Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Revengers' Tragedy: Thoughts on the Fifth Season Finale of Game of Thrones

Yesterday afternoon, before I'd watched the final episode of Game of Thrones's fifth season, I read this essay by Aaron Bady about the show, in which he argues that it has overshot its natural ending point, and therefore no longer has anything to say:
What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin's innovation was to suggest that "Goodness" is a tragic flaw. 
After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he's written two books in fifteen years, and they're a hot mess. He'd written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he's totally stuck, and here's why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google "R+L=J" if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin's dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we'll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!
This is not only close to what my take of the show has been for a while, it actually neatly captures the reasons I felt so unmotivated to keep reading the books past the first one: it was clear that Martin was writing a crapsack world in which everyone sucks and no one deserves the throne, so why should I care who wins it?  More importantly, in the background of this story, Martin was setting up an epic battle for survival between humanity and ice zombies, which would inevitably belie the cynicism of his main story by delivering a foretold hero to save the world--so why should I even respect him for being a cynic?

Bady's argument feels particularly apt at the end of this exhausting fifth season, in which the show seemed finally to have been snowed under by the sheer volume of the conversation about it.  As if subliminally sensing that Game of Thrones had long since run out of anything to say, its commentators seemed determined to fill the void by saying everything possible about it--about its use of rape, about its gleeful embrace of violence against the innocent and helpless, about the odd but completely predictable phenomenon of an adaptation outpacing its source material, about the increasing tensions this is causing for fans of the books, and, inevitably, about what it means that we can't stop talking about Game of Thrones.  Every Monday morning for two and a half months, twitter has been full of people ranting about the latest depravity to happen to a beloved character, people swearing off the show forever (until next week), and people mocking the first two groups for not noticing the kind of story they were watching.  As someone who for years has been saying that Game of Thrones is little more than a well-made soap opera with no one worth rooting for except the servants and peasants, I ought to feel some sympathy with the latter group, but what I've mainly been feeling is overwhelmed, and increasingly unclear why I'm still watching the show.  It's not that I don't like it anymore--I mainly watch to find out what happens next, and on that level the fifth season delivered a fair bit of progress--but that I'm increasingly feeling the pressure to be invested, either for or against, in something that surely doesn't deserve that investment.

This was my feeling yesterday afternoon.  And then I watched the fifth season finale, "Mother's Mercy," and something really strange and unexpected happened--I found myself thinking about Game of Thrones as a story that was trying to make a point.  To be clear, "Mother's Mercy" is not a very good episode.  Even by the laxer standards on which we judge this show's premieres and finales, it is bitty and scattershot, barely giving any character their due in its rush to tie up all their stories.  It's full of deaths and trauamtic events that barely get a chance to land because as soon as they've been established, the episode rushes off to the next one.  In one particularly tone deaf example, the character of Sansa Stark is last seen jumping off the battlements of Winterfell.  Common sense, and Sansa's behavior in the scene immediately before, in which she announces that she would rather die than submit to any more brutal mistreatment by her sadistic husband, Ramsay Bolton, would suggest that this is a suicide, but the scene isn't shot or treated like the final exit of a beloved, important character (and, of course, there has been no announcement that Sophie Turner has left the show).  And yet it's impossible to imagine how Sansa could have survived.  In a nutshell, this is the problem with all of "Mother's Mercy."  In the guise of wrapping up this season's stories, it's actually setting up an endless number of cliffhangers for the next, but--partly because of their sheer number, partly because of poor execution--very few of these cliffhangers manage to create suspense.  The season ends less with tension, and more with confusion.

And yet, looked at from another perspective, "Mother's Mercy" is a shockingly coherent hour of television.  Much has been made of the truly epic number of main character deaths in this episode, but a more accurate way of putting it would be that these deaths are merely the outcome of its actual preoccupation, revenge.  In almost every one of its subplots, the fifth season finale shows us charactes getting their longed-for revenge.  And in every one of those stories, that revenge turns out to be futile, self-destructive, and pointless.  Take, for example, Ellaria Sand, who in this episode finally achieves her season-long goal of killing Myrcella Lannister in revenge for the death of her lover, Oberyn Martell, at the hands of a Lannister knight.  The futility of this gesture is baked into its very description--Ellaria has murdered an innocent child who had nothing to do with Oberyn's death (which was anyway as much of his own making's as anyone else's).  In so doing, she's doomed herself, and probably also her daughters, to death or exile, and probably started a war between Dorne and King's Landing, while handing the Lannisters a valuable hostage in the form of Trystane Martell, Myrcella's oblivious fianc√©.  Even the murder weapon speaks to the madness one sinks to when plotting revenge--seemingly contrite, Ellaria kisses Myrcella goodbye while wearing poisoned lipstick, which, when we last see her, begins to take its effect on her as well.  Ellaria has literally taken poison in the hopes that someone else will die, and though unlike Myrcella she has an antidote, the self-destructiveness inherent in that gesture speaks volumes.

