Thursday, May 19, 2016
Game of Thrones 6:04 Book of the Stranger
And it’s another week of mayhem in the Seven Kingdoms, and we’ve written almost as much as GRRM would this week, so without further ado, I will get my trusty cohort, Christopher Lockett, to begin!!
Christopher: While there have been a handful of gasp-worthy and/or fist-pumping moments in the first three episodes, the consensus thus far on the interwebs seems to have been that this season started slowly. More than a few reviews I’ve read have been chomping at the bit for some of Game of Thrones’ patented operatic moments.
Well, now we know. The last three episodes have been building to this one.
Or not entirely. But mostly. Or at least, that’s how it felt watching this episode.
Am I not making sense? That might be because I’m writing this mere moments after watching that final, climactic scene. Let me take a deep breath and focus.
I had a couple of friends over to watch tonight’s episode, and we were speculating about what might transpire based on the trailer, which suggested strongly that Brienne and Sansa would arrive this week at Castle Black. As we’ll recall, last week’s episode ended with Jon Snow handing over the mantle of Lord Commander to Edd Tollett, saying “My watch has ended,” and seeming to walk out through the main gates. Did that mean he has departed? Would Sansa come looking for sanctuary from her half-brother, only to find he had deserted? It was, we decided, precisely the kind of thing Game of Thrones would throw at us.
With that in mind, the first shot had me confused: Jon’s sword Longclaw, given to him by his predecessor Jeor Mormont, sitting in the foreground. It is picked up by Edd Tollett. My first thought was that Jon had been wearing the sword as he seemed to leave Castle Black, but seeing Edd holding the sword made me wonder for just a second whether Jon had left it with Edd as part of the Lord Commander’s outfit. But no—a moment later we see Jon, and Edd grills him about what he means to do, and where he means to go. Jon’s answer is at once glib and heartfelt—he means to go south, so he can get warm again—but Edd is having none of it. He reminds him about Hardhome, saying, “You know what’s out there. You know what’s coming here. How can you leave us now?”
It’s a powerful question, as it goes right to the heart of Jon’s reasoning behind the very actions that got him murdered, that is, granting passage south of the Wall for the wildlings. Everything he did in the final episodes of last season was in the name of drawing a line between whom he saw as the true combatants in the wars to come: between the living and the dead.
It strikes me that this episode is very much about the drawing of battle lines. Later we see an uneasy truce between Cersei and Olenna, drawing a line between their houses and the High Sparrow; Theon pledges himself to his sister in her bid for the Iron Islands’ throne; and the spectacular ending of this episode is essentially Daenerys drawing a line between herself and the world.
Jon Snow, by contrast, is initially reluctant to re-enter the fray. When Edd asks him, “How can you leave us now?” Jon reminds him that he was murdered by his brothers. “You want me to stay here after that?” he demands, but once again Castle Black offers up a very timely knock at the door—though instead of a furious giant this time, it is a horn announcing the arrival of visitors, as my and my friends’ dour speculations are very happily proven wrong. For Brienne and Sansa (and Pod, of course) have arrived, and they ride into Castle Black’s courtyard to stares of consternation—some, we assume, directed at Sansa, but most at the tall and imposing figure of Brienne. Tormund in particular seems quite gobsmacked, something that will be played to comic effect later in the episode.
Like a cracker given to a starving man, the scene of Jon and Sansa’s reunion is overwhelming. Game of Thrones consistently offers action, thrills, triumph, and not a little bit of humour mixed in with what is more often than not an onerous and cripplingly dire set of circumstances. Tyrion and Varys’ banter leavens the mix; Brienne riding to the rescue makes us cheer; and sometimes there are dragons, and sometimes Joffrey dies. But there are precious few moments of genuine love and joy: the moment of recognition when Sansa looks up to see Jon, and their subsequent desperate embrace, was a balm to the soul of this show that, at this point, I didn’t realize it needed—so inured was I to the bleakness. And full credit to the actors: Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington so inhabit Sansa and Jon now, that their reunion is genuinely a thing of joy on the screen.
