JUNE 6, 2016
You Know I’ll Never Hurt You, Right: Or, Chopping Wood in Westeros
Aaron: I want to talk big picture. We’re three episodes out from the end of this season, and if this flight hasn’t already begun its descent, then surely we’re getting close, right? Especially since season seven is only seven episodes, and season eight will be only six (reportedly). There has to come a point where everything in the show starts being written with a very focused goal of bringing each plotline to a climax, or some kind of resolution, and we’re close to that point.
Sarah: Aaron, clearly you are right! Can we start big big picture, with genre? To my mind, this was — from shot number one — the most familiarly “fantasy genre” episode in a very long time, at least since season one. From the happy peasant builders in the opening scene, to the drawbridge, to all the parlay scenes, to the cello and french horn soundtrack, this episode seemed not so much like some of the high-concept Game of Thrones we’ve seen as a particularly well done adaptation of a Dragonlance novel. Now: please do not think I mean this as a criticism! Team Dragonlance 4evah! But I mention this in light of the point about ending, because the shift back into a conventionally fantasy mode seems like some effort to shape what will count as a “good end,” in this narrative world.
Aaron: To quote Lili: “About time we got a drawbridge.” Sarah: About fucking time! I mean, how have we possibly gone six seasons with so few drawbridges? Or peasant builders? Have we seen any non-military building of buildings, this whole series? I love it when people in fantasy novels build things!
Aaron: We’ve seen plenty of houses burned down! But yeah, not so many buildings being built. The show’s interest in labor is occasional, at best, and always character-oriented, as when Gendry needed a blacksmithing hobby when he wasn’t pursuing his true passion, kingsblood-leeching.
Sarah: Gendry! Where is that guy?! We need some more blacksmithing right about now! Aaron, now that this is a fantasy novel again, do you think he’ll show up? Obviously he’ll show up. Related question: now that this is a fantasy novel again, does that mean we can trust Arya not to die from her stomach wounds? I think we can. To me, Arya getting stabbed in that penultimate scene seemed like the show gesturing toward its anti-fantasy, kill the hero, season one impetus, in order to sort of buy some gravitas for the beautiful narrative synthesis this story is — we can hope! — heading toward. I mean, I’m really tipping my hand, here, Aaron, toward what I’m hoping for in this conclusion: I’m not sure I believe anymore that this show has a coherent worldview so I’m just rooting for swashbuckling and satisfaction. Anyway: Arya! Alive, right?
Aaron: The critical task-rabbits at reddit have already put together a pretty good solution to the mystery of Is Arya Gonna Dead, or No? Have you seen it? There’s pretty good screen-grab evidence. Does it being a fantasy novel mean there are no spoilers anymore?
Sarah: Of course there can be spoilers. That’s like asking if there can be spoilers for Titanic! It’s just a different kind of spoiler, even if you know the ship is going down (note: all ships eventually go down. I’d say, if it’s a fantasy novel — and by novel, I mean specifically that it’s evoking the experience of reading one that so many of us know and love — then we know roughly what will happen — heroes will win, because it is an ordered system of meaning — but not exactly how it will happen. Whereas, in realism, you don’t know what will happen but you know roughly why [because the narrative world is bereft of external meaning]). There you go: that’s my off the cuff genre theory. What do you think?
Aaron: Yes! I like it! But especially because it clarifies how fantasy spoilers might be different than realist spoilers. After all, even anti-fantasy is — like fantasy — a genre defined by its non-realism: Game of Thrones is anti-fantasy, occasionally (or it used to be), because we know that Westeros is a world without an ordered system of meaning. But it’s not realism because Game of Thrones needs to keep reminding you that there is no order, which then becomes the show’s sadistic ordering principle: the good guys will always die! Your darlings will be killed! That’s not realism. Realism would be that sometimes they don’t die, and sometimes they do, and who knows why one and not the other
Sarah: Which, wow, this episode really hammered home on that, huh? Let’s introduce an entire community of well meaning peasant folk, so they can be brutally killed for the benefit of The Hound’s character development and the reinforcement of the show’s nasty worldview! (Which, let’s be clear: killing off a whole village? Actually a really familiar fantasy trope. The minister too! It’s just like Serenity when they came for Shepherd Book.)
