We’re back from our hiatus!
I was on vacation all of last week, and then spent most of this week getting caught up on work. But it’s here, we’re back, and hooray!
This week’s episode, “The Gift,” is one of the better episodes in what has so far been a very good season of Game of Thrones. But despite the consistent quality, this episode (and the non-recapped one before it) has me starting to get a little bit restless with the show.
I explain, below the jump:
1. Okay, so, first of all, let’s address the big one.
As the guy whose Game of Thrones recaps feature a recurring segment on “Poor Sansa,” I kind of picked a bad week to be on hiatus with the infamous ending of last week’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.”
I didn’t read many of the innumerable articles that Ramsay’s wedding night rape of Sansa launched, because I caught the episode a few days after it aired and also, as previously mentioned, was on vacation. Rather than risk repeating what other, smarter writers have doubtlessly said elsewhere, (and since I don’t want to be the last person to turn in their think-piece on the issue) I’ll try and keep my comments on the situation between these two characters over the last two episodes short. Also, given the subject matter, I didn’t think snarky GIFs would be right here, so apologies for the upcoming big block of text.
My big takeaway from these scenes — and a couple of others this week — is this: they have me wondering why I watch this show.
Not that they make we want to give up on the show. I’m far from that. But the last two episodes have me questioning what I, as a viewer, am supposed to feel about the show’s insistence on repeatedly depicting very particular types of brutality. “Why am I watching this,” isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m starting to wonder what the show expects me to get out of it, because the normal answers don’t fit anymore.
Usually, we watch TV shows (and see movies, and read books, and play video games) because we expect a certain kind of story arc: a protagonist faces a challenge, the protagonist struggles through the challenge; the protagonist overcomes the challenge. It’s a basic three-act structure, often summarized as: “get your character stuck up a tree, throw rocks at the character, get the character down from the tree.”
We get a kind of primal satisfaction out of these stories. We identify the protagonists, empathize with their struggles, and feel happy for them in their triumph, and satisfaction that their antagonists were defeated.
Many of Game of Thrones’ multiple arcs, however, have followed a different path. Something more like: “get your character stuck up a tree, throw rocks at the character, one of the rocks cuts open a festering wound in the leg, the wound and the fever make the character too weak to hold on to the branch, the character falls off the tree, the character is stoned to death on the ground*.”
As Theon/Reek tells Sansa this week: “it can always be worse.”
The show has subverted the “protagonist triumphs” arc in lots of situations that didn’t necessarily involve sexual violence: the whole first season builds up to Ned’s senseless execution; Robb Stark gets murdered on his uncle’s wedding day; Oberyn gets a hat-size-reduction after seemingly triumphing over The Mountain. It’s part of what makes the show thrilling.
But “anyone can die” is not the same as “likeable characters are subject to nasty, prolonged suffering.” The former creates stakes by undermining the sometimes-boring expectation that the protagonists are necessarily going to survive the whole story. What are we supposed to feel about the latter?
Season 3 flirted with unnecessarily drawing out unpleasantness involving Ramsay with the prolonged story of Theon’s torture and gradual dehumanization at the Dreadfort. That was awful, but it didn’t have me questioning why I watch the show. What makes Sansa’s story different?
Well, for one thing, Theon had betrayed the Starks, so we weren’t exactly rooting for him going into that situation. But I think more importantly, the thing that makes it different is that there is a near-zero percent chance that I or anyone I know will be kidnapped and tortured by a madman in his castle. Meanwhile, roughly one in six American women are the victims of sexual assault.
The show does seem to want to make us believe that it is making some kind of point with the fact that its female characters are so often threatened by/victims of sexual violence – even Cersei told Oberyn last season that “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
But a message, like a character arc, has to have a structure, it has to arrive somewhere. The show hasn’t seemed to make a point about sexual violence in Westeros, deciding instead to just depict it. Routinely. There hasn’t been any subtext added to color in Cersei’s words. The message just seems to be: Westeros is a rape culture times infinity.
Got it. Message received. So, what’s your point?
Why am I watching this?
2. On to the episode itself, and since we’re talking about it, I’ll start with Sansa’s story.
(Sigh.) Poor Sansa.