Or take the episode's final scene, in which the erstwhile, quietly heroic Jon Snow is murdered by his fellow Night's Watch members, in revenge for his choice to bring their mortal enemies the Wildlings past the Wall.  Aside from the fact that Jon has for some time been one of the few truly positive characters left on the show, and that the ringleader of this betrayal, Alliser Thorne, is a petty, mean-spirited man motivated as much by political jealousy as genuine conviction (he was heavily favored to be named as the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch before Jon swooped in and got the job), this is an extraordinarily foolish, destructive act.  Jon is one of the few people on Westeros to understand that the real threat to the kingdom isn't its civil wars, but the coming army of ice zombies.  Allying with the Wildlings was absolutely the right move--it gives the Night's Watch a much-needed increase in numbers, and denies the White Walkers, who can resurrect the dead and make them fight on their side, their own increase.  By killing the only Night's Watch member the Wildlings trusted, Thorne may have doomed the Watch--and much of Westeros--to a fate worse than death.

But if Myrcella and Jon's deaths are events the audience can be trusted to root against, what about acts of revenge we've been fervently rooting for?  For several seasons, Arya Stark has been keeping a list of people who have hurt her or her loved ones, and whom she intends to kill.  In "Mother's Mercy" she gets the chance to cross off one of those names, Meryn Trant, who killed her beloved fencing master Syrio Forel.  Trant is an all-around terrible person--he beat and stripped Sansa on Joffrey's orders, and Arya is able to get to him because of his fondness for raping young girls--and yet when Arya returns from killing him to the House of Black and White, where she has been training to become a faceless assassin, she's chastised and punished.  To be sure, the Many-Faced God's philosophy doesn't bear much scrutiny--Arya killing her own target out of her own thirst for revenge is bad, but killing the target assigned to her by the Faceless Men, who were commissioned by a supplicant on their own quest for vengeance, is good--but there's no question that what Arya does to Trant is more destructive to her than to him.  She doesn't just kill him (as she has already done to other names on her list); she butchers him, torturing him while she explains exactly why he deserves to die at her hand.  It's certainly a more horrible death than the quick poisoning intended by the Faceless Men for the swindling insurance agent who was Arya's actual target, and the fact that she's able to deal it out so calmly suggests that she's on her way to becoming a far greater monster than Trant ever was.  When Arya's story ends with her receiving some supernatural punishment that includes losing her sight, it's hard not to feel that this is what's best for everyone.

Or take Cersei Lannister.  Unlike Arya, Cersei has never been someone the audience was meant to root for.  She's a bad person who has done terrible things--strictly speaking, the entire war that has consumed Westeros for five seasons is of her own making, as she killed her husband rather than allow him to find out that their children were actually her brother's--and she makes truly terrible decisions.  The predicament she finds herself in in "Mother's Mercy"--imprisoned by the fanatical religious sect the Faith Militant, who have accused her, quite rightly, of adultery, incest, and murder--is her own fault, since she empowered the Faith in the first place, in a misguided, thoughtless power play against her new daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell (whose fate, as of the end of the season, remains unknown).  So if anyone wants revenge against Cersei, it's probably the audience, who have been waiting for her comeuppance for years.  And yet when that punishment arrives, it's horrible.  Shaved and stripped naked, forced to walk through the streets of King's Landing while the commoners (who, again, have every reason to hate her) pelt her with rotten vegetables and manure and shout obscenities at her, Cersei, who has never been less than entirely human even when doing and saying the most appalling things, is heartbreakingly sympathetic, the camera remaining fixed on her face as she tries, and fails, to endure her ordeal with dignity.  The punishment she receives says more about the sadism and judgmental glee of the people who force her to endure it than it does about Cersei, and, unsurprisingly, its effect is not to make Cersei contrite or reflective, but to confirm her in her belief that everyone is against her, and that she's right to resort to violence and cruelty to get her own way.  The audience may have been wishing for Cersei to get what she deserves for as long as they've been wishing for Arya to kick ass and take names, but in both cases, getting what we want tastes like ashes.