But to return to Edd’s question: “How can you leave us now?” he asks, and Sansa is, if not the answer, certainly an answer. “Where will you go?” she asks Jon, and he corrects her, “Where will we go?” They are family, they are reunited, and the argument that ensues—in which Jon professes his battle fatigue and unwillingness to fight any more—is understandable but perhaps somewhat disingenuous in the circumstances. We can certainly empathize with Jon’s fatigue, but Sansa—who, incidentally, in spite of not dying, arguably suffered far more than Jon—sees things more pragmatically. She tells him that Winterfell is their only home, and that she will take it with or without him, but the gist of what she says is plain: there simply is no way forward without fighting.
And as we sense battle lines being drawn, we begin to see factions emerging. Melissandre, we are utterly unsurprised to learn, will follow wherever Jon Snow goes. As will Davos, probably, but he has some questions he wants answered. What happened to Stannis? It seems odd that he has waited this long to ask her, but then perhaps her prior moping precluded such discussions. What happened to Stannis? He was defeated, she replies. What happened to Shireen? he then demands, a somewhat trickier question for her to answer … and she receives the mixed blessing of an interruption from Brienne. “I saw what happened,” she says, in a little moment of misdirection, as what she has to say is about Stannis and the battle, and not Shireen. But really, Brienne is there to say that she served in Renly’s Kingsguard and saw him killed at the hands of “blood magic.”
Uncomfortable silence. “That’s … in the past now,” says Davos. “Doesn’t mean I forget,” Brienne replies. “Or forgive.”
BRIENNE: He admitted it, you know.
DAVOS: Who did?
BRIENNE: Stannis. Just before I executed him.
Brienne turns and walks away, and in my notes I wrote MIC DROP. Battle lines are being drawn, but on this front we’re looking at some strange bedfellows. Jon and Sansa are now together one way or another, but Brienne, sworn to Sansa, has more or less thrown down the gauntlet to Melissandre, who will walk into fire for Jon (perhaps literally). I suspect we will see some tension in this northern alliance down the road.
But then we turn to the Vale and—finally!—the return of everyone’s favourite sleaze, Littlefinger. Were you happy to see Mayor Carcetti again, Nikki?
Nikki: Ha! I loved your opening because I thought Jon had walked out on Castle Black, too, and was confused about that opening. It’s like having a huge argument with a boyfriend and going, “That’s IT! I am OUT OF HERE!!” and slamming the door and leaving the house dramatically... only to realize you left your shoes, coat, and car keys inside. And for a second I thought, Did Jon just storm out of the place and then go, “Oh crap, forgot me clothes” and have to sneak back? It was definitely a bit of misdirection at the end of last week’s ep. I also thought it was very strange when Davos asked after Stannis and Shireen. Wha?! How is it bloody possible that the ravens deliver news of everything from imprisonments to the latest euchre results in King’s Landing and yet he hasn’t yet heard what happened to Stannis and Shireen? What the hell did he think Melisandre was all mopey about? It seemed a bit of a blunder on the part of the writers.
And now over to Brave Sir Robin, the sweet little inbred imbecile who runs the Vale. Throughout his scenes I was thinking he reminded me of someone. And then, dear readers, our Christopher went and posted something on Facebook that had me HOWLING with laughter, and 100% nailed exactly whom I’d been thinking about:
Anyway, Lord Baelish is back and showing that just as Tywin stepped in, put his arm around Tommen and immediately began teaching him how to be a king, Littlefinger has shown up, handed Brave Sir Robin a falcon, and won him over. On a whim I googled, “Falcon symbolism,” and got this back: “In Christian symbolism, the wild falcon represents the unconverted, materialistic soul and its sinful thoughts and deeds. The tamed bird symbolizes the Christian convert pursuing his lofty thoughts, hopes, and aspirations with courage.”
And from what we know of Brave Sir Robin and Littlefinger, they would definitely fall under the second category.
So! A wild falcon, then. Ahem.
