Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Third Queen: Thoughts on the Seventh Season of Game of Thrones

Well, this season of Game of Thrones was pretty shit, wasn't it?  That comes as a bit of a surprise, to be honest.  For years, I've taken an attitude of fond indulgence towards the show.  What's wrong, after all, with watching a bunch of generally quite fine actors enact a complicated plot with stratospheric production values and the occasional fantastic action scene?  Sure, the show wasn't actually about anything, and its writers had blind spots on issues of race and gender that were often glaring.  But if you're able to put that aside, what's left is a genuinely enjoyable, well-made soap opera whose main appeal is the desire to know what happens next.  It hadn't occurred to me that this was a formula that could be screwed up, but at the end of the shortened (and yet seemingly endless) seventh season, there's really no escaping the conclusion: Game of Thrones may not be a good show, but there is a palpable difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones, and we've just been served a heaping helping of the latter.

What makes the whole thing particularly disappointing is that at the beginning of the season, I actually thought it had tremendous potential.  The season premiere, "Dragonstone", was to my mind the strongest such episode the show had ever fielded.  Unlike previous premieres, dutiful affairs carefully going about the business of establishing who is where before the proper business of the story can start, "Dragonstone" felt like a thesis statement for Game of Thrones's final chapter.  After six seasons in which the show seemed defined by its impulse to withhold--to deny us the character reunion, the shared, crucial bit of information, and most of all the opportunity for characters to act rather than being forced to react--this hour felt as if there was a fresh breeze running through it, with characters finally moving forward.  It's an episode hard at work to remind us how many different stories are happening on this show at the same time, full of conversations in which characters express their conflicting, and yet accurate, worldviews.  On the battlements of Winterfell, Sansa and Jon discuss the war to come.  She looks to the south, and the Lannister army, while he worries about the army of the dead.  They're both right.  At King's Landing, Cersei Lannister reminds her brother Jaime that their only hope of survival is to grasp power as brutally and completely as they can.  He counters that they have no dynasty to fight for, and that the country in dispute is about to be consumed by the business of surviving winter.  They're both right.  At the citadel in Old Town, Sam Tarly tries to convince the archmaester that a world-ending catastrophe is coming, only to be informed that there's always some catastrophe around the corner, and that civilization survives by continuing to attend to the minutiae of existence through them.  They're both right.  At the end of the hour, Game of Thrones feels like something very different from what it previously was, a story in which people make decisions and take actions, but in which no actor has possession of a complete picture of the world.

This is, obviously, not the show that we got.  There are hints of that story still in the season's second episode, "Stormborn", when Daenerys, after six seasons of existing outside the narrative constraints that have directed the lives of all the other characters, suddenly finds herself inextricably tied to her name and family history, and the horrific associations that everyone in Westeros has with them.  When the mere whisper of the name "Targaryen" can make Cersei--fresh off the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and with it much of King's Landing's civic and religious leadership--look like the safe, reasonable option, the rules have well and truly changed.  And yet they don't.  Far from being forced to finally reckon with her family's history and function as a player equal to all the others, Daenerys simply slips out of the narrative's grasp, just as she's always done.  And, just as it always has, this tendency paradoxically makes her storyline feel the most airless and least engaging on the show.

Only now it's the entire show that feels airless.  The entire show where actions have no consequences except the ones the writers need them to have, and where characters make decisions not because it's what a person in their situation would do, but because their token needs to be on a particular spot on the board for the next bit of story.  Why does Jon set off on a foolhardy, Rube Goldberg-esque quest to retrieve a wight from beyond the Wall?  Because that's how the writers are going to give the White Walkers the ability to destroy the Wall, which they otherwise would apparently not have been able to do, despite Jon's repeated warnings that their attack was imminent.  Why does he knock on Daenerys's bedroom door when doing so is politically unwise, contrary to the norms of his society, and seemingly uninvited?  Because the writers want a bit of dramatic irony when they make their revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not only nephew and aunt, but in direct competition for the Iron Throne.  Why has Bran concealed the truth about Jon's parentage all season?  Because the writers wanted him to reveal it to the one person who has information that proves Jon's legitimacy--information that Bran, despite being all-knowing, doesn't have until Sam prods him to look for it.

