuck, a lazily created every-man. And Sol the dungeon master with D20 die.

As the game begins the comic cuts to two hours later as Sol’s mum comes to check on them and they have disappeared. Fast forward again and it’s two years later and the group suddenly appears on a random road nearly getting hit by a car. Angela is missing her arm and we can’t really make out what happened, they are now only known as the Stafford six a group of teenagers who went missing two years ago. Sol is the only one missing from the group.

The comic again goes in time to 25 years later where we get to see how this tragedy has affected the rest of their lives. Apparently they had all made a promise never to speak about what happened, not even to one another. Sol’s mother even after so many years pesters Dominic about the fate of her son, to which he avoids. Using brilliant dialogue we see just how dark this has made their lives. Dom seems not to keep in touch with all the others except his sister who has gone through a string of divorces. They have made the best of living with their memories but it is all destroyed when Dom receives a package at a bar, a bloodied D20 die.

It’s at this moment that he decides to reunite the group. After so much time, some have changed completely while others not at all…I’m looking at you Chuck. While some have new companions and some less. They decide as a group to finally discuss what happened that night and where they were for two years until the die calls out to them. The Grandmaster threatens the realm and a hero is needed it calls as they are all sucked into the die and land into a desert ruin. It’s apparent that they have all become their characters…why does Chuck look like Varric.

With the end of the issue the group bickers among themselves about being back in the game, something they’ve repressed for nearly half their lives until Sol appears as the new Grandmaster. What I took from his dialogue is that he was trapped by the previous one and during these long years he’s fought a war to survive or escape and eventually defeated him and became the Grandmaster himself. It’s not clear whether he’s sane or not at this point but it points to the latter as he tells his friends that they are not leaving until the game is over.

This first issue was great at establishing its main cast. While I kept most of those details out of this review, the book really fleshes them out individually and gives life to each of their personalities. Anyone who has read The Wicked and the Divine will know just how well Gillen handles diversity among characters as well as conflicting attitudes. They actually feel like a group of friends you might have been a part of in high school. I really loved this book and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.


Images Courtesy of Image Comics

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Analysis

Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight

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It had to happen sometime. I talked last book about how much Butcher had improved on his shaky start. Published in 2002, Summer Knight brings the shaky opening to a conclusion. It also opens up a new phase of storytelling for the series as a whole. In case you couldn’t tell, I really like this book. It brings so much to the series, and features one of the more iconic moments of the series for Murphy. Let’s get into it.

Spoilers for Summer Knight and all previous books in the series.

So, What Happened?

Summer Knight opens with Harry and Billy investigating a rain of toads. Harry grumps around and alienates all his friends because of his grief over Susan. Afterwards, he goes to a meeting Billy orchestrated, which turns out to be with Mab, Queen of the Winter Fae. She bought his debt from the Leanansidhe, and wants him to clear her name for a murder. Harry refuses and goes to the White Council meeting. We meet several other wizards, and a vampire offers peace between the White Council and Red Court if they turn over Harry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the wizards agree not to sacrifice Harry if he makes Mab cooperate with the Wizards.

Harry discovers that the murdered man, Ronald Reuel, was the Summer Knight, the human intermediary for the Summer Court. The power he wielded disappeared, destroying the balance. Which, eventually, leads to war between the Courts. Elaine, shows up as the Summer Emissary. Harry attends Reuels funeral, and runs into several teenage, changeling acquaintances of the knight who are concerned over the disappearance of Lily. He visits the Winter Lady, then contacts Murphy. They fight several monsters in a Wal-Mart. He goes to the Summer Lady after finding Elaine beaten by his car.

Harry visits the Summer and Winter Mothers in the Nevernever. The Winter Mother gives him an Unraveling. Aurora, the Summer Lady steals it from him and reveals she orchestrated everything to remake the seasons in her own image. She trapped the power inside Lily. Harry objects to this. Harry, the Alphas, and two of the teenage changelings go to the Stone Table. They interrupt the fight between seasons, steal back the Unraveling, and kill Aurora, saving Lily, the one holding the mantle. In the conclusion, Lily becomes the new Summer Lady.

Best Moment – The Wal-Mart Fight, Organization to Conclusion

There are so many good things about this scene. There’s finally communication, Murphy’s first moment of awesome, and plot hooks perfectly combined with character catharsis. Over the course of this unlikely placed scene, Butcher manages to bring several elements of the early series to a conclusion.