Aaron: I really liked all the shots of dudes sawing logs and carrying things and driving nails and building a thing … those scenes really breathed, and felt real. And then, reminder, this is Game of Thrones, so, you know, EVERYBODY MUST DIE.
Sarah: They felt “real” in that they felt so happy and constructive, and it made me realize how claustrophobic everyone is on this show. But they did not feel real, in the world this show has made. I was immediately like, where did these folks breeze in from? And who is going to kill them?
Aaron: Exactly. Non-realist. We know what will happen. Genre is a good way to think about the stakes, because drawbridges and peasant builders and drinking ale in a tavern tell us that we’re in the space of fantasy, but what it does in that space, with these elements, is what will determine its relationship with fantasy. A “chosen one” ending would clarify that this is fantasy; Arya’s stupid, pointless death — after all that character buildup — would clarify that this is Game of Thrones using narrative sadism to subvert High Fantasy, yet again, in its season one way. But I suspect that will not happen.
Sarah: I want to say that I was really annoyed, not by the fact of the dead peasant plot, but by its flatness. To have the only representation of a different way of life — a life governed not by brutality, by the possibility of choosing kindness — be so naive, so helpless, seemed to me to betray something much more important to what I like about Game of Thrones than its anti-fantasy narrative: Game of Thrones, regardless of genre, has often been smart. It doesn’t underestimate its viewers, it doesn’t give us easy answers. Killing off those peasants was too easy an answer, to the overall pressing question of how civilization can be made and maintained, than Game of Thrones usually offers us.
“Forget justice then — let’s get revenge!” is what Yara says to Theon, but it’s basically the motto we can assume the Hound is adopting, as well. Meanwhile, all these other folks are negotiating honor, and also genealogy, and boobs! And that’s fine, and it might be good television, but it’s not necessarily as complicated a narrative moral vision as I’d be hoping for from a Game of Thrones conclusion. What else is shaping up? Total bloodbath, right?
Aaron: The fact that we can feel the bloodbath coming is another symptom of fantasy-brain lockdown. What if Yara had said “Forget justice and revenge! Let’s sail around the world and have a nice time?” But that could never happen; the same way we know that Arya is eventually going to go back to Westeros, we know that Yara and Theon are going to bump into Dany, Jorah, Tyrion, or somebody almost immediately. We know that the show has gone into cleanup mode, where we’re gathering up all the loose threads. So a bloodbath is coming. It’s a matter of narrative economy: there are so many loose threads, especially since the show keeps finding a new lost character each episode. Last week Benjen; this week, the Hound. Those people have to be accounted for. But there are so many plotlines now that we can only check in with major characters every other episode; no Dany or Tyrion this week, sorry!
One way they can solve that problem is by bringing characters together; Sansa and Jon are now one plotline, for example, and maybe Dany and Tyrion will join up (or maybe Yara and Dany? That makes me think: what if Euron meets up with Tyrion and they make an alliance at the same time that, elsewhere, Yara and Dany make an alliance? Awkward!).
But we both know they will deal with the surplus of characters and plotlines in the traditional way: bloodbaths. So, who is going to get killed? And who is not? Side-question: does the fact that Arya will clearly survive mean the show has turned the corner away from anti-fantasy into normal fantasy? Are we going to get any more Stark deaths, or are we into the No More Starks Will Die Senselessly phase of the show?
Sarah: Another way to put this Stark question, and this is what I meant by how of course there can still be spoilers, is that it’s unclear to me if the narrative logic is going to demand Jon’s victory over Ramsay, or Jon’s noble sacrifice. Jon has always been the most conventionally “genre” of all the plotlines, but there’s a couple of ways that could spool out. I guess I’m going to revert back to what I said earlier: in the final episode, we need at least three of the following characters still alive and in action: Jon, Arya, Dany, and one of the three Lannisters. Maybe now add Sansa to that list too?
Aaron: Sansa can substitute for Jon now that they’ve become a team, I think. And Jon’s noble sacrifice is pretty tempting, Sarah! I mean, he’s already died, and he knows how much it sucks, so it would be a pretty heavy thing for him to choose. But you think Arya is untouchable? I guess, also, Arya has just received the equivalent of a death inoculation: since she was semi-killed, but not quite, she has to survive this. And it’s hard to think of a grand gesture she could pull off in Braavos that would give her death any meaning. We don’t care about any of the other characters there.