Littlefinger’s arrival interrupts an archery lesson Robin is having with Lord Royce, where Robin is showing some keen marksmanship... if his target had actually been the ant in the grass about three feet in front of him. If so? NAILED IT. As Baelish begins immediately manipulating the stupid creature, Royce instantly gleans what is happening. He wants to know where Sansa is, and Baelish plays dumb, saying they’d been attacked on their way by Bolton’s people and no matter what he did, Littlefinger simply couldn’t stop it. Royce immediately adopts a “Dude, I’m not Sir Robin so you can cut the bullshit” look on his face and tells him that sounds about as plausible as Brave Sir Robin being a Rhodes scholar, but Baelish doesn’t back down.
He says actually, only one person knew exactly where they were going, and that was Lord Royce. Then he stands back and twirls his evil villain mustache while a couple of neurons spark in Sir Robin’s head, and a dim lightbulb switches on (before immediately cutting out again) registering with Robin, “Waaaaitaminute, you is traitor?!” and Baelish helps the poor creature out a bit more, and says, “My goodness, Robin, what shall we do with someone like this?” Robin, whose maturity hasn’t inched forward one iota since his mom was still breastfeeding him (which, granted, was when he was like 17 or something, but anyway...), repeats the same mantra he did back then: “Shall we throw him through the moon door?”
Despite the underlying hilarity of the scene, it’s actually quite serious and ominous. Baelish can’t control the Lannisters or the Starks, so he’s come at this a different way. Make Brave Sir Robin an orphan, and then control the poor idiot boy and essentially take the Vale. Meanwhile you see the look on Royce’s face, where he realizes his life of fidelity to the Arryns will end in betrayal. But that would be too easy for Baelish, so instead he says to Robin that if they could trust Royce’s loyalty, he would make a capable commander, and maybe they should give him a second chance. Robin agrees.
Baelish is officially ruling the Vale now. Surmising that Sansa is heading to Castle Black, he declares, “Gather the knights of the Vale — the time has come to join the fray!”
Meanwhile, over in Slaver’s Bay, Tyrion is negotiating with the slavers, something that has made Grey Worm and Missandei very uneasy. The slavers want their old lives back, and they explain Daenerys is no different than they are; she’s simply the new master of Meereen, and slavery will never end. Tyrion lobs back that he’s not here to change the world, but that, interestingly, there haven’t been slaves in Westeros for hundreds of years. So he comes up with his compromise: slavery will cease effective immediately in Meereen, but will be allowed to carry on for seven more years as they gradually end the practice in other areas. The slaveholders will be compensated, and need to cut off ties with the Sons of the Harpy.
Grey Worm and Missandei are saddened by the turn of events, but when challenged by the former slaves in the Hall, Grey Worm simply says he wants peace, and Missandei quotes Tyrion: “A wise man once said, ‘We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.’” Tyrion smiles to think they both have his back, but as they walk away from the slaves, they tell him what they really think: that seven years might not seem like a long time to him, but it’s an eternity to a person in chains. Grey Worm explains, “When they look at me, they see a weapon. They look at her, they see a whore.” Tyrion counters, “They look at me and they see a misshapen little beast. Their contempt is their weakness.” Tyrion is confident that once again, his intelligence will get them through this. But Missandei and Grey Worm have been enslaved their entire lives, and they see it very differently. Tyrion thinks he has the upper hand, but Grey Worm warns him, “You will not use them: they will use you.” Tyrion was able to use his knowledge to trick his own family and throw all of King’s Landing into turmoil, but that’s because he understood the politics of the Lannisters. This is a very different situation altogether.
And then it’s off to Jorah and Daario, who actually seemed like a more entertaining duo this week. What did you think of their discussion in the hills overlooking Vaes Dothrak, Chris?
Christopher: I think the most telling line in this scene is Daario’s resigned, “We’ll all disappoint her before long.” I found his fairly constant needling of Jorah about his age revealing; he doesn’t want to fight him, because he loses either way, either the guy who kills an old man or is killed by one; and he taunts Jorah over the fact that he has slept with Daenerys, suggesting that, however much Jorah loves and desires her, that the sheer exertion of her carnal attentions would likely overwhelm him. “It was hard enough for me,” he says, “and I’m a young man.” There has always been a rivalry between these two men, but Daario’s need to taunt Jorah, to constantly point out the disparity in their age, and to remind him that he’s known Daenerys’ bed, gives the lie to his cockiness—and shows the pathos of a man who loves a woman he knows has limited use for him. It’s less a matter that he’ll disappoint her than that she’ll ultimately need something far greater than he can offer.