The first, of course, is that Harry finally tells Murphy everything about the supernatural. She even gets in one last one-liner about being kept out, a start to their banter for the rest of the series. “‘I know I’ve kept things from you.’ … ‘Yeah’, she said, ‘I know. It’s annoying as hell.’”(299). He tells her everything. About the Red Court, the White Council, the Fae, and Chicago Supernatural Politics. Now, we won’t have the cheap conflict from Storm Front where they work at cross-purposes again.

Immediately afterwards, we have the fight with the chlorofiend, the Tigress, and the mind fog. At the conclusion of that fight, we also have Murphy’s first major impact since the Loup-Garou. “Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, … then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend’s glowing green eyes.” (345). Chainsaw with cold iron, vs Fae Creature. Murphy wins.

The way that the plot interacts shows improvement from the previous book. There, Butcher attempted to tie together the antagonists with the chain spells. Here, we see the ghoul, the summoned monster, and the mind fog from two different people. The Tigress also capitalizes on Murphy’s trauma from the previous book. But everything makes sense, and the conclusion of the fight ties together various plot threads, since Ace sent the Tigress, Aurora the fog and fiend, and Murphy starts to recover from Kravos’s attack.

Most Improved – Harry’s Attitude

While some of the previous books focused more on the change to other people, here we have Harry change. He has a character arc that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end. Harry starts the book depressed over Susan, and he alienates everyone. Billy points it out. “I don’t need to be a wizard to see when someone’s in a downward spiral. You’re hurting. You need help.” (25). Given that Billy previously espoused the theme of the series, his reintroduction here is significant. Eventually, Harry accepts the help Billy offers, both in scheduling meetings, and with the fight at the end. After the fight, Harry even goes over to hang out with the Alphas, and plays a barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game. He quotes William Shakespeare jokingly, and says, “Meep, Meep” to a deranged Faerie Queen. (489).

It is not only the Alphas that help change Harry’s mood. His reunion with Eileen, his teenage flame, who he thought he killed alongside Justin also helps. Finding out he didn’t kill her brings him closure. But through the book, when she nominally serves as an opponent, the Summer Emissary to his Winter, her presence reassures him. Even when she ‘betrays’ him to Aurora, and binds him, she still helps him. “I’d been right. It was the same binding she’d used when we were kids.” (433). Her meddling enables him to escape Aurora’s death trap, by using their childhood bond.

At the conclusion of the book, she gives him advice regarding Susan that builds to the catharsis detailed above. “Stop thinking about how bad you feel—because if she cares about you at all, it would tear her up to see you like I saw you a few days ago.” (510). That help sends him in a new direction.

Best Worldbuilding – The Fae Courts

While the information on the White Council is delightful, the Fae Court proves more valuable to the main plot. And we learn a lot about the Courts here. Lea makes an appearance, where she ‘helps’ Harry by distracting him and a Fae from fighting and guiding him to the Stone Table. She mentions again how she believes her actions last book only helped him as well. It gives insight to the alien nature of Fae morals.

We also can draw conclusions about the structure of the Courts given all the information on how they organize themselves. Through the book, we learn about the Winter and Summer Courts, each with three Queens. The Mothers, the retired queens. The Queens, the current ruler. And the Ladies, the heir for the future. Their Knights that do their will in the mortal world, and the Emissaries chosen on special occasions.

Also informative is the phrase, “If Winter came here, Summer had to come too, didn’t it?” (219). It implies certain checks and balances on each other’s behavior. That only highlights how serious a problem it is that the Summer Knight is dead, and the mantle gone. Lea’s information about the Stone Table reinforces that. Beyond being a reference to Narnia, it also guarantees great power to whoever holds the table, and whoever sheds blood on it. So, the peaceful transfer of the table from Summer to Winter and back with the seasons preserves their equality. Aurora’s plan only serves to show how important it is to keep that balance, less there be another Ice Age, or worse.

In showing us all this, Butcher expands his universe so much further, and sets the ‘table’ for future stories. Ones that will lead to the eventual conclusion of the series, yet to come.

Worst Worldbuilding – The Conclusion of Meryl’s Story

Given all that we know now about the Fae, it comes as no surprise that the worst worldbuilding also comes from that section of the story. Butcher’s take on Changelings is innovative, being half-human, half-Fae rather than the traditional version. The problems arise from how the narrative treats her, and the results of her half-Fae heritage.