(Having said all that, we might also stop to consider how blatantly sexualized Cersei's punishment is.  We might consider the fact that at the same time that she's being punished for her crimes, her brother Jaime, who committed all the same crimes as her and also raped her, is receiving forgiveness and acceptance from his daughter-by-incest Myrcella.  True, the scene ends with Myrcella dying in Jaime's arms,  which can be taken as a punishment, but then we might consider that while Cersei's punishment is humilating, Jaime's is grandly tragic--and, more importantly, does not actually happen to him but to a woman he cares about.  And we might consider how typical this is of this episode in general, in which, for example, Theon Greyjoy finally breaks the hold that the sadistic Ramsay Bolton has on him--by killing Ramsay's slightly less sadistic and certainly less powerful girlfriend Myranda.)

The most powerful statement that "Mother's Mercy" makes about the futility of revenge comes from the most honorable, sympathetic character in the series, and from an act that no one--in or out of the show--will take as cruel or unjust.  The stalwart knight Brienne has spent the fifth season staking out Winterfell, waiting for a sign of trouble from Sansa.  In the opening scenes of the episode, she's disturbed from her watch by the news that Stannis Baratheon--whom she has sworn to kill in revenge for his murder of his brother, a kind and decent man whom she loved and swore allegiance to--is marching on Winterfell.  Stannis comes to "Mother's Mercy" as one of the most hated characters on the show, having sacrificed his sweet, affectionate daughter Shireen to the fire god R'hllor in the previous episode in exchange for favorable weather.  The unsurprising result of this is that half of Stannis's men desert (and his wife Selyse takes her own life), turning his planned siege of Winterfell into a rout.  By the time Brienne gets to him, he's defeated in body and spirit and calmly accepting of death.  Brienne, meanwhile, isn't cruel or sadistic.  She gives Stannis a quick death and explains why she's killing him, to which his only response is that she is doing her duty.  Of all the many deaths on this show or in this episode, this is probably the most just and the most kind.

And yet, because Brienne chooses to pursue vengeance, she misses it when Sansa is finally able to call for help, lighting a candle in the window of Winterfell's tallest tower as Brienne instructed her to.  To be sure, this is more than a little silly and over-literal: has Brienne been standing watch on the same spot for all the weeks of the fifth season?  How short a span does Sansa's candle burn, anyway?  But there's no escaping the very simple message: by choosing revenge, Brienne abandons her duty to Sansa and leaves her without a protector.  Brienne kills Stannis with the sword she named Oathkeeper, given to her by Jaime as a symbol of her oath to Catelyn Stark to protect her daughters, and of Jaime's own quest for redemption (which, to be fair, Brienne embodies far more than he does).  By choosing revenge, even on someone who truly deserves it and who even welcomes death, Brienne breaks her oath to both Catelyn and Jamie, and, however unwillingly, dishonors herself.

As Bady writes, the first three seasons of Game of Thrones have a single, simple, perhaps simplistic message--that the righteous do not triumph simply because they are righteous; that goodness, far from being a path to success and power, is actually an impediment to them.  And, as he writes, the next two seasons of the show suffered because once that message had been well and truly hammered home with the Red Wedding, there was nowhere for the story to go except to nihilistically repeat it.  "Mother's Mercy" suggests that there is actually somewhere to go from this point.  The natural response to learning that goodness leads to suffering is to hope for comeuppance--for the good guys to become powerful enough to punish their oppressors, and for the bad guys to get what's coming to them.  What "Mother's Mercy" tells us is that this, too, is not a good philosophy of life.  That revenge, even if it's deserved and dispassionate, is an evil that blows back on the people who deliver it, perpetuating and increasing the amount of suffering in the world rather than achieving justice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Game of Thrones is suddenly a good or meaningful show--it's still a well-made but overrated soap opera about unpleasant people whose main appeal is finding out what happens next.  But I find it terribly exciting that, years after I'd given up hope of ever seeing such a thing again, the show is actually trying to say something.  That what it's saying happens to be a hard but important truth, rather than the juvenile glibness of "goodness is a weakness," is just more icing on the cake.

