Now that we’re well into summer, we’re at that point where we can look back at the recent television season with a bit of distance. One show that’s received a fair bit of attention both around here and in fandom spaces, is Supergirl. We were never quiet about how hopeful we found it initially, or how emotionally poignant some of its episodes proved to be.
Yet as it kept going, we didn’t quite know what to do with it. Some weeks were serviceable, others cringeworthy, and it was impossible not to notice a certain introduced character getting the lion’s share of attention.
Well, after dissecting Mon-El’s narrative inclusion during Season 2, Gretchen and Kylie are back again, this time to dissect everything. EVERYTHING. What was this season? Why was there a measurable drop in quality? What did work well?
To help frame this conversation, we’re going to take a leaf out of the Game of Thrones Season 5 retrospectives and ask a series of questions about the nature of the storytelling in order to get at the true tension here: was this a normal sophomore slump with some expected sloppiness, or are we looking at…the decline of the year.
What Story Were They Trying to Tell?
Before we can discuss effectiveness and character arcs, we need to get our arms around what the heck even happened. The thing is, from what we can tell the entire focus of the story shifted from the first half of the episodes, what we’ll be calling “2A”, to the “2B” half. We consider the break to be after “Medusa” (2×08), since that is when Supergirl went on its winter break, even though this is not an even split in numbers. Going chronologically…
Supergirl’s sophomore year began with a very clear direction for the season. 2×01 introduced Lena Luthor, sister of Superman’s nemesis Lex and daughter of Cadmus’s Lillian Luthor, and Maggie Sawyer, Alex’s eventual love interest. 2×02 saw the departure of Cat Grant and Kara’s decision to become a reporter; 2×03 introduced the Guardian, Mon-El, and Kara’s potential to mentor a new superhero and confront the loss of Krypton vis-a-vis a cultural enemy. 2×04 introduced M’gann and the Martian arc and 2×05, Alex’s coming out story. By 2×08, the theme of aliens as refugees and anti-alien bigotry—partially explored in S1—had solidified with Cadmus opposing President
Lynda Carter Olivia Marsdin and the alien amnesty act.
A solid start to the sophomore season, for sure. The focus on alien immigration offered an opportunity to fix some of the weaknesses in S1, especially since the not-so-subtle Trump cipher, Senator Miranda Crane, received justified criticism for being played by a woman of color. Introducing not only more White Martians, in the form of M’gann, but also shifting the anti-alien sentiments to a fringe cell of rogue scientists solved that discomfort reasonably well. The show had set up a situation wherein those in power were fighting for the marginalized while resisting a well funded terror cell run by an intelligent, charismatic, learned fanatic.
As set up by 2A, the theme of alien refugees both played into and subverted the current political situation. The close cultural analogue and potential for commentary was something we’d come to expect from Supergirl in S1. Supergirl has never really been a show to go to for subtle criticism, but we appreciated that about it. Especially because of the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiments we see plastered all over the internet and news sites. A show willing to take that head on and highlight the suffering, fear, and dehumanization that unwanted immigrants and refugees face? Sign us up.
This is part of what made the Martian storyline so compelling. Before we learned of her White Martian status, M’gann and the fighting ring represented the epitome of alien marginalization. She had to literally fight to survive, but under conditions in which she was little more than chattel, an object of violent voyeurism for the privileged humans. The ultimate dehumanization of refugees.
Then her story began to evolve into one of breaking the cycle of violence, freeing herself from her society’s genocidal past, and seeking healing and forgiveness from the people hers had hurt. An important story to tell alongside that of other refugees. Because even those who come from a culture of violence and aggression deserve the chance to start a new life and be better rather than face bigotry and marginalization.
Cultural healing wove into the storyline being set up with Mon-El and Kara. Rather than a culture that directly oppressed and destroyed the other, the conflict between Daxamites and Kryptonians highlighted misunderstanding and unfounded prejudice. This once again added nuance to the refugee narrative, forcing us to accept that even those we don’t like based on cultural differences (rather than hostility) ought to expect to be treated with dignity and respect.
It had the further benefit of creating internal conflict and character motivation for Kara. The first few episodes set up Kara as learning “how to be Kara” this season. We took that to mean she would be exploring who she was outside of being a superhero. Her new job as a reporter was one facet, as was her potential to be a mentor to a new superhero. Having Superman in the first two episodes reminded us that Kara was meant to be his teacher and guide, but her late arrival to Earth prevented this. Not being able to fulfill her ‘mission’ to guide her cousin in his powers and cultural heritage left a hole in Kara’s life. It was literally what she was supposed to do, after all. The introduction of both the Guardian and Mon-El offered Kara two potential new mentees to fill that gap.
2A also seemed to be setting up an isolation arc for Kara as a means of self-exploration. Alex dropped the truth bomb in 2×02 regarding Clark ‘abandoning’ Kara with the Danvers. Then Kara began to ‘lose’ those closest to her. Alex came out and got a
slow burn girlfriend; J’onn was focused on M’gann; Kara broke up with James and he became the Guardian. Cat left CatCo to find herself; Winn left CatCo to work at the DEO and was pulled into helping James. All she had was Mon-El as a hero mentee and her job—two interesting ways to explore “being Kara” as well as potentially addressing issues of abandonment tied to Clark and losing her planet, culture, and family.
Let’s not forget the loss of idealization of her other parent when she learned her dad was involved in building bio-weapons and having to face harsh realities about her culture (vis-a-vis Daxam). That’s one potent cocktail for potential character exploration. Just who is Kara Danvers outside of her superheroism, job, Kryptonian heritage, and all the relationships that had defined her in S1?
The theme of identity tied into the other characters arcs as well. Like Alex discovering her sexuality and J’onn learning to let go of the anger and grief that defined him as a Green Martian. Lena’s, James’s, and Mon-El’s stories dovetailed nicely as an exploration of ‘true heroism’. Each of them, in their own way, provided an angle on the theme from S1 regarding heroism as a choice rather than being a matter of a specific skillset, genetics, or having superpowers. Lena further tied into Kara’s theme of mixed family legacies and M’gann’s of breaking the cycle of abuse and villainy.
Moving into 2B, there were a few threads that do continue. Lena’s mother issues and familial complexities remained a prominent and driving force behind her actions, yet despite her last name, we saw Lena make the heroic decision at each and every turn. She did have a moment of thinking she could trust her mother for the greater good, but that illusion was shattered given Lilian’s willingness (and eagerness) to murder Kara.
James also continued being Guardian, and Kara found out. Then he did Guardian things (when he was given screentime at all) until Cat popped into the final episodes and yelled at him for thinking he needed to do that to be heroic. Took the words out of our mouths.
However, aside from those two side-characters, the focus shifted almost entirely. The Martians plotline was quickly concluded with M’Gann leaving in 2×11 (though she is talked about as J’onn’s off-screen girlfriend in 2×13). Similarly, with the Sanvers slowburn officially blown up in 2×08, Alex’s plotline instead becomes…having a rather ideal girlfriend who she ends up proposing to at the end of the season. Winn is given a thieving, hypersexual girlfriend and works through those bumps.
Yet what’s most striking is the main plot. Prior to the winter break, the driving storyline, like we said, was the alien amnesty plotline, with the xenophobic Cadmus serving as the primary antagonist. While Cadmus certainly existed for the remainder of the season, the central conflict instead morphed into Kara and the people of Earth defending against a Daxamite invasion, with Cadmus mystifyingly fighting alongside our heroes in the finale.
Weirder still, where the driving personal stakes of the 2A plotline had been about Kara’s own alien status, Jeremiah Danvers’s continued imprisonment at the hands of Cadmus, and to a milder degree Lena’s relationship to her mom, 2B relied entirely on Mon-El’s relationship to his mother—a conflict not established in 2A at all.
Kara’s own personal investment came from the fact that she was dating Mon-El, something that apparently needed numerous episodes to explore. As we explained in our previously-linked piece on Mon-El, one of the major reasons why this felt so drawn out was because there was a conflation of Mon-El being hero-ready and boyfriend ready. 2B was heavily characterized by Mon-El learning to be a hero, while also learning how to navigate a relationship, with Kara serving as his instructor with both.
For Kara herself, 2B was not just about mentorship. She also lost her job as a reporter, spent her time in unemployment learning to cook and cuddling her boyfriend, and then got her job back. Then her boyfriend heroically sacrificed himself in a conflict that was entirely about his own legacy. We saw the continued strain on her relationship with Alex through their increased isolation from one another, but nothing overtly (and we stress overtly, rather than implied) addressed this within 2B, so it might have been more of a tone than an intentional thread.
Sitting back after going through that, it’s actually rather hard to sum up the season in its entirety given how disparate some of these pieces were. The best we can come up with is that Cadmus really sucked and was planning something big, but then the Daxamites came and made their point for them, while every character got a love interest. Except James. No one for
Gretchen Weiners James.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in 2×14, “Homecoming”, our ‘winner’ for worst episode of the season. It encapsulates everything weak about the season: horrendous pacing, narrative monopolization of Mon-El, lack of lasting character growth or consistency for Kara, backgrounding of James, and the inexplicable and unexplicated rift between Kara and Alex. Kara and Alex were pitted against each other on the one subject they have both always agreed on in the past (Jeremiah/family). We got a lovely Sanvers scene out of it, but at what cost?
Moreover, Cadmus was downgraded as a threat. Not that sending aliens ‘back where they belong’ isn’t a bad thing to do (well…not counting the alien imperialists), but it’s a far cry from the genocide Lillian had planned in “Medusa”. After the narrative conclusion to “Homecoming” in 2×15, Cadmus just kind of…fizzles out as a menace.
Whose Story Was It?
Taking the main plot—fighting Cadmus, then teaming up with them to fight Daxam—as the starting point, we next ask ourselves whose story this was. Now, we admit that while there are times when stories will distinguish between a main character (the character through whom we experience the story) and a protagonist (the character pursuing the story goal), but Supergirl isn’t typically that kind of show. Neither is Flash or Arrow—neither was Smallville for that matter—so this would be quite unexpected in any TV show designed around one hero.
So for the sake of ease, we will assume that the protagonist and main character are one and the same. They will be the character with the highest personal stakes and around whom the main narrative arc revolves.
The most obvious choice would be Kara. She is, after all, the titular character, and this is her show. Yet she does not have the highest personal stakes in either the Cadmus or Daxamite conflict. Others have just as much to lose as she does should Cadmus succeed in destroying all the aliens, and Alex has just as much at stake in rescuing Jeremiah. Her personal relationship with Lillian is contentious, but without the history and weight behind it as Lena’s is.
Every other character is likewise affected by the Daxamite invasion. The only area in which Kara has higher stakes than anyone else is that the primary antagonist, Rhea, is her boyfriend’s mom. But even though Rhea targets Kara due to her relationship to Mon-El, he has ultimately more to lose, and more of a decision to wrestle with, as it is his villainous mother on the loose attempting to invade Earth and set up a New Daxamite regime.
Kara’s not the character moving the plot forward either, not any more than Alex, Lena, or Mon-El. Her journalistic interests certainly tie into Cadmus’s actions, but it isn’t her investigative journalism that unveils Cadmus’s intent or its ties to the Luthor family. The former do themselves and the latter happens primarily through Lena.
Kara’s not the driving force of the Daxamite invasion either. She certain plays a key role in ending the conflict, and is the initial focus of Rhea’s attempts at diplomacy and ensuing rage at their failure. However, Mon-El’s decision to stay on Earth along with Lena’s unwitting involvement in developing the science behind the gate are much more directly tied into the plot. Bringing Daxam to Mon-El rather than Mon-El to Daxam is not, in the end, really a story about Kara at all.
Alex has just as high of stakes in most of the conflicts this season as Kara does and, given the increased prominence of her character development, is a serious contender for protagonist. Rescuing Jeremiah from Cadmus means just as much as to her sister. In fact, she bears the emotional brunt of his betrayal as well as the weight of letting him go afterward. Her actions deal a crippling blow to Cadmus, and she plays a significant role in defeating the Daxamites.
Her character undergoes a significant amount of growth this season as well. She discovers and embraces her sexuality, including coming out to her family and getting a new girlfriend who supports her through the emotional turmoil of Jeremiah’s rescue, betrayal, and disappearance after the downfall of Cadmus. She learns how to be a supportive girlfriend, in turn, even if some of her choices are…strange (who invites their girlfriend’s ex to dinner??). Given how much Season 1 focused on her inability to choose things for herself because of her obligation to protect Kara, ending this season with a proposal marks a significant change for Alex. She’s come into her own and is making a life for herself outside of Kara.
Yet, the Sanvers plot is, for the most part, isolated from Kara and Mon-El’s relationship, arguably one of the biggest arcs of the season in 2B. They parallel each other, but rarely intersect or inform each other. She supports them as they resist Rhea and the Daxamites, but her role is secondary. The Daxamite invasion isn’t ‘about’ Alex at all.
Lena was a character that appeared in a limited number of episodes, yet she is a surprisingly strong contender for the season’s protagonist. She played a vital role off the bat, and was immediately set up as the potential villain to watch, since she’s a Luthor and everyone around her is “genre savvy”. Though she was completely innocent, her mother ran the organization Kara was slotted to go up against, dragging her intimately into the conflict. Time and time again, she chose the side of good and did what she could to help our heroes. Then she developed a professional relationship with the chief Daxamite invader, before being double-crossed by her. In a moment of desperation, she trusted in her mother to help with the situation, only to see that Lillian’s well-intentioned extremism was too far and too compromised for her own moral code.
Lena ended up having a crucial role in resisting the Daxamite invasion, and is set-up into the next season to have continued struggles with her mother, Cadmus, her place in the world, and her own identity.
This is the stuff of a protagonist, really. Yet it’s difficult to consider this season to be “her story” given her limited screentime and given the way that her admittedly high-stakes conflicts were framed as secondary to the “main” fights, namely Rhea vs. Mon-El and Kara. Lena was a unifying force for the season, marrying the Daxamite and Cadmus plots more successfully than anyone else. In that way, we can think of her as support class, or the season’s backbone, which is… Well, we’ve seen this before.
Yet if the “Korra” in this equation was not the protagonist either, who was? To that, we’d need to look at the character that was in the majority of episodes, that had a full arc, and that had inextricable, personal stakes in what ended up being the central conflict of the season: the Daxamite invasion.
Yup. This was Mon-El’s story. You probably didn’t need us to explain that, but beginning in 2B, his arc was the coherent, cohesive one. It was easy to track how he became more heroic—or at least more willing to put himself in dangerous situations and help out—as well as more supportive in his relationship with Kara.