What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story.  They did a good job embroidering around the structure that George R.R. Martin provided them, and even embellishing from it when the time came to push the middle game forward.  But going into the endgame, they appear to have no real plan.  The result, as Aaron Bady writes, feels like a Game of Thrones cover band, throwing out fan favorites and acknowledging beloved memes--Gendry is still rowing!  R+L = J!  Tormund and Brienne!--without ever really having a sense of a story to tie them all together.  We all know where it's supposed to end up, but how we get there feels increasingly schematic.  (Since I've mentioned him, if you're not reading Aaron's, and Sarah Mesle's, reviews of Game of Thrones over at LARB, you're missing out on what is hands-down the best commentary on the show.)

But then, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is Benioff and Weiss's fault.  Without downplaying the failings of this season--the weirdly rushed pacing, the flights of irrationality and stupidity, the ravens that function like text messages--is it possible that there is no way to satisfactorily end this story?  That the traits we've identified as flaws, unintended consequences of a source material with no ending in sight--the withholding of resolution and forward momentum, the diffusion of the story into tangents and cul-de-sacs--are in fact the traits that define this story?  To go back to Aaron Bady, this is something he suggested a few years ago, when he argued that the series had reached not just its climax, but its natural ending point, with the Red Wedding, that quintessential denial of heroic tropes and storytelling conventions.  It's something I seem to have recognized in my dissatisfied review of the first book, when I pointed out that the story's heroic narratives, involving Daenerys and Jon, seemed to be in direct conflict of tone and intent with the more political, anti-heroic slant of the other characters' stories.  Is it possible that by trying to force a resolution to its story, Game of Thrones's writers are being untrue to what the show actually is?

Think of the fundamental questions that most fans will have gone into this season asking.  Who will Jon end up with, and does it matter that Daenerys is his aunt?  Will Jaime kill Cersei, or will Arya do it?  Will Brienne ride off into the sunset with Tormund or with Jaime (or neither)?  Who will end up on the Iron Throne?  They look like storytelling questions, but a closer look reveals that they're actually logistical ones.  That's a problem in a season that has thrown all basic logic and plausibility out the window, but it would still be a problem even if this season had been impeccably plotted, because the crucial difference between these two kinds of questions is that in the second type, you don't actually care what the answer is.  It's about how you get there, and that is what Game of Thrones has always been about--getting there, and the weird layovers, false starts, and distractions you encounter along the way.  Trying to tie it all up makes about as much sense as trying to put an end point on any soap opera, except that now we have the threat of ice zombies imposing an artificial end-point on the story.  Is it any wonder the result has been unsatisfying?

All of this has been a roundabout way of getting to talk about the only thing in Game of Thrones I actually care about: Sansa.  Sansa has been my favorite character since the second season, but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized why that is: because unlike everyone else on the show, Sansa doesn't know what she wants.  More importantly, what she wants changes dramatically according to her circumstances and level of understanding.  In the first season, Sansa wanted a fantasy, to marry a prince, become a queen, and rule beside him (this, to be clear, was a perfectly reasonable fantasy for someone of Sansa's class and background, and if the Baratheons weren't who they were it would probably have been a good life for her).  In the next four seasons, and in the wake of that fantasy turning into a horrific nightmare, Sansa's desires turned to survival and escape, and in the last season, they became about securing her safety and retaking her home.  Now ensconced as Lady of Winterfell, possessed of a reasonable amount of security, authority, and power, Sansa is faced with a dilemma that hardly anyone else on the show has had to struggle with: what comes next?  She can keep her head down and try to address immediate problems of changing weather and dwindling supplies, but then she might end up a minor player in world-changing events, or worse, swept away by any or all of the forces converging on her home.  She can aspire to total control and domination, but then she'd find herself in direct opposition not only to her family, but with characters whom the narrative has imbued with exactly the kind of reality-avoidant powers that she lacks.  Or she can dedicate herself single-mindedly to a particular, extraordinary goal, like Arya or Jon, but that would require skills that she has never developed.