His macho braggadocio thus comes across as somewhat pathetic, and when the time comes to surrender his weapons, the knife hilt carved in the shape of a wanton, naked woman has an adolescent quality to it. I cannot remember now if we’ve seen that dagger hilt before so clearly, or if such attention has been drawn to it. Certainly, the Daario of the novels frequently has his sword hilts described, but there they are very much of a piece with a character who is far more flamboyant, dangerous, and mercurial. Michael Huisman’s Daario retains elements of the novel Daario’s audacity and recklessness, but is ultimately more muted, and actually rather more nuanced.
We also have a moment in which Daario sees Jorah’s greyscale, which I thought was handled with a deft hand—very few words, and the expression on Huisman’s face was a lovely, subtle recognition of the fact that his cracks about Jorah’s age were perhaps a bit close to the bone, as the older man’s days were numbered.
I wonder, too, if they’re making Jorah more vulnerable and fragile as a function of his affliction: we open the scene with him panting and wheezing, only keeping up to Daario with difficulty; and in his fight with the Dothraki, at no point does he have the upper hand, ultimately needing rescue from Daario and the dagger he decided to bring after all.
Adding insult to injury (for Jorah, at least), is the fact that their “rescue” of their queen was, if not strictly unnecessary, was at least redundant, as once again Daenerys demonstrates her own ingenuity. I don’t want to steal your thunder, Nikki, as you’ll be playing us out this post with your discussion of the final scene, but I do want to raise one of the show’s more problematic issues, which starts to show itself in the Dosh Khaleen scene: namely, its racial politics. Sitting with the other widows, Daenerys listens to the elder who had been so stern with her on her arrival, now speaking in more conciliatory and friendly tones, trying to make her feel welcome by dismissing the belief of some that Dothraki should only marry Dothraki. She suggests a sort of melting pot view of their history, though hardly in utopian or even positive terms. She introduces her to a Lhazareen girl who survived the slaughter of her village only to be taken by a khal at twelve, who then a year later gave birth and was beaten for the sin of having a girl. Moments later, Daenerys finds out the girl was widowed at sixteen—not soon enough, Daenerys observes, eliciting a sad laugh from her.
In contrast, the elder tells her, the widows of the Dosh Khaleen have a better and more meaningful life than many, as their wisdom is valued. Here, we might surmise, is where Daenerys has the first stirrings of her plan: acknowledging that their lot is better than most, but with the unspoken sentiment that (a) their lot is still pretty dire, as they are literally prisoners to a patriarchal tradition, and (b) that this speaks to the brutal injustice experienced by the vast majority. “That is more than most have,” Daenerys agrees with the elder, though the word she elides in this sentence is “women.” The Dosh Khaleen are afforded respect and something resembling a comfortable life, but only within very strict parameters, and only as the widows of powerful men, and only in the service of powerful men. Daenerys is a revolutionary: as she said last season, she wants to “break the wheel,” to destroy the set of assumptions and practices on which life in the Dosh Khaleen can be seen as an honour and privilege.
In this, her motivations are admirable. But here also is where it gets somewhat cringe-worthy, in that she steps into the all-too-familiar role of the white saviour: the hero who not only liberates people of colour from their chains, but also from their ignorance, who tells them that there is another way to live because they cannot be expected to arrive at such thoughts on their own. The story told by the Lhazareen girl reminds Daenerys of her revolutionary instincts, but also serves to characterize the khals as essentially bestial and savage, the better to prime us for Daenerys’ fiery retribution in the end.
There is a degree to which both the novels and the series work to undermine this mythos, by having Daenerys play the role of the white saviour with lofty ideals and high-handed tactics only to become mired in the practical imperatives of ruling in the aftermath of her conquests, in which arrogance and ignorance of local nuances prove pernicious. But this episode feels a little like the showrunners are hitting the reset button: while Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei struggle to deal with the mess that is Meereen, Daenerys gets to start over with a new mass of non-white people in yet another spectacular display. The apt analogy of the moment would be to say that she campaigns brilliantly, but is utterly unsuited to ruling.