So, Sansa asks Theon/Reek to help her by placing a candle in the window of the broken tower, per the suggestion by her “North remembers” chambermaid. What happens next is a little confusing: I read it as Theon/Reek doing what Sansa asked, running to the broken tower, only to find finding Ramsay there, one step ahead of him. I’ve elsewhere seen the scene described as Theon running out as if he were going to the broken tower, but in fact intentionally going to Ramsay’s quarters all along.
If it’s the first, then the point is that Ramsay knows everything that is happening at Winterfell and was prepared to thwart Sansa’s escape. If it’s the second, then the point is that Sansa was naïve for thinking that a few kind words and pleading could undo Ramsay’s brainwashing of Theon/Reek, and that however conflicted he may be about it, he will be loyal to his master. In either case, bummer.
Later, in a scene that reminds me of Sansa needling Joffrey before the Battle of the Blackwater, she does manage to get under Ramsay’s skin by reminding him that his legitimacy as heir to Winterfell is only as secure as Tommen’s claim to the throne – which is to say, not very. She also grabs a knife or a corkscrew or something pointy. This is good. Hopefully she overheard any of Jon’s lessons to Arya from the last time she was in Winterfell and knows to “stick them with the pointy end.”
Ramsay then reveals to Sansa that he has flayed the woman who offered to help her. Although slightly less so than he did two weeks ago at the dinner table, Ramsay is still coming across a little bit like a cartoon villain in his scenes, vamping about and gloating. I think this is part of what makes the fact that he’s brutalizing Sansa so tough to bear: the fact that he’s a character that borders on silly.
The flayed corpse of the woman is somewhat less impactful for being simply just the latest float in the Awfulness Parade that is Ramsay Snow on Game of Thrones. On the bright side, it also means that Sansa won’t have to make the most boring choice possible, as I said a few weeks ago, and be the damsel in distress calling for help from outside.
Please, please Sansa: stick him with the pointy end.
3. Meanwhile, a little further north, Stannis is struggling with his march on Winterfell. He’s losing men and horses to the finally-coming Winter, and Davos confronts him with the fact that his best choice at this point is to turn around and camp at Castle Black. Stannis will hear none of it.
DAAVOS: “It’s better to wait for the right time than to risk everything.”
STANNIS: “This is the right time, and I will risk everything. Because if I don’t, we’ve lost. We march to victory, or we march to defeat, but we go forward. Only forward.”
It’s bold talk for someone who has just been told that he is risking the lives of men not named Baratheon, but when Melisandre tells him the true cost of taking Winterfell, Stannis recoils. Like literally, recoils.
Stephen Dillane hasn’t been given much to do as Stannis – be surly, often grumpy, and occasionally shouty. But in the moment that Melisandre tells him that a blood sacrifice of his daughter would give him the advantage to take Winterfell, he reacts with genuine disgust and horror. It’s a great moment, and also explains why the show went out of our way to prove to us that Stannis actually loves his daughter.
He sends her away – but doesn’t tell her where to go, which is probably not the wisest decision if he’s trying to keep her daughter safe. Afterall, his wife is A) crazy zealously devoted to Melisandre’s faith, and B) not a fan of Shireen.
I sense some awkward dinnertime conversations ahead in the House of the Stag.
3. Even further north, Jon Snow makes final preparations to ride off with Tormund on his plot-protracting adventure to bring the Wildlings south of the Wall. Before he can go, Alliser Thorne demonstrates that he’s figured out he can keep up his life-sustaining hobby of verbally abusing Jon Snow while he’s Lord Commander if he couches his insults in enough with-all-due-respects.
Jon’s voyage might end up being really exciting, but… I kind of just don’t care. Sam hands Jon a satchelful of dragonglass carved into the shape of Chekhov’s Gun, foreshadowing that Jon is going to face some White Walkers north of the wall, but, man, I just really can’t get myself excited about this particular story.
4. After Jon leaves, things get bad at Castle Black.
Firstly, Maester Aemon is dying, the sadness of his final scenes only just marginally undercut by the slightly creepy CGI Aemon head pasted onto his body for his funeral pyre.
Ser Alliser, without a Jon Snow to kick around, is adrift, listless, a ship without a rudder. And so, he projects his unfocused misanthropy onto Sam, needlessly pointing out to him that he is “losing all [his] friends.”