That said, it is worth noting that the answer the show gives to the futility of vengeance is the same answer it gave to the vulnerability of the good.  Or rather, the same person.  Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few characters on the show who does not spend "Mother's Mercy" committing or experiencing vengeance.  Having fled the city of Mereen, which she conquered in the fourth season, on the back of one of her dragons, she finds herself captured by Dothraki raiders.  For any other woman on the show, this would herald a lot of attempted (or completed) rape.  For Daenerys, it probably means she'll be in charge of the khalasar by the second episode of season six.  The rules have never seemed to apply to Daenerys, not because she's a particularly good leader or politician--her reign in Mereen was marked by toppling the existing, evil power structure and customs and offering nothing to replace them, which unsurprisingly led to resentment and eventually rebellion; it's almost a relief when the episode ends with the more pragmatic, politically savvy Tyrion and Varys taking over the city, even if this represents one female white savior being replaced by two male ones.  No, Daenerys is special because that's how she's been written.  Becuase her role in the story means that she doesn't face the same moral hazards as the other characters.  She can experience trauma and humiliation without becoming embittered or damaged.  She can take revenge without losing her soul.  She can embrace power without being corrupted.  In the end, we come back to the problem Bady identifies--Game of Thrones, and Martin before it, try to tell a story in which real stakes and consequences are injected into a fantasy world, but in the end it's all in the service of the return of the queen.  Perhaps the example of "Mother's Mercy" means that this story has more life in it yet, but, as much as this episode surprised me, that seems like too much to hope for.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I'm interested to see what the show ends up doing with Daenerys. This season, they actually stated outright just what you say here; that Daenerys is different from the others, that the rules don't quite apply to her, that she can "break the wheel." And by stating it so clearly, they also raise the question of whether that's actually true or not.

Out of your three categories, I definitely fall into the third, the one that's shaking its head at the first two and asking them what sort of show they thought they were watching, exactly. I don't expect any meaningful morals or statements from GoT, which you quite accurately describe as a soap opera.* But I am honestly not sure where they are going with Daenerys, if they are going to have her actually succeed and prove herself above the cynical laws of her universe, if they are going to have her devolve into a monstrous tyrant to be able to win, if they are going to have her fail completely in the face of an unkind reality... And that, at the very least, provides a nice bit of narrative uncertainty.

I do actually have an prediction, though I'm far from sure of it. I think Daenerys will finally arrive in Westeros, and unite it against the White Walkers, and win a phyrric victory that leaves the survivors to go back to squabbling over the rulership of the duly saved kingdom. The heroine rises above the pettiness of the world to defeat the ultimate evil, but the thing she saves is nothing more or less than the status quo, with all its faults. That might just strike the right balance of "cool" to "demoralising" that GoT tends to strive for.

*Funnily enough, I did think very highly of the books once upon a time, and was exactly the sort of fan who praised their "realism" to high heavens. I was honestly shocked upon seeing the first few episodes of the show, because actually seeing and hearing the events in the first book instead of getting to picture them in my head forced me to realise that no, there was nothing particularly high-brow about them; the story really was mostly about tits and gore with some cleverness and decent characterisation added as an afterthought.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My concern is that the show will end with Daenerys arriving in Westeros, defeating the White Walkers, taking the Iron Throne, and... fade to black, with the audience expected to believe that she's somehow going to make the world a better place by sheer virtue of her awesomeness.

One of the things that became clearer in season 5 is how much the political/civil war storyline that's occupied most of the show is undermined by, and even at war with, the White Walkers/fight for humanity storyline that is building in the background. A lot of reviewers seem to think that the show is making a comment about the foolishness and shortsightedness of squabbling for power in the shadow of this existential threat (I've seen some comparisons to climate change), but that's only true if you assume that politics is a distraction from governing, not a means to it. I'm concerned that the show is headed for an ending where Daenerys and the White Walkers' arrival is used to justify sweeping away the existing (and, admittedly, disfunctional) political structure of Westeros under the excuse that now we are focusing on "real" problems. As Bady says, this is exactly the same ending as in The Lord of the Rings.

Adam Roberts said...