The problem with Meryl is that Meryl dies at the end of the story. She is the first person explicitly allied with Harry to die. The only previous person that was not an antagonist that died was MacFinn, and he attempted to murder them all because of an uncontrollable curse. Meryl dying in and of itself is not the entire problem. Butcher directs the series in a darker direction, so deaths will come eventually. The issue that I have with the conclusion of Meryl’s story is that Butcher could have done so many things with her. As a Changeling aligned with Winter, dearest friend of the new Summer Lady and Knight, the possibility of an inter-Fae alliance or Court would develop.

She even said, “[Winter] Calls,’ Meryl said. ‘ But I’m not answering.’” (459). The Changelings provide a glimpse of the Fae outside of the manipulation, outside of Court politics. Meryl could have been symbolic of that. But no. Meryl Chooses to save Lily. She Chooses and she dies and all that hope with her. It’s a story brought too soon to a conclusion, one that broke off threads that could have continued.

Moment of Regression – Ye Old Wandering Eyes

I will admit, this is a sticking point for me. I talked about my dislike of Harry’s voyeurism in Storm Front. I brought it up again in Fool Moon. Thankfully, it didn’t appear too often in the following books, but here we see this again with a vengeance. And it doesn’t even make sense in character this time.

After a Susan-vampire nightmare, Harry thinks.

“But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely—except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back up to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.” (176).

So, theoretically at least Harry’s libido takes a break. I understand that part of this nightmare and Harry’s symptoms comes from the dangerous way he’s punishing himself for Susan’s condition. But, still. Even before this dream we have moments where he stares at Mab’s ass. He knows she’s the Winter Queen, and he still ogles her when she leaves. At Maeve’s court, Butcher spends a good deal of time describing Jenny Greenteeth, a Fae seductress. He could have emphasized the alien way she moves, the details that make her decidedly not human, and dropped a one-liner about her being naked at the end. It would have been in character for Harry’s blasé kind of humor. Instead, Butcher flips that script, focusing on the nakedness, with the inhumanity coming as an aside.

Call it my own personal soapbox, if you will, but that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when the last book did so much better with Harry’s gaze. (Not perfect, of course, but better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to keep improving.)

In Conclusion

Overall, Summer Knight showcases the best of Butcher’s work so far. While the choices were somewhat limited compared to last book, the plot hangs together much better. That cohesive plot lent its voice to each category, and the worst moments were nitpicks and could-have-beens.

The way that Butcher brought this story arc, and Harry’s character arc to a conclusion proved satisfying. His mastery of plot improved, with the motivations of the antagonists and the number being reasonable, instead of overwhelming. The knowledge about the Fae, about the Council, and about Elaine all help set up this next phase of the series. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Am I being too nit-picky in the ‘bad’ categories, or is it just proof of concept that the problems can be reduced to nitpicks? Was the White Council more fascinating than the Fae, or was Harry’s arc disjointed? Let me know if I’m being too harsh on the series, if you had a different idea for a category, or if you have any comments about the arc of the series as a whole. I look forward to hearing from you.


 

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 3×10 Rewatch: Mediocre

Kylie

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We’ve done it! We’ve made it through three seasons of Game of Thrones here with our rewatch project The Wars to Come. And with that, we’ve also made it through the most bearable parts of this series by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D). While last week brought some mixed reviews, it seems that this week, Kylie, Julia, and Katie are leaning more towards jeers and boos in “Myhsa.”

Episode Recap

Picking up from last week’s morbid end, it’s a slaughter outside the Twins as the Frey troops finish off Robb’s forces. Arya, escaping with Sandor, oversees her brother’s body being paraded about—now with Grey Wind’s head on his shoulders. The next morning, Walder Frey chats with Roose Bolton about their improved stations, now that Roose has become the Warden of the North. Roose reveals that his bastard Ramsay was the one who got the Ironborn to surrender Winterfell, and the one keeping Theon hostage now. Arya and the Hound, meanwhile, pass a group of Frey soldiers who brag about aiding in sewing Grey Wind’s head onto Robb’s body. Arya slips off Sandor’s horse and kills one of them, with Sandor killing the other two to protect her.

We check in with Theon and Ramsay, the latter of whom is still torturing the former. Theon asks to be killed, but Ramsay points out he’s not useful to him that way. He decides that Theon’s new name is ‘Reek’.

