Monday, July 15, 2024

Stop Pretending Game of Thrones is Worthy of Analysis

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Okay, this might seem like an exceedingly odd statement for me to make when there are no dearth of Game of Thrones (GoT) analyses to be found on this site. We sit and watch this show live, we podcast about each episode, we offer recaps, we have a weekly feature dedicated to highlighting some new piece of illogic, and even after that, we may still have an additional article about some other aspect of the show, if we feel so compelled. And given GoT’s popularity and cultural impact, any analysis that tackles its problematic tropes, or lazy storytelling devices, or outright unfortunate implications that result from the show’s writing, spearheaded by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), is an analysis worth defending in my mind. Because media is neither created nor consumed in a cultural vacuum.

No, what I am referring to are analyses that seek to occupy the head-spaces of characters to explain their “actions.” I’m talking about panels on sexuality and gender within GoT, as if the show is providing some great commentary worthy of discussion, at least in terms of how their characters navigate the situations. (Not that there isn’t a discussion to be had about gendered implications of D&D’s writing patterns, of course…) And I’m definitely referring to any analyses that defend…whatever bull comes up, be it white saviors or rapes or the bloated corpses of hanged children, because of the show’s “realism” and why it’s a worthwhile narrative as a result.

I’m not blaming anyone for attempting to engage with the show in this manner, by the way. It’s basically cultural zeitgeist at this point, and the viewing experience is often…unpleasant, in the strictest definition of the word. Even for fans of the show, it’s a narrative that actively punishes the audience for caring. So given how challenging it can be to watch, it makes sense that people would want to unpack it in a constructive way.

It also makes sense, as the showrunners and writers like to pretend that their employ of disturbing and exploitative storytelling conventions (for instance, rape = drama) is somehow justified because of the “realism” of their writing and how that has profound takeaways for the viewers.

Our main man Bryan Cogman, who penned Sunday’s episode “Blood of my Blood”, certainly thinks that’s what he’s been writing to in the past. Take, for instance, his commentary about Sansa’s rape in Season 5:

“That said, when we decided we were going to do that we were faced with the question: If she’s marrying Ramsay, what would happen on her wedding night? And we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would happen on that wedding night with these two characters, and the reality of the situation, and the reality of this particular world.” -Bryan Cogman

Well, unfortunately, Mr. Cogman does not seem to have a particularly good grasp on what that reality is. Nor do D&D.

I’ve already discussed the issue of GoT’s setting adapting to the needs of a given scene before. The patriarchy exists so that we can get the gothic horror of a powerless Sansa in Winterfell, or so Cersei can be put upon and backed into a corner with little recourse when her son is being violently abused, yet disappears when Talisa the sass-talking field nurse wanders around a battlefield flirting with a king because that’s a *better* love story. Or it’s *more cinematic* to have Olenna become the official negotiator of House Tyrell since Diana Rigg and Charles Dance sharing the scene is just so dramatically satisfying.

If you’ve read my Season 5 Meereen retrospective, co written with Julia, you’ll also remember how slavery only exists on-screen for Daenerys to win strawmen victories against, yet the second the implications of such a system need to be explored, say…Tyrion interacting with a sex slave, it goes away because it’s more important to demonstrate what a Good Guy™ he is.

However, Season 6 has brought a host of new problems with regards to

Apparently taking part in the feudal order is now a great sin in the eyes of the gods, because having money is bad. And feasts are bad. I know we should ignore our own history, since this is a world with dragons in it, but it’s not like it takes more than 3 seconds of thought to understand that feasts have an important social function: they demonstrate stability and yes, provide food for the common folk.

This is how the entire society is supposed to be structured. A random dude that drank too much during one crazy night would not suddenly leap to the conclusion that it’s a great sin for Lords to have wealth. That would be anachronistic. We’ve jokingly referred to the High Sparrow as “Bernie Sanders,” but that’s truly how out of place he feels. He speaks of platitudes steeped in 21st Century morality.

And, okay, in the show’s universe, he’s clearly depicted as a revolutionary (Lancel talked about “a new King’s Landing” last year), so maybe him sticking out is to a point. Yet in the most recent episode, Margaery spoke with disgust of how she’d make sure the smallfolk saw her at her charity work. Yes, I believe she is faking contrition, but either way, the fact that such an attitude is even “following doctrine” or whatever she’s playing at…it makes no sense, on a fundamental level. Lords provide protection to their vassals and commoners. That is the point of this society. How is everyone on this show suddenly a Marxist?