Sarah: No, I really hope we’re done with all those people, unless the Faceless Men are going to (?!) suddenly show up with some great White Walker death strategy? That would be fucking fantastic! I mean, not really. But it would be a fun way to go off the rails.
Aaron: I don’t feel like the Faceless Men even belong in the same universe as the White Walkers, though. Or perhaps I should say, the same campaign? One is from Dragonlance and the other is from Magic: The Gathering or something. The Faceless Men are all “All men must die!” and the White Walkers are like “Cool, subscribe me to your TinyLetter,” and the Faceless Men are like “Wait, what?”
But Sarah, I think we’re missing the crucial question of whether Arya needs more training. Perhaps what she needs is one more training montage? Perhaps that’s what the WORLD needs.
Sarah: Aaron, what if the Faceless Men show up and have to train all the wildings? Sticks and beatings for everybody! That could really account for like three episodes of season seven.
Okay, though, Aaron, I want to add something else to this conversation about genre: I’m curious how you think the show’s machinations around gender play into what we’re describing. To consider here: the little, like, present the show gave us all with the excellent (and completely unbelievable) young Lady Lyanna, of House Mormont; The High Sparrow’s overly-nasty sex talk (overly nasty in that: very flat, no possible sympathy with him, the show working overtime to pit us against him); Sansa’s general character growth. Also, Yara fucking “the tits off that one” in a brothel. What’s going on here? In the past, I have been annoyed when the show equates misogyny with realism, which has long been one of its signature and most irksome moves. But this seems like an about-face I’m having a hard time interpreting. I do not like the idea that the show is, perhaps, making a turn towards gender equity at the same time that it is making a turn towards the fantasy genre, and thus somewhat conflating the two? But that’s probably an overly flat reading of what’s going on. I guess I don’t have a firm reading of all this yet, but I’ve sort of got my hackles up about it. I did like seeing Yara in the brothel though: did you notice that she didn’t, unlike all the other characters, use the word “whore”?Aaron: Well, there is fantasy and there is Fantasy; Lyanna Mormont is a fantasy, a wish-fulfillment character. I am of two minds with Yara in that scene; it made me like her much less to find out she’s just such another one of the boys: ALE AND TITS AND WAR, THAT’S WHAT’S GOOD IN LIFE! But it did remind us that she is the least-worst person from Iron Island, which means she’s still almost unbearably awful, just not as much: “Hey brother, I know you’ve had parts of you cut off, and your brain is broken, and, you know, kill yourself if you think otherwise, but maybe you could work harder at being more useful to me? Sorry, hold that thought, I’m going to have sex, which you used to really enjoy!” Uggh. But it’s the right kind of “uggh” for her, and she even begins with the “You know I could never hurt you, right?” which is what people always say before they hurt you.
(By the way: What do we think of a plotline in which Yara teaches post-op Theon how to enjoy carnal delights? Yay or nay? I can’t decide if this is the sort of thing the show will definitely do, or if it’s the sort of thing that the show isn’t nearly adventurous enough to do.)
Sarah: Aaron, what you are basically asking is, will this show admit that the phallus is separate from the penis, and, thus, you are driving at one of the main questions of Westeros. The battle here is actually not between houses, it is between penises and phalluses. I myself am team phallus, probably? I’m over here with Tyrion and Lady Oleanna. Yara however is still sort of team penis, in that she equates sex with “fucking the tits off” of someone. Dismemberment! This is why, despite being the best Iron Born and a hot lesbian, she still basically sucks.
Aaron: Gifs! Power is the shadow of a penis on the wall, though Theon looks like the shadow on this wall. But Phallus/Penis is such a huge part of the show’s narrative vocabulary that I doubt the show could ever quite put it so blatantly; it doesn’t work if it’s made too explicit. So men without penises will never quite get their phalluses back. The show will fill up the screen with a warty dick, but to actually thematize a non-penis-based sexuality for Theon would probably be a different version of this show than HBO is going to give us.