At some point, Ramsay had sent a box containing Theon’s castrated penis to the Iron Islands, with a letter telling the Ironborn to withdraw from the North. Balon and Yara receive it, and though Balon seems completely indifferent to Theon’s suffering, Yara decides that she will take her best fighters and rescue her brother.

Despite the massacre at The Twins, things seem rather peaceful in King’s Landing for a moment as Sansa jokes around with Tyrion about ways they can prank those who speak poorly of him. However, that is soon dashed when he attends a Small Council meeting where it’s revealed what happened to the Stark forces. Joffrey is gleeful and says he wants to show the corpse of Robb to Sansa, but Tyrion tells him he can’t torment her any more. This leads to an unpleasant confrontation, which Tywin puts an end to by sending Joffrey to bed. As everyone else clears out, he reminds Tyrion that he must impregnate Sansa now that she’s officially the heir to Winterfell. That might prove difficult, since when Tyrion sees her next, it’s clear she heard about her family and is incredibly sad.

Later, Varys tries to bribe Shae to leave Westeros, since he believes Tyrion can help the land and Shae is a distraction to that end. She refuses. Tyrion, for his own part, passes his time by drinking with Pod, until Cersei comes in and tells him that he really should impregnate Sansa, so that she can have some joy in her life, just like Cersei’s children brought her. Much later, Jaime arrives back in the city, and meets a stunned Cersei.

Up at The Wall, Bran and the Reeds take shelter in one of the abandoned Night’s Watch castles. Bran tells them it’s haunted because of the ‘rat cook,’ a man who killed his guests under his own roof and was cursed into the form of a rat. Gilly and Sam turn up at the same castle, and Sam recognizes Bran as Jon’s brother. He gives Bran and the Reeds his dragonglass to help protect them as they set out north of the Wall.

Sam and Gilly make their way back to Castle Black, where Sam makes the case to Maester Aemon that Gilly is worthy of their protection given their vows extend to the “realms of men.” Gilly names her baby after Sam, and Aemon, after learning what they had seen, commands Sam to send out all the ravens with this news.

They’re not the only ones to make it back to Castle Black; Ygritte finds Jon washing his wounds. He tells her he loves her, but he has to go home, and says he knows she won’t hurt him. That bit turns out to be wrong since she shoots him with arrows three times, though Jon still manages to ride back to the castle where he is greeted by Sam and Pyp.

Down at Dragonstone, Davos struggles with Gendry as a prisoner. The two talk, and Davos reveals that he too was lowborn and from Flea Bottom. Later, Davos reads through Stannis’s mail having made great strides in his literacy. He comes across Maester Aemon’s letter and is shocked. However, the news arrives that Robb has died, which means Stannis wants to sacrifice Gendry, since they now have a sign that the leech magic worked. Davos tries to argue against it, but it’s hopeless.

Davos instead breaks Gendry out and sneaks him into a rowboat, giving him guidance on how to get back to King’s Landing. When it’s discovered that Gendry is missing, Davos is correctly accused by Stannis and Melisandre. He’s sentenced to die, but Davos quickly pulls out Aemon’s letter and tells Stannis the real fight is to the north. Melisandre agrees with him, and tells Stannis that Davos has a part to play still.

Finally, in Yunkai, the now freed slaves come outside their gates to meet Danaerys. Her Unsullied guards are wary, but when the freedmen begin calling out “Mhysa” to her (meaning “Mother”), she realizes that no one will hurt her. She leaves the protection of her Unsullied to walk among the Yunkish.

Initial, quick reaction

Kylie: I’m really not able to type well, because I am still cringing from the crowd surfing scene. And especially knowing the script fully intended for Dany’s whiteness to be the focal point…ugh.

Trying to think about this episode as a whole, there was so much that just straight up annoyed me, but then the numerous Davos and Bran scenes somehow were well-placed enough that I’d calm down. It’s not that they were even that amazingly done (seriously, how would any show-only like Stannis at this point?), but the rest was just…very clearly not the show we began with in Season 1.

Katie: I was happy to get to jump on this rewatch because I always am interested in tenth episodes of Game of Thrones’s seasons. The big climax has just occurred and then there’s so much wrapping up and scene-setting to establish what comes next. They’re so often good barometers of how the show is doing. This one was a roller coaster for me. It reminded me of a lot of the things I genuinely enjoyed about the earlier seasons of the show, but then Sansa would be sidelined, Ramsey would monologue, or oof, that whole last scene.