Another adventure in GoT’s mercurial setting is the concept of “kinslaying.” Is this a problem or not? I seem to recall Stannis murdering Renly to be something with which people took issue. Even more so last year when the same man burned his own daughter at the stake and half his army abandoned him. Yet this year, kinslaying can get you magically appearing alliances, the support of the Dornish guards, or a kingship!

However, these points are mere quibbles compared to everything that happened in Horn Hill on Sunday night.

On the surface, I should have loved it. I always talk about women being too catty on GoT, and here was positive female interaction—women standing up for each other, even. My concerns about Randyll Tarly, the abusive asshole, being whitewashed into Tough but Fair Grandpappy 2.0 (a la Tywin chumming it up with Arya back in Harrenhal during Season 2) were for naught. He was a jerk and the narrative identified him as a jerk. No one was raped, no one died, and the people we cared about left the situation in what could have been considered a fist-pumping moment. I mean, it was certainly better than Sam leaving Gilly there.

But the issue was that it was all…so…transparent. And horribly, horribly out of place.

Let’s start with the fact that apparently, the stigmatization against bastards isn’t a thing at Horn Hill. Mama Tarly (she’s supposed to be Melessa Florent, but I don’t think she was ever named on-screen) is just so dang accepting of Sam breaking his Night’s Watch vows and fathering an illegitimate child with someone who is assumed (by these characters) to be a sex worker, that she’ll happily let Gilly and bby!Sam live there as noble guests. “Here’s some expensive clothes, Gilly! And a place at our family dinner table!”

Look, this has nothing to do with “well in the books this wouldn’t have happened.” Within the show’s own canon, bastardy has been established as a big flippin’ deal. Ellaria Sand certainly seemed to think so when she told Jaime “They disapproved of Oberyn and me where you are from” last year. Everyone who called Jon Snow a “bastard” as an insult thought it meant something. Catelyn Tully certainly thought illegitimate children were something of a problem, even if the show did paint her as an unfeeling bi-otch who cursed her entire family (remember that fun-time speech?) rather than like, a woman with feelings who has reasonable dynastic concerns.

But apparently Horn Hill has its own customs where bastards and their mamas are welcome to wear their finery, even though recognizing this kid as Sam’s should be risky, right? He broke his vows.

I’m not saying the idea of a mother wanting to keep her son’s illegitimate child safe is absurd in and of itself, by the way. But there is no way in the Seven that Gilly had any business being at that table if she was assumed to be a sex worker from Mole’s Town. She likely would have been given a job in the kitchens, at most. She definitely would not have been raiding Talla Tarly’s wardrobe.

I don’t think I have the educational background to discuss the anachronisms involving the fact that Horn Hill was magically transported to the Renaissance-era (with forks and everything!). It was jarring, but in and of itself, it would not have broken this scene.

I also have a minor complaint about a Marcher Lord having such a frothing hatred of wildlings. The odds that this man has ever even seen a wildling is minuscule, and the security of the Northern borders would not be his concern in the slightest compared to say, his attitude towards the Dornish.

The only explanation is that Randyll Tarly hates the wildlings on an intellectual level because they’re outside the feudal law or something. He doesn’t seem to be in favor of men reading, so it’d be on an intellectual level as a military commander who heard how bothersome they were. Maybe from that Umber his wife randomly mentioned? And then the concept of the wildlings made him so wroth he had even told Sam about his hatred of them. Sure.

I mean, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket here. I’d rather talk about the patriarchy and its implications.

Even if we honeypot away Melessa Florent welcoming Gilly with open arms and a place at the table by saying that this generosity was somehow okayed by Randyll first, there’s still quite a glaring issue with how the women behave during the dinner.