Sarah: Aaron, you wanted to get “big picture” and I feel we have basically done that. Penises and genre! What scenes should we talk about? I want to talk about how sad I am about Cersei. Are you sad about Cersei? Is it just me? Are we supposed to be pleased when Lady Olenna goes after her as the worst person in all the land? Did Lady Olenna not meet Joffrey? I will agree with Lady Olenna that season six Cersei is basically a useless spewer of cliches, but season five was truly a wonder of gender rage! Can we have her back, please?
Aaron: Sarah, let us be clear: Cersei is going to burn down King’s Landing. She is going to create mayhem. She is going to have her revenge. Old Cersei is going to come back, and it is going to be AMAZING.
Also, I love the moral authority that Lady Oleanna seizes with Cersei in that scene since Olenna literally murdered Cersei’s son way back in Season Some Time Ago.
Sarah: I’m curious about how the Cersei “I choose violence” plan is going to mesh with the Margaery “I am going to work the political shit out of this piety” plan. And she is really working it: did you notice her excellent piety dressmaking? Pale blue, like the Virgin Mary! The pilgrim collar! I mean, she has her finger on the pulse of piety fashion.
I’m a little worried about Margaery, actually: I had previously thought that this new tactic was just her latest power grab, but now I’m pretty convinced that she’s actually terrified that they’re going to kill Loras, who (whoops, back to the penis/phallus thing!) she has to defend from this narrative’s belief that gay people actually don’t have penises in the right way and thus can’t defend themselves.
Aaron: Was Tommen in this episode? Except as Boys Have Needs? If Margaery has any power, it’s her power over Tommen, but unless she’s got a Lysistrata sort of thing going on, it’s sort of weird that we’re not seeing it. What is her plan?
Sarah: Better question: who fucking cares about Tommen? Sorry, Tommen!
Aaron: Poor Tommen. So boring now that he’s no longer completely helpless and cowering. The more he tries to be a player in the game, the less identifiable he becomes; the only question is whose pawn he has become: the High Sparrow, Cersei, or Margaery?
Sarah: He’s another victim of the Westerosi penis/phallus wars. Let’s stop talking about him. He’s the opposite of the Ironborn and just as boring.
Aaron: Why haven’t we talked about the “We’re Building an Army” montage?
Sarah: Good question! Debates about honor and dead siblings. Note that this show featured a bunch of scenes that illustrated that Tyrion is only partly right: politics isn’t just conversation in elegant rooms, it’s also conversations in doorways while wearing really heavy fur coats. I liked basically all these scenes, actually.
Aaron: They were good; doorways are such good staging prompts: to leave the scene, you have to choose one door or the other. It was also great to see that, as always, The People Will Rise Up In Support Of My Kingship continues to be the biggest load of horseshit that these people love telling themselves. I am, however, annoyed that re-born Jesus Snow seems to be pretty much exactly the same person as he was before. What happened to the idea that he was haunted and scarred by being dead? The main difference seems to be that he now rocks a man-bun.
Sarah: Oh God, Jon’s man-bun; I was hoping we could avoid talking about it. Jon Snow’s man-bun is basically the fundamental argument against man-buns, like when people say “I hate man buns, what is wrong with people,” Jon Snow’s terrible brooding man-bun is basically what they’re thinking about. As someone who has long defended man-buns, I am mightily disappointed. Jon Snow needs to take lessons from Brock O’Hurn.
Aaron: Speaking of this episode doing fan-service: Bronn’s reaction to Jaime’s “Lannisters always pay…” was pretty fantastic.Sarah: Totally. And more generally, in its immaculate execution of a series of very predictable narrative beats, Jaime and Bronn’s arrival at Riverrun really satisfied me. Drawbridge! That whole sequence contained exactly zero surprises, and I loved the whole thing. It’s a little unfortunate that all these appealing characters are all wrapped up in a completely ancillary power struggle, because who the fuck cares about the Riverlands exactly no one, but you can’t say they haven’t managed to get a bunch of interesting people together in the same place, to be awesome together and make complicated choices about loyalty and world-making! It’s too bad they’re not all going to make these complicated choices at Winterfell though, which is obviously where they should be.