The truth is, Sansa has no idea what she wants and what comes next for her, which makes her the quintessential Game of Thrones character--her story is all forward motion, with no end in sight--and the most exciting figure in the seventh season.  Nearly alone among the cast, she has no predefined role.  Her story in this season revolves around clearing the board of a leftover villain who should have been shuffled off three seasons ago, and while this is done with amazingly bad writing (I've tweeted about my issues with how this story weaponizes misogynistic complaints about Sansa and makes both her and us wade through them, but there's so much else to criticize there) it also leaves Sansa feeling more free, and more self-directed, than almost anyone else in the cast.  She could go anywhere and do anything.

To be clear, I don't expect Game of Thrones to realize this.  One need only look at the way Sansa and Arya's conflict in the latter half of this season--so understandable in principle, and so poorly executed in practice--is slanted towards a big heroic moment in which Sansa fools Littlefinger into presenting himself at his own trial and execution.  That moment is, quite frankly, ridiculous--it requires us not to think too hard about any of Sansa's decisions (why is she bringing up the murder of Lysa Arryn, when surely the fact that she vouched for Littlefinger immediately after it happened is a greater impediment to her than to him, certainly more so than the letter he left for Arya to find?), or Westerosi legal custom (how are Bran's visions admissible as evidence?  If they aren't, and Sansa's accusations are enough, why didn't she have Littlefinger tried ages ago?), or Littlefinger's own resources (remember when Brienne suggested that he might have soldiers loyal to him in the castle?  What happened with that?).  More importantly, just where the show should be delving into the psyche of one of the few people on it who still has the freedom to be a person, it pulls away, and leaves us wondering how Sansa and Arya could still have a relationship, much less each other's back, only days after Arya threatened to cut off Sansa's face.

But, just as she's always done, Sansa emerges from under the weight of crap the show throws at her a fully-realized, fully-human character.  And while I do not expect the show's final episodes to give her anywhere near the role she deserves, I do expect her to be interesting to watch, no matter what they do with her.  Sansa is our reminder that the real story of Game of Thrones is one that has no end, simply a long litany of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and truces.  Occasionally, the show tries to pretend that it is aware of the tragedy this represents for anyone who is not a member of the nobility, and through Daenerys, gesture at the possibility of a better world.  But since Daenerys's plan for "breaking the wheel" involves burning people alive, I decline to treat her, or the rest of the show's stabs at political relevance, with any seriousness.  Game of Thrones will never be a show about breaking the wheel of injustice and inequality.  It probably isn't going to be a show about the forces of life defeating the forces of death (and the forces of nihilism, as represented by Cersei).  But there is a third queen on this board, one who has no idea what her story is but is determined to keep living it.  She's the one I'm still watching for.

10 comments:

Skell said...

The only character I care now is Night King. The one who should reset that island for good.

milly gribben said...

At this point Sansa and Cersei are the only reasons I'm still invested, ironically they are the two women that the show doesn't seem to understand the value of because its so focused on its dull poster children.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Cersei definitely has the potential to act like a person rather than a plot token (there are hints of it in the season finale, when you're genuinely uncertain which way she'll fall on the question of whether to accept a truce, or whether to kill Jaime). But the problem with her is that her nihilism means that there are only so many choices she can believably make, and they're usually the least interesting ones.

But then perhaps that's the problem with the whole show. Each of the characters has such a limited number of moves available to them - Cersei is power-hungry, Arya recites her list, Tyrion is cynical - that with so few of them left, there are only a few possible ways to combine them into a story, and that ends up being quite predictable.

Retlawyen said...