Gilly’s characterization has been an issue for quite some time. As Julia and I summarize in our retrospective of last year’s Wall plotline:

“Show!Gilly has always rather mystified us, and never more so than this season. It’s like she’s sassy and assertive most of the time, despite being a sheltered abuse victim who literally never left the house she was born in until she had to run away in terror with a strange man. Yet as soon as the narrative needs Sam to save her, she’s cringing and helpless and so grateful to be save that she will fulfill his sexual destiny and reward him with sex. She existed as a prop to characterize Sam as a man, someone to be protected and talked down to. What we don’t know is why sassy!Gilly even exists, unless a passive abuse victim isn’t ”good enough” for our bro Sam. Jeyne Westerling wasn’t good enough for Robb, so…”

Needless to say, my confusion did not get any better on Sunday, when Assertive!Gilly made another appearance. This is a woman who lived her whole life knowing two rooms, and going through each day in constant fear of her father/abuser. Season 2 and 3 established this pretty well. Yet when Randyll starts talking about how Sam isn’t manly enough because he’s fat and reads books, Gilly jumps in to say “He’s a greater warrior than either of you will ever be.”

Whatever, let’s just dismiss this complaint too. It can hang with the forks and the wildling hatred, because perhaps part of Gilly’s characterization is that she’s so sheltered she only thinks she needs to fear Craster and doesn’t understand talking out of place. Is this how serial-honeypotters think? It’s exhausting.

Gilly’s defense of Sam, however, leads Randyll to the startling realization that she is a dreaded wildling, so he therefore begins tearing into both her and Sam. And yes, Randyll is an unbelievable asshole who would do that. This is established way back in Season 1:

“On the morning of my 18th nameday, my father came to me. “You’re almost a man now,” he said, “but you’re not worthy of my land and title. Tomorrow, you’re going to take the black, forsake all claim to your inheritance and start north. If you do not,” he said, “then we’ll have a hunt and somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble and you’ll be thrown from your saddle to die. Or so I’ll tell your mother. Nothing would please me more.” Ser Alliser’s going to make me fight again tomorrow, isn’t he?” -Sam Tarly, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

Here, Randyll’s verbal abuse centers on some clumsy exposition about a Valyrian steel sword and the re-stating of the fact that Sam is disinherited despite everyone knowing this. His words are awful, and John Bradley did a fabulous job reacting to it:

“If he were to become Lord Tarly of Horn Hill, it would be the end of this house. I took you for a Mole’s Town whore when I saw you and I made my peace with that. Who else would have him? But I overestimated him. No. It was a wildling whore that seduced my son. This you getting back at me, boy? Hmm? Bringing that to my table and making me dine with it?”

However, Randyll then begins to attack on Gilly, because…he’s an abusive asshole, and that’s how this would go down, yes.

“And you got what you were after, didn’t you? A bastard. A half-breed bastard. Your invitation into our home—”

But oh wait, I don’t think so, Randyll! Your super assertive wife is going to just spring out of her chair and grab Gilly to take her to safety, along with her daughter. When Randyll says “He dishonors us” (wait, so now bastardy matters? Or just wildling bastardy matters because he’s Randyl “I Hate Wildlings” Tarly for no reason), Melessa Florent smacks him with:

Then, after basically being shamed by his wife and having his authority undermined, he turns to Sam and says, and I quote, “Your mother’s a fine woman. You’re not worthy of her.“

Okay, no. Just…no. I’m even not going to bring the way Sam talks about his mother in the books into this, because really, why bother at this point? Seriously though, prior to this moment, for all my jokes about the “magically disappearing patriarchy,” it really did just seem to me to be a case of the showrunners not thinking through the implications of playing up Diana Rigg’s character, or making a decision that is “better television,” such as including banter between Talisa and Robb. Of course professional writers should know better, and should be bothered to think this stuff through, but those moments could at least be excused away for those willing to do so.

But if nothing else, there has been a commitment on GoT to demonstrate that this is a horrible, horrible world for women to live in. The random fourteen-year-old girl (a generous estimate) that Walder Frey pulled onto his lap in another scene within this episode is indicative of that. She was there for us to be grossed out, and to be reminded that Walder sucks. But on a world-building level, her total lack of agency and recourse serves as a reminder of the toxic patriarchy in which this show is presumably set.

Actually, this was further established in the opening scene at Horn Hill, where Talla tells Sam that her father is forcing her to marry against her will:

Talla: “Father says I have to marry Symun Fossoway. He has yellow teeth—”

Melessa Florent: “That’s enough, Talla.”