We do feel that sometimes these character jumps were a bit unearned, since from 2×09 to 2×14 he spent the majority of his time arguing with and second guessing Kara, only to be replaced by an incorrigible puppy-dog starting in 2×15. But it is clear that the writers at least thought he had an arc worthy of his heroic sacrifice at the end. In fairness, he was a party boy when we first met him, and it’s hard to think of that Mon-El making the same choice. It’s amazing what happens when you just change the way someone’s written!
That the conflict ended up being all about Mon-El’s place in the
world galaxy, along with his relationship to his mother (and former self), only drives home further how much this was his story. What was his decision regarding leaving Earth? What was his decision with the arranged marriage and his stepping up as a leader? He was the one with the agency to put an end to the conflict, and he…kind of did.
We suppose to make this process of elimination as convincing as possible, we should at least pay lip-service to the only two possible contenders for protagonist left: J’onn and Maggie.
Like Alex, J’onn assists Kara and Mon-El in their fight against Rhea. He gets a lot of screen time and his character has a clear growth arc this season. His forgiveness arc and the mutual healing between him and M’gann is one of the most consistently done and emotionally impactful plots this season. But at the end of the day, it’s a subplot. He’s a great character, for sure. We love Space Dad. He’s just simply not the protagonist; though we would happily watch more episodes featuring J’onn, M’gann, and their team of pacifist White Martians. Someone should get on that.
Maggie was around a good deal during this season, so she seems like a sort of compelling contender. However here’s the thing: take Maggie and throw her out a window in Episode 9. Does anything central to the story change? We suppose Alex could have died in that contrived situation of extreme plot necessity, but forgive us for not finding it reason enough to think of Maggie as the primary actor in the story. She was definitely a supporting character, mostly to Alex, which is fine. She’s a cop, and she wants to protect her city and go on dates with her girlfriend. So she does.
What Was the Result Of the Story?
So now that we understand what story was being told, and who it was about, we can begin to look at the messaging. Why does this matter, and what were the takeaways from a thematic and character perspective? Like most things we talk about around here, we prefer to look at both the Doylist and Watsonian implications. So let’s take those in turn.
Since we determined that Mon-El is the season’s protagonist, it’s only fair that we first look at the implications of his plotline. And…we’re sad to say that the issues we raised in “Mon-El is Supergirl’s Kryptonite” were not addressed within the season.
To quickly sum this up, our main concern had been the way that Mon-El’s hero journey was foregrounded over any sort of coherent character development for Kara, the person who was supposed to be our protagonist. Given the fact that Kara remained a secondary actor in the primary conflict, this was realized.
We also objected to the way that their relationship was framed as Kara needing to “fix” Mon-El and devote her time into making him a boyfriend-ready hero, since that role is hardly fair for her (and the gendered optics don’t exactly look great). Nor is it positive messaging that men require a women for personal growth. Contextualized against James, Lena, and M’gann, all of whom opted towards heroic roles just because of internal motivation and the fact that it was the right thing to do, it also added an incredibly contrived nature to Mon-El’s arc, only furthering our discomfort at his foregrounding.
Finally, we were shown numerous episodes of Mon-El dismissing and even outright ignoring the things Kara told him, giving us very little understanding of why she was interested in this man romantically at all. She spent many episodes being frustrated and annoyed with him, until one day she wasn’t, and they began dating.
These were our main grievances, and the final episodes of 2B addressed none of them. Mon-El remained the primary actor, Kara never once reflected on her reasons for liking him nor was his former antagonistic behavior ever brought up. Once the show decided that he was at that “heroic point” already, they completely changed his scripting, with him acting like an excitable puppy. There was nothing *wrong* with this behavior, but from a thematic perspective, the messaging is horrific: ignore red flags and sink your time into fixing up a self-centered jerk, because he can end up being a cute boyfriend in the end!
The other side of this is, of course, that love or romantic infatuation will make you heroic. It was most on display with Mon-El and Kara’s relationship, especially in the crossover episode with The Flash, but the fact that they shoehorned in a romance for the already emotionally poignant subplot with J’onn and M’gann furthers this notion. We didn’t need M’gann to have romantic interest in J’onn to understand why she was acting the way that she did, and we really struggle to see what this added to the narrative.
Finally, we would be remiss not to mention our concern regarding the worldbuilding around Daxam, specifically it being a slaving culture, and the way in which this was glossed over in Kara’s interactions with Mon-El leading up to and in the first few weeks of their romantic relationship. While this did become a source of conflict in 2×16, the crossover episode ‘resolved’ this conflict with Kara apologizing for not making Mon-El feel ‘safe’ enough to confess being a Daxamite prince who owned slaves. His history as a slave owner and participation in the slave trade thus ‘resolved’ (if only Kara had been more open-minded!), the topic does not come up again in any impactful way.
From a thematic perspective, we could argue that this plays into the ‘love makes you heroic’ idea. Mon-El learned how to reject his toxic cultural heritage because Kara helped him to become a better person. But given the history of slavery in American society, the way in which the show bandied about slavery as a means of romantic conflict, only to shove it to the side in order to get the protagonist back together with his girlfriend, is insensitive to say the least. Plus, we tend to think that rejecting slavery ought to be done because it’s the right thing and you’re a decent human being rather than because your girlfriend is upset with you. It’s a rather low bar.
Just as unfortunate, and perhaps just as unintentionally problematic too, is how 2B changes the theme of alien amnesty. As we discussed above, 2A seemed to be setting up a pretty thorough critique of anti-immigration rhetoric vis-a-vis Cadmus’s anti-alien bigotry. Lillian’s willingness to kill all the aliens in National City because ‘Earth is for humans’ places her clearly in the wrong. Characters like M’gann and Mon-El were meant to remind us that we must accept immigrants and refugees on their own terms rather than persecute or reject them out of blind prejudice. Assuming all aliens are violent and need to be kept out is hyperbolic and xenophobic.
The only problem? 2B flushed that all down the toilet when it made the main antagonist of the season a violent, aggressively colonialist alien who sought to invade Earth and enslave humanity. Let’s not forget her killing her husband, imprisoning her son, and trying to murder his girlfriend multiple times too. One could reasonably conclude from the narrative that if Lillian had succeeded in exiling all the aliens, including Mon-El, the Daxamite invasion would never have happened.
More significantly from a thematic perspective is that in the end, Cadmus was right. Aliens are violent. Even aliens that don’t want to be violent can be manipulated into being so against their will. Aliens also want to invade Earth and the characters are justified in using extreme measures to keep them out. Sure, all the aliens in “Exodus” didn’t deserve to be sent away, and Roulette’s underground fighting ring was pretty shitty. But that’s going to pale in comparison to the literal alien invasion at the climax of the season. 2A just ends up looking like a #NotAllAliens footnote to a season dominated by aliens doing exactly what was meant to be hyperbolic extremism in 2A.
As horrifying as that take-away is, there are some results of the season that were quite positive and uplifting. While the Daxamite invasion may have inadvertently made Cadmus’s point, it also was framed around Mon-El’s duty to his family and home vs. duty to the Earth. This has its own issues, but it fit perfectly well with the idea that you get to determine your own legacy. Mon-El made that choice and for the side of good, as did Lena—over and over, actually, even if the music (and marketing) sometimes likes to pretend that she’s evil. James struggled to shape his legacy and chose Guardian as his outlet to be the hero he wanted, while M’gann chose her own destiny against the desires and actions of the White Martians.
We love this, and only wish the Danvers sisters had been able to take part as well. It seemed like Alex was going to for a hot minute with Jeremiah’s reappearance. Kara, too, was certainly set up for a similar arc given that the season started with Clark in town and Alex actually pointing out that Kara was abandoned by him. Mon-El was poised to be the guy she could finally mentor in the way she had always meant to with Clark, and her professional career as Kara Danvers received some attention. However, nothing that happened to either Kara or Alex in the conclusion of 2B had anything to do with this.
There were other positive themes as well, such as the exploration into breaking the cycle of violence and abuse. As much as Mon-El’s arc weakens due to the sloppy handling of slavery, M’gann and Lena showcased it near perfectly.
M’gann rejects her culture’s heritage of genocide, and without having to do so primarily because of her romantic interest in J’onn. M’gann’s journey dives into the difficulty inherent in leaving one’s culture behind due to ideological differences. Whether it be the betrayal and killing of her spouse, the vivid and traumatizing flashbacks, or potentially losing the respect and friendship of someone she cares about, M’gann faces real consequences for her choice to break free. The narrative never justifies her culture or glosses over the horrors it inflicted in an attempt to make her look better by comparison. And when she turns around to try and enact cultural change, she leaves because it’s the right thing to do, and not because she would die if she stayed.
In a somewhat similar vein to M’gann, Lena spends the entirety of the season resisting her mother’s temptations to ‘give in’ to her family legacy of villainy. Time and again she chooses instead to break free of her mother’s emotional manipulation and be her own hero. Even when the whole city is against her just because of her last name, she refuses to be who people expect her to be. She wants a different legacy from her family’s, to not “be a Luthor”. It’s the reason she came to National City, and the reason she continues to choose heroism over her family. As two women with emotionally abusive mothers, Lena’s story has a lot of emotional resonance, and we’re grateful for it.
Now that we write this down, we’re kind of scratching our heads at why this wasn’t what we got with Mon-El. Given the thematic parallels between M’gann, Lena, and Mon-El, it’s rather odd that his story ended up being so different from theirs. More emphasis on what Lena and Mon-El had in common re: their mothers, for example, could have been really compelling to see fleshed out, especially if it had been highlighted instead of slavery.
Speaking of mothers, the choice to include Rhea as a villain alongside Lillian has the side effect of…well, villainizing mothers. Now, we’re pretty sure this is unintentional. Chances are, it’s a side effect of the desire both to have powerful female antagonists and to explore family and legacy. And having two villains who happen to be mothers isn’t entirely a bad thing, either. A lot of people have bad moms or complicated relationships with their mothers, so in theory, it’s worth exploring this dynamic.
The results, however, are mixed. Lillian isn’t a villain because she’s a mother. Take away her relationship with Lena, and she’s still a xenophobic attempted mass murderer. Take away Cadmus…and she’s still an emotionally abusive mother to Lena. This is an excellent way to explore the intersection of abuse and extremist ideology.
Rhea, on the other hand, is a villain precisely because she’s a mother. Take away the invasion and husband-cide and she’s still a manipulative mother to Mon-El. But take away her motherhood, and, well, she has no motivation to do anything. She lacks Lillian’s nuance, becoming weaponized Motherhood to the extreme. Moms really are just The Worst™, right? Well, except for Eliza. Too bad she didn’t get much screentime to balance out the mom-negativity.
From a Doylist perspective that’s some mixed messaging. And we’re of the mind that the audience takeaways are what count the most, since these characters are, you know, fictional. Stories matter because the people who consume them experience something through them.
That said, there is also value in looking at the story as its own artform, especially because the character journeys, no matter how horrendous the implications, can give us insight into what the writers were trying to accomplish. For most characters, the results of their story were rather obvious, since they had clearly defined arcs, like we’ve detailed with Lena, Mon-El, J’onn/M’gann, and to a degree, James. However, we want to zoom in on Kara and Alex specifically since they are a) supposed to be our protagonist and deuteragonist, respectively, and b) had arcs that were difficult to track.
Let’s start with Kara. We were told going into this season that it would be about exploring who Kara was as a person outside of her role as Supergirl. Benoist said of Cat’s decision at the end of last season to let Kara choose any job she wanted at CatCo:
“It gives her a bigger purpose outside of being Supergirl… I think that’s important for her personal life, her career, and her heroics kind of have their own purpose in her life.” —Melissa Benoist
2×01 sets this up with Kara’s decision to become a reporter and break up with James, a decision that stemmed from her self-professed desire to “figure out out how to be Kara.” By the end of 2×08, everything was in place for Kara to explore who she is outside of her role as superhero: a new job as a reporter with a boss who demands she prove herself, no romantic relationship to distract her, a sister happily in a relationship of her own, and a potential mentee to take the place of her cousin.
In 2B, Kara gets a new, different romantic interest and the question becomes: can Kara “have it all” and be a superhero? Not precisely the same question as “who is Kara Danvers”, but not a bad one either. A lot of women in our society struggle with the same question.
Only, the “maybe I can have it all” mentality ends up with her losing her job and determining that being Supergirl and having a boyfriend was ‘enough’…immediately after she’d just confessed that her job was an intrinsic part of her identity. She then gains her job back and loses her boyfriend. Her relationship to Jeremiah and her father matter until they don’t, with no lasting narrative impact. Her tension with Alex spans most of the season, but the resolution is never verbally explicated on screen (White Martian!Alex doesn’t count). They just kind of…return to status quo. Basically, she ends the season where she started—job and support network intact, kissing her boyfriend goodbye.
Can we take a minute to discuss Kara’s professional career? See, one of the inescapable takeaways was that journalists have a duty to tell the truth in a credible way. We love that Snapper was given the platform to say this, especially in today’s cultural context, where the role of news media is continually demeaned and disparaged. However, the writing team made the mystifying decision not to have Kara react to being unemployed past learning to cook, and then randomly seeming bored in the one episode, the same one where this thread was resolved. We learn there that Kara has still been reporting from KaraDanvers.com (who would read this?), presumably the entire time since she was canned, but we were never shown it. Then Snapper hired her back because her hunch about one story was correct.
On a thematic level, we can’t make heads or tails of this. It undercut Snapper’s original point, and given that Supergirl Season 2 was supposed to be about exploring who Kara is when she’s not Supergirl, it was a spectacular failure. Sure, she seemed to be happy that she had her job back, but she also was perfectly content to be unemployed. Hell, she only became a reporter in the first place because Lena said that she seemed like a good one. Are we supposed to view this recent season and believe this is what someone who’s found their calling looks like?
What the hell is this supposed to mean for Kara’s character? That she just *is* a natural reporter because she was right about this one case? That she has a deeply inquisitive nature that lent herself to this (not really in evidence anywhere else, unlike say, Lois Lane)? That she really does need her cousin’s trailblazing as a scaffolding for how she should live her life?
This just…it wasn’t character development. We suppose being very generous we could say that she now knows not to release unsourced information to the public using a website with her full name as the URL. But in a full season of television, we kind of expect more for our main character.
Even moving off of her career, what did she learn? She patiently molded Mon-El into a halfway decent boyfriend, and then said goodbye to him when circumstances that saved her planet required him to leave in order to keep himself alive. This isn’t an arc, it’s “my crazy summer fling.”
