June 9th, 2013
“Here only the family name matters.”
As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.
It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.
“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.
It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.
May 19th, 2013
“I always have a choice.”
“Second Sons” opens with a choice. Arya wakes up to discover that her captor has fallen asleep, and picks up a rock with which she intends to kill Sandor Clegane, a man she believes to be taking her back to King’s Landing. However, as she grows closer, it turns out the Hound isn’t sleeping at all, and he gives her a choice: she can put the rock down, or she can take one shot at killing him with it. The catch is that, should she choose the second option and the Hound remains alive, he’ll break both of her hands.
It’s not really a choice when you think about it, as Arya’s trust in her own strength isn’t quite enough to make her hands worth the risk. It’s also not much of a choice given that she’s his captive, even if he intends to take her to Robb and Catelyn on the Twins as opposed to taking her to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. As much as Arya struggles against the place in life that was determined for her, and as much as she tried last week to go back to the independence she craves, she still finds herself in a position where choices are not available to her.
It’s far from a complicated theme, but what I like about “Second Sons” is the resignation of it all. Arya sitting on the Hound’s lap as he rides toward the Twins is an evocative image, both because of the beautiful countryside mirroring Arya’s hope at seeing her family and because she’s not bound or tortured or anything of the kind. Rather, she’s accepted her fate as the fate put before her, and will comply if only because it’s the most effective way to survive until the day where you have choices you did not have before.
It’s a position that comes to bear on many episodes as the season goes on, as characters struggle with the lack of agency that comes naturally with being born—or being treated—as a second son.
May 5th, 2013
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
“The Climb” begins with three groups of characters who share a common goal: reaching The Wall. While Jon and Ygritte are with the wildlings as they prepare to scale it, Bran and Sam are moving toward the Wall from opposite directions.
For viewers, The Wall has been a prominent object for the series, one of the first images we saw to introduce a sense of the scale of Westeros. It’s a prominent part of the credits, sure, but it was also key to the series’ prologue. When Jon Snow saw the Wall for the first time, it was a formative moment for the character, just as it’s foretold as a prominent moment for Gilly, who can’t even imagine the stories Sam tells her about the structure. It’s something so large that it persists even for those who have never laid eyes on it, something that holds power even when the vast majority of its expanse lies unguarded. The Night’s Watch may be in charge of protecting the Wall, but the Wall does most of the protecting itself, a single crack in the ice capable of nearly killing the entirety of the Wildling party.
The “Game of Thrones” would be difficult enough if its only threat were static obstacles like The Wall (or the threat of the White Walkers beyond it, which is ostensibly still the most prominent threat to the entirety of Westeros). But “The Climb” isn’t a solitary activity, something that you can survive on your own: there’s always someone there to cut your rope, or stand in your way, or give your life new—often less—meaning at the drop of a hat. With its central metaphor, “The Climb” reminds us that no climb is without the threat of not simply missing a foothold but someone doing everything in their power to make sure that no foothold even exists, a dark and often foreboding episode that despite closing on a hopeful moment offers little evidence of hopefulness overall.
“The Ghosts of Harrenhal”
April 29th, 2012
“I still can’t believe that you’re real.”
Perhaps it’s my relatively unromantic disposition, but I’ve never really considered love in the context of Game of Thrones. It’s obviously part of Martin’s books, but it’s so often quashed, or forbidden, or broken, that it’s hard to identify it as one of the key themes (or even as a theme in some instances). However, as I noted in last week’s review, the introduction of Robb’s love interest reminded us that romance and desire are not entirely foreign concepts within the framework of this story.
However, as “The Ghosts of Harrenhal” observes (and as we’ll see continue into next week’s episode as well), that love is rarely consummated. Sam speaks of Gilly in hypotheticals, in love with a memory more than a real person, while Jorah’s love for Dany (captured in the quote above) makes both of them uncomfortable, an unspoken reality they dare not bring to the surface lest it shatter their existing relationship. In other words, their love remains unromantic out of fear of what romantic love would look like, relying instead on the love you have for a brother or a sister or for your King. It’s this love that ultimately threads through “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” and the season at large, and it’s a love that may be equally tenuous depending on its object.
“The Night Lands” and Sexposition
April 8th, 2012
People who coin new terms are very rarely trying to coin new terms. When I used the term “sexposition” to describe a particular kind of scene in Game of Thrones, I wasn’t staking a claim to a corner of the cultural lexicon so much as I was trying to be clever. In fact, for a while – and still, really – I refused to believe it was possible to “invent” such a simple portmanteau – all I did was add an “s” at the end of the day. However, the word has caught on, leading to a bizarre couple of weeks in which Esquire magazine and The Guardian were contacting me on the subject, I was listening to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and writer Bryan Cogman talking about it on the DVD commentaries, and now it even has a Wikipedia page not to be confused with “sex position.”
What I realized in chatting with these journalists, though, is that we (as a larger Game of Thrones-viewing community) had never come to a clear understanding of what sexposition even was. The first thing the Esquire journalist did was run a definition by me, and I realized that I didn’t really have any corrections because I had never actually thought much about it. While I had a number of scenes connected to the term in my mind, expanding it beyond Game of Thrones would require a more rigorous set of criteria, something that became clear when Michael Hann at the Guardian began talking about sexposition in the context of Showtime’s Homeland.
While Hann’s article captured the overall issue quite well, asking broader questions that speak to why the word is useful in considering the implications of this particular narrative device, I was confused by the evocation of Homeland, a show I would not associate with the term (which is a larger conversation that would require spoilers, so if you really want me to expand on that let me know). Also, in following fan discussion around Game of Thrones, I’ve seen sexposition become more of a catch-all term for the overuse of sex and nudity in general, something that obscures the specific implications of the neologism.
“The Night Lands” features what I’d consider the season’s first explicit use of sexposition as a narrative strategy, but it also features other sequences that feature similar amounts of nudity but which I would not associate with the term. Before delving a bit more into the rest of the episode, which features some of my favorite moments in the early parts of the second season, I want to tease out this distinction in an effort to consider what this sex is accomplishing, and what we make of the show effectively doubling down on the practice.