Yup. Another brutal reminder about the total lack of recourse that women have in this world, particularly when it comes to their sexual agency. And true to this system, Melessa Florent shuts down any talk of opposition because male authority must be respected.

But then one scene later and Melessa is magically assertive? What, the patriarchy only exists as an excuse for rape?

Because you absolutely cannot pretend that in a world where Talla is not allowed to express that her future husband isn’t appealing to her without being silenced, her mother would even think to speak out against Randyll in order to defend a wildling that mothered the illegitimate child of her disinherited son. Yet not only did she speak out, she did so in front of others, and in such a manner that was meant to shame him.

This is a huge insult; honor is rather important in this darned society. Or at least it used to be before Season 6 decided to reward kinslayers with magically appearing alliances and kingships.

Randyll Tarly is a clear, clear abuser. Sam cowers in fear from him. The speech that comes out of his mouth is distressing. This is the type of man who would be physically violent. Sorry, was that a book projection? I mean, at the least, he is the type of man who would threaten to hunt down and kill his non-martial son, and his behavior at the dinner table suggests that it wasn’t just hot air.

A woman like Melessa Florent should, by all rights, be scared of this man.

It was also established in this scene that Randyll Tarly is sexist. Like, the dude’s concept of what makes a “man” rather speaks for itself, but then he also is not shy about keeping women in their place, at least according to Talla.

“Your father taught you to hunt? Our father would never teach us. I think our father could learn a thing or two from your father.”

Okay, um, I’m not even sure what to tackle first. The fact that Talla seems to be speaking for her two other sisters who don’t exist in this adaptation (or is it the royal “Our”?), the fact that highborn women hunting would be something to remark upon (this is a rather common activity), or the fact that this seemed to be Bryan Cogman’s way of including perhaps the most subtle rape joke in the show to date.

But hooray for Talla! Despite her dad being a sexist, abusive asshole, she has no problem dishing out sass and questioning his authority in front of a stranger.

This…is just…not how women in a feudal patriarchy would behave. It’s just not!

No, stop it, glitter gif! Seriously, there is no “reality” here. You can’t expect me to believe that the world in which Walder Frey can pull a child-wife onto his lap is the same exact world where Talla feels comfortable asserting herself, or where Melessa Florent can knock her husband’s honor without any fear.

And this really wouldn’t be the same world where Randyll Tarly’s response to this would be, “Your mother’s a fine woman.” Is he so terrified about the idea of emasculation given his “unmanly” son that he threatened to kill him, or does he have respect for these “fine women” sassing and standing up for themselves? Because those two sentiments sit in contention. The idea that he won’t teach his daughters to hunt and considers reading “girly” sits in contention with acceptance at being undermined at his own table.

So my question becomes, truly, what is there to analyze about this show in terms of its setting or treatment of gender? How can we claim that GoT’s commitment to exploring these topics has any sort of meaningful takeaway for the viewer when there’s no commit to to a consistent setting?

And I guess what especially bothers me about this is how transparent it is. This season was billed as the season of “women on top,” which given the criticism GoT received last year for its handling of Sansa’s plotline, is something many viewers have been hoping would happen. So…were the Sassy Tarlys supposed to be an example of this? Because all it served to remind me of was the fact that the writers will do whatever they damn well please in a given moment. Sansa was raped by Ramsay because of their commitment to the reality of the world—a reality that somehow doesn’t make it onto our screen when they wanted to incorporate a few good zingers at Randyll Tarly’s expense. And it was women delivering them, so let’s seal clap and talk about the resulting Empowerment™.

No. This is not a progressive narrative. And especially given how GoT will brutalize and objectify women’s bodies so often for the sake of drama or titillation or the motivation of a male character, the fact that the setting which allows for these abuses to come to pass is conveniently dismissed for the sake of humor or beating strawmen is nothing short of offensive.

Dismiss those panels, burn those books, and stop forcing every female cast member to answer interview questions about whether they think Game of Thrones is sexist or not. The Horn Hill scenes from Sunday betrayed a complete lack of care. It’s clear that not even two seconds of thought went into how women in these positions would have actually behaved. If the writers aren’t bothered enough to take their setting and narrative seriously, then neither should we.

Images courtesy of HBO

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