So…we guess she learned she can’t have it all, if ‘have it all’ means having a job, boyfriend, and strong support network of friends and family? Somehow, we’re not sure that’s what they intended. And it still isn’t the same thing as figuring out who Kara is outside of being a Superhero. Because she didn’t really do that. Like, at all. Her job matters until it doesn’t, until it does again. Her boyfriend (James) matters, until he doesn’t, until a (different) boyfriend matters. Kara stands up for herself, only to accept negative behavior from Mon-El, only to stand up for herself, only to accept the same behavior. You get the idea.
Kara lacks a cohesive character arc and identity the entire season, and none of it actually resolves by the end. So the answer to the question “who is Kara Danvers” ends up being: whoever the plot demands her to be.
And yes, Kara prioritized saving the world over continuing her relationship with Mon-El, which is a rather stock hero-trope, and supposedly selfless enough that Superman claimed he wouldn’t have gone through with it. We just don’t see how anything in the season was particularly necessary to get Kara to that point, especially when at the end of last year, Kara was not only willing to, but willingly sacrificed her own life in order to save her planet (only for Alex to save her because sister OTP is the only OTP). Breakups are tough, we know, but death or the enslavement of her planet might be a tiny bit worse. If the idea was that Mon-El was especially hard on her because she was isolated from the other people she loves this year, most notably Alex, a single explicit mention of this tension would have been nice. Dare we even say, required.
That’s the real kicker: even though the typical Danvers sisters closing-scenes were replaced by “Karamel” and “Sanvers” moments, any distance between Kara and Alex wasn’t recognized by the narrative in 2B. There was the episode where Alex wanted to go to a concert with her girlfriend and Kara wanted to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival on Earth with her sister, but the conclusion reached was that Kara was only overcompensating because she was repressing feelings for Mon-El. (What?) Which, given that they got together, we assume was supposed to be taken at face value. When Alex first came out to Kara, there were a few scenes where Kara wasn’t responding in as supportive a manner as Alex needed, but that got hammered out as well, as it should have. Other than those instances, they’d both rush to save each other like always, just never spend time around each other outside of it.
A big part of this is Alex’s driving storyline: she has a girlfriend now. As we mentioned, 2A had originally teased a “Sanvers Slowburn,” only for Maggie to leap to the conclusion that life’s too short to have reasonable hesitations about jumping into a relationship with a 30-something who just figured out her sexuality. Which is a fine conclusion to come to, by the way. Being someone’s first is intense and the rate of success isn’t heartening, but it’s also not exactly unrealistic that two people who really, really like each other would want to pursue that against their better judgements.
However as a result of that, what we were left with was Alex and Maggie just…being in a relationship together. And we will totally take this over the string of wlw corpses that’s filled our TV screens lately, no question. It’s just that as time went on, there was an element to the way their relationship was portrayed that felt quite sanitized to us.
We appreciated Maggie’s backstory, especially because we’re fans of Renee Montoya, but then nothing was really *done* with that, or Maggie’s character, or the Sanvers relationship at large. Any fight or conflict would get resolved right away, even situations that veered into ridiculous territory, like Alex inviting an ex of Maggie’s on the spot to dinner, and then learning that Maggie had been a serial cheater for a time. Oh well, we all have problems.
It’s maybe an ineffable line between happy, positive representation and Closer to Earth, but there was just something about the way Maggie would say “ride or die” in a situation that by all rights should have cost them both their jobs without asking a single follow-up question first that felt to us, quite a good deal unrealistic. We appreciate the value of Sanvers as aspirational, even if we would argue that good partners should challenge one another, but we can’t say we’re particularly compelled by it. And this was a relationship that we started out absolutely loving!
Perhaps if the season hadn’t ended with a proposal, this would have been passable, but really, that was such a perfect moment to embody all of our issues. It is ridiculous that these two would be considering marriage this early on, when Maggie’s canonical reason for her hesitation in dating Alex was that she was worried that by being Alex’s first woman, she’d be viewed in an overly idealistic light and Alex would get too swept up by the new, overwhelming emotions. We’re deeply hoping that Season 3 opens with Maggie making a “marry me!” Arrested Development joke and awkwardly finger-snapping out the door. (Oops, busted!)
Alex’s other driving motivation, especially given the big reveal last season that Jeremiah was alive, ought to have been rescuing him from Cadmus. We say ‘ought to’ because aside from a handful of moments, both Kara and Alex seem to have forgotten that their father had been kidnapped, held hostage, and for all they know gruesomely tortured by a splinter cell of scientific terrorists for ten years.
We can understand that for most of 2A, Alex had other things on her mind, namely, figuring out that she’d sublimated and repressed her attraction to women all of her life in order to better take care of Kara. That’s a pressing psychological conflict. Yet even then 2×07 seems poised to bring Jeremiah’s plight back into Alex’s life. Only for him to literally disappear from the narrative until 2×14 and 2×15, whereupon he once again disappears, and is only given cursory mention in 2×19 and 2×21.
His choice not to go with Kara and Mon-El in 2×07 is not well explicated, nor is his sudden disappearance in 2×15. This leaves us with the impression that he’s merely an afterthought in the narrative until Cadmus is plot-relevant, rather than being tied to Alex’s (or Kara’s) character arc. He leaves no lasting emotional scars either of the times he shows up and disappears. And we’re sorry, but with how significant 2×14 made his betrayal of Alex out to be and her decision to let him go, not teasing out how his third (fourth?) disappearance would affect her makes no sense. Given the prominence Jeremiah had in Alex’s arc in S1, his absence from her storyline in most of S2 baffles us. Outside of her realization about her sexuality, this ought to have been one of the biggest emotional journeys for Alex, but it wasn’t. Until it was for drama, until it wasn’t again.
Misaligned Intent and Result
It’s always a little difficult to guess at authorial intent, since we didn’t have the privilege of being in the writers’ room when the season was planned. However, the final two episode titles give us a hint at the kind of story the writers thought they told in Season 2.
“Resist” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” are not even remotely subtle allusions to our current political climate, and phrases associated with more progressive voices. It seems fair to assume the idea behind this was that Supergirl’s second season offered a narrative that could give hope to those that stand against Trump’s agenda, or perhaps validation, because somehow we doubt that they just wanted to quote Mitch McConnell uncritically.
There’s also the inextricable link between Elizabeth Warren’s admonishment (or accidental praise, really) and the general concept of female empowerment tied into this. Think the statue of the young girl in front of the Wall Street bull, or all the signs saying “a woman’s place is in the resistance.” Like Pepsi, Supergirl was trying to tap into our current cultural zeitgeist to evoke that empowerment. And like Pepsi, the overall result was absolutely cringe-inducing.
What did Kara resist to earn such an episode title? What did she persist through, exactly? As far as we remember, her boyfriend’s mom decided to invade Earth because her boyfriend wouldn’t come home with her, and she punched the appropriate things that needed punching. In fact, the way Rhea pulled out all stops, tried every single approach, and manipulated multiple individuals make the words apply better to her. Her husband showed weakness so she killed him. Now that’s what I call resistance!
Were the episode titles supposed to apply to Lena? Because they certainly do, given her role as hostage in the penultimate episode, and her creation of the lead-dispensing device to save the world in the finale. Or how about Cat? She showed up and resisted the god-awful character arcs by yelling at James about how he didn’t need to be Guardian and motivating Kara into action, and hopefully will be persisting into next season as the leader of CatCo (come on, Calista, work with us!).
But, we’re saying this tongue-in-cheek because we know fully well the episode titles are supposed to be about the titular protagonist and the main plotline. That’s just how things work.
We simply don’t see the feminist takeaways there. It’s the story of a woman who patiently prodded a selfish, uninspiring man into being heroic so that they could date, even when he violated her boundaries and refused to listen to her. Then she had to face off against alien invaders, proving the xenophobic point that her former antagonists had made. Please tell us who this empowers. We’ll wait.
While we’re on the subject of dating, one would expect—given a season that featured two mothers as the antagonists, and adoptive sisters and their Space Dad as the heroes—family would be central. This was undeniably the case in S1, which featured Kara sacrificing herself to save the world from her uncle after the death of her aunt, both of whom were reacting to actions taken by Kara’s mother, only to have Kara rescued by her sister. It was, unmistakably, a family drama that evoked Kara’s potentially divided loyalties between her blood family and her found family. The inclusion of Lena and Lillian Luthor as well as Mon-El and Rhea, appears very much in that vein.
But was it? The main source of conflict for Kara was in her romantic relationship. Alex’s plot revolved around her coming out and getting a supportive girlfriend. We pointed out above how literally all of the main characters got a romantic partner except James. With the exception of J’onn—whose arc becomes romantic only after the tension has resolved and M’gann leaves—and Lena—who has one episode of romantic conflict and the rest is about her mother—these romantic pairings were the driving force of each of their arcs this season. The final climactic moment of the season is Kara and Mon-El breaking up after a season of ‘doomed romance’.
Kara losing Mon-El is just The Worst Thing Ever™, right? Just like J’onn ‘losing’ M’gann for part of the season, or Maggie almost losing Alex when a crazed former classmate became a Villain Sue and kidnapped her. Or Mon-El making the choice to leave Kara after Kara broke up with him for the greater good. All the high stakes moments this season stemmed from romantic relationships rather than familial ones. Heck, Maggie even says that her relationship to Alex means just as much as Kara’s to Alex.
Maggie: I did what I thought was right I should have been heard. I should have been listened to. I’m her girlfriend.
Kara: I’m her sister!
Maggie: And you think that trumps me. That you know what’s right for her. I got her to be herself, Kara. I have just as much to lose as you. You should’ve listened to me.
We’re at a loss for how this makes sense at all. Maggie and Alex have been dating for, what, two months? Alex and Kara have been everything to each other for years. The only world in which Maggie’s statements make sense is one in which romance is just as, if not more important than family.
Now, that’s not an uncommon theme on other shows; The CW kind of is a juggernaut for that mentality. But it’s not what Supergirl has been about in the past. Found family more than romance was the driving source of support and love in S1. This season, all that went out the window in order to give everyone but James ‘somebody to love’. The end result is the break up of compelling friendships and found family bonds and a message that what you really need is the ‘right’ romantic partner, and the willingness to give them up if it’s the only way to keep them alive. In what way is this ‘Stronger Together’?
Where Do We Go From Here?
We can hear ourselves getting quite negative, but this really does seem to be one of those seasons where the longer you think about it, the worse it gets. What frustrates us is that this is a show we both loved as of 7 months ago, and one where we find a lot of potential, just given the inherent nature of who Kara Danvers is as a hero. Therefore, we humbly submit the following as suggestions that could markedly improve Season 3.
1) Give Kara an Arc
Above everything, give Kara Danvers a character arc. That the titular character finished the season with no real arc to speak of and didn’t even serve as the protagonist of her own show. This should not happen. 2A set up strong potential for an arc exploring Kara outside of being a Superhero, and we would like to see that explored since it didn’t get the focus it deserved.
This could mean letting her truly explore what about being a reporter fulfills her. Or if not that, discovering a different career that allows her to help people outside of being a superpowered alien. Let her struggle with her ‘humanity’, her ‘ordinariness’, and yes, even losing her romantic partner. Let her be something more than a superhero who punches things (sigh). In fact, we’d like our old Kara back, the one who talked people down first instead of rushing in to punch things and flaunt local authority. Just, let Kara be a person first, superhero second.
We know from information dropped in the past few weeks that season 3 will include a storyline about her parents and the legacy of Krypton. We hope this will be used to explore Kara Zor-El outside of Supergirl. Perhaps wrestling once again with the mixed legacy her parents have left her and what that means for her as one of the last children of Krypton? We’re big fans of cultural baggage, mixed legacies, and complicated family dynamics, and are definitely on board if that becomes a central focus for Kara moving forward.
2.) Flesh out Maggie Sawyer
We do know that Floriana Lima is going to have her role dialed back for next season, though she still is slated to appear in a number of episodes. We actually like this idea, since we think her more parsimonious use could force the writers into focusing on her and what would be driving her when she does show up, rather than falling back on the Girlfriend McFace pattern we were beginning to see towards the end of Season 2.
Perhaps our tepid feelings about Maggie do stem from the fact that we’re projecting some Renee Montoya onto her. But the truth is, despite the backstory we got, Maggie feels like a blank slate. We think part of that is her inconsistent behavior; how she talked about relationships blowing up before to the point where she had sworn off humans sits in contention a bit with her being a cheater in her past. To us, it made more sense given her guarded approach to Alex if she had been the one getting hurt over and over. Add to this the proposal, which should create friction between them given Maggie’s hesitation, yet we’d be shocked if they actually went in that direction.
But they still need to take her in some direction. A leather jacket and smirk don’t make a character. We might be spoiled because of how amazingly defined and rounded Waverly Earp’s cop girlfriend, Nicole Haught, is in Wynonna Earp. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but if some campy summer show can do it, then one of The CW’s major fall pieces should be up to the challenge. #MakeMaggieACharacter
3.) Focus on Kara + Alex More
We love shows that front sibling dynamics, especially if the siblings in question happen to be sisters. The bond between Kara and Alex is, hands down, the heart and soul of this show. Or it was in S1, but this season, the show merely mimicked the action beats of S1 without providing the emotional core of sisterly love and support. Kara rescuing Alex ought to be the culmination rather than the entire content of her unconditional love for her sister.
Support through romantic partners is nice, and for many people in real life that is their primary source of support. But we still want to see Kara and Alex supporting each other through the most difficult situations they face. The fact that we didn’t get Kara and Alex comforting each other after Jeremiah betrayed them is unpardonable. Support in a romantic partner need not exclude or be in tension with support through their sister-bond, especially not sisters as invested in each other’s lives as Kara and Alex are.
We want couch cuddling, pizza nights, and sister dates with potstickers and TV. We want more of Kara and Alex gushing to each other about who they’re interested in and why, or eye rolling about That Thing™ Maggie did that drives Alex crazy, but Kara reminds Alex she loves Maggie anyway. Or Kara confiding her grief over Mon-El with Alex, and Alex not making it about Maggie. Basically, we want Supergirl to get back to the relationship that provided the emotional strength, balance, core, and backbone in S1: the Danvers sisters. Because this is at heart, a show about two sisters taking a stand together against the evils of the world.
