Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.6: The Climb

And... it's another week of Game of Thrones! Littlefinger proves he's the most evil SOB in the entirety of Westeros, Sansa makes moon-eyes at Loras, Olenna and Tywin have a war of words, and Rickon Stark actually gets a line!!

Seriously, how many people saw this kid and went, "Who the hell is that?!"
But first, if you haven't seen this, check out this parody, School of Thrones. I just saw it today (thanks Robyn!) and it's hysterically funny, imagining GoT played out in a high school. It's like Westeros meets Sunnydale!

This week my co-writer, Christopher Lockett, will start us off.

Christopher: Though we ranged all over Westeros in this episode, it felt in the end like the prominent narrative thread was Jon Snow’s. Certainly, the final shot of him and Ygritte kissing atop the Wall conveyed that idea, and while I admit to cringing just a little at the heavy-handed romanticism of the moment—made all the more jarring by how out of place it felt in this series—we know that there’s no such thing as unalloyed happiness in Westeros, and soon Jon Snow’s conflicted loyalties will complicate things rather a lot. Or, as Theon’s torturer puts it, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

What I found interesting about the Jon Snow / Ygritte storyline this episode was the way Ygritte framed the question of loyalty. It reminded me of E.M Forster’s famous line, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The tension between personal relationships and devotion to a larger cause was a theme running through much of this episode. It is, really, the tension between the concrete and the abstract, between what one lives on a personal basis and the larger, often byzantine superstructure of ideology and politics, and the oaths and obligations they entail. Jon Snow learned honour at his father’s knee, and Ned Stark was one of the most honourable men in Westeros—to a fault, and to his demise. Jon took the black as a result of a combination of idealism, honour, and neglect, joining the Night’s Watch at least in part because his bastardy meant he would never rise to any prominence otherwise. But as we have seen, he idolized Ned and took all his lessons about leadership, loyalty and honour to heart.

But not so much that he didn’t attempt to desert when he heard of Ned’s execution in season one, only brought back by his friends. “Honour set you on the Kingsroad,” Commander Mormont said then. “And honour brought you back.” “My friends brought me back.” “I didn’t say it was your honour.” The Night’s Watch was, and remains, his new family.

But Ygritte is a spoiler, for she represents a form of love Jon has never experienced; and we know from his story about his one abortive experience at a brothel that he is no seducer. Ygritte sees more clearly than her fellow wildlings, in part because she understands Jon Snow, and she knows that one such as he would never turn his cloak. But she also sees in him the power that a personal bond has, and personal love—love that was strong enough to make him desert in season one, and she believes that, though he’ll not betray the Night’s Watch, he’s also incapable of betraying her. “I’m your woman right now,” she says. “You’re going to be loyal to your woman.” Their commanders and leaders, she points out, care nothing for them—for them, they’re just pieces in the game, just “soldiers in their armies.” They don’t matter to their leaders, but “with you and me, it matters to me and you. Don’t ever betray me.”

And however uncharacteristically sentimental the last shot of the episode was, its moment of happiness is cruelly undercut by the memory of the Brotherhood’s betrayal of Gendry—something that does not occur in the novels. At no point in the books is there a meeting between Melissandre and Thoros, and Gendry is not sold. Which makes the moment somewhat more significant in the show, for it specifically contrasts Ygritte’s trust in Jon Snow’s personal loyalty. Previously, Gendry avowed that he was done with serving and being loyal to inconstant leaders, preferring instead the familial egalitarianism of the Brotherhood. His betrayal—for purely pragmatic reasons—reminds us rather sharply of two sad realities: that Ygritte’s ethos about personal loyalty is just as uncertain as the caprices of the powerful; and that betrayal by those close to you is infinitely crueler than betrayal by an ideal.

What did you think of this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: You and I picked up on exactly the same overarching theme of this episode. I felt like it could have been subtitled, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” But… that would be a rather long and unwieldy subtitle, so…

I also disliked the overly sentimental ending between Ygritte and Jon (though I like that Gareth has made a serious enemy of both of them), and thought the special effects might have been the worst I’ve seen on the show. For the most part, I think the effects are spectacular, as opposed to the local cable network green-screen look of Once Upon a Time, but when the camera pulled back you could see the Wall in the foreground just not lining up with the fake scenery in the back, and it looked cheap. That’s a very, very tiny nitpick about an otherwise excellent episode.