Julia: All of this episode was mostly a need to set things up for the coming seasons. Sometimes this makes perfect sense, like setting up Stannis going north, but sometimes I was just scratching my head going, “Why are they digging this whole even deeper?”

Okay, that was mostly the scene where Shae rejected those diamonds. Like, did they have a different plan for her at that point? Why?

Highlights/lowlights

Kylie: I actually think my highlight was Walder and Roose talking, since you can clearly see just how odious they are, and also how that chip on Walder’s shoulder came to define a war. Roose was a bit hypocritical with his, “Robb didn’t listen to me ever” and also, “here’s how the situation with my bastard unfolded that Robb sanctioned,” but that’s not exactly an issue since we’re not meant to be convinced by these two. At least I don’t think so.

My lowlight is a very personal annoyance, I know, but Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion and not knowing the word “shit” was pure sheep shit in and of itself. Also how many times did Arya possibly stick poo in the mattress that Sansa was no doubt sharing with like, Jeyne Poole?

It’s just, come on. I get that the sun rises and sets out of Tyrion’s ass on this show, but can’t his prisoner wife at least be a bit distant to him? You know, her whole thing in the books with her armor of courtesy. The way the show makes it seem, she was well on her way to liking this marriage, and then the death of her family made her sad for a few days (during which will be her escape, since that’s coming in two episodes). So frustrated.

Katie: That’s a good highlight, it’s always nice to see David Bradley cackle his way through his lines. And you know, I actually really considered Sansa laughing and joking with Tyrion as a lowlight too? Not because the scene itself is particularly bad (I’d forgotten how nice it is to see Sansa look happy about something, anything!). But because her emotions in all her scenes this episode are 110% about Tyrion. First to make him look like a great guy, which is par for the course. But it gets even worse later when it turns out that Sansa heard the news of the Red Wedding off screen, and her sadness is not her own, instead is simply given the narrative function of bumming out Tyrion a bit more. It’s a good pick for highlighting all of the generally… bad writings tendencies of the later seasons.

That said, I have to pick the closing Mhysa scene. It’s probably the point when I turned hardest on this show when I originally watched it? It’s such a thematic, narrative, and directorial failure, bad for the story and gross in all its racial implications. There were a lot of bad scenes in this episode, but this was the one that made me most actively angry.

Kylie: Yeah, it’s completely tasteless and the last taste you get of the show for the season. It may actually have been the worst closing shot of any season, now that I think about it.

Katie: My highlight is probably the Small Council scene, before it’s whittled down to Tyrion and Tywin? I’ve always liked the dynamic of more competent people having to deal with Joffrey’s kingship and deciding whether to be deferential or confrontational. It’s also a scene that’s not overly talky, and lets the (good) acting speak for itself. Honestly, though, I probably just enjoy seeing Charles Dance belittle Jack Gleeson. Honorable mention to Davos and Shireen hanging out and reading together, because it was very sweet.

Julia: Jack Gleeson is such an easy highlight to pick. He was just so happy and bouncy. And it helped that it was more or less just a book scene acted excellently. But I’m going to take your honorable mention and turn it into my highlight. Remember when Davos actually did stuff? Remember Shireen’s School for Conveniently Placed Illiterates? I used to love both these characters so much, and they have such great chemistry together. So even though this scene triggered a spiral where I was thinking what the Westerosi equivalent of Dutch speaking printers that would result in there being a “g” in “night” would be, or if they even have standardized orthography in Westeros, and what a trick that would be without printing, and if the maesters as an institution would be enough of a centralizing force to have standard orthography make sense…. I still really liked it.

I honestly think the “pork sausage” scene is not only a lowlight of the episode, it might be a lowlight for the whole series, even given all the stuff they’re going to do later. It was just so long and so… Am I going insane, or did they play it for laughs? Maybe they were going for some kind of Deadpool-esque black humor, but whatever Ramsay dangling a sausage was supposed to be, it wasn’t funny.

Katie: It’s so bad! I think they are playing it for laughs, at least kind of? Ramsay’s whole shtick seems to be “he’s so evil and so wacky! Isn’t it crazy?!” The cavernous abyss between the obvious delight D&D have in writing Ramsay and the terrible way it plays out on the screen and drags down the story is a… not great sign of things to come.

Kylie: Also speaking of what’s to come, Ramsay and eating becomes like, a thing, sort of similar to Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11. I guess it’s because they found this sausage scene suitably off-putting or something? But it leads to a full-on dramatic moment of Roose telling him to stop eating in Season 5.