4.) Make James the Male Lead (Again)
James Olsen was the undeniable male lead in S1, and the “Karaolsen” mutual pining the central romantic subplot. He wasn’t a perfect person or character; like all good characters, he had his flaws. We’ll even admit he had his moments of uncomfortable entitlement where Kara was concerned. At the same time, he was a kind, supportive person to Kara outside of their romantic tension; he believed in her as a hero, and she inspired him to be better.
We had our hesitations regarding the Guardian story line from a character perspective, not least of which being that it felt almost entirely unmotivated, or at least, unreasonably motivated. But the Doylist implications exacerbated the problems exponentially. James went from being the male lead to barely a tertiary character. Mon-El, a bland, selfish, and entitled white character displaced James as Kara’s romantic interest with zero professed interest on Kara’s side and little to recommend him on Mon-El’s side. Compared to James’ charismatic and supportive friendship, Mon-El’s refusal to listen to Kara seems an…odd basis for a romantic relationship.
But enough about Mon-El, let’s talk about what James could do in S3. With Cat Grant effectively giving him the stern talking to he needed since 2×04, James could be poised to finally take up the mantle at CatCo that he ought to have been carrying this whole season. If Ms. Grant does not return, James could lead CatCo and once again make it plot relevant, which would dovetail nicely with a return to focusing on Kara’s job outside of being Supergirl.
While we’re dreaming of nice things, why not restart Karolsen? After an appropriate amount of space for Kara to grieve Mon-El and refocus on her job, of course. As much as we’d love a Korrasami 2.0, we sincerely doubt the show will follow those bread crumbs, even when there’s enough of them to make a full loaf at this point. So if not that, we would love to see Kara back with the man she spent an entire season pining over before dropping like a hot potato for…reasons?
5.) Use Lena Luthor All the Time
Is it worth talking about those bread crumbs, though? We fully admit that Supercorp is more something where we see potential, but expect no payoff, even if it matches our own personal shipping taste.
The thing is, a large part of our enthusiasm for that romantic pairing comes from the strength of Lena’s character. It was almost uncanny; even through 2B’s slog of episodes, the second Lena would appear in one, the show would become measurably better. This could have been a result of Lena accidentally serving as the season’s bridge between Cadmus and the Daxamite invasion, so her plotline with her mother and struggle to run L-Corp against her family’s infamous reputation automatically roped back in threads that otherwise could have been dropped.
However, we think our main excitement stemmed from the fact that Lena is an incredibly complementary foil to Kara. Both women deal with their concept of legacy and making their own name, yet where Kara lost her parents and found a new, loving home, Lena was brought in by the Luthors where she was never made to feel comfortable, only to learn that they were monsters. Skill-wise, they’re nearly complete opposites, balancing and empowering each other in crisis situations (like Lena building the solution to the Daxamite invasion and Kara dispensing it). Lena is more comfortable wading into the darkness and moral ambiguity of a situation, while Kara remains the steadfast voice of hope, though both share an equal commitment to justice and unwavering support of one another.
Truly, they’re perfect together, and we don’t give a hot wet monkey’s ass if their relationship remains platonic. We just want it to continue and to watch it grow (in positive directions).
6.) More Martians
Second to Lena, the Martians had the most compelling arc this season to us. The arrival of more White Martians to join M’gann and J’onn means there’s space to expand their role in the coming season, and we think acclimatizing refugees from a genocidal culture would make for mighty fine television. It could have the added benefit of responding to and correcting the mistakes made with the alien refugee subplot this season. As M’gann directly responded to issues raised with Senator Crane, so M’gann, J’onn, and the White Martians could respond to proving Cadmus right with the alien invasion.
We’d also like to see M’gann have more screentime generally and interact more with the other characters. She has a lot in common with Lena and Winn (two characters we’d like to see interacting more anyway), for example. And if Kara does explore her mixed Kryptonian legacy, M’gann is the perfect person to talk to about that. She could bond with James over not knowing one’s purpose. With abilities similar to J’onn, she could be a huge asset to the DEO team. Or, if she takes up the mantle of barkeep once again, she also has the potential to be a source of wisdom and emotional insight for the team. We’ll take mom friend M’gann, Space Dad J’onn, and their White Martian refugee children, please and thank you.
7.) Fix Distracting Worldbuilding Flaws and Lazy Plotholes
Look, we understand that Supergirl isn’t trying to be Breaking Bad, nor should it. However, when basic plotlines fall apart with such a minimal amount of scrutiny that we can’t even finish the episode without leaping to the holes, that’s a problem.
Take the Daxamite invasion, ended by lead being released into the atmosphere. What was this magical amount of lead that would not have poisoned the entire human population? Why was Mon-El not dead the instant he walked into the lead-lined DEO? Is Kara’s superhuman sight now hampered? Is there a reason why lead bullets weren’t employed instead of contaminating the entire atmosphere? And don’t get us started on Rhea’s magical Kryptonite infusion that Kara only suddenly realized…
The issue is, that wasn’t an isolated contrivance. Season 2 was chock-full of them. From Alex’s stupidly omniscient stalker who managed to take down a fully trained DEO agent before trapping her in the most ridiculous Xanatos Gambit we’ve seen in some time, to the entirety of the DEO missing the fact that Jeremiah Danvers, an agent who had been captured for *decades*, had a goddamn robot arm.
And since we’re on our favorite government agency, the sloppy writing permeates the world building as well. Kylie and Griffin spent a painstaking amount of time trying to explain the very basics of its operation and came up quite short (unless you’re compelled by DEO agents running a fake hotel). However, we refuse to believe that such an organization would fail to have any sort of protocol regarding potentially compromised agents. Just as they wouldn’t have sloppy security screening that allows anyone’s girlfriend to walk in, such a poorly staffed tech department that Winn serves all their Techno Wizard needs (what did they do in Season 1?), and days off in the middle of an alien amnesty crisis.
The National City Police Department isn’t a whole hell of a lot better. Maggie will have a partner in the episode where she’s in charge of art thefts, for some reason, but then get back onto her homicide cases flying solo. There’s procedures! If you’re going to riff off of Renee Montoya’s character, at least read a damn copy of Gotham Central first.
It was also passing disturbing that Maggie mentioned how her Partner of Plot Convenience was about to make Winn his 30th arrest of the month and pass a station record. How much crime is in this city, exactly? This is one station of a major city! What is going on there? Why has the National Guard not been called in yet? Or are all these arrests related to art theft? We’d like to see a show about that crime ring.
We know that these are smaller issues, but when they add up, we find it impossible to suspend our disbelief. The easiest thing a writer can do is ask themselves “but why?” over and over again when plotting; it’s the ‘5-year-old in a corner’ principle. If the only answer they can come up is, “because this character is being an idiot,” then that’s not a strong story.
Up, Up, and Adler Away
Will we get all of this? Maybe. Probably not. But at least the first three would go a long way toward fixing some of the major flaws this season. No matter what, Kara needs a discernable arc, hands down. We’d be lying if we said the recent shakeup in leadership and writing team doesn’t concern us. Ali Adler was a leading voice behind much of the sharp political and feminist commentary of S1, and she was, so far as we’re aware, the only queer woman on the writing team. CBS’s gain is Supergirl’s loss, and we have our theories about what the marked shift between 2A and 2B means for what was going on behind the scenes.
Then again, sophomore slumps aren’t that unheard of. Wynonna Earp and Black Sails seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. And if there’s a shakeup in the leadership in the middle of a season, that can cause ripple effects in the narrative that might otherwise not have happened. Moreover, many shows with a rocky second season even go on to have more successful seasons further down the road. And a good second season doesn’t always mean you’ll get a decent third, fourth, or fifth season.
All that to say, this isn’t over yet. This is fixable. Kara would want us to have hope, after all.
Images courtesy of the CW and DC Comics
The Best DreamWorks Princess
The recent release of the trailer for a highly anticipated animated sequel has me thinking about princesses. One in particular. This one:
Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, DreamWorks Animation’s best princess. I’m sorry Princess Fiona, but Hiccup takes this title handily. Alright, I can hear the argument already. He can’t be a princess because Berk is a chiefdom where the position isn’t strictly hereditary. Being the son of the chief doesn’t make him royalty.
He’s not a literal princess, no. But Hiccup does fall squarely into an archetype of the dutiful princess. His character arcs throughout the movies, shorts, television and streaming series takes him through almost every possible hardship a dutiful princess can go through.
The dutiful princess is a character trope we like to discuss on occasion here on the Fandomentals. A dutiful princess is someone who holds a position of power or at least holds a level agency that places them in a leadership akin role. Standard symptoms of the dutiful princess include, but are not limited to, the feeling of not living up to expectations, a complicated relationship to one’s greater role in society and the ever classic, family drama.
Not living up to expectation could be the defining statement of Hiccup’s character arc in both movies, but especially in the first one. Hiccup is introduced as the quirky outsider who’s not like everybody else. He’s small, thin and lanky, surrounded by the toned, full-figured, battle harden people of his tribe. Almost every adult dwarfs him, especially his father whose name, Stoick the Vast, is no irony.
Just being a Viking of Berk comes with the expectation one should be a natural dragon killer. But that’s only the beginning of the expectations placed on Hiccup. Not only is his father the paragon of what a Viking should be physically but Stoick is the chief of Berk. He fearlessly fights dragons barehanded and performs exuberant acts of strength like it’s a mild workout. Stoick’s strength inspires the people of Berk and, in turn, they trust his judgement enough to follow him into the heart of the dragons’ nest.
How to Train Your Dragon does two interesting things with Hiccup’s response to the expectations placed on him. Firstly, Hiccup’s initial efforts to close the gap between his current-self and his expected-self aren’t done through physical pursuits. Hiccup, all too aware of the physical differences between himself and the typical Viking takes another route that plays to his strengths. He uses his ingenuity and engineering skills to construct a device that will do the heavy lifting for him. It works too, even if no one is aware of it. Hiccup’s actions here are a realistic effort for him to achieve those expectations, even if he’s not perfectly embodying them. He tries to bridge their expectations on his terms, exactly what a dutiful princess would do.
The second-way Hiccup is forced to confront the expectations placed upon him happens after he’s begun to reach them. As Hiccup learns more about dragons through his interactions with Toothless, he becomes more proficient in dealing with dragons in the ring. When the others in Berk see this they react is a pleasant surprise yet an overall acceptance of his newfound dragon conquering abilities. He’s finally the star of the village and has his father’s acceptance and attention. But he’s gained all of this by befriending a dragon, the antithesis of being a Viking.
The climax of his character arc in How to Train Your Dragon comes to a head when he must choose between living up to expectations that have followed him his whole life and the newfound responsibility he feels for Toothless and all dragons. Ultimately he chooses against the expectations of being a dragon killer. It’s a decision that, when he makes it, he has no way knowing the personal cost. But, as any dutiful princess would, he makes the decision anyway, believing it to be the right one. In doing so he changes three hundred years of violence and ushers in a new chapter of life in Berk.
Turns out ending the conflict between humans and dragons earns one the favour of the whole village. In the five year gap between How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2 Hiccup’s become the ‘pride of berk’. He’s also Stoick’s choice to succeed him as chief. Hiccup doesn’t believe he’s ready for the job. But it’s not because he thinks he’ll be a poor leader. In fact, he naturally assumes the role of leader when the dragon riders are formed. There are eight seasons worth of content (DreamWorks Dragons) where Hiccup proves his leadership abilities time and time again. His hesitation to become the chief stems from Hiccup not seeing himself being able to become as great as his father. Yet that hesitation doesn’t stop him from wanting to protect everyone.
When rumours of a dragon army being lead by the ruthless Drago Bludvist reach Berk, like a true dutiful princess, he tries to rushes off to keep the peace which naturally means he only incites conflict. His actions not only cause Drago to turn his full attention to attacking him but amongst the conflict, Stoick dies saving Hiccup.
Hiccup’s relationship to the chiefdom is tied intrinsically to his relationship with his family and his self-perception. He spends most of his life trying to live up to his father’s expectations. Then just when he gains Stoick’s respect he has to come to terms with becoming chief. Not to mention at roughly the same time he learns mother who he thought was dead is actually alive. She shares his natural affinity for dragons which is good. But she also chose to not return to Berk, which is… confusing. Then, just as his family is reunited, he loses his father when Stoick dies protecting Hiccup. That day gave Hiccup a lot to process.
Hiccup’s relationship with his parents also mirror the aspects within himself he feels at odds with. The Viking chief who needs to protect his people and the dragon rider who wants to protect the dragons. He isn’t just a dutiful princess to his people, he’s one to the dragons as well. Both Stoick and his mother, Valka, echo similar sentiments, ‘We protect our own’. Hiccup takes this one step further, ‘the Alpha protects them all’. With Toothless at his side, that’s exactly what he promises to do.
It’s not all tough decisions and parent drama in Hiccup’s life though. There is one area where Hiccup breaks the usual trials of the dutiful princess. In his love life. He manages, somehow, to maintain a healthy relationship that survives years and all the hardships he faces.
But the hardships aren’t over for our dutiful princess chief. The trailer for the third installment of the movies, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World show him still making the difficult choices to protect all of his tribe, Viking and dragon alike. With his sights set high to change the world, he doesn’t have an easy road ahead. But he isn’t alone. He stands with the support of his mother, Astrid, his friends and, of course, his dragon.
Images courtesy of DreamWorks Animation
Waiting for Katoh: Romancing the Iron Bull in Dragon Age
Inquisitor: It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.
The Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.
Spoiler Warning for Dragon Age: Inquisition
NOTE—CONTENT AND POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes some respectful yet candid, open and potentially NSFW discussion of The Iron Bull’s DAI romance (and its BDSM elements). Please proceed with caution and full awareness.
Once upon a time, I’d been dreaming of romancing a prince in a videogame. Then I played Dragon Age: Inquisition and stumbled across The Iron Bull.
He was everything I hadn’t wanted. And he was perfect: funny, brilliant, sensual, and caring. I fell flat and (thinking I was on my way to an adorable Beauty and the Beast-style romance for Bull and my little blonde Inquisitor) instantly decided that he would be mine.
Pretty soon I began to realize, however, that this romance was not going to be as easy as I’d expected. Despite his purported availability and enthusiasm, Bull didn’t show much interest in my Inquisitor’s charms at all, and had instead spent dozens of hours in-game smilingly ignoring her efforts. Months, in game-time. Months. My poor Inquisitor was not a happy camper. (Please note that I’ll be generally referring to the Inquisitor as “she” throughout this piece since I’m discussing my own playthrough, but of course as Bull is pansexual, the Inky can be any gender preference the player chooses.)