I have become interested in Cersei again to pretty much the exact degree that she has become interested in herself again. Like, her being pregnant seems to have revived her hopes for a future, which is in conflict with her hopes to burn the world down.

I think that's just a thing for me. I like characters when I don't know which way they'll jump. Sansa torn between the cynicism that Littlefinger has taught her and the childhood upbringing of Stark-ness that Arya/the tombs awakens in her is more interesting than the version of her who watches with glee as she feeds a dude to dogs.

Maybe I'm just out of touch with the show's morality though. Like, when Danaerys has some dudes brought in and is like "I don't know which of you is behind the masked terrorists, so I'm burning one of you to death at random."...she lost my support. But the show didn't seem to act like that was a big deal. Or when Jaime raped his sister in the sept. They just kind of skated on by.

I dunno. I keep griping, but I keep watching.

Foxessa said...

[ " What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story. . . . " ]

Which, of course, neither has / had GRRM, from whence all the miseries of story telling, plotting and character rose in the first place. He just kept adding more and more stuff and more and more characters and locations. He should never have thrown in the zombies, since that messes with the 7 Kingdoms arc, without any real resolution, not with All Stuffs.

Unknown said...

I don't think I agree with you that Sansa doesn't know what she wants, or that she might go anywhere or do anything. My reading of the character, ever since her father died, has always been that Sansa will end up exactly where she is in Season 7-- as the Stark in Winterfell.

Over the course of the series, Sansa has learned a great deal about how the world works, and it would be a simplification to say that what Sansa wants power-- she's not power-hungry for it's own sake, like Cersei-- but she does want the power to make her own safety and security. She hasn't always known how to define that desire, or how to achieve it, but she finds it out in the process of trying, especially in Season 6 and 7 of the show, where she pits her own better judgment against the well-meaning but narrow-eyed decisions of Jon as King in the North. (Boy, don't get me started about the Northerners crowning Jon Snow, for no better reason than being a man and ostensibly being a good general, instead of crowning Sansa, who was the prime force pushing for the reconquering of Winterfell and the legitimate heir to boot).

I agree wholeheartedly with what you say, about Sansa being symbolic of how the everyday parade of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, seasons and years going past continually— and that’s why I don’t particularly think that Sansa will go anywhere else. Sansa is more self-directed and autonomous than she has ever been in the past, but everything in her character arc I see leads her only to where she is, where her southern political savviness combined with her northern honor make her the best person suited to ensure whatever stability and security it is possible to maintain during an apocalyptic conflict of good vs evil. What else would Sansa, where she is at the end of Season 7, even want to do? She’s no longer foolish enough to dream of a romantic marriage and a happily ever after to some lord, and having invested so much into surviving her abusers and retaking her home, she is clearly enjoying being the authority responsible for it. She doesn’t want adventure like Arya, nor is she invested in the supernatural conflict that preoccupies Jon and Bran. It fits with GRRM’s love of subversion as well— the girl who was the least Stark-like, who wanted nothing more than to go south and marry a prince and be a queen, will ultimately be the Stark in Winterfell— and I doubt she’ll ever marry, too.

Season 7 was riddled with bad writing, no doubt, and the Winterfell plot in particular was very poorly executed.(Either the Winterfell political scene needed to be a lot more complicated, which would allow you to make a rational plot out of the conflicting allegiances of the North and the Vale; or else it needed to be handled a lot quicker, with less time spent playing up the nonsensically melodramatic sibling rivalry). But despite the clumsiness of the execution, I do love it for vindicating my own preferences for Sansa’s endgame, as the Virgin Queen in the North.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Retlawyen:

I'm really not certain what I think about the pregnancy twist, to the extent that I really wonder whether it'll turn out that Cersei was lying. Certainly there doesn't seem to be enough time left in the show for Cersei to deliver a baby or even get much more pregnant.