As ever this post is smart and insightful and hard to argue with. What interests me is less the violence meted out to the show's many characters (none of whom, after all, are real) so much as the tacit contract entered into between show and audience, or more specifically, what interests me is the way this contract has proved so staggeringly, globally successful. It is a punishing show to watch, in the sense that it goes out of its way to punish its fans. Pick a favourite character. Got one? Invest in him/her, tune in to follow their story: bam. Raped, tortured, dead. Over and over. The world is ghastly the people are almost all unbearable, every week brings fresh shocks and horrors and millions lap it up. I'm starting to wonder if this isn't precisely the GoT point. In the same way that thrillers demonstrate that people enjoy being scared, and body-horror demonstrate that people enjoy being grossed out and disturbed, this show demonstrates that people like being emotionally punished. It's not escapism, for who in their right minds would want to go to Westeros? (Compare, eg, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth). It's not a quasi-intellectual critique of monarchy, or patriarchy, or the middle ages or anything like that. It's just punishing. Why do so many of us buy into this? For what, exactly, are we presenting ourselves for punishment?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


The Sady Doyle article I link to in the essay tries to grapple with the question of why Game of Thrones is so popular, and like you she thinks that, whatever they might say, people enjoy the suffering that comes with watching the show. Her argument, though, is that this pleasure is political - that the show is validating a certain bloody-minded, survival-of-the-fittest worldview that resonates with our current political climate, in which the very idea of benevolent government, or of the people having a voice in their own governing, seems to be going out of style. (The Walking Dead, another show that subjects its viewers to nonstop misery, could also be read in the same way, and I suppose the fact that its popularity is rivaled only by Game of Thrones's gives credence to Doyle's argument.)

I don't know if I entirely buy Doyle's reading, though it is persuasive, but at least she is trying to grapple with what, as you say, is a very puzzling question. As I say in the essay, I watch the show to find out what happens next, and I'm not very invested in any of the characters. I find it hard to understand people who do feel that investment - at this point, what could they possibly be hoping, and watching, for?

Adam Roberts said...

"I find it hard to understand people who do feel that investment - at this point, what could they possibly be hoping, and watching, for?" -- my thesis is that such people are hoping and watching to be punished, emotionally. It sounds rather masochistic, I know; but then so do the pleasures of horror movies etc. when you look at it that way. I might find it easier to buy-into the ideological argument Doyle is making if I thought there were a coherent ideology in the show, right or left.

Anonymous said...

"I find it hard to understand people who do feel that investment - at this point, what could they possibly be hoping, and watching, for?"

I wonder if if something resembling the sunk cost fallacy is at play. A viewer invested in the Starks puts their money on Ned first of all. When he's out of play they have a choice and put their money on Rob. After Rob they double down and put their money on Jon Snow. At each step there is the option of 'stop watching this damn thing', but because they've started with an investment in the show, it's easier to transfer it even though cashing out is surely the rational decision.

I realise that the metaphor is less tortured and more beaten to death. But I have only just watched the episode and the trauma is probably still affecting my critical facilities some.

Lewis J. said...

A lot of people seem are really eager to claims the moral of Martin's series is "goodness is weakness." While it's true the good suffer in his stories (Eddard Stark, Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Tyrion, Oberyn, and John Snow), the bad suffer too. Consider the fates of the series' major villains.

Tywin Lannister: killed by his son.
Joffery Lannister: assassinated by his in-laws.
The Mountain: killed by the brother of his victim.
The Hound: killed by Lannister soldiers/Brienne (book & show differ).
Viserys Targaryen: murdered by Khal Drogo.
Khal Drogo: suffers an infected wound and killed by his wife.
Janos Slynt: executed by Jon Snow.
Theon Greyjoy: tortured and maimed by Ramsay Bolton.
Jamie Lannister: maimed.
Cersei Lannister: arrested, stripped of her office, brutalized, and publicly shamed.

It's pretty clear bad decisions come back to haunt all of Martin's characters. If Tywin had been a better father, he'd still be alive. If the Clegane's hadn't been such brutal thugs, they'd still be alive. If Cersei hadn't schemed against Margery, she'd still be regent. If Jamie hadn't boasted to the Bloody Mummers, he'd still be whole.

Martin's moral, if he has one, is that navigating the realm of politics, power, and conflict is extremely difficult and requires a careful blend of compassion and ruthlessness. Knowing which is what and when to employ them is the key to surviving and becoming a great ruler. It's clear that none of Martin's characters possess these qualities in the right balance, though some are closer than others, and maybe that's the point.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Martin's moral, if he has one, is that navigating the realm of politics, power, and conflict is extremely difficult and requires a careful blend of compassion and ruthlessness.

Can't say I see much sign of that moral in the show itself. Yes, characters who are cruel fall, but if I look at the characters and houses who haven't fallen, who are in fact thriving - the Boltons, the Freys, Petyr Baelish - I don't much signs of compassion, or even of being particularly careful. And the one house whose members do try to combine compassion with ruthlessness, the Tyrells, spent this season tumbling from power due to a combination of stupidity (Mace Tyrell not realizing that his mission to Braavos is a demotion that undermines his house) and the fanaticism of their enemies (Olenna being unable to free both of her heirs because both Cersei and the High Sparrow are willing to let King's Landing starve rather than compromise).