I think that in some ways, Game of Thrones—both the novels and the series—has become something of a victim of its own success. When he started writing the novels, GRRM was actually doing a number of innovative and progressive things in the context of the fantasy genre, which by the late 1980s had become somewhat moribund and regressive. A Song of Ice and Fire introduced a far more nuanced conception of power and politics into a genre that, as I commented in a previous post, tended to equate virtue with birthright and depict monarchy as a perfectly fine system provided the right arse is on the throne. Further to that, he broke down a lot of the genre’s clichés, and peppered the voluminous character roster with complex, strong, three-dimensional female characters. If the books had been merely successful, their more regressive tendencies would not, perhaps, have rankled quite so much. But in becoming an international phenomenon—coupled with the fact that the television show’s visuals make the racial dynamic that much starker—these elements become inescapable.
I’ll throw that particular ball high in the air for you to dunk, Nikki, when you deal with the episode’s final scene. For the time being, what did you make of the King’s Landing scenes this week?
Nikki: You commented last week on how beautifully the High Sparrow’s dialogue is always written, and this week was no exception. Margaery is taken before him, where she sits at his feet as he tells her the story (which may be true, may be a parable, it’s never clear with him) of how he had once been a shoemaker, creating the most beautiful pairs of shoes for the highborn. He explains that people are always in pursuit of finery, money, and power — and that by saying she wants to see her brother and family, she’s pursuing exactly those things — but the real precious commodity each of us has is time. And it took so much time to make a single pair of shoes, and then the highborn wore his time on their feet. They wore someone else’s time on their backs, drank the wine of another’s time. It’s a beautiful conceit, and beautifully told, and one that makes you seriously think about what your time is worth, and is anyone taking advantage of it? And then he tells her how he had wine and pretty girls, and one night was with friends at a rather bacchanalian gathering, where they all ended up naked and drunk, lying amongst one another, next to the fine clothes that represented the time and hardship of someone else. And in that moment, he saw all of them naked, and realized without our clothes, without our fine shoes and robes, without the time of others that we wear, we are no different than they are. And with that he turned and walked out of the place, barefoot, and has remained so ever since.
He took on the mantle of the beggar, realizing that beggars are closer to the truth than he was. And with that, he offers his hand to Margaery and says he will take her to see Loras. She has listened to his story, interjecting only once to demonstrate an understanding of the stories the High Sparrow and his followers believe (and then explaining that it’s because Septa Unella likes to read them at her), but when he proffers his hand, she looks at it with astonishment. For all the ways she thought the story was going to end, finally going to see Loras — the pinnacle of decadence and depravity, as far as the Sparrows are concerned — was not one of them.
Not surprisingly, Loras is broken, an empty shell that has been no doubt mistreated and tortured, his immorality questioned and dissected for weeks, his very character degraded over and over again. If Margaery had to put up with Septa Unella reading at her, one can only imagine what Unella did to Loras, what she said to him, told him. In many scenes with Cersei and Margaery, the Sparrows have said they should be ashamed of themselves chiefly for caring about Loras.
And by the looks of it, it’s worked. Margaery remains strong and determined to cut down this new obstacle, but Loras has nothing left. He begs her to just give in to them, make it all stop, just let them win, take what they want, and let him go. She reasons with him and tells him that he’s the future of the family, and he says no, he just wants it to stop. As she embraces her brother — the only person for whom I believe she has ever felt even a modicum of fondness — there’s a look on her face much like the one Melisandre has been wearing all season long. Maybe she’s been going about this all wrong, and protecting Loras to help further her own cause, when in fact, if proving that she no longer has any fidelity to Loras will help her position with the High Sparrow...