At first, I hadn’t found Bull attractive—he was intimidating, this big, hulking guy who just wasn’t my type at all. But then, as I described, I started to realize what a fantastic and complex character he was, and soon I was gazing at Bull with glowy pink hearts in my eyes, just like pretty much everyone else in Thedas:
Cole: The Iron Bull, a woman in the last village wanted you to pick her up and take her clothes off.
Iron Bull: Most people do.
Cole: In her mind, you were very big.
Iron Bull: Well, that’s flattering.
But meanwhile, I wasn’t getting anywhere, and my poor Inquisitor’s flirts weren’t seeming to have any effect at all. Then, although I was trying to avoid spoilers, I saw a comment that eventually Bull would show up in the Inquisitor’s quarters when his approval was high enough. So (hilariously) in between flirts, my poor Inquisitor started running back up to her room to see if Bull would show up there. (Just in case you thought this couldn’t get anymore embarrassing…)
But my Inky kept flirting, determined to win Bull’s heart. And then he finally showed up in my Inquisitor’s quarters, and everything changed. And I basically fell out of my chair at the options he presented, because they were a hell of a lot more eyebrow-raising than “So, hey, I got you a rose.”
This was not at all the fairytale I thought I had been pursuing… but it was fantastic writing from Bull’s writer (fantasy novelist Patrick Weekes). And beautifully character-appropriate.
First off, the reality: when it comes to romance, Bull’s in a league of his own. I mean, let’s be honest—a few frilly words with Solas and Cullen and you’re making out on the rooftops.
But as I mentioned, Bull’s different. There’s no reaction at all. (I always picture him reacting with faint amusement, like, “Nice try, Boss…”) Until, one day, finally, there’s a reaction. The day arrives, when you’ve made so many overtures that Bull himself couldn’t fail to acknowledge the signals. Victory is yours, on the night Bull shows up in your quarters out of the blue, and he finally makes his move.
But he’s got a proposition for you. And it’s a doozy. He’s not just propositioning you for sex, he’s asking you to enter a world that may scare or intimidate you just a little.
And just like that, BDSM entered the world of mainstream gaming.
Terms and Conditions
When Bull finally takes action, it’s fascinating, because from a character and story perspective, he’s risking everything on a very specific moment. If Dragon Age: Inquisition were an actual novel (and not the playable novel I believe it actually is), I’d be fascinated to know exactly what caused Bull to go, “Okay. It’s time.” Was there a specific flirtatious moment? Or was there an outside cause? It would be interesting, for instance, to headcanon a message from the Qun, or even a proactive decision when he recognizes interest in the Inquisitor from a potential rival.
Either way, Bull shows up, and makes his play. If he succeeds, everything’s changed. If he fails, it would be interesting to wonder what his backup strategy might be… if he’s Qun-loyal, does he then coldly seek out Dorian, for instance? Or is he content to continue to prove himself simply as a captain and companion?
But… on the other hand, this is Bull we’re talking about. He knows human nature like nobody else (humans, elves, dwarves, everyone, etc.). He reads signals and micro-signals. He understands how people are wired. Then he acts. And it’s interesting that when he does, he’s continuing his previous “playing it cool” approach—he’s still holding himself back a bit, a little removed and detached.
Most of all, he’s still playing games. Only this time, he wants you to play, too.
I mean, let’s face it, Bull could’ve taken my Inquisitor up on her flirtations, offered her a jolly night in the sack, and he’d have probably been pretty safe doing so. She would’ve been perfectly happy with this, too, on some level—we already know, from hearsay, that such nights with Bull are perfectly satisfying and that he certainly appears to make sure everyone goes home happy. But as with most situations for Bull, he’s thought this through, and he’s determined that there’s only one specific outcome that works.
And he’s quite aware that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps no other character’s romance is as careful about consent as Bull’s, and your character can say no to Bull’s flirtation with zero hard feelings on either side. Spy or not, secret agenda or not, he’s genial and kind in response:
Iron Bull: …I’m not sure you know what you’re asking. Not sure if you’re ready for it.
Inquisitor (refusing): You’re right. Flirting was fun, but it probably wouldn’t work out.
Iron Bull: Exactly. So don’t worry about it. Let’s just keep killing things. We’re really good at that. For what it’s worth, though… you would’ve been walking funny the next day. Anyway, nice talking with you. Have a good one.
I mean, Bull handles rejection like a champ here (and elsewhere, as our Inquisitor can turn him down here, break it off the morning after, or when their romance is discovered, among other occasions). I really like that he’s not kidding about there being zero repercussions or hard feelings.
An Object of Obsession
Meanwhile, let’s get back to motives for a moment. If Bull’s motive was simply to seduce the Inquisitor, he could’ve done this months ago (in-universe), couldn’t he? And if his goal was just sex, again, wasn’t this already within reach for him fairly quickly?
Instead, he’s still playing chess, still being strategic to shore up his position in the long game. From a character standpoint, my impression is that he’s willing to risk losing because he’s confident enough in his own skills, his own abilities at reading and understanding human nature, to do so.
My take here, in fact, is that he’s willing to gamble because if he’s right in his assessment here (whether Qun-loyal or Tal-Vashoth, depending on the outcome of “The Demands of the Qun“), Bull won’t just have the Inquisitor as a casual bedmate, he’ll be providing them with a relationship whose demands satisfy a need previously unrecognized within the Inquisitor herself, and in ways only he can satisfactorily meet. In short, he’s positioning himself fairly coldly to be the object of a sexual obsession. And he’ll gain a potential (and high-ranking) chesspiece in his play to both control or affect the Inquisition as well as for his potential return to the Qun as a power player despite his past sins (at least, as an option).
Which is where the BDSM aspect of Bull’s romantic proposition to the Inquisitor comes into the picture.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, in the bedroom, as elsewhere, Bull’s secretly all about power dynamics and exploiting those for his own benefit.
Waiting for Katoh
It’d be one thing for Bull to make his move as an uncomplicated typical romantic overture. Basically, the kind of scenario where he’d say, “Hey gorgeous, Bull here. If you’re agreeable, let’s finally hook up!”
It’s quite another for him to show up in your quarters unannounced (a great and subtle way to start the scenario with the Inquisitor off-balance), to say, “So… I’ve gotten the messages. I get what you want. And it’s tempting. So let me make you an offer in return: What if I promise to give you everything you want, plus that escape you crave, but only on my terms, and at the sacrifice of full control, in a scenario that demands your absolute trust? While, in addition, possibly changing your entire outlook on who you thought you were?”
Um… No big deal, right? The only problem is, Bull is asking for that absolute trust, that willingness to be completely vulnerable… after he himself has already openly told us, at that point, numerous times, why he himself should not be trusted. If we’re paying attention. So it’s a pretty fascinating and fraught situation from a story standpoint, and one that provides the potential for a surprising amount of tension and drama. And if he’s working an agenda, and we don’t gain his loyalty (in “Demands of the Qun”) the outcome of the story that begins here is truly heartbreaking at the conclusion of “Trespasser.” (People, save the Chargers. Just please, always save the Chargers.)
Meanwhile, no matter what Bull’s agenda here, as I mentioned, Bull makes his move with care, respect, and delicacy. He ensures consent—not once, not twice, but three separate times. The consent aspect is important and even somewhat poignant if you think about it, because Bull himself comes from a culture in which sexual consent, at least in the big-picture sense, is nonexistent. In life under the Qun and elements like the Qunari breeding programs, what or who you want personally doesn’t matter. The Qun is all about the collective good. Individuals either assimilate, do what they’re told (or who they’re told), or they die.
All of this is why, for me, Bull’s emphasis on consent here is a vital and very telling character note. (It’s also why criticisms of that consent scenario drive me batty, but more on that farther down.)
The issue of consent is doubly important in Bull’s scenario from a larger standpoint, I’d further argue, precisely because lack of consent has been such a troubling yet consistent aspect of other BDSM representations in popular entertainment, most notably, in stuff like 50 Shades of Grey. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read it, but in researching this, I became aware of the criticisms of the romance and its issues with consent and abuse.) The emphasis Dragon Age: Inquisition places on an empowered and consenting relationship is therefore, to me, culturally important and responsibly done.
We’re Definitely Not in Hyrule Anymore…
In a big-picture sense, seriously, all of this is pretty complex and surprising stuff for a videogame. Because it puts the player/protagonist into a situation in which they might very well react in any number of ways—with discomfort or outright disgust, with amusement or interest, or with enthusiasm and delighted approval, et cetera. (What’s interesting is that the Bioware team was evidently initially very concerned at the reactions from players and was subsequently pleasantly surprised when Bull’s romance was a non-issue for the vast majority.)
Keep in mind that, strategically (if it occurs before “Demands of the Qun”), Bull has everything to lose here in terms of the political coinage he’s acquired with the Inquisitor over his time with the Inquisition. Yet he’s willing to risk it, because he’s gambling as always on his proven ability to read other people. He’s basically saying, “Okay, I’ll give you what you want… but only on my terms… if you agree.” While pretty much already assuming he knows the choice they’ll make.
Right away, when he shows up in the Inquisitor’s chambers, Bull presents her with a series of choices. The short answer? He’s still making sure we’re chasing him (and his approval). It’s all so smart, and so much fun from a writing standpoint. Sure, he’s there, he’s willing… but there’s also that palpable sense that Bull’s also pretty uninvested in the outcome (at least by all appearances). He’s acknowledging the flirtations, but he’s also halfway out the door. It’s calm and deliberate—a far cry from Solas’s, Cass’s, or Blackwall’s passionate declarations of desire or love even against their better instincts, simply because they cannot help themselves. Instead, with Bull, it’s slightly cold, almost amused.
But either way, he makes his offer, and we can respond. And once the Inquisitor consents the third time (in an agreement that’s either more innocent and romantic or that’s more worldly and experienced), we end on a real smile from Bull, an embrace… and then a quick fade to black.
(Honestly, maybe that fade to black was perhaps a little too quick. I’m just sayin’…)
But we don’t jump to the next morning, as we might expect. Intriguingly, instead, we’re shown a moment when The Iron Bull is leaving the Inquisitor’s chambers, and he’s confronted by Leliana, who is stopping by to ask the Inquisitor for input on an Inquisition matter.
Bull’s response there is to tell her no, point-blank. He sends Leliana away—Leliana, our leader, spymaster, and warrior-nun. The person nobody says no to. And he does so with a shrug. It’s intriguing and textbook Bull: “Let her rest,” he says, coolly meeting the eyes of the most terrifying person in all of Skyhold. He’s at ease. He’s also amused, relaxed, and confident. And Leliana, visibly thoughtful about this unexpected development, departs without further comment. (And I love that she never, ever says a word about what she knows here. Nobody keeps secrets like our Nightingale.)
In an obvious sense, Bull’s just done some oddly positive things here. He’s—it’s certainly implied—provided the Inquisitor with the escape and release she needed. He’s also fended off potential interruptions and made sure she gets some much-needed rest.
He’s also just made a major power move. He just told Leliana, in no uncertain terms, that he’s now a factor in the Inquisitor’s life. It can be taken as selfish (“I’m someone you need to take note of”) or unselfish (“I’m here to make sure you give her the space she needs”). Or a combination of the two.
For me, the headcanon read on this scene depends on what the outcome was to “The Demands of the Qun.” If we saved the Chargers, Bull has no more need to apply ulterior motives, and he’s simply doing what he’s best at—caregiving and protecting. If we chose to sacrifice the Chargers, however, Bull’s motives immediately get a lot murkier. (So much so that it’s going to have to be a whole separate blog post in the future.)
Meanwhile, my Inky got her night with Bull. And I’m assuming it was fabulous and delightful and probably earth-shattering on a number of levels. But she certainly had some questions the morning after (and so did I).
The best part is? He answers them.
Warnings and Watchwords
It’s interesting that Bull’s seduction has a decidedly cool element, a visible detachment, yet he’s so much warmer and kinder the morning after. This could be an expected result of the intimacy of their previous night together. Or it may also simply indicate that he’s more confident and not feeling the need to hold himself at arms’ length anymore.
Regardless, Bull’s actually very approachable the next morning, if we choose to go ask him to talk with us about what happened the night before. He’s genial, friendly, and open—surprisingly so. (My favorite part of this early conversation is when we first try to talk to him about the previous night, Bull assumes we just want some therapeutic advice on physical comfort in the aftermath, responding cheerfully that, “I can show you some stretches…”.)
Then he realizes what the Inquisitor wants to talk about, they sit down together in her quarters, and just… talk. In an extended, smart, literate, and mature dialogue sequence about what they did, how the Inquisitor feels about it, what each wants, what he’s offering, the rules of engagement, what the boundaries are, and where those boundaries end. He also addresses, bluntly, the psychology behind his choices.
And here’s where it gets fascinating. He reveals to you at this point, fairly candidly, how he thinks you’re wired and what he thinks you need. He admits that he’s using his Ben-Hassrath training to intuit this stuff, but also that he’s using those powers for good:
Inquisitor: I’m still not sure how to react to the things we did.
Iron Bull: If you’re limping, I can show you a few stretches that’ll take care of it.
Inquisitor: That’s not what I meant.
Iron Bull (pausing): You don’t say. Found a part of yourself you didn’t know was there before…
The Inquisitor doesn’t answer.
Iron Bull (more gently): Ben-Hassrath training, remember? Grew up learning to manipulate people. When it’s a hostile target, you give them what they want. But when it’s someone you care about, you give them what they need.
Inquisitor: So if I agree, how does this… work?
Iron Bull: Outside this room, nothing changes. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Boss. I will never hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you are ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, you say “katoh” and it’s over. No questions asked.
Inquisitor (one of several minor varying options): It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.
Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.
My favorite part of this exchange is the way Bull is employing his usual talent for lying with the truth and hiding in plain sight.
Just as he told us he was a spy the moment we met, here he points out that his Ben-Hassrath training is enabling him to manipulate the Inquisitor, and that he is blatantly doing so. But he’s doing so (or so he implies) for good, not ill. For our benefit. And if we saved the Chargers in Bull’s personal loyalty quest (turning him into a true rebel by necessity—a Tal-Vashoth), this is true. If we sacrificed the Chargers and he remains loyal to the Qun, things here are, as mentioned, actually pretty dark. But more on that later.
Either way, what Bull doesn’t do, at any point, is compromise. Instead, Bull lays out the scenario for the two of you going forward. The crux of his approach: To put it somewhat demurely, Bull gets to drive. The Inquisitor will have to agree. He will not compromise, as noted in a further conversation and partial negotiation they may have later on (all of these dialogues were written with his usual eloquence and subtlety by Patrick Weekes, who wrote Bull, as well as Solas and Cole, in his Dragon Age: Inquisition appearance).