Seriously, I think I've seen that mural in a Children's First Bible. 

The episode opened with Sam and Gilly. Both have betrayed their groups and set out together, with him remaining loyal to her, and her doing what she has to in order to save her son. (I’m looking forward to the memes involving Gilly telling Sam to use less wood to make her hot. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but someone else will have to make it.) Sam is incredibly charming in this scene, showing both his aptitude as a poet — he tells her that the Wall is 700 feet high, made of ice, and “on a warm day, you can see it weeping” — and with children, when he sings a lullaby to put the baby to sleep. A lullaby that, to be honest, seems to have a harsh irony to it considering what Gilly’s father was actually like (as opposed to the father in this song), but a sweet lullaby nonetheless.

Theon is also getting a harsh lesson in betrayal and loyalty. In episode 4 he trusted his “saviour” so much that he spilled his guts on what he really thought of his father, how he felt about the Starks, and revealed that Rickon and Bran were both, in fact, still very much alive. Or, at least they were the last time he saw them. But then his new confidante betrayed him in the most horrific turn I think we’ve seen yet on the show, and he’s back where he started. Now, in a room with his now-torturer, he plays the game of “guess who I am” with the boy, with his little finger taking the brunt of the cringe-inducing result of the game. Despite the boy turning on him and proving himself false, Theon is lulled back again into thinking he’s right about something, that he’s guessed where he is, who the boy is, and who his family is. As viewers, we’re stunned that this boy is actually a Karstark, the son of the man that Robb Stark beheaded in the previous episode. And… then it’s not true. The boy played his part to the hilt, just as he’d done before, and then leapt up, pronounced himself a liar, and went to town on Theon’s little finger. If nothing else, he’s going to teach Theon why you should never EVER trust another living soul.

And in further broken loyalties, members of the House Frey have shown up to confront Robb Stark about betraying the oath and alliance he previous made with them so they could make the Crossing back in season 1. They’re willing to let it be water under the bridge [rim shot] as long as Robb’s uncle marries one of the daughters instead. The uncle doesn’t want to marry a daughter at all, and Robb gives him a big lecture about loyalty and oaths and the good of the nation and I just wanted to smack him the entire time. While what he said had some merit, it seems more than a tad hypocritical coming from him, the guy who married a field nurse after the oath had been sworn. In fact, I think Robb’s made a lot of mistakes and seems to be handling leadership rather badly. In season 1, I think most viewers were on side with the Starks, but now, Robb comes off as grossly inefficient and ineffective, and part of me wants to see him fall in battle just so another Stark can step up to the plate as the head of that family. Arya could certainly bring some honour back to them, and considering Sansa had the gall to ask if her family would be invited to the wedding, let’s just quietly snuff her out for sheer stupidity, shall we?

I know people have said Sansa, at least, is more interesting in the books. How does Robb fare, Chris? Is his portrayal on the show accurate?

Christopher: I would say the show has done an excellent job of depicting Robb. He must be a bit trickier for the writers to shape, as he doesn’t get any POV chapters of his own, but to my mind they’ve captured him admirably. I agree with you entirely that he’s had some major cock-ups (not least of which was his impetuous marriage), but we should also remember how young he is … and in the books, he’s even younger. His mistakes are the mistakes of youth, while his successes show a more mature mind at work. But where age and experience would smooth out the hills and valleys of impetuousness and pride, he hasn’t quite gotten there.

It’s worth noting, so long as we’re talking a lot about honour today, that in the novels his marriage had as much to do with that than with the tempests of passion. In A Storm of Swords, he takes a wound in a battle and is nursed back to health by the daughter of a noblewoman whose castle he shelters in. Over his recuperation, she progresses from nursing to playing nurse, as it were; if Robb were more like Robert Baratheon or, really, ninety-nine percent of the men of Westeros, he’d have cheerfully notched his bedpost and moved on. But like Jon Snow, Robb is his father’s son, leaving him nothing else for it but to do the honourable thing and make an honest woman of his inadvertent conquest. We assume that, like Jon, he must have been genuinely in love to transgress his oath … but then, the Freys aren’t likely to forgive such weakness.

Hence, Robb’s romance with and marriage to Talisa on the show irked me a little last season. I understand why the writers made the change, but it detracts from the strength of Robb’s character somewhat (though it does make his wife something more than the shrinking violet she is in the books).