Aaron: Not Winterfell! Because then we’d have to have Ramsay, AKA Captain Narrative Blackhole. They needed a blank setting for Jaime to meet Brienne — which seems to be what will happen next episode — and for them to be on the opposite sides of a totally arbitrary conflict, because then the real stakes can be personal. So does the fact that, as you say, who cares about the Riverlands no one does, enable the battle to reflect or refract Jaime and Brienne? When they cast the Blackfish, the casting call sheet read: “A guy who looks like all the other guys who looks like that on this show, and a beard.”
Sarah: I guess you’re right, but it all feels like delay tactics to me. Which is partly the case because even Jaime knows it’s trivial. Literally no one cares about this, even the characters on the screen. I guess the Freys care about this, but that is exactly my point. The Freys are complete narrative non-starters these days; no one cares about them any more. You know that moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when that big guy swings his sword around real scary like, and then Indiana Jones is like, Whatever loser! And just shoots him? That’s what I wish would happen to this plotline. Jaime, break out your gun and go after fucking Nazis! Do not waste your time!
Aaron: “You lost a castle? It’s not a sheep!” Isn’t it, Walder Frey? Isn’t it? What if it is? WHAT IF YOU ARE THE SHEEP!?
Sarah: He is totally a sheep. Aaron, I feel like we’re just ranting now, should we do best and worst?
Aaron: Yes, but I disqualify Lyanna Mormont as best, because the entire internet has already made that point.
Sarah: Fair! Okay, my best was sort of random, which is the overhead shot of Arya being completely unstrategic and about to be stabbed while gazing at that statue. This was the moment, even before that old woman showed up and you knew she’d immediately be attacked, that you knew Arya was going to be attacked but it was still so compelling and interesting! The big grand shots of this season, man! I just really liked pausing for that moment to compare Arya to the statue, to think about her relationship to Braavos and manhood and power. I liked it in much the same way as I liked the giant’s very predictable choosing of Jon Snow in the “wildings choose Jon Snow” scene.Aaron: Yes! And also, she has that attachment to Braavos, that started with her dancing master but also has continued in the time she’s been there; her life has always been either lame or horrible, but she’s managed to have a few Braavos-related good moments here and there. So a scene of her staring at the landmark really underscores the kind of life she’s carved out for herself here and there.
For my best, I will counter with an equally random choice: the Hound really, really, really likes to cut wood. He is really good at cutting wood and it feeds something hungry inside of him, which is his desire to cut trees down, and he’s cutting down trees in almost every scene we see him in, I think. He really loves chopping down trees and cutting wood. Cutting wood, chipping trees. It’s all good. We could read it as phallic? But also: the dude just likes cutting down trees.Sarah: That was completely excellent chopping, I agree, and AARON, I cannot say how excited I am to see the Hound go stomping off with an axe just like John Henry! Really good archetypes, going on here!
My worst is not interpretive, it’s just personal: I really hate anything involving any Septa, the High Sparrow’s nun-warden-gender-policers. These characters are, it is true, believable, but I hate them, I really do, and I hate when this show sort of dwells in these archetypes of women policing women and paints it as the only way in to realism. I mean, yes, it’s true that misogyny lives in women just as much as it lives in men, but these characters are unpleasant and lack creativity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve already read The Handmaid’s Tale.
Aaron: The nuns would be better if they were genuine sadists, instead of just robots. Robots are boring, but the show can’t even be bothered to write them as full characters; they’re just [Insert Stock Nun-Robot Here].
I’ll let my worst be the flip-side of my best: Ian McShane. I guess people really like him because of that show he was on, and I guess he is a good actor, but that whole bait-and-switch was so ultimately pointless. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Hound was motivated by something other than violence? That’s literally what the show says: “Wouldn’t this be cool? Just kidding, nope!” And we’re back to the violence leads to more violence leads to more violence.
Sarah: Exactly. Aaron, we’re complaining a lot but I actually pretty much liked this episode! I’m just over here hoping that whatever bad thing happens to Sansa isn’t too bad. Let’s check in on that next week?
Aaron: Next week! I enjoyed this one fine, but I think we’re definitely on the part of the roller coaster just before it gets to the top of the big plunge. Heads are gonna roll…
We’re protecting the people,
Sarah and Aaron