(There's some fan speculation that Cersei will die in childbirth, thus completing the prophecy that she will be killed by "the little brother" - though I'm not sure that part of it is cannon on the show. It should go without saying that eliminating a powerful female villain like this is a genuinely awful idea, but also that I absolutely wouldn't be surprised by the writers deciding that it was actually clever and dramatic.)

As you say, it's really hard at this point to see a lot of daylight between Cersei and Daenerys. The argument the show is making is that Daenerys cares enough about other people not to use any means to achieve her ends - for example, not unleashing the dragons on King's Landing - and is able to set her goals aside in the face of an existential threat to her people. But it's hard to reconcile that with the woman who burns people alive even as she talks about "breaking the wheel". At this stage it feels as if the exigencies of the plot are determining both women's behavior rather than any well-defined personality.

Foxessa:

The zombies were there from day one, though, weren't they? Or at least enough hints as to make it seem that Martin always knew he wanted to introduce them.

And on paper, I can see how that seems like an interesting premise - a realpolitik story about people squabbling destructively over a throne none of them deserves, interrupted by a proper epic fantasy story about dragons and ice zombies. But neither Martin nor the show seem to know how to work the two together. Perhaps separating the two stories so completely was a mistake - now that they've been brought together for the show's endgame, the result feels like neither one thing nor the other.

Unknown:

My only problem with this proposed ending for Sansa is that, as much as no one likes to talk about this, Westeros is in a critical nobility shortage. With none of the other Stark siblings likely to have children (Jon, the one most likely to, is of course not a Stark), having Sansa stay single would spell the end of the line. That's something the show keeps ignoring - everyone in it is working tirelessly to secure a throne they can only hold for a generation.

On a show that was planning a little more effectively for the future, there would be a Stark bastard running around for Sansa to adopt and name as her heir. That would be a way of addressing one of the threads I've always been annoyed at the show for dropping, Catelyn's resentment of Jon. Since Sansa parallels Catelyn so strongly, it would be a way of redeeming that ancestral sin. But again, there doesn't seem to be much time for it now.

Foxessa said...

[ " The zombies were there from day one, though, weren't they? Or at least enough hints as to make it seem that Martin always knew he wanted to introduce them. " ]

They were present from the start, because GRRM needed something to have a Castle Black and The Wall. That was a nod to Steven Brust's successful fantasy series set in his Dragaera universe, as is so much GRRM stuffed into ASOIAF. If he didn't grab wholesale previously demonstrated successful Fantasy genre elements, he gave all the successful writers a nodding hommage at least.

I was on GEnie when GRRM was inquiring of both readers and writers what worked in Fantasy as he was in the process of planning a project he described as the biggest fattest Fantasy series ever, so I would appreciate all the help I can get. He hadn't written Fantasy himself. (Those were entertaining topics to read, as everyone from Tad Williams to you name them, weighed in.)

That was the foundational error. Instead writing what came to him organically he was consciously manufacturing an en$ured Big Fat Fanta$y $ucce$$. He succeeded in that, but he can't finish it because that is how he did it. And now HBO is finishing for him, so what fun is there left for him in this endless slog to finish?

The second foundational error to satisfactorily finish is that he's never been good at writing novels. He's a seat of the pants writer, and that doesn't work so well for good plotting. It worked for Tolkien because Tolkien wasn't under any deadline, and because Tolkien was in love with his underlying foundation of language, which initially was his purpose. Thus Tolkien consciously worked from the sagas and epics and fairy tales as models successfully because he also knew their languages from Old English to Old Norse. GRRM -- not. GRRM is more interesting in throwing together a hodge podge of elements pulled willy nilly out of history (without possessing a strong knowledge of the historical context) and calling that world building. But so much of his world building -- and the HBO series is even worse -- is as ludicrous as Tolkien's Minas Tirith sitting a city mountain in the middle of a plain with nothing going on around it -- though one might guess at some long ago date, mining? as 'minas' is mines in Portuguese and many places in Brasil are Minas something.