To be fair to Robb, he’s completely cognizant of his hypocrisy and acknowledges as much to Edmure, saying “You’re paying for my sins … It’s not fair or right.” I’m actually least sympathetic to Edmure in this scene, if for no other reason than that his main objection doesn’t seem to be the prospect of marrying beneath him but that he doesn’t get to pick one of the hot chicks from Walder Frey’s brood. In the novel he actually goes a step further, speculating darkly that Frey will probably stick him with someone fat and toothless out of spite.

But at least Edmure has a semblance of choice (the Blackfish’s threats to his teeth notwithstanding), which is a damn sight better than what Tyrion, Loras, Sansa, and Cersei have in King’s Landing. Once again, the Queen of Thorns is magnificent in her showdown with Tywin—proving utterly blasé when Tywin tries to leverage her with a not-so-subtle allusion Loras’ proclivities. Her frank admission is awesome enough, but her curiosity about Tywin’s own experimentation had me cheering: “Did you grow up with boy cousins, Lord Tywin? Sons of your father’s bannerman, squires, stableboys? … I congratulate you upon your restraint. But it’s a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other between the sheets … we don’t tie ourselves in knots over a discrete bit of buggery.” And even more awesome? She turns his game around on him: “But brothers and sisters. Where I come from, that stain would be very difficult to wash out.” As she then points out, the sexual frolics of the highborn matter very little; but a queen’s infidelity, incestuous or not, throws a very large monkey wrench into the question of succession.

But in the end, the question of lineage and the imperative of having viable heirs proves to be Olenna’s weakness: she might not care about who Loras fucks, but she does require him, eventually, to provide little Tyrells to carry on the family name. Thus Tywin’s threat to name him to the Kingsguard, an order who are forbidden to marry or father (legitimate) children, carries real weight, and the Queen of Thorns capitulates.

This scene was not, I should note, in the novel—nor for that matter is the plan to marry Cersei to Loras. In the books, Loras has an older brother named Wyllas, a gentle soul who has a club foot because of an injury sustained at a tournament in his youth. It is to Wyllas that Olenna plots to marry Sansa, and after that plan is rumbled by the Lannisters, it is to him that Tywin means to give Cersei. Loras is named to the Kingsguard immediately after the Battle of the Blackwater.

What did you think of this game of marriages, Nikki?

Nikki: How interesting! Out of curiosity, how old is Robb Stark in the book? I find their ages rather hard to determine on the show. He could be in his late twenties or early thirties for all you can tell on the show, but I gather from what you’re saying he’s a teenager in the books or thereabouts? And I agree with you that the story of his conquest in the book is far more sympathetic than the Talisa story here.

I should note, however, that I’ve never begrudged him that marriage; only the hypocrisy with which he looks upon Edmure, completely shocked that he won’t do it. He does, as you say, admit as much, but it doesn’t make it any better. And I also agree with you that regardless of Robb’s hypocrisy, Edmure is always the least sympathetic person in the room. Tobias Menzies just has that way about him (he was even on Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago, playing a spineless shit over there, too).

The Olenna/Tywin scene was absolutely delicious. As I watched it, my husband and I kept going, “Oooooohh… OOOOOHHHH…” as they lobbed one hardball after another at each other. It was like watching two skilled fencers parrying, or two grandmasters playing chess. Olenna clearly has the upper hand for most of the conversation (her comment about the incest was FANTASTIC), but as you say, Tywin comes in for the checkmate. It’s interesting that he doesn’t deny Cersei and Jaime’s relationship, but instead says that if this is true, then Joffrey isn’t the king, and the Tyrells are throwing their best girl to someone who’s not the rightful heir. ALL TRUE, of course, but it simply can’t be, not if she wants to carry on the family name, as you say. Just a brilliant scene. Diana Rigg has equalled Peter Dinklage now: they’re the two people I want in every episode, verbally sparring with another person. And both of them have done so with Tywin… and lost.

In addition to the dialogue you quoted, I want to add how much I loved it that when Tywin first hints at Loras’s proclivities, Olenna waves it all away with a “Yes, yes, he’s a sword swallower through and through.” HAHAHA!!!