What You Need
The Inquisitor can then return to Bull for a third conversation, and this was my favorite of the three, because the writing allows the Inquisitor a variety of character options–they can ask a dozen questions, or they can commit right away. They can show confidence, or admit to vulnerability or insecurity for example, asking Bull if the BDSM is an aspect of any of his other relationships, for instance, with the serving girls or others Bull has bedded in the Inquisition. Bull’s answer there is simple: nope. Because that’s not what the serving girls needed. He’s wired to give people what he perceives they need, so each scenario for him is different and unique.
Bull further elaborates below (note that he starts out with a clear statement that he’s committed to you, absolutely, as of this moment—that there’s nobody else, until or unless you end things):
Iron Bull (speaking about his previous dalliances): I mean, I used to. Long as we’re doing this, you’ve got my complete attention.
Inquisitor: You told me that this is what I needed. What did you mean by that?
Iron Bull: You’re the Inquisitor. You didn’t ask for the job, but you’ve taken on the responsibility. You’ve got thousands of lives riding on your decisions. You bear that weight all day. You need a place where you can be safe, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit.
Inquisitor: So if this is a conscious decision for you, could you do something else if I wanted you to?
Iron Bull: No. This is who we are. It’d be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way. If it doesn’t work for you, though, I understand. No hard feelings.
Inquisitor: What about what you need?
Iron Bull: Hey, I’m good. I am better than good. You don’t trouble yourself on that front. Old Iron Bull is just fine.
It’s interesting to me that Bull’s highest allegiance here is to what the Inquisitor needs. It’s the thing he’s most drawn to as a nurturer, spy or no spy, that ability to fulfill that, and it’s something he won’t compromise on. He even calls it out specifically, that “It would be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way.” He won’t do otherwise… even if it’s in his best interests politically. And, typical for Bull, he utterly discounts what he himself might need out of the relationship. (I find this weirdly moving, and would certainly of course headcanon that the Inquisitor is generous and attentive regardless of this statement—he deserves it.)
Either way, these conversations while certainly a bit edgy for the mainstream, really shouldn’t be. Speaking as something of a bumbling semi-human toon myself (when it comes to, like, non-pixellated romances), I found them intelligent, insightful, and respectful, and had no issues with Bull’s romantic narrative in any way. Besides, in service to the story, ultimately, to me it’s powerful, it’s emotional, and best of all, it’s also responsibly and affectionately set forth. It’s true to who these characters have been painted to be.
I definitely appreciate that there are (to me, at least) no issues regarding consent, physical or emotional danger, or of power abuse, unlike popular and often irresponsible representations of BDSM across much of entertainment media (cough, 50 Shades of Grey). Ultimately, as someone unfamiliar with that culture, my own reaction to the portrayal of Bull’s romance as a depiction of BDSM, after reading a fair amount of discussion (both pro and con), is that it has been handled here with real responsibility, as well as with sensitivity and a clear understanding of both the characters, the lifestyle, and of human nature by Weekes and the rest of the Dragon Age creative team. I think in that way that the romance storyline is a pretty significant milestone for inclusivity, and should be celebrated as such.
However, not everyone agrees with me. Beyond his romance with Dorian (which as I’ve noted, I don’t think was remotely abusive and will address in more detail in the future), there’s been some heated discussion about Bull and his relationship with the Inquisitor. So it was interesting to wade into that minefield. Some felt there were consent issues (which I cannot understand at all, given what we’re provided here), some had issues with his assumption that the Inquisitor is submissive, while still others felt that Bull’s “take it or leave it” approach to the relationship was somehow triggering.
Again, I don’t get any of these critiques or find them viable.
First off, Bull’s assumption that the Inquisitor is seeking a submissive role in the bedroom is an easy thing to address within the story—you can either headcanon that he’s right, or hey, you turn him down. It’s not difficult. Me, I thought it was a believable character note for a number of reasons. It spotlighted Bull’s insights into human nature in an unexpected way (and keep in mind, Bull is shown to be scarily accurate about reading people in this way); it provided a scenario in which our protagonist is actually challenged about their own perceptions of what they want in the bedroom (and how often does that happen in a game?); and it explored Bull’s caregiver tendencies in ways that were complex and even potentially disquieting… and yet lovely, too.
Because Bull’s immediately all in. If we agree, he’s 100% monogamous and focused only on us, on giving the Inquisitor whatever is needed. And this caregiver aspect isn’t just subtext to me, but actual text. The entire relationship is, in my own view, presented as genuinely healing, and so many people miss that about Bull’s romance. Yes, there are power dynamics at work here, of course, but there’s also something gentle about what Bull’s offering the Inquisitor—it’s not ever presented as harsh or scary; it’s not the cliche of whips and chains (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what floats your boat), but is instead rather a safe haven. There’s a genuine element of fantasy and play to it, and we see both aspects, the gentleness and the fantasy element, in the scene where Bull and the Inquisitor are interrupted later on.
And while it’s true that Bull may in fact eventually betray you (if you betrayed him), that happens on the battlefield. Never in the bedroom. No matter what you chose when it came to his loyalty mission, by all appearances he keeps his promise and the Inquisitor’s bedroom remains a safe and separate space.
Regardless. Not everyone will be into what Bull proposes, nor will they take him up on it once he sets the stage for what he wants to provide. And in those cases it’s then, luckily, quite easy to say, “Nope” and move on.
Arguing the Dynamics
To Speak or Not to Speak
Meanwhile, to me, Bull’s pretty careful, thoughtful and thorough when discussing exactly what their relationship will be like if the Inquisitor proceeds. He provides the Qunari word “katoh” as the ‘watchword’ (or, ahem, safe word) in case the Inquisitor is uncomfortable at any point, then leaves it up to her whether she wants to continue. Bull may have an agenda, but he is also incredibly sincere on the issue of agency in every way.
And speaking of “katoh,” it’s probably my one area of minor complaint in the romance. Eventually, the ‘watchword’ becomes a kind of badge of honor for the Inquisitor—the fact that she never says it, it’s implied in a lighthearted way, is because she’s adventurous, not afraid of her own limits, and because the two of them are having a terrific time together.
However, the idea that not saying it is somehow a good thing doesn’t work for me. To me, the whole point of “katoh” (especially in the case of a character who is new to these scenarios, I’d imagine) should be that expressing her boundaries or areas of discomfort is not just allowable but is actually healthy for both her as well as for Bull as the relationship begins. (I mean, I’d think for most people, there might be, hilariously, “katohs” all over the place to start, as they got comfortable with each other, or maybe I’m just projecting here.) But from a story standpoint, I can see why the fact that she doesn’t say it (surprising Bull, to say the least) also has an emotional component and says something about her trust in him.
The Offer Beneath the Offer
Regardless, Bull’s setting forth the ground rules. And at this moment, if she says that one word (“katoh”), it’s over, no hard feelings. And please note—potential double agenda or no, Bull means this—I’ve played through all the different variations, and when Bull promises “no strings,” he puts his money where his mouth is. He’s even genial and supportive if the Inquisitor moves on after their night together to romance other companions:
Iron Bull: Understood. I’ll see you later, Boss. (Alternatively: Huh. You got it, Boss.)
But if the Inquisitor questions Bull on his point of view, his reasons, and his goals for the relationship, it’s a fascinating conversation, and one of my favorites with romanced companions across the entire Dragon Age landscape.
This is because Bull’s logic for why he wants the relationship to go this way is pretty irresistible, and it’s seriously the world’s oddest combination of creepy and sweet ever.
Because… what he’s offering your Inquisitor is even more seductive than sex; he’s offering escape. As well as open permission to be vulnerable in ways the Inquisitor is simply not allowed to be in daily life. And, quite possibly, it may be the only true escape they’ve found since becoming Inquisitor. He’s saying, “Come with me, play with me; I’ll take care of you and you can take your mind away from this apocalyptic time, place, and responsibility you never asked for.”
I mean, if you’d been catapulted to a position of leadership you’d never wanted or imagined, were surrounded by strangers (many of whom feared, hated or were initially trying to imprison you), had left or lost everyone you’d loved, were suddenly leading a world political power, were managing a magical mark that was also slowly trying to kill you, and the world was falling to hell around you in a rain of demons from the skies…?
Yeah, I’d think that offer would be pretty damned tempting.
“I Cannot Move My Legs”
Then, not long after Bull and the Inquisitor embark on their escapades, there’s a scene where Cullen, Cass, and Josie happen upon them unexpectedly. It is seriously the funniest scene I’ve ever seen in a game, and I laugh out loud every time I see it. But there’s also more to it than you might expect at second glance—it’s actually a lovely and surprising interlude—funnier than you’d anticipate, but also potentially tender (and really sad, as well, depending on your character’s choices). Either way, it’s a revealing moment in the romance if we look closer.
We open on Bull and the Inquisitor, right after another encounter. Bull’s naked and still relaxed in the bed, the Inquisitor dressing in a matter-of-fact, “we’ve been together awhile now” kind of way. And this is where we catch a glimpse of that gentle hidden aspect to the relationship. Bull’s voice is soft:
Iron Bull: There we go. No Inquisition. No war. Nothing outside this room. Just you, and me. (Pause) So. What’d you want to talk about?
Then Cullen inadvertently walks in. And he realizes what he’s walking in on and his body literally tries to march him backward out the door on its own. It’s fantastic. Then he settles for covering his eyes against the sight of a naked Bull as if he’s a vampire faced with sunlight.
Then Josie comes in. And she freezes in place, mesmerized by the glory that is, evidently, Bull’s junk (amusingly and thankfully hidden by the Inky and various other elements as the scene progresses).
Then comes Cassandra as the capper on the scene, and her patented disgusted noise here is probably the best example of that classic Cass-reaction in the entire game. Because she’s not really disgusted, just exasperated. Like she’s going, “Inquisitor. Bull. The world is falling down and NOW you decide to do this? I am disappointed.” And she’s of course raising one perfect eyebrow in judgment at the same time.
Anyway, it’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever see in a video game, as all three are mortified by the situation and yet cannot look away. Josie’s “I just had three shots of Novocaine” face is seriously the best thing ever (“I cannot move my legs…”), while Cullen’s little snicker adds a much-needed dash of humor to our often stoic Commander’s personality. (Seriously, when he giggled at this, I went, “Okay, fine, Hot Templar Man, I’ll romance you” and added him to my mental list behind Solas.). Cassandra (perhaps funniest of all) is simply irritated at being faced with the entire situation.
She doesn’t give a crap about sex or safe words or orgasms. She’s just wondering why you’re wasting your time when there is WORK to be done. And given that Cass is DAI’s die-hard closet romantic (not to mention there’s the matter of her occasional flirtations with Bull in their banters), it’s kind of weirdly adorable. I almost wonder if there isn’t an element of her protesting a bit too much, but there’s no hint of that, so I think ultimately it’s simply her allegiance to the Inquisition that’s causing her extreme disapproval here. (At least outwardly.)
A Dignified Exit
But it’s not all just fun and games. We can commit to Bull here, proud of our relationship with him and absolutely fine with people knowing. Yet, meanwhile, for the unexpectedly sadder ending—if we express embarrassment at being discovered with Bull, it’s much more bittersweet, as Bull sacrifices his dignity without a qualm—but only to a point:
Cass: I apologize for interrupting what I assume was a momentary diversion.
Cullen (snickers): Nothing wrong with having a bit of fun.
Josie: Who wouldn’t be a little curious?
Inquisitor: Responds either affirmatively (“Bull and I are together”) or ends things, with “This was just a fling” (“Iron Bull and I were just blowing off some steam”).
Iron Bull (if option 2 is taken): Yeah, the Boss wanted to ride the Bull. Nothing for anyone to get excited about.
Josie (flustered): I’ll just…
Iron Bull (after a pause): Hey, Josephine… you busy later?
Josie actually does pause momentarily (and personally, I hope she looked him up), then they all leave.
Iron Bull: Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.
Inquisitor (being a total jerkface): We don’t have to stop.
Iron Bull: Yeah. We do. I was trying to relieve your stress. Not add to it. If you’re ashamed of this, I’m doing a crappy job.
Iron Bull: Don’t worry about it, Boss. I’ll see you later.
I love this moment (well, I hate what the Inquisitor’s done, but I really like Bull’s reaction). I love that Bull will actually turn down the Inquisitor here. So much of Bull’s persona is about his support and willingness to give, but at the same time, there needs to be a limit. And the quiet way he walks away in this moment (as he should) when faced with the Inquisitor’s shame at being with him is a perfect and necessary character note. He may be a caregiver but the guy has the self esteem to expect better of those he sleeps with… and he should.
However, if we do commit to Bull, it ends very sweetly and on a much happier note:
Iron Bull: You okay Boss?
Inquisitor: You know, I believe I am. But since we have a moment…
Iron Bull: What’s that?
Inquisitor: It’s a dragon’s tooth, split in two. So no matter how far apart life takes us, we’re always together.
Iron Bull: Not often people surprise me, kadan.
Iron Bull (pulling her down into the bed): Kadan. My heart.
And as I’ve mentioned, I may have actually let out a cheer at this, because I headcanoned that my original Warden was in love with Sten (and vice versa) even though they both knew it was hopeless. Their only outlet, I believed, was his use of that word, his one way of expressing his hidden feelings. So, in other words, every time Sten called her “kadan,” I plotzed a little.
So this was fabulous. (And yes, yes I know that “kadan” can be used in a nonromantic context. I just can’t hear you over the la-la-la sounds I’m currently making to ignore that.)
Nobody Says I Love You…
Bull’s romance continues to evolve through the DAI story after this point, and again, I found it so refreshing that the game dared to explore the dynamics of a relationship that began with sex and evolved into something more complex. Bull and the Inquisitor are still evidently having sex all over Skyhold, including, evidently, one or two occasions on the War Table itself (Cole informs a delighted party of companions of this fact in one of his highly revealing little banter dialogues about Bull’s romance with the Inquisitor, and Blackwall’s response is especially funny: “I look forward to informing Cullen!”).
But there’s still something that hasn’t been said—those three little words that determine that there’s emotion involved here, and not just sex. And as we know, there’s no room for love and sex to occur at the same time traditionally under the Qun.