Quality of writing

Katie: It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit, but can we talk about the Ramsay-Theon scene for a sec? The first shot of Theon in this episode is just a lingering shot on his crotch. We have an endless Ramsey monologue as he eats a pork sausage (get it?), and then Theon gets punched in the face a lot and cries. This show, guys. “Do eunuchs have a phantom cock?”

Julia: Yeah, the dialogue is cringy, but in terms of writing, the bigger question is why this scene, or this plotline even exists. GRRM puts a lot of disturbing stuff on the page (far too much according to many people) and even he chose to leave most of this stuff as implication. Perhaps they should have asked themselves why that was.

Kylie: I guess just so we could see the “transformation” into Reek more clearly? Like, they wanted him to be called ‘Reek’, but didn’t think that would track. Why they left the nickname in is beyond me, since they cut out Ramsay posing as Reek, and all that rather confusing backstory that came with it.

Even if they felt like we couldn’t have understood how broken Theon was without showing at least some torture, we certainly could have gotten by with half as many scenes, and none needed to be quite so explicit or drawn out. This one in particular was endless.

While we’re talking about the sausage though, I actually liked the dialogue given to Balon when he reacts to all of this. It was very on-point for the Iron Islands attitudes.

Katie: It was also undercut a bit by the fact that it makes the adoption of Reek seem kind of arbitrary rather than an eventual outcome of Theon’s torture. Theon’s obviously not in a great place at the start of this scene, but there’s not much of an indication that he’s really lost his sense of self. He seems eager to hold onto his name when he first gets hit in the face. Because of that, the fact that he takes up the name at the end seems less like a culmination of a character arc than an admission that he’ll do what Ramsey says if he gets punched sufficiently.

Agreed about the Balon dialogue. I also didn’t mind Cersei’s mom monologue (momologue! oh, gross, I’m sorry).

Julia: Like Walder Frey’s obnoxious misogyny last week, Balon’s horribleness felt like it was actual there to serve the world and the characters. I’m not sure why Ramsay’s antics feel so different, especially from Frey’s stuff. Maybe it’s just the absurdity of the sausage wagging.

Kylie: They just feel very out of place. The dialogue doesn’t sound like anything that’d be in ASOIAF, and I don’t just mean because of some strange anachronisms, like talking about “phantom limbs.” No way Westerosi would have coined that term.

Our 8th grade book report (on themes)

Katie: Tough to pick a theme in an episode that had roughly 36,000 plot lines happening at the same time. The closest I could come to was the emphasis on tension between valuing the Family Name and valuing family members themselves. The clearest example is Tywin’s long speech to Tyrion about how he wanted to kill him as a baby but HE WAS A LANNISTER so he kept him around, but it’s also evident in Balon’s indifference to Theon once he’s a family liability (and Yara’s pushback). I suppose it works with Stannis and Gendry as well, with Davos playing the Yara figure. If we want to be kind and stretch this theme to its breaking point, we could also include the Davos/Gendry scene about Flea Bottom, and the Shae/Varys scene, both of which demonstrate how those without a family name often have to play by different rules. That still leaves out most of the episode?

Julia: That’s an excellent effort. There’s something there maybe about obligations. Like, Jon has one to the Night’s Watch, and Tywin had an obligation to not kill his own child, (the cross he bears is heavy) and Guest Right is an obligation, but that just seems like a less insightful version of what Katie said.

Title? Dany is a mother to all the freedmen, and motherhood is also what Carol’s content is about. And the Rat Cook is a parent too…it’s totes a theme.

Kylie: Gilly is a mother to the baby she just named Sam! Honestly, the title is feeling pretty peripheral to me.

Katie gets full marks though, for sure. The three Stark kids kinda have a mutual loss of innocence (not than any of them are fully innocent at this point, of course). Sansa learns about her family’s fate, Arya kills her first man, and Bran heads north of The Wall. That one is kinda weaker, but given this is a season that ends in the middle of a book, it’s more of a parallel with them than I’d have expected.

The Butterfly Effect (cracks in the plaster)

Kylie: I don’t want to keep harping on the Sansa/Tyrion scene, but I think this is one of the clearest butterfly effects at play. Tyrion is made a really, really, really nice guy who the audience loves, so any character we are meant to like must love him too. In this case, Sansa. So take the whitewashing of his character that’s been there from the start, and two seasons later his prisoner child-bride is joking around with him, and Varys tries to set Shae up for life across the Narrow Sea, because Tyrion is apparently the only man who can save Westeros and he needs to be less distracted.