Another scene worth noting, of course, linking to this one, is Tyrion and Cersei together. These two have been locking horns since the first season, but now they find themselves joined together in this horrible betrayal by their father. Tyrion asks who of the four of them is getting the worst deal, and if you look at it that way, no one wins. Sansa ends up with a Lannister, a family she hates, and the imp at that. Tyrion is deeply in love with Shae, and has to marry Sansa instead. Cersei is once again thrown into a political marriage, but this time it’s not with a boor, it’s with a man who has no attraction to her whatsoever because he’s gay. And Loras has to be tied down to a woman who is older than he is, belongs to a family he despises, and is, well, a woman. Loras embraces the idea of wedding Sansa, because he knows that Sansa is stupid and seems to be the only person in all of King’s Landing who hasn’t figured out he’s gay. He knows he’ll marry her and continue to climb into bed with other men. But will that be as easy with Cersei? And will he enjoy being the stepfather of the most evil little shit in Westeros? Mmm… no.

Tyrion uses this moment of weakness in Cersei to finally get to the bottom of what happened during the battle. She admits that he saved the city with the wildfire, and he realizes that Joffrey was the one who put the order through to have him killed. Cersei refers to Margaery as Joffrey’s little “doe-eyed whore,” and then the two of them look off into the distance together as they realize they are united in the sense that, as Cersei puts it, “We’re all being shipped off to hell together.” Oh, and the fact that they both believe Jaime is coming back, and they are both fiercely loyal to him.

This scene leads right into Tyrion having to tell Sansa what the hell has been going on, and the end of the episode moves very, very quickly, as Tyrion breaks the news to Sansa with Shae standing right there, Baelish and Varys talk about the throne and chaos and OH MY GOD JOFFREY HAS SAINT SEBASTIANED ROS RIGHT THERE IN HIS ROOM WTF?! and Sansa stands weeping on the shore as Littlefinger’s boat rides away, without her on it. Yikes.

So let’s back up a bit, and focus on Baelish and Varys’s final conversation. I know you’re dying to talk about this, Chris, so I’ll give you the floor to get it started.

Christopher: I am in fact dying to talk about it, not least because of Aiden Gillen’s chilling delivery … but mostly because it represents something of a shift from the Littlefinger of the novels. Petyr Baelish is unctuous, slippery, and treacherous in the books, to be certain, but not entirely unsympathetic. GRRM plays his cards close to the vest with Littlefinger, but allows us hints of a wistful humanity hidden under his long-forged armour of cynical cunning. In the novels we come to understand that one of his crucial impetuses for everything he has done is the torch he still carries for Catelyn—and that he sees much of her in Sansa. There are, as in the series, a lot of creepy interchanges between him and Sansa, but we’re led to believe he’s actually working to help her as much as himself. (Of course, this might all prove to be false).

Conversely, the series seems to have made a definitive choice about Baelish’s character, best summed up in Varys’ bleak pronouncement that “He’d see the realm burn if he could be king of the ashes.” There isn’t much to redeem him at this point, not after we’ve had half a season to get to know Ros with her clothes on and develop an emotional investment in her character. As we all know, GRRM is notorious for killing off his characters, often in shocking and surprising ways; the final montage of this episode demonstrated that the writers have learned that lesson well. The image of Joffrey lovingly fingering his crossbow was creepy enough, but as he rises and the camera pans left I realized an instant before we see Ros (incidentally, in my notes I have written “Holy St. Sebastian!”) which “client” Littlefinger had given her to.

His interchange with Varys begins as these fencing matches have since the series began—a few jabs and feints, the kind of I-loathe-you-politely banter we’ve come to expect. Initially, their point of discussion is about the stories we tell, and the way certain narratives work to cohere the body politics. Varys believes in the power of symbolism, and in the value of subordinating oneself to an idea. But the moment he acknowledges that he serves “the Realm,” Littlefinger’s snark turns into outright contempt. The “realm,” he sneers, is “a story we agree to tell each other over and over again until we forget that it’s a lie.”

As I listened to Littlefinger’s words, I wrote in my notes “Bet he has Atlas Shrugged on his bedside table.” Because the speech that follows is pure Ayn Rand: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. Some are given a chance to climb but they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the Gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” What differentiates the Littlefinger on the show from the Littlefinger of the novels is precisely this Randian radical individualism—the “objectivism” of believing that the only concrete and therefore moral choice in life is pure self-interest. Hence the contempt in his voice when he rebukes Varys’ ostensible altruism.