I think the show is clearly trying to make me believe that Daenerys has (or could one day possess) that fabled combination of compassion and ruthlessness, but as I say in my post and as the example of the Tyrells shows, that's just another cheat, another reminder that Daenerys doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else. When the Boltons skin their enemies, it's rightly treated as an indication that they are soulless monsters, but Daenerys has burned people alive, and yet I'm still supposed to think that she's a hero, and the just ruler we've been waiting for?

Unknown said...

I think GoTs main preoccupation is in the deconstruction of narrative, and while this finds its most obvious expression in it's oft commented on habit of using fantasy & general storytelling tropes to set up certain expectations in viewers minds then subverting them by instead showing what would "really" happen, I think what the show is really interested in exploring is the narratives the characters have about themselves, the world they live in and their place in it and how these narratives frequently lead to them to make poor decisions with disastrous consequences for themselves or others.

Ned Stark didn't die so much because he was too good but because he was too proud ('too honourable' as he'd tell it, but honour is just another word for pride) . He thought he was above the game of thrones, but it turns out the other players don't give a shit about how you're too honourable to play the game, when you're hand of the king you're in it if you like it or not.

I think most tragedies in the show can be attributed to some character or other operating on this some kind of faulty narrative, and the characters who have most success in the show tend to be those with fewest illusions about the world - Baelish, Roose Bolton, Varys, Tyrion, etc.

In the first novel, Syrio tells Arya "see what's really there" or "see with your eyes" or something like that, which she repeats to herself several times during her adventures. I think if Game of Thrones must have a morale or a message, it's probably something like that; see with your eyes, you're not in a story and the world owes you nothing but hard lessons.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think that's a fair reading, but like others, it bumps up against the show's two core problems: one, the fact that this point was made quited decisively two seasons ago and is now just being hammered in, and two, Daenerys, who totally is living the story in her head (in fact she's remaking the world to suit that story), and hasn't had much in the way of hard lessons since early S1. Even in this season, in which she failed spectacularly to be a good ruler, she literally got to fly away from her mistakes on a dragon.

I do agree that the characters who tend to triumph of the show are the ones who have a coolly rational assessment of both themselves and the world (I read an interesting discussion of Tywin once that argued that while he thinks of himself as such a person, he's clearly blinded by prejudice and megalomania, as evidenced most clearly in how he turns all of his children against him; compare him to Roose Bolton, who is no better a father, but knows how to manage his son like the asset that he is). But I doubt that either the show or Martin are willing to take that approach to its logical and very bleak conclusion, in which people like Baelish and the Boltons end up winning and ruling Westeros.

Anonymous said...

I think Martin's heading towards an even more morally bizarre ending; if Baelish and the Boltons triumphed, at least they'd have won "fair and square" in an awful system. However, in all probability Daenerys and a few other characters will win through simply because they have inherited the power to handle superweapons. The entire conflict over the Iron Throne was an unfortunate lapse from the rule of supermen and superwomen.

I wonder if Martin makes his characters so vengeful and nasty to make such an ending seem more just?

Unknown said...


a) Yeah, I never know quite what to make of Daenerys and her story. It feels tottally disconnted from the rest of the plot. Contrary to popular assumption, I don't think that Khalasar has good intentions towards her; based on the events of late season 1 and early season 2 the Dothraki as a whole do not count themselves members of her fan club. But it would be hard to call that a fair consequence of her failed rule in Meereen, because the encounter was a total coincidence and I agree she's had a more or less consequence free run through the show.

She does have one superpower that gives her an advantage over the other characters, though; she can listen to people and take advice. This is something none of the other power players have shown themselves to be capable of. Stannis tried it once, but decided he didn't like it. Daenerys, on the other hand, recognises her strategy in Meereen is failing, takes advice from the people around her and then tries to change her approach. This turns out to be too little too late, but it's more than anyone else on the show would be capable of. Is that enough to account for the differences in her story and the rest of the show? Perhaps not, but it's a point in its favour.

b) However, I do not agree that the triumph of the likes of the Boltons and Baelish is the logical end point of the show. History teaches us that while ruthlessness and megalomania may be effective strategies for short-term gain, long term serve only to make enemies. Intelligent self-interest on the part of the other lords would dictate that such people need to be eliminated as soon as possible, they're too dangerous to leave in place. So, I would be disappointed if that's the ending we end up getting because that would mean the fairly astute pseudo-historical political drama I thought I was watch was actually just revelling in it's own cynicism, Frank Miller style.