Katie: Agreed. I was shocked at how openly Sansa was used as an emotional prop in this episode.

Julia: Ugh, I feel like I can rant about Saint Tyrion for hours. In fact, I’m quite sure I have. I would argue that the changes to Tyrion’s character have the most butterfly effect of any decision in the show, maybe more than the decision to age up the kids, or the one to take out most of the supernatural elements. Tyrion’s characters flaws in the book drive the plot quite a bit, after all. And make his actions make any kind of sense.

At this point, I think many intelligent show-only watchers would be surprised to learn that Sansa is a POV character in her own right. And that Shae isn’t.

Katie: Also, this is a very small detail, and nit-picky, but I think it illustrated well the problems the show increasingly ran into down the line. I am not at all a fan of the choice to open the episode with… the mass slaughter of Northern extras. It’s supposed to serve as a carry-over from the climax of last episode, I suppose. But the reason The Red Wedding works as an emotional gut-punch is because it’s so intimate. It’s a shockingly and terribly personal moment.

As y’all noted last week, it’s a climax the show keeps trying to recapture, and it keeps trying… badly. In large part because it keeps aiming for grand scale over the emotional horror of individual moments. Michelle Fairley did such a good job of selling those last few seconds of emotion in The Red Wedding. Opening this episode with anonymous extras screaming and dying is literal overkill: it takes what should be the center of the scene—Arya seeing Wolf-Headed-Robb—and confuses and muddles it. Rather than a clear, stark (sorry), emotional moment, we get a frenetic, busy, overly-complicated scene. Clean it up! Bombast isn’t always best. It’s not a big deal, really, but it’s a wasted opportunity, and so indicative of what the show is going to prioritize as it goes along.

Julia: At least it gives the aforementioned hypothetical intelligent show-only watcher the tools to call bull on Tywin’s later line about all he did was kill a few dozen men at dinner, and what’s so wrong about that?

Kylie: True, though I’ll agree it was very visually busy. There’s that shot of Roose that opens it, and the way he walked to look out reminds me exactly of this one shot in Return of the King with an orc charging into battle. It was a wonky way to open things (also it was pretty damn dark), and given the effectiveness of the Walder and Roose scene later, I don’t think it’s a very necessary one.

Worth noting something that’s about to turn into a butterfly effect: the Night’s Watch vows. Sam found the “loophole” to make a case for Gilly staying (a compelling one at that). Next season we get the sex loophole, and I feel like we had one more at that too. Maybe the implicit loophole that allowed Jon to quit? It’s also symptomatic of D&D chasing a good thing, or something that lands. This is still pre-chicken joke GoT, remember.

Remember adaptation?

Julia: Well, this section is getting harder and harder.

Um. Gendry fits rather seamlessly into Edric Storm’s role in this episode. Minus the way he bonded with Davos, I guess. They bonded in both cases, but not in the same way.

The small council scene about the Red Wedding was pretty good, at least until it became about how awesome Tyrion is for not raping a 14-year-old, but other than that the stuff from KL was not super faithful.

Kylie: Not at all. Though let’s chat about the adaptational decision with Yara. Is it that D&D just don’t plan more than one year at a time? Because I don’t think it’s about them feeling like we needed to check in with her and trying to come up with a great Season 4 plot for her specifically; we didn’t check in on the Iron Islands at all this year, and there’s nothing that necessitates putting the theater in next year either.

Even if they did plan, does that mean they purposely set up Yara for a completely futile, one-off failed mission? Because god knows they wanted Theon to be in his ADWD plotline, no matter what woman gets shoved into Jeyne’s role… I guess I’m just not getting what they were even trying for with this. False hope of Theon’s rescue?

Katie: Such big chunks of these finales focus on laying the groundwork for future plots. But in practice I think that sometimes bleeds over into just… setting up potential drama or tension? It wouldn’t surprise me if they just wanted another rousing (“rousing”) speech or set up for potential action next year, regardless of whether it would matter at all in the long run. The more generous part of me wants to say that there was some level of awareness that the Theon/Ramsey scenes were floundering and needed the (false) promise of some kind of narrative development before the end of the season.