Meanwhile, Pycelle continues to not die, which is surprising in itself (I swear he will outlive everyone on this show) and is attempting to windbaggingly advise Tommen. As usual, he gets caught talking about Cersei just as Cersei enters the room, and she tells him to leave. He takes three years to finally get out of there, and then Cersei turns to her last remaining child, who tells her that they must be careful around the High Sparrow and confesses that he’s spoken to him, and that he told her something. He asks if she even likes Margaery, and Cersei tells the truth: that it doesn’t matter whether or not she likes Margaery, all that matters is getting rid of this infestation that she herself brought to King’s Landing. As the mournful cello sounds of “The Rains of Castamere” begin to sound, Cersei tells him that whatever the High Sparrow told him, he can tell her: “I am your mother — you can always trust me.”
Cut to Cersei marching into the Small Council, where Olenna rolls her eyes as only Olenna can do, where she has finally figured out the card she needs to play to win over the head of House Tyrell: Margaery. She tells them all that while they might have been rather thrilled by Cersei’s own Walk of Atonement, Margaery is set to do the same, and they are scheduling the walk to happen immediately. And like that, Olenna forgets how much she despises Cersei and the Lannisters and says NO, she will not. She orders the Tyrell army to King’s Landing, and will join forces with the king. Ser Kevan (Cersei’s uncle, Tywin’s brother, for those keeping score at home), says the Kingsguard cannot be seen entering the fray with the Sparrows, and Cersei, like she just did with Olenna, appeals to his own filial ties. “Don’t you want to save Lancel?” she asks (Lancel being his son, Cersei’s cousin that she was sleeping with in season one — as one does in this family — and the one who administered the wine who killed Robert Baratheon... and now one of the High Sparrow’s chief Sparrows). She explains that the king can’t do anything against the Sparrows, but he can do nothing. He can let the Tyrell army overrun King’s Landing and take out the Sparrows. As she speaks and Kevan listens and Olenna agrees to support her, the strains of “The Rains of Castamere” get louder and louder, until it’s almost overpowering the scene. Once again, Cersei proves she won’t stay down for long.
And speaking of families coming together to find strength, Theon has made his way back to the Iron Islands and to his sister. What did you think of the scenes in Pyke this week, Chris?
Christopher: This episode was a whole lot of brothers and sisters, wasn’t it? Jon and Sansa, Margaery and Loras, and then Theon and Yara—three very, very different reunions, to be sure, but a persistent enough motif that it puts family at the heart of the story.
The Pyke scene wasn’t much in itself, beyond being a setup for what is to come—namely, the Kingsmoot at which the Ironborn elect their king (which is a very progressive political system for a society whose economy seems largely based on looting and pillaging). But I appreciated the way it worked thematically with the other two scenes that come before our return to Daenerys. All that really happens here is Theon apologizing, Yara telling him to stop apologizing, Theon crying, Yara telling him to stop crying, Yara being suspicious of Theon’s motives and the serendipity of his return on the eve of the Kingsmoot, and Theon finally pledging himself to her cause. But the callback in this scene to Yara’s failed rescue attempt—which failed because Theon was too broken to go with her—and all that Theon suffered at Ramsay’s hands gives a thematic bridge into the next scene, at Winterfell.
From the moment we saw Osha and Rickon unhooded last week, we knew their lives were about to get really shitty really quickly. My stomach sank when I saw Osha ushered into Ramsay’s presence; to be honest, my stomach sinks whenever Ramsay’s on screen, but the dread he evokes is vastly worse when he’s in the company of a sympathetic character.
The scene begins well for Osha, as she actually seems to give Ramsay momentary pause:
RAMSAY: You’ve seen my banners?
OSHA: The flayed man.
RAMSAY: Does that worry you at all?
OSHA: Do you eat them after?
RAMSAY: [pause] No.
OSHA: Then I’ve seen worse.
Both of them are putting on a show here: Ramsay mentions his banners as he peels an apple, a bit of business meant to be intimidatingly suggestive. Osha’s no fool and most likely sees through it, but she makes a mistake in thinking she has the upper hand. Ramsay puts down the knife and the apple. Is the knife a deliberate temptation for Osha? One way or another, her eyes briefly flit to it before she begins her attempt to seduce Ramsay.
OSHA: I can give you what you want.
RAMSAY: And you’re sure you know what that is?
OSHA: Same thing men always want.