Lewis J. said...

"Can't say I see much sign of that moral in the show itself."

The show and the book diverged very significantly during the past season. In A Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons, Martin spends a great deal of time exploring the fallout from the Red Wedding than the show does. In the Riverlands, the Brotherhood without Banners is hunting down and murdering Frey and Lannister soldiers. They're also widely mistrusted in the Riverlands and the North, where several Frey family members are "disappeared" by Northern lords. The Boltons are also in shaky ground in Winterfell. Stannis recruits several tribes of Northmen to his cause before he marches on Winterfell and several of the Northern Lords in Winterfell are actively plotting against the Freys and want to restore the Starks as wardens of the North.

The Tyrells are also in a stronger position. Mace Tyrell is hand and his bannerman, Randall Tarly, is the master of laws. Margery is also in a better position. She's well-loved by the smallfolk in King's landing, who stage a mass protest after her arrest and it's implied that she'll be acquitted of her charges.

Daenerys is also much kinder in her handling of Meereen. She doesn't feed noblemen to her dragons and spends more time dealing with the institution of slavery, which the Sons of the Harpy are trying to re-impose on the city. Martin shows considerably more detail on the life of slaves in Slaver's Bay than the show does, illustrating the stakes if she fails.

"When the Boltons skin their enemies, it's rightly treated as an indication that they are soulless monsters, but Daenerys has burned people alive, and yet I'm still supposed to think that she's a hero, and the just ruler we've been waiting for?"

Does intent affect the morality of someone's actions? The Allies deliberately killed thousands of German and Japanese civilians during WWII, but their goal was to liberate Europe and Asia from tyranny. Do their actions make them monsters or did the ends justify the means? If Daenerys truly believed violence would cow the old masters and prevent them from re-imposing slavery on the city, should she have gone through with it? Most people would probably say "yes" because they believe that it's better to kill a few people than see thousands enslaved.

Using this same line of reasoning, we can easily see the Boltons are monsters because they skin people alive in order to bolster their tyrannical rule and/or for their own sadistic pleasure. No one, I think, would support those ends.

Sebastian said...


Got a question. I get that one of your reasons that kept you off the books was that it showed a crapsack world where everybody was shitty and nobody deserved to win the iron throne. I wonder though why you continue to watch the show, if sometimes is even more sadistic and graphic than the books. Is it the soap opera appeal? It's easier to stomach all this when it only takes away 10 hours of your time a year, when a book would demand more?

I also wonder...should we as an audience back away from a story when the characters are no deserving of the triumphs they aspire to? Should we stop caring about Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, for instance? Mind you, I'm not saying Game of Thrones is on a level with those guys respective shows, far be it from to even insinuate GOT can reach those heights. But I do wonder where you, theoretically, draw the line at not wanting to follow the pursuits of undeserving characters.

Foxessa said...

The punishment she receives says more about the sadism and judgmental glee of the people who force her to endure it than it does about Cersei . . . .

Starting with the novel, all of it t says more about all the writers, than it does about Cersei. Her character isn't organic, but constructed, according to their desires, wants and needs.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Does intent affect the morality of someone's actions?

I don't know, but method definitely does. My problem is less that Daenerys kills the masters. It's that she kills them by letting her dragons burn them to death. It's just as sadistic as Ramsay skinning people alive, and the fact that the show doesn't seem to want us to draw the parallel feels dishonest.


The main reason that I keep watching the show and didn't keep going with the books is that I enjoy watching the show. As annoying as I found the first book's crapsack world and lack of characters to root for, I probably would have enjoyed them if it had been better written and executed. Game of Thrones, the show, is well-written and well-executed, cutting through the bloat of Martin's writing, getting rid of some of his more annoying tropes (aging up the children and severely downplaying the direwolves really helps underct the sense I got from the first book, that Martin was writing really inappropriate YA), and delivering top-notch performances and production values. My problem with the fact that there was no one to root for in A Game of Thrones was less ethical and more aesthetic - it left me with nothing to enjoy.