And then -- the zombies, which weren't part of the Big Fantasy Tropes at that time -- zombie fan obsession came about 6 - 7 years later -- but GRRM had always worked out of a horror imagination (thought -- his television work is close to it too) and zombies were a natural for him -- far more than dragons. But he and Robin Hobb got to be good friends, and dragons were what EVERYONE adored -- one couldn't go to a con without seeing posses wearing stuffed dragons on their shoulders, thanks to Anne McCaffrey, so dragons we got. But he's never shown any interest in animals at all -- so Dire Wolves don't get much either.

How it would ultimately have worked out in the books, nobody knows, but on the show, for Bran even Frank Herbert's Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach of Dune, shows up -- everywhere past and present -- future problematical because there are so many futures.

Real life is endlessly complicated. But books and television are not real life, and to make a satisfactory entertainment work, everything cannot be stuffed willy nilly into them. That's what makes a great writer, artist, etc. They know what to leave out, how to cut, how to sculpt, how to shape, how to pace. They know what has to be there and what shouldn't be. GRRM has never known any of this in novels -- though yes, he's known how to appeal to a certain kind of reader. I confess to not being that kind of reader. Heck, I never have, and never will, have an iota of interest in zombies!

Z said...

There's probably a point to be found in this story, ostensibly drafted as an exercise in antithesis, growing so wholly conventional. There was obviously an intent to go full anti-Tolkein, hoisting notions of Good Kings on their own petards of realpolitik, and briefly (somewhere in the first season) there was some genuine tension about whether the nobility was an environment that fundamentally selected against humane people, or whether they had advantages that might prevail. They answered that question so resolutely, with so much slaughter of good guys, that it just turned into grimdark torture porn, and now, within hailing distance of a conclusion, apparently the only model they have for winding up the action is to turn it back into a story about Good Kings (or Queens), complete with a gloss over the notion that being good and being an absolute monarch might be conflicting characteristics. We might have had some interesting drama exploring that Cersei, despite being a nutcase, might actually have enough vision to participate in a ceasefire, with the inevitable compromises and machinations that might contain, or that, in destroying a temple full of torturing zealots, she might have done the kingdom a favor- but no, she's just 100% turncoat. Arya's behavior towards Sansa was deeply unjustified, but it played better as genuine unhinging than it did as game to ensnare Littefinger. As it stands, the largest military force in Westeros is under the command of two justifiable claimants to the Iron Throne, who love each other, have an established hierarchical relationship if push comes to shove, and are taking on an enemy force that can be killed without hesitation because they have no souls. It's Aragorn and Arwen to the finish line.

And can someone explain to me how, in only seven episodes, I still got a feeling of filler? Didn't we used to get 24 episode seasons of genre television, where something discrete and worthwhile happened in each one?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Z:

I actually ended up commenting to someone, shortly before the season started, that the supposed rejection of heroic norms that this story became known for ends up coming full circle. The Lannisters repeatedly violate norms in the belief that doing so makes them stronger - Cersei rejecting Ned's offer of mercy in favor of a power play, Tywin convincing the Freys to break hospitality, Joffrey rescinding his offer to spare Ned's life - and for a time, it does. But then the foundation they'd so crucially undermined crumbles under their feet, and the very erosion of norms they'd championed ends up costing them dearly. Meanwhile, the Starks survive precisely because they remain loyal and generous.

It's not a bad lesson, to be honest. The idea that norms exist for a reason, and that we need them in order to have a functional society is actually a lot more mature and sophisticated than the nihilism of the Red Wedding and the seasons surrounding it. But as you say, the execution of that idea in S7 is trite and clearly slanted towards a predetermined ending that the writers don't know quite how to earn. Daenerys clearly isn't the good queen we keep being told she is; Jon is still an idiot; Sansa and Arya's conflict is unearned and makes no sense no matter how you choose to read it; and Cersei has the opportunity to start acting like a canny ruler but instead continues to behave like a stock villain, elevated only by Headey's performance.

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