Oh, Osha. You should have listened more carefully to the rumours about this monster.
The way these scenes are linked provides a subtle and cruel irony. We have just come from hearing Theon talk about Ramsay’s torments; we know Osha is willing to strategically seduce men, because we have seen her do it before—with Theon, as a means of distracting him so that she, Bran, Rickon, and Hodor could escape. Theon was an easy mark back then, easier than most because of his preening vanity. But Ramsay, as we know all too well by now, is not so simple. He has set a trap: he knows that Osha was instrumental in Bran and Rickon’s escape and that her pretense of self-interested cynicism is a façade, precisely because he broke Theon and learned these details from him.
And with that, Osha joins the ranks of GoT’s butcher’s bill—a mercy, in some respects, as a quick death under the Bolton roof is preferable to the alternatives (in my notes, I’ve written “Tonks had to die AGAIN?”). It was still shocking and had the same feel as the Sand Snakes’ murder of Doran and Areoh—that is, that the writers are seeking to cull the flock somewhat.
At the same time, Ramsay’s casual brutality and his mention of his banners links to the episode’s penultimate scene, as we see the Bolton sigil on the back of a messenger arriving at Castle Black under a flag of parley—an ominous sign, though before the message is received we are granted a few moments of levity. Sansa and Brienne appear mildly unimpressed (which is to say, revolted) by the food before them and the table manners of the wildlings and Night’s Watch, but make a herculean effort to be polite. This effort is not made easier for Brienne by the scrutiny of Tormund, who if we remember was visibly gobsmacked at the sight of her in the episode’s opening moments.
If this episode provided a close-to-tears moment with the reunion of Jon and Sansa, it also provided my biggest belly laugh of the season so far with the image of Tormund the Giantsbane making googly-eyes at Brienne of Tarth. I’m not the only one to think so, as GoT fandom has already started ‘shipping these two, speculating about whether they’ll get together and make huge babies.
Of course Tormund would be rapt at the sight of Brienne. All of her qualities that make her undesirable among genteel Westerosi—her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear.
I do so hope we have a scene of Brienne handing his ass to him in the training yard, and him falling ever more deeply in love because of it.
Our moment of levity is broken however by the arrival of Ramsay’s letter to Jon Snow, and it is just as awful as we all assumed it would be. Its tone is taunting and arrogant, but is also literally apocalyptic. The refrain “come and see” is a direct allusion to Revelations 6:1-8 in the King James Bible, in which the four seals are opened and St. John the Divine sees the four horsemen of the apocalypse emerge:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see.
And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
Whatever Jon Snow’s reluctance prior to receiving Ramsay’s missive, he is now committed to the fight—not least because Ramsay’s arrogation of the titles of Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North to himself.
As I said before, this is an episode of battle lines. Before you get into the episode’s final scene, Nikki, what did you think of this moment at Castle Black?
Nikki: First, this — her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear — might be my favourite thing you have ever written.
The scene of Thormund looking at Brienne like she was a juicy steak after years of porridge was hysterical, made better only by the WTF look on Brienne’s face the entire time. She looked like she’d just smelled a bad smell (and considering the conditions at Castle Black and the fact these are all a bunch of bachelors with no actual showering area, that could very well be the case) but I was instantly shipping them in my head, too. Brimund? Thorienne? THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Mostly just so we can watch her utterly dominate him to the point where he has little Looney Tune pink hearts in his eyes.
And now back to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys is about to stand trial and they’ll decide what to do with her. They keep saying the best-case scenario would be for her to live out her days with the other khaleesis in the temple, and haven’t exactly articulated the worst-case scenario: until now.
And then it’s a whirl of insanity for the next few minutes, the Cliff’s notes version being: blonde hair, Dothraki talk, angry guys, macho threats, fire fire fire, people bowing, boobs.
But if our readers know anything about us, it’s that we don’t resort to Cliff’s notes (as much as they probably would like us to at times). I really liked your assessment of the issues with the scene at the end, Chris, where you talked about how there’s this sense of colonialism that we can’t exactly avoid when watching or discussing it. On the surface one can read it as: white person comes in, kills the bad brown men, tells the other brown people they will from now on be ruled by the white person.