Then, however, we get a post-coital conversation between Bull and the Inquisitor about how their relationship is going (everyone’s very happy, let’s just say), and about his surprise that she’s never used the safe word he provided. The two then proceed to banter about the potential safe words of our other companions, and as always, it’s an opportunity for Bull to show how insightful he really is when it comes to reading other people. There’s a brilliant little moment when his use of a particular Orlesian phrase about Blackwall says volumes about how much he’s already figured out about the mysterious Grey Warden and his true backstory, which for most has not yet been revealed at this point in the story.
It’s interesting to note that while Bull and the Inquisitor wonder aloud about the safe words and predilections of many of their companions, a few notable omissions there include Solas (interesting, since I definitely think he’d have one at the ready—as he directly implies in an early flirt scene with a mage Inquisitor), and Dorian.
Side Note: I would have laughed so hard if Solas’s suggested safe word had been “Fade.” Come on. Admit it. It’s funny. He’d never have even made it through the door on your very first date. And it would’ve been hilarious.
I think Dorian’s omission here, meanwhile, occurs for many reasons—first, because it’s another subtle example of Bull judging others and what they need, and I think the implication is pretty clear that Bull doesn’t think a BDSM scenario would be ideal for Dorian (with his history of rejection and betrayal, I’d agree, although it’s also implied that there are elements of kink to the relationship in other ways). I also think Dorian may not be discussed because he’s an alternate-timeline choice for Bull as a romance, and his omission keeps the two stories wholly separate.
This interlude can end on a few different genuinely touching emotional notes. In one, the Inquisitor implies love and thanks Bull for being with her even if they don’t survive.
Bull interrupts this speech, however, and his broken “Katoh. Stop. I can’t… We’re coming out of this together.” is one of Prinze’s most beautiful moments in voice acting the character of Bull. What gets me is that Bull is the first one to use the word in earnest here; he’s giving us the rare glimpse of the guy who survived Seheron… and then broke.
Sex and Love Beyond the Qun
All variations on this scene end with the two falling back into bed together, but the differences in each conversation thread choice are fascinating because the scene can end in exactly the same way each time, yet in one instance it’s slightly emotional and intense (the Inquisitor fearing death and Bull comforting her), in another sweetly affecting (the Inquisitor telling Bull she loves him, and him returning the sentiment after responding teasingly), or even playful (as the Inquisitor ends on a lighter tone, telling him this was fun). And it’s all lovely and moving… as long as he’s Tal-Vashoth.
Because, if he’s not, once again, this is all empty. An act. Depending on whether we saved the Chargers, or doomed them.
If we saved the Chargers, then I think part of the reason Bull genuinely allows himself to love you is because he’s in a freefall of relief at Krem and the Chargers’ survival (his family), secret relief at being free of the Qun, while also still navigating his total fear and despair of what he’s supposed to do now. All combined with the constant fear that he will go “savage” and become Tal-Vashoth.
And of course, add in a healthy amount of guilt because he now must wonder how many Tal-Vashoth he hunted and killed for the Qunari were simply good men like him trying to break free. So to me, it’s natural that Bull is more open to the romance and actually allows himself the possibility for love and even commitment. That is, if you saved the Chargers. And saved the part of himself that had allowed himself to feel and love.
As I’ve written before here, Bull is innately generous, a giver at heart. The Qun, once upon a time, warped that impulse into something darker and more controlling. Then came the Inquisition, and his own “last chance.” Sure, Bull was playing a delicate game at first, and balancing both potential outcomes. But at some point, somewhere along the way, it all became real. He returned to his core self, abandoning power and politics, turning to something he’d never been allowed to imagine existed—real intimacy, commitment and trust.
It’s ironic in the end, that while Bull offered our Inquisitor the possibility of escape both emotionally, psychologically, and sensually, the person who achieved the actual escape in the end was Bull himself. And we’re the ones who gave it to him. By saving his self-built family, we saved Bull and (unknowingly) ourselves. And that’s the opposite of cold; it’s something that goes beyond sex, power, or obsession and is simply about love and trust on truly absolute and unshakable levels.
And that’s always going to be greater and more powerful than any demands of the Qun.
Images Courtesy of BioWare
This article is a reprint (with minor modification and expansion) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.
Game of Thrones 1×07 Rewatch: You Play the Game or the Arse
Hello and welcome to The Wars to Come, the Game of Thrones rewatch project by… You know how it goes.
This week in “You Win or You Die,” the stakes are certainly life or death, particularly for Daenerys Targaryen. After failing to convince her husband to help her take back the Iron Throne for her family, she sets out to the market, for what she thinks is a day of innocent shopping. Yet not all is at it seems. For one, Jorah creeps off and gets handed a royal pardon for spying on her. For another, a wine merchant outright tries to murder her with poison! Jorah thwarts the attempts (pardon in pocket), and the entire ordeal incites Khal Drogo, who declares his desire for vengeance against Robert Baratheon. He will sail to Westeros after all!
Jon has his drama to deal with. For starters, Uncle Benjen’s horse returns to The Wall…sans Benjen. Then at the graduation ceremony for Night’s Watch School, Jon is told that he’s going to be a steward, not a ranger. He’s always wanted to be a ranger, and as a steward he certainly won’t be in a position to help his uncle!
He’s just about ready to quit when Sam points out to him that clearly the reason he was assigned as not just any steward, but Commander Mormont’s steward specifically, is that he’s getting groomed for leadership. Jon sees the logic in it, and the two friends take their vows together at a heart tree north of the wall.
We briefly visit Winterfell, where Theon tries to demand sex from Osha, before Luwin puts a stop to it. A guest or a prisoner? Luwin points at that Theon of all people should know the distinction may not be huge.
We make an equally brief visit to the camp of the Lannister army, where Tywin Lannister berates Jaime for not finishing the job during his fight with Ned by killing him. Their House was slighted by Cat kidnapping Tyrion, so clearly it is only right that Jaime take a force and capture Riverrun. Boy, feudal politics are as charming as ever!
Nowhere is that more apparent, however, than in King’s Landing. Ned finally confronts Cersei about the illegitimacy of her children, and urges her to flee with them before Robert returns from his hunting trip, as he plans to inform the King immediately. However, it turns out the opportunity will never arise; Robert drank too much wine and in an attempt to drunkenly hunt a boar, got himself lethally gored. Ned is able to take down his final will, which names him as “Lord Protector of the Realm” until Joffrey comes of age. Despite Robert saying “Joffrey” explicitly, Ned simply writes “my rightful heir.” Robert also changes his tune about wanting to kill Dany, but when Ned tells Varys to put a stop to it, he’s informed that it’s already in motion.
Elsewhere, Littlefinger tells two of his sex workers about that time he dueled Brandon Stark because he loved Cat.
While Robert slowly dies, Renly seeks out Ned, telling him that he must act now and take Cersei and her children into custody before she can act. When Ned speaks of naming Stannis as Robert’s successor, Renly says that he should be named instead, despite being the youngest. Ned dismisses this plan.
He also dismisses Littlefinger’s suggestion to make peace with the Lannisters, bow before King Joffrey, and merely sit on the incest secret unless they need to expose it. Instead, he asks Littlefinger to secure the gold cloaks for him, so that he’ll be able to properly confront Cersei when the time comes.
That’s sooner rather than later; Robert dies, and almost immediately Cersei puts Joffrey on the throne, where he calls upon the Small Council to pledge their fealty. Renly’s fled the city, but Ned heads to the throne room, where he presents Robert’s will. Cersei tears it up, and when it’s clear that she will not yield, Ned calls on the gold cloaks to arrest her. Instead, they murder all the Stark House guards, and Littlefinger puts a dagger to Ned’s throat.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: I feel like this episode was a bit stronger than last week’s. I mean there is the one scene of just sheer horribleness, but otherwise it felt somehow more focused, maybe. I suspect a lot of that was due to the King’s Landing plotline just utterly dominating the episode. Sure, we had a few scenes with Jon and Dany, Tywin’s introduction, and even a delightful moment with Theon in Winterfell. But so much stayed with the main action, which was quite enough to drive things forward well. I may just be complimenting the pacing here, but I at least had more of a positive reaction, I think.
Griffin: I don’t even remember what happened from when I watched it. There was Robert dying, Jason Momoa’s awesome scene, and they cut the apologizing assassin. I was bummed about that since I liked how stupid it was from when I read it, and I wanted to see them do it since it is so stupid. It’s just so ridiculous but for some reason it felt like it fit within the world of the book, which defies all logic. I vaguely remember something about Jon Snow, mostly because he apparently wasn’t in the previous two or three episodes? I mean, it says a lot that I didn’t remember he wasn’t there at all. Was Sansa in this one? Arya? This show is bafflingly forgettable sometimes.
Julia: I agree that it was a much stronger episode than the previous one or two. I remember this being the first time in my life possibly, that I noticed nerdy things like “blocking” and “shots.” The extreme close ups in the wine-assassin scene, and the odd blocking and pacing of the Ned-Cersei scene were an education.
Also, did you know that Ned is into honor?
Danzie: Aside from that scene, I actually really love this episode. Baratheons being well represented is my kryptonite. See D&D? I’m not that hard to impress.
I have a couple nitpicks but, yeah, this was an overall winner in my books.
Griffin: I guess my highlight is probably Jason Momoa developing the amount of screen presence he looks like he should have. Pretty much every other scene that wasn’t killing Viserys was just “big dude is big dude” for him. I’ve been wondering if that was just a writing issue, or if he just didn’t have the physicality to really make the role work. Turns out they just needed to actually write a scene where he does a thing for him to, well, do the thing. Seriously, even with the “golden crown” it felt kinda…deliberate? Like, Drogo had planned this to happen, and was sorta casual about it.
As for the low-point, it has to be the Sexposition. Jesus christ that scene was atrocious. Littlefinger had to literally yell his origin story over the ever-loudening moans of women fucking on his explicit orders. Seriously, dude? I mean—he’s not even getting off on it. He’s just yelling. For no reason. I couldn’t even pay attention to whatever nonsense he was spouting because the staging was so unbelievably awkward and random. I cannot imagine being the sound mixer when editing that scene; it’s like a visual representation of why their job is necessary and integral. Did they get paid more for that one? God, I hope so.
Kylie: I definitely second this low-point. It’s just…in terms of quality it’s not even that far removed from the low-points of Seasons 6 and 7. The only saving grace is that it’s one contained scene with a relatively shorter story on the exposition scale. I’m worried it’s going to overtake anything else to do with this episode for this rewatch, that’s how bad it was.
I had a personal highlight, and that was watching Emilia Clark move her face in the market scene. I don’t exactly think it was the episode’s best moment, but it was so refreshing that I felt invigorated.
I think objectively my highlight is the throne room sequence. I know it’s obvious, but it was well-executed. You really get a feel for the farce of all courtly politics, and Barry’s sad little face when Cersei ripped up the letter was a highlight unto itself. It was this kind of tension that made me fall in love with the world and really want to engage, and I think this was a case where it was blocked and written well.
Julia: Yeah, the sexposition scene was the worst. The Worst. But in the interest of variety I will pick the scene where Ned confronts Cersei. Just, like, this is such an effective scene in the book, but here it’s just so odd. I mean, the pacing is bizarrely off, and the shot-reverse-shot looks unnatural. It’s not especially bad, really. Just, comparing it to the source material makes me sad.
Highlight? I really liked Cersei’s costume in the throne room. It was so interesting and different, and maybe even what a queen would wear.
Danzie: Sexposition was not only bad, it was a scary look into the future for this show. Jesus, what a bummer in an otherwise good episode. It’s an example of how D&D don’t trust their audience to pay attention without an ample supply of nudity. I think it’s easily the lowlight of the entire first season for me.
I have so many highlights though! Sam and Pyp truth bombing Jon’s whiny ass was pretty satisfying. Luwin (who I forgot was such an amazing cinnamon roll prior to this rewatch project) shutting down Theon’s creepy behavior with an epic burn was also pretty amazing. Renly being, like, a CHARACTER and not a gayreotype made me happy too. I stanned the heck out of my Baratheon trash-baby basically being the only one smart enough to get the hell out of King’s Landing before all this went down. See you next season with your awesome beard and crown, bro. <3
In the end though, I have two winners. The first is Robert’s defining moment as a character, where, moments from death, he finally decides to grow up and let go of his fear and anger towards the Targs. I know this is more a compliment to the source material, but Mark Addy nailed the hell out of this scene. We need to start an Emmy-snubbed list.
The second is the Jaime/Tywin scene. Charles Dance was such spot-on casting for Tywin. You start to learn here why the Lannister kids are so fucked up. Even Jaime who is his “favourite” has unrealistic expectations put on him. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t with a dad like Tywin. Also, this was the scene that made me decide to get a replica Jaime sword. I’ll include a pic. 😀
Quality of writing
Julia: Not too bad? The sexposition stands out as horrible, but other than that, most of the scenes were too straightforwardly adapted to have the opportunity to be horrible.
But that scene though. What I suspect happened is that the director just saw this stupid Bond villain monologue, and thought, “oh no, this is just two pages of him explaining his evil plan, and the virginity pledge he took! How do I make this interesting?” And since the director seems as incompetent as the writers this week, he landed on male-gaze girl-on-girl in the background?
Danzie: Haha, with the exception of the darkest timeline scene that I’m sure I can (and will) rip into, I’m pretty happy with the writing. Turns out that when you just stick to adapting the books things turn out pretty well? Who knew.
Kylie: We’re at least definitively still in the world of conversations. Spy vs. Spy was getting close to nonversation territory, but here people still talk like people. Well…Westerosi people. I’d say the quality was overall very decent. Now play with her arse.
Griffin: I’m pretty sure I hated the characters I was supposed to hate. But I’m not sure I like or empathize with the characters I’m supposed to like. The biggest problem remains that they aged up the children, at least to me. This makes it really difficult to believe Jon’s plotline in any way, unless he’s the absolute dumbest person around. It makes sense he’d be groomed for command, but not that he wouldn’t understand that and needs it spelled out.
Aside from that, in terms of writing, I guess it was fine. There’s nothing really that stands out as great writing, but they have an entire cast of amazing actors who can really elevate the material. Like Jason Momoa’s scenery-chewing moment. So really, the writing is probably mediocre, but they just have really good actors. But they shouldn’t need to constantly lean on that; that’s not sustainable.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Griffin: What was the theme of this episode? I guess it was “honor” and “survival.” And how those two don’t mix. That’s just sorta the whole point of Ned’s story though, if I recall correctly.
Kylie: I’m trying to specify it more to connect Dany and Jon and Ned here. I mean the theme you hit isn’t exactly wrong, but more just overarching for the season. Then again we’ve talked before about how maybe episodic themes are more incidental than anything else.