Julia: In retrospect, though, it does seem cruel of them to set Yara up like that. As cruel as setting Shae up like that was. I think being even more generous is presuming that they had different plans for both these characters—they wanted Shae in particular to do something different during the trial and for Yara to maybe do something like her book plot with Stannis maybe–but audience reaction, or budget, or lack of writing skills made it impossible?

Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?

Kylie: This is the most Carol Carol who Carol’d all the way to Carolville in her Carolmobile.

Katie: She reminded me of a mom who has been to so many grinding, exhausting parent-teacher conferences about her terrible kid. She knows the teacher is right, but she has to keep her game-face on? She’s just trying her best.

Julia: Imagine another hypothetical intelligent person, who only ever sees this episode of GoT, being told that Carol is supposed to be the villain.

Also, what on earth was that sleeveless number she was wearing in the last scene? And why was she looking at a seashell of some kind and smiling sadly?

Kylie: She was smiling sadly at seashells. She and Jaime used to sell seashells down by the seashore, or something. I feel like I remember that context being explained to us (was that something they talked about in the pilot?) but damn if I remember.

Julia: They talked about jumping off a cliff once.

Why was her scene with Tyrion even there? Like I say, it’s an odd thing to do with someone who’s supposed to be a villain. Was it all just so Tyrion can seem like a nice guy for not wanting to impregnate Sansa?

Kylie: Or to make it clear that once Cersei’s kids are gone, there goes the only good piece of her. Yay! Either way, there’s no debate this week:

Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?

Kylie: Tywin’s exposition seemed good, albeit horrifying. I guess Bran is technically expositing with the rat cook, too, though that’s really just telling a fairy tale. I don’t know, the things that jumped out to me as clunky in this episode were not exposition in nature.

Julia: What, talking about phantom cocks was not exposition? Maybe Ramsay should have asked a cock merchant, I’m sure they would know all about that.

Feel free to be annoyed at me, but the way Tywin said, “I raised you as my son, because you are a Lannister,” to Tyrion probably gave a lot of fuel to the Tyrion the Secret Targ folks.

Kylie: That was also following him saying “since I cannot prove you’re not my son” in another episode this season too, I think. Maybe Charles Dance is a Tyrion truther.

How was the pacing?

Julia: D&D seem to have more trouble with pacing within scenes even than the pacing of episodes.

Kylie: I’d agree with that. The entire episode stops dead at the sausage waving, and frankly Davos and Gendry’s conversation didn’t exactly get to a point.

Overall the episode just struggled from that spottiness we’ve been seeing all season. I can’t tell if it’s better or worse that they were trying to give so many characters a stopping point. Often jumping around helps break things up, but it sure didn’t feel like that this time.

Another week of no sex, baby

Katie: You know, given the number of scenes where people tell Tyrion to have sex with Sansa, maybe “no sex, (no) baby” is the theme.

Kylie: And now his watch begins, after all. He hasn’t seemed to be getting it with Shae either, now that I think about it. I guess she’s struggling with her maybe!jealousy still over Sansa?

Julia: No, no Kylie, she’s outraged that people would dare treat Sansa this way, since she loves that girl so much and would kill for her.

Kylie: Until she decides that whatever, let’s just implicate Sansa in a bunch of crimes. I can’t believe we have another season of Shae…

In memoriam…those Frey soldiers

Katie: In memoriam of the last time Arya’s character arc was interesting! Sorry.

Kylie: Ain’t it the truth. We’re about to get a full season of her and Sandor doing nothing, and talking about how nothing is nothing, and frankly that’s a highlight compared to Braavos and her arc quite literally iterating. Though…Arya in Season 7 was not boring. Many other things, but that’s one charge she gets away from.

Is this where we should talk about her kills in the book getting thrown in at random times and in random contexts?

Julia: I remember there being a chart.

This season’s been fun. I think I get people still having patience with this show after this, but in retrospect, it’s so totally off the rails already.

And I just remembered, the Pornish are coming soon!

Kylie: OH MY GOD.

Well, for us at least, the Pornish won’t be coming until 2019. We will have the Season 3 rewatch podcast out to you in the next couple of weeks, and then Season 4’s rewatch will start January 8th.

Thank you all for following along this season. We’re curious to know what you thought of this episode specifically, though. Did D&D leave a tantalizing endpoint, or are things just sloppy to the point of distraction? Let’s discuss that below, and we wish you both a happy new year and good fortune in The Wars to Come.


Images courtesy of HBO

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