But in another sense, I don’t read this scene that way. This isn’t about colour, this is about gender. Daenerys, despite her very white skin, is an outsider, alone, the last of her kind. Her people have been conquered and wiped out, and now she walks among the other races and people, other languages and customs. She has seen the worst that the world has to give to people — she has seen Grey Worm and Missandei mistreated by slavers who have whiter skin than they do. But more than that, she has seen what the world does to women. She has seen them beaten down, raped, dismissed, killed. She knows that Sansa could be the head of her household, but that’s not going to stop some bastard from raping her. She knows that Brienne could knock down any wildling, and yet even she is now seen as a piece of ass. Jaime Lannister will never be stripped down, beaten, and forced to walk in shame down the street: that honour is reserved for his sister. She was nothing but a bartering chip to her brother, and the books of legend and history are filled with the names of men, not women. She knows that she will have to work twice as hard to earn half as much, and she’s pretty pissed that Hollywood actresses aren’t being paid as much as their male counterparts. She is woman, and you will fucking hear her roar.
And roar she does.
She reminds them of the great plans her husband once had, and how he was going to do the things she’s now doing. She reminds them that while the world is in turmoil, and evil people are on the throne, the “Great Khals” all sit together talking about what little villages they will raid, what women they will rape, and what horses they will plunder. “You are small men,” she says to them, standing confidently among the firepits as they stare at her, gobsmacked that this little girl is actually trying to take on an entire room of men. Every word she says to them is true, and true not only of this series but everywhere. How dare these men decide the fates of the women? How dare they suggest the wives of these great leaders — wives who are every bit as brave and strong as their male counterparts — get shoved into a temple to live out the rest of their days? Why should the world of men continue to decide the fates of the world of women? She holds up a mirror so they can all see exactly how small they are. “None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki,” she says. “But I am.”
She smiles. “So I will.”
And they laugh. And he tells her that the Khals will take turns raping her, and the bloodriders will rape her, and then when they’re all finished, they’ll let the horses have a turn.
And Daenerys’s smile just gets wider and wider. Look at these little men, she thinks. I’m showing them that they need to start thinking with their heads and not their dicks, and they respond by telling her how they will think, act, and live by their dicks. You can just see it in her eyes. They are so puny, so insignificant, and yet have somehow convinced everyone that they are the leaders and they must be obeyed. He tells her he will not serve her.
“You will not serve,” she says. “You will die.” And with that, she turns the firepits over, setting the temple on fire. The Khals all run, screaming, trying to escape, but the doors have been locked from the outside. Daenerys stands, unharmed, in the centre of the fire, and turns the last of the firepits over to incinerate all of them.
Outside the temple, as the bloodriders and their long-suffering women all rush to see the carnage, the door caves in, and Daenerys emerges, naked and unharmed. Even her silver hair is inflammable. The Dothraki all fall to their knees, as well as the widows, and she stands there, nose in the air, staring at all of them as they worship her. As Daario and Jorah approach, her face doesn’t change. Daario looks at her, mouth agape. He’s heard the stories, but now he sees it. He thought he’d been sleeping with a queen, but now he realizes she’s a god.
It’s a glorious scene, beautifully filmed and scored. On the one hand, Daenerys has pretty much proven 100% that she’s not one of the people, that she stands above all mortals and is not killed by fire, by cleansed by it. But on a symbolic level, she’s done it as a woman. She’s shown them that women are to be honoured and respected as much as the men, if not more. They are the bringers of life, they weather emotional and physical storms that the khals can’t even imagine, and they are the mothers of dragons. Some dragons literally fly and breathe fire; other dragons have so many soccer, baseball, and fastball practices that they make Mom late on her blog post every week. But on a show where we have seen women beaten, raped, degraded, and murdered, Daenerys is that woman who shows it doesn’t have to be that way. And she stands there before men, fully naked, as if daring them to suggest there’s something wrong with doing so, the way women have been told that since the dawn of time.
And now that we’ve written a post longer than all of the scripts this season put together, I shall stop here and thank you very much for having read so far! We will see you next week!