Then, the obvious problem of having a branch of your national security apparatus made up of rapists, thieves and other societal rejects manifests itself once again as several of the black brothers attempt to rape Gilly.**
Sam bravely intervenes and manages to get the living crap kicked out of him before Ghost arrives to scare off the attackers — which begs the question, why didn’t Jon take Ghost with him? Perhaps specifically to protect Sam and Gilly in his absence? It’s noble enough, but the easier solution might be the one the dying Aemon recommends: get Gilly and the baby south.
The scene of Gilly nursing the wounds of the beaten Sam is a nice one, and that it leads to a consummation of their affection makes a certain amount of sense (Sam’s “Oh my!” made me laugh out loud). However, maybe it’s just because my fun-destroying-feminist-SJW antennae were on high alert after the blow up around last week’s episode, but I found something a little bit irksome about the show relying on the tired old trope of the hero defending a woman’s honor getting rewarded thereafter with her having sex with him. Particularly in an episode entitled “The Gift.”
5. We got to see more of the Sand Snakes this week in a jail cell in Dorne. I kind of enjoyed this scene with Tyene flirting with/taunting Bronn while her sisters reacted to her. We learned more about who these characters are to one another through a little series of smirks and eye rolls than we did in all the dialogue in that goofy tent scene or in last week’s underwhelming garden fight.
Okay, so hear me out: as Bronn is getting dizzy and collapses while she undresses and repeatedly demands to be told that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, just before she explains about the poison that was on her blade, did anyone else think the show was implying that she has some kind of scary sexy magic?
In a show that had one mysterious woman magically give birth to a murderous smoke monster, the idea that another mysterious woman could have some kind of hypno-ladyparts isn’t that much more far-flung, is it?
6. I wasn’t necessarily going to write about the short scene between Daario and Daenerys, but since the show has gotten a lot of mileage out of how Dany reacts to being a sounding board for so many other characters’ concepts of justice, one exchange between the two of them stood out to me:
DAARIO: “On the day of the Great Games, gather all the great masters, and wise masters, and worthy masters you can find, and slaughter them all.”
DAENERYS: “I am a queen. Not a butcher.”
DAARIO: “All rulers are either butchers or meat.”
As Dany herself reminded us two weeks ago, Ser Barristan always counseled mercy. In his absence the counsel that she’s getting is clearly the opposite.
Daario also obviously has his own agenda here when it comes to the Masters — he says plainly that he’s worried about Hizdahr claiming his spot in her bed once they are married. But something tells me that opening the fighting pits alone isn’t going to be enough to make the Sons of the Harpy go away. When they next rear their head, it will be interesting to see what kind of justice Daenerys measures out.
7. Meanwhile, Tyrion and Jorah perform a theater in the park production of “Selections from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator” leading up their arrival at the same fighting pit that Daenerys happens to be visiting that day. I don’t have a lot to say about these scenes since I find them all a little ‘meh,’ although I did like Jorah coming out and incapacitating all the remaining fighters… even if it did seem like cheating since all of them had been getting winded killing each other for the last couple minutes.
When Jorah unmasks himself, Daenerys orders her guard to “Get him out of my sight.” I don’t know if it was intentional, but that particular choice of words seems particularly poignant given that one of the most heartbreaking things about the scene when she banished him was that she couldn’t even look at him.
In any case, she is presented with her “gift,” and the whole “captured by slavers” arc is basically over before it could get interesting. I’m kind of okay with that.
8. Olenna versus the High Sparrow. I really loved this scene. Here are two characters who, in very different ways, simply don’t truck in BS. There’s a grudging respect between the two of them as they begin to speak very frankly about what they want in terms of a resolution to the incarceration of Loras and Margaery.
OLENNA: “You should have the decency to stand when you talk to a lady.”
SPARROW: “You should have the decency to kneel before the gods.”
OLENNA: “Don’t spar with me little fellow.”
SPARROW: “For me, it’s the knees. You?”
These two are an unstoppable force and an unmovable object, and their conversation makes clear that the impending collision is going to result in some serious collateral damage for the people of the realm. In the meantime, though, neither is going to be able to stop or move the other.