But that doesn't really address your larger question - in fact it probably makes it more pressing - of whether the fact that we enjoy a story makes it OK to ignore its problematic aspects. I don't really have a problem with the fact that Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper are awful men, but I am troubled by the fact that so much of our best-regarded popular entertainment revolves around trying to understand such characters, when such understanding is rarely extended to antiheroes who are not middle class white men. In Game of Thrones's case, there is the obvious problem that as much as the show is an entertaining, well-made soap opera, it also relies for its effect on violence that is disproportionately directed towards women and the disenfranchised. To be honest, I don't have an answer to this question. I'm obviously part of the problem just by continuing to watch the show, and I don't know if my criticisms of it justify my doing so.


All characters are constructed, and in the case of Game of Thrones there's definitely cause to be suspicious of the female characters, who often seem written from the outside in, and from the perspective of not-very-perceptive men. But I think that Cersei is actually one of the exceptions. From day one the show has tried to make her complex, to explain if not justify her evil actions and bad choices, and to stress that a lot of her disfunction comes from the abuse of men who have treated her like a pawn and a plaything. There have, obviously, been missteps - most blatantly the rape last year - but I thought the scene in this episode did a good job of foregrounding Cersei's humanity and putting us on her side, not the side of her abusers.

There are certainly moments in the fifth season where female characters' actions felt driven by the male characters' wishes and desires (and probably the male writers' wishes and desires as well) - Gilly having sex with Sam hours after she was nearly raped; Myranda's torment of Sansa; most of all, Tyene Sand's ridiculous striptease for Bronn. But I don't think that Cersei in general, and her walk of shame in particular, are one of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm concerned that the show is headed for an ending where Daenerys and the White Walkers' arrival is used to justify sweeping away the existing (and, admittedly, disfunctional) political structure of Westeros under the excuse that now we are focusing on "real" problems. As Bady says, this is exactly the same ending as in The Lord of the Rings.

Well, for what it's worth, that doesn't sound like an ending that George RR Martin would write - from what I've read of his pre-ASOIAF novels and short stories, he likes downer endings and ongoing, all-but-unsolvable problems. I guess it's possible that the showrunners will slant the ending in the way you suggest - they are already hyping Daenerys more than GRRM ever did - but I think there is cause for some optimism that that, at least, will be avoided.

A lot of reviewers seem to think that the show is making a comment about the foolishness and shortsightedness of squabbling for power in the shadow of this existential threat (I've seen some comparisons to climate change), but that's only true if you assume that politics is a distraction from governing, not a means to it.

Which you consider to be a dangerous fallacy, yes, I know, I know. And I partly agree with you, because certainly the "we should put our differences aside and work together to make our country better!" crowd tends to blithely ignore the fact that people often disagree on just what is "better," exactly, and certainly on how it is best achieved. You mentioned climate change, and I have noticed that contrary to leftist stereotypes, plenty of right-wingers do believe it is a thing; they just also believe that the Free Market will deal with it best, if given the chance. I am highly skeptical to that notion, but it does demonstrate that two people can genuinely agree that a problem exists and want to do two mutually exclusive things about it.

On the other hand, the contempt for political bickering didn't spring out of a vacuum, either. A lot of the time, it really does look like the people at the top are less in disagreement about what should be done, and more in disagreement over who should get to sit in the big chair and not do very much of anything at all, because once you're in the big chair the status quo is per definition working out really well for you. So if GoT really does end with a bit of wish-fulfillment about someone coming along to make a bunch of high muckety-mucks stop their eternal posturing for five damn seconds and at least try to make good on their election promises (or their feudal obligations to protect and care for the commoners, in this case), I find it hard to object too much to that. It'd be nice if it happened; it never will; let people have their fantasy, if that's what they're getting.

But like I said, I find it hard to believe that that is, in fact, what we'll be getting.

pangloss said...

Just catching up here having finished season 5 yonks after everyone else. In a spirit of pure nihilism my approach to the end is to try t work out a scenario that defies conventional genre expectations up till now ( Jon Snow and Daenarys meet, miraculously fall in live and rule benevolently ) in favour of one that gives us some reader fulfilment (for Martin is not a total fool and conscious that the TV adapters have made his fortune) while expressing utter cynicism for the worthiness of rulers. So I expect something like Tyrion, our favourite and the despised dwarf, somehow comes to rule by some act of extreme evil justified pro bono publico but on a way that makes it plain he has this wrong - so something like raping Arya and Daenarys in a joint gang bang while eating Sansa roasted with a nice chablis. That should keep the ratings up :-)

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