Of course, Littlefinger’s speech ends with “The climb is all there is” spoken over the image of Jon Snow’s ice ax summiting the Wall. As Jon and Ygritte drag themselves up, gasping, and gaze down at the thrift shop landscape painting vista to the south, we have reason enough to see the poverty of Littlefinger’s philosophy. Orell cut Jon and Ygritte loose to save himself; but Jon chooses not to do the same, instead risking himself to save his lover.

Any last thoughts, Nikki?

Nikki: So well put. Littlefinger has pretty much thrown everything to the wind to serve his own needs. He’s the epitome of someone climbing over the heads of others to get to the top, and he’ll stop at nothing, clearly. In season 1, he seemed like a wrench in the plans of the others moving across the chessboard to the Iron Throne. Now, he’s one of the pieces, working his way up as if he believes he has as much right to sit there as anyone else. When the Freys demand Harrenhal early in the episode, I rubbed my hands together and thought, “Oh, this’ll be good,” because we know that that is now Littlefinger’s domain, and he’s fought hard to get it. With so much parrying and movement among the parties, I can’t even begin to comprehend how GRRM is planning to fit all of this into a mere seven books, regardless of how long they are. This game has no end that I can see.

Thanks again for joining us, Chris, and we’ll see you all next week!  


Blam said...

Arya —
I'm so looking forward to her getting to chart her own destiny, kick ass, and take names (off her list).

"Face... Tits... Balls... I hit 'im right where I wanted to."

Jamie —
NCW really sells Jamie's simultaneous pride and slapstick. He's been captured, stripped of one of his strongest innate assets (his tongue and his sword hand; the Lannister name helps but isn't his own doing), humiliated, mutually indebted to Brienne, and here he is continuing to be his jaunty, stubborn self.

"I would've hoped you'd learned your lesson about overplaying your... position."

Robb —
He sure seemed to get off easy, but I'm a little more with Christopher than Nikki in terms of my sympathy for him. It ain't boundless, though.

Theon & Friend — 
Here's a question: When Theon's sociopathic captor said he was a liar, was he referring to what he'd told Theon about himself or just to the fact that he'd stop the torture if Theon guessed right?

Littlefinger —
We really see him all in this week, soliloquizing to Varys in Alex Denisof's slithery British voice as the eyes in his Gary Oldman face glint with cold fire.

Joffrey and Baelish being in cahoots is just about the creepiest thing imaginable on this show. I can almost see a series of totally depraved webisodes featuring Littlefinger, Joffrey, and Theon's Guide to Lifestyles of the Sick and Painful sitting around trying to one-up each other with anecdotes or hypothetical miseries. "Should we invite Varys next time? He found the guy who cut off his balls and keeps him in a box." "That's awesome — I think he kind-of has a conscience, though." "Oh well."

Bran —
I kept waiting for him to ask if what happened to Jojen was going to happen to him. Then I remembered that this series often doesn't tell when it can show and the terror on his face spoke volumes.

Cersei & Tyrion —
It's actually funny to see these schemers who so recently were jockeying for Tywin's favor joined in their misery. I particularly feel for Tyrion as he susses out the latest cruelty in an unfair life. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend, no wait he's my father and he's our collective enemy, so my enemy who is my sister is now my friend and oh shit I have to break the news to that poor girl who thinks she's going to sail away from here and still believes old direwolves actually retire to a farm in Qarth."

Ygritte —
It seemed to me like while she was saying that, above all, they had to be true to one another, there was more than a strong hint that sticking with the wildlings rather than delivering them to the "crows" was Jon's smarter bet (if only circumstantially). Of course, I miss stuff.

Sansa —
I wanted to take down all the dialogue between her and her pseudo-suitor, then her and Shae. It was just totally hilarious.

"Loras likes green and gold brocade."
"I'm sure he does."

Austin Gorton said...

Great analysis once again. The examination of the two Littlefinger's in particular was illuminating.

@Nikki: ...and thought the special effects might have been the worst I’ve seen on the show.

Huh. I actually thought they were pretty decent. I really liked that closing shot, of Jon and Ygritte astride two worlds, and I usually have a decent eye for that stuff (like all the shoddy CGI on Once Upon a Time). Oh well.

Jessica said...

"Theon & Friend —
Here's a question: When Theon's sociopathic captor said he was a liar, was he referring to what he'd told Theon about himself or just to the fact that he'd stop the torture if Theon guessed right?"

He was probably referring to both, but the important piece was that, yes, he was lying about Theon guessing right. He is not a Karstark :)