Fortunately for Olenna, another path opens up when a messenger arrives with a letter sealed with a mockingbird sigil.
9. I had said before that Littlefinger wouldn’t be happy when he got back to King’s Landing and saw what the Sparrows had done to his brothel.
His exchange with Olenna is also the first time in dialogue that we hear Olenna and Littlefinger confirm that they had collaborated on killing Joffrey for the short-term benefit of House Tyrell and for whatever exactly Littlefinger’s long game is. As a result, as Olenna points out, their “fates are joined.”
Baelish more or less admits that he gave Olyvar to Cersei to ensure the arrest of Loras. Now back in King’s Landing, he sees how he was repaid for helping the queen regent and the Sparrows: by having his business ransacked. And so, he’s prepared, as always, to switch allegiances by giving Olenna the information she needs to take down Cersei.
10. Speaking of Cersei. Oh, Cersei. Remember how I said that Cersei Lannister makes bad decisions? And that hitching your wagon to the seven-pointed star of a band of religious fanatics is bad long-term planning? And that we enjoy stories in which the bad people get what they deserve?
Let’s take this back a bit. The first time we see Cersei in this episode, she is having dinner with Tommen, poor dumb Tommen. After Tommen rages for a bit about being unable, despite being king, to do anything about Margary’s incarceration, he tells Cersei that he loves his missing queen.
This cuts Cersei to the quick, as she realizes that in her effort to lash out against the prophecy — to protect her children and drive away the “younger more beautiful” queen — she has actually hurt her child more than anyone else.
So Cersei goes to visit Margaery. Once there, she can’t quite help herself from jabbing at Margaery in her all-too-faux-polite queenly way, offering her yesterday’s leftover venison and speaking in arch, diplomatic sentences about how horrible this all is and how she’s doing everything she can to help. In other words, completely full of it.
Margaery, like her grandmother, isn’t in the mood for courtly politesse.
“Lies come easily to you. Everyone knows that. But innocence, decency, concern? You’re not very good at those, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s why your son was so eager to cast you aside for me.”
Natalie Dormer puts in a really fantastic performance in this scene. For a person who is literally powerless in this scene — chained to a wall and speaking to a queen — she manages to stay on more or less even footing in her verbal sparring with Cersei.
Cersei leaves, but not before calling Margaery “sister,” just like she always hated when Margaery did.
10. I took maybe a little too much gleeful pleasure in the episode’s final scene between Cersei and the High Sparrow. Maybe that’s because the show, as I said before, has been so stingy with doling out justice to its villains that seeing one of its most consistently villainous characters finally ready to receive her just desserts feels particularly supercharged with schadenfreude.
After Cersei confirms the logistics of the coming trials, the High Sparrow launches into something of a sermon about the importance of sincerity and rejecting ostentation and lies. The theology espoused by High Sparrow about simplicity and doing away with ornamentation feels faintly like that of the real-world Pope Francis***, and Cersei, smiling politely to the man she thinks of as an ally, probably thinks of him as a fairly benign, Francid-like figure (notwithstanding his handy band of thugs for the occasional ransacking and arresting of political enemies, but, as we said before, it’s not a 1-to-1 Faith to Catholics comparison).
Cersei’s obliviousness starts to melt away when it becomes clear that the Sparrow isn’t speaking in the abstract, but is actually talking about her, and specifically about the fact that he knows about her and Lancel. When Lancel walks in, she quickly makes for the door, only to be blocked and arrested just the same way that Margaery was last week — kicking and shouting “I am the queen! I am the queen!” to no avail.
This is what the Sparrow himself, and heaps of foreshadowing throughout the season, have promised. The high are going to fall. The liars are going to have their souls laid bare. And Cersei Lannister’s world is going to crumble around her.
The ending of the episode offers a partial answer to my question from the beginning of this recap. Subversions of expectations and shocking twists of fate are all good and well, but at our core, we watch shows because we want to see the good guys win and the bad guys lose.
We’re a long way off from seeing the good guys — whoever they are anymore on this show — win. But in the meantime, I’m watching this show because I want to see Cersei Lannister to get hers.
*- Also, if your protagonist is a woman, probably threaten them with sexual violence. ^
**- Another female character threatened with sexual violence. Innovative storytelling! ^