Julia: I think maybe you can connect Dany and the King’s Landing stuff with the idea that a desire for the throne makes you do horrible things? Like, even Ned slightly changed the wording of Robert’s last wishes. Might be a stretch.
Danzie: The theme I got was “what makes a good leader?” Is it military prowess? Well clearly not, because Robert was an amazing fighter but a terrible king. Is it bloodlines? Not when you look at half the crazy Targaryens. Is it a lawful king like Stannis or a diplomatic and well loved person like Renly? Is it conquerors like Aegon I as Dany suggests?
These are all archetypes and ideas that will come into play during the war of five kings and beyond… or y’know, they would’ve, but the show decided to become terrible.
Kylie: I think to that theme, Danzie, it’s hard to super connect Jon’s scenes to that. We get that they’re grooming him for leadership, but Jon’s struggle this episode is more just his inability to think anything through, apparently. Or to think. He commits to the Night’s Watch, but it’s less to do with leadership and more to do with his bros talking him into it. What makes a good leader? Apparently not the smarts.
The issue with “doing bad things for the throne” is that Ned doesn’t want the throne in any way, and changing Robert’s wording was less horrible than it was protecting a dying man from something that would really upset him, while still trying to honor the laws of the land. I’m worried I’m making a special pleading case for Ned with that, because it is a slightly deceitful action, that’s for sure. But even his lie was…not without honor.
Dany convinces Drogo to fight for her throne after almost getting killed, Jon pledges to the Night’s Watch even without necessarily liking his post because of future ambition maybe, and Ned tries to do the honorable thing in ensuring the proper line of succession, only to be betrayed. I think what we have are three people doing things at various levels of political power, all tied to a vague sense of duty. But it’s okay if it’s a bit scattered.
Also it feels completely random that this is the episode we learned Littlefinger’s backstory. “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them” was his thesis. Is that linked to anything here?
Julia: Well, that’s what Ned should have done, right? Play a game where he can control Joff and Cersei because he knows their secret? And Dany literally fucked her way to getting Drogo’s army. #femaleempowerment.
Kylie: So the show validates Littlefinger’s worldview. Neato.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Kylie: Putting aside the elephant’s arse in the room, I think one of the bigger cracks that starts here was actually something relatively well-executed: Tywin’s introduction. I love Dance in the role, and I think what he was saying gave texture to what we’ve seen of his three children.
That said, it’s kind of baldly the beginning of their more obvious Lannister favorism, and the Tough but Fair Grandpappy Tywin we’re going to get much more of next season. Maybe this belongs more as an adaptational grievance, but the scene in and of itself was fine. It’s knowing where it leads that makes it more difficult on a viewing now.
Julia: It’s also the beginning of the crack (well, maybe it began with the Spy vs. Spy) that I call “These people have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.” Like, last week we learned that the feudal order was dumb, right. And that honor specifically was dumb? Well, now we have Badass, tough but fair Tywin telling us why we have to go to war because of the feudal order, and because another family insulted a member of his. You know what that’s called? A matter of honor! So, either we’re all dunderheads who can’t appreciate how their Tywin is not, in fact, being portrayed as a reasonable actor and generally sympathetically, but is instead a biting critique of all the things that come out of his mouth. Or, D&D have no idea what any of these ideas, or their implications, actually are.
Because as it is, it does seem like favoritism. Protecting the feudal order is dumb, unless you’re the Lannisters, they can’t look weak to the other houses. The line of succession is dumb, unless you’re the Lannisters. We wish them well in their attempt to build a dynasty that lasts 1000 years. Honor is dumb, unless you insult a Lannister, then it makes perfect sense for them to kill all your peasants.
At this point, it’s still just a crack, and a more balanced interpretation is possible if you look at just this one scene. But knowing how they’re going to set up Tywin as this ideal player of the game, it’s a crack.
Also, this is the start of Tywin as this earthy, pragmatic, thrifty type, with simple tastes, so unlike those decadent Dornish. Like, maybe Tywin would butcher his own venison, but where are the rubies on the hilt of his hunting knife? And where the fuck is his cloth-of-gold cape?
Danzie: The Lannister favoritism does start to spin out of control later on, but if you look at the Tywin/Jaime scene framed only by what we’ve seen so far in the show’s run up to this point, it’s fine. I think it gets across Tywin’s character quickly and well for what it is. I also think that one person’s perception of honor isn’t the always the same as someone else’s. Ned’s is humble. Tywin’s is prideful.
That being said, the points you make are more than valid. D&D don’t actually understand or care about exploring the themes they Ctrl C + Ctrl V from the books. They’re just copying homework and handing it into the teacher without understanding the assignment. I’d love to live in a world where I can give them credit, but the jig has long been up.
It’s at this point that I’d like to link to Kylie’s wonderful article.
In the end, we’re all a little crazy for even trying to make sense of a show where the creators are pretty clearly not even trying (even when it’s accidentally good by virtue of the strong source material), but on we march.
Kylie: I love that it was the empowered ladies of Horn Hill that pushed me to writing that one.
All I can add is that at least we’re still in the stage of viewing where we can sit back and enjoy Charles Dance’s Tywin for what it is. And yeah, the dude is a huge fucking hypocrite. But the showrunners shouldn’t be; not if we’re supposed to uncritically accept “honor gets you killed.”
Um. So. Should we talk about the arse crack in the plaster, or does it speak for itself?
Danzie: Damnit, Kylie. XD
Julia: They’re still doing pretty well here. They still feel the need to add “honor” to everyone’s lines whenever they’re talking to or about Ned, but there were only two original scenes that I can think of. The first was the scene with Tywin and Jaime, which worked because of Charles Dance and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but was really kind of nothing—like, they even started killing all the peasants last week, so it’s not like we needed that exposition, and then there was that scene… Other than that, it was mostly a dramatic reading of A Game of Thrones.
Omg, I forgot. Sam really misses girls, you guys. Not his mother and sisters, mind you, who love him for who he is and all that junk, but girls he can ogle without their consent. What great character changes.
“I miss girls. Not even talking to them. I never talked to them. Just looking at them, hearing them giggle. Don’t you miss girls?”
Danzie: Yeah, those lines felt a little weird coming out of Sam’s mouth. Like, I’m sure even book-Sam misses girls to a degree, but I think that a rich boy from the South would be far more concerned with, y’know, SURVIVING his time in The Watch. Even stewards face brutally long days of work in incredibly harsh conditions. It’s not like, an all boys Christian summer camp where you spend half your time sitting around being bored and then go kayaking. He’s settling in remarkably well considering one of his superiors ordered another recruit to beat the shit out of him a couple episode back. But not having tits & ass to look at would suck, am I right young male demographic?
Speaking of the Night’s Watch, this is indeed a big example of where aging up the characters runs into problems. You can’t take the actions of a fifteen-year-old and apply it to someone in their early 20’s/late teens without the context changing massively. A young teenager throwing a fit over not getting what they want is pretty understandable, but when you have a very adult actor depicting these emotions? It gets a lot harder to be sympathetic because a grown-ass man is suddenly throwing a hissy fit on screen over something he really should have known was a possibility before he signed up.
Robb goes on to suffer in the same way. Breaking a political marriage promise by jumping into bed with someone else makes sense (and you could even argue is an almost inevitable action) for someone that young. But when you’re like, twenty-two, the expectation is that you should really know better given what’s at stake.
Griffin: Jon really comes across as the biggest idiot around. According to Kylie that’s not going to change much?
Kylie: I think D&D read “You know nothing, Jon Snow” at face-value.
Danzie: “Jon really comes across as the biggest idiot around… that’s not going to change much?”
Poor, sweet Griffin…
Julia: At least they’re getting Drogo pretty well. If only there were more people to see that…
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: A very, very turned-off Cersei? Wait, no, weaponizing her sexuality is like, Cersei’s MO with men, which is why she has so much self-hatred, too. She sees it as her only use in society and viable card to play, and it’s rather bizarre that they cut her making a pass at Ned.
Then again, they also cut Ned saying, “For a start, I do not kill children.” That was rather crucial to his character. So I’m suspecting D&D didn’t super understand that scene.
Otherwise Cersei was very Cersei in the throne room. Barry’s face when she ripped up Robert’s letter was perfect.
Julia: Yeah, turned-off Cersei is a good way to phrase it. I was watching that scene thinking how Carol she was, how she makes incest seem so reasonable and what any good person would support, but then I realized how she was just quoting Cersei and that made me question everything. I guess it just goes to show how things that seem subtle and unimportant—a couple of omitted lines and actions, a tone—can be so huge.
The throne room scene was perfect, though.
Danzie: Agreed. Mostly book-Cersei, with a dash of Carol.
Griffin: There is no Carol in HR! (I still don’t know the difference, but Carol sounds nice?)
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Danzie: Next question, please.
Kylie: “I do believe my lord’s in love.” / “For many years. Most of my life, really. Play with her arse. And she loved me too.”
I’m sorry; I can’t move past it! I know there were decent things in there, like Dany navigating Essosi trade, and the Night’s Watch vows, but oh my god that overshadows just everything. EVERYTHING.
Julia: They did a much better job in their other scene, but that wasn’t what you would call elegant either. “You will take half our forces to Catelyn Stark’s girlhood home.”
Griffin: I don’t want to talk about the sexposition. Frankly, it’s hard to tell where the character moments end and where the exposition moments begin on this show in general, and not in a good way. I didn’t feel like I was being spoon fed too much, but it’s also hard to keep track of motivations in individual scenes sometimes.
Julia: I’m also not too happy about how Jorah is always explaining Dothraki things to Dany. This is a problem in the books too, as I recall, but you have three Dothraki around her with speaking roles, even apart from Drogo. Use them for god’s sake.
How was the pacing?
Julia: The pacing of the episode was fine, I think. I don’t remember noticing it, and that’s usually a good sign. But am I crazy about the pacing of the Ned-Cersei scene being odd? Please, reassure me/encourage me to seek help.
Kylie: I forgot it opening the episode. That seemed an odd place for it. Then you add in the shot-reverse-shot soap opera framing, and yeah… She kind of jumped to “you win or you die” after a couple back and forths; the heavy hitting moments of that exchange were cut anyway, and then it was done.
Danzie: Yeah, more time really should have been given to the “you win or your die” scene in general. It’s kinda like… one of, if not the penultimate moment of the entire first book. It felt a bit too glossed over considering its importance.
Though, apparently Lena Heady was pregnant during the filming for this scene, which kinda explains the weird shots/editing.
Other than that, I think the pacing was pretty strong.
Julia: I mean, pregnancy tends to last for longer than the time it takes to film one scene. But I guess that’s why she’s been standing with those giant sleeves in front of her all season.
Griffin: It was better than last week. So, “fine”, I guess?
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Danzie: Okay, we’ve done a lot of complaining, but let’s really break this down:
- The quality of sex is determined by loudness. By this logic, one should always be screaming directly into one’s partner’s face. Anything less and they’ll just assume you aren’t into them.
- Lesbian sex must always include one of the women acting as “the man”.
- Make sure your boss is in the room telling you his tragic backstory.
- Haha, wait. There’s a “one-eyed Joe” at the Night’s Watch who works the stables?
- 70’s porno lighting.
Also, while listening to Littlefinger’s friendzoned speech it suddenly dawned on me why certain… sub-sections of the internet champion him. Not that that’s show-Littlefinger exclusive, I just… don’t know how I didn’t realize until now.
Julia: I like how Ros is mostly just concerned with the cleanliness of her hands throughout the scene. I think I love her.
Griffin: Danzie lays it out better than I could, but it’s just…no. And also somehow incredibly boring and unengaging. It’s like they all sat around a table and thought up the single least sexy way to sex ever. And then did it. REALLY LOUDLY.
Kylie: Well, the point was that it was merely performative, so to even characterize it as lesbian sex is already not particularly accurate… I really don’t know why I’m trying.
Julia: I believe I’m the only one here who’s not female attracted (correct me if I’m wrong) so I don’t think me reiterating how unsexy that scene was will help any. But god, if that scene was meant to titillate, it failed miserably. And can we talk about Littlefinger’s virginity pledge?
Kylie: If there’s one thing I gathered from Littlefinger in the books, it’s that he’s totally sexually reserved because of his pure love. /s
I think “hideously unsexy” is a good way to phrase it, but can I just complain about something really stupid with it for a second? Littlefinger had Ros and the other sex worker practicing on each other so they could practice their moaning that they do with customers. Ros sounded “ridiculous” or something, so he had them switch. Other sex worker moaned while Ros got her off. Then Littlefinger liked that performance, so he said “you’re both working tonight.” But wasn’t Ros’s awkward moaning the problem in the first place? So why is she cleared for work? Doesn’t she still need to practice moaning to his satisfaction?
Why am I analyzing this aspect?
Julia: No, no. I think you just found the plothole that makes the entire season fall apart.
There was also full frontal male nudity this episode. And I think we can all agree that seeing the floppy fish of a man about to be dragged to death is exactly the same as the “play with her ass scene” and the female nudity therein, so all accusations of sexism are invalid.
In memoriam…Robert Baratheon & Stark House guards
Julia: Oh Bobby B. Murdered by a pig.
Kylie: And now everyone gets to taste the boar that got him. I kind of always felt it was weird that Robert’s hunting trip and death scene were split into two episodes. Renly running in like, “come quick!” always felt so random to me.
Julia: Remember a few episodes ago when he was afraid of blood, and now he’s covered in Robert’s and doesn’t seem fussed at all?
Danzie: I think it all would have been a bit too rushed if it was all in one episode. At least Robert got a better death than Stannis. Not that I’m in any way still salty over that…
Griffin: I really don’t understand why they waited to kill the Stark guards in that scene. That whole conversation was a complete waste of everyone’s time if their end goal was to make sure Ned didn’t have the chance to fuck everything up. Shouldn’t Cersei know by now that his commitment to honor is immutable? Shouldn’t most of the higher echelon in King’s Landing?
Kylie: I guess it’s part of highlighting courtly farse? That the whole thing is so performative, and Cersei was trying to give Ned a chance at that. This is, of course, something in the books too. Maybe this is feeble, but sometimes we do need certain dramatic moments as part of storytelling. I don’t think it necessarily violated Cersei’s character in any way. Maybe Carol’s though…
But that’s a good place to leave it. What did everyone else think? Were the big moments here as impactful this time through? Was the arse crack in the plaster as distracting as we’re making it out to be? Let us know in the comments below, and we continue to wish you good fortune in The Wars to Come.