Thursday, June 18, 2015

In Which I Review Game of Thrones (5x10)

I promised a season finale review when I wrote my season five opener review for Game of Thrones and I like to keep my promises, like Ned Stark (if you don't know what that means, then please spend the summer reading A Song Of Ice And Fire). But here we are at the end of another season. Jon is dead (maybe), Dany has flown, Arya is blind, Cersei took a walk, and no one has any idea what is going on with Brandon Stark. I am going to be fairly blunt up front: I thought season five of Game of Thrones was the worst one to date. This isn't to say that there weren't shinning moments of brilliance--the episode Hardhome comes to mind--but rather that season five slowed down the narrative to an almost standstill and open gaping plot holes every which way, while refusing to take that opportunity to present an introspective look at what is going on Westeros and the lives of our favorite characters. Let me unpack that a bit. The fourth and fifth book of A Song of Ice and Fire, "A Feast For Crows" and "A Dance With Dragons," respectively, are significantly slower than the first three books. For two or three characters, AFFC is essentially one giant travelogue and for the rest it's about feeling stuck in situations you can't control--the mean streets of Meereen, the turbulent religious zeal of King's Landing, The Wall and daggers in the dark. You could make the argument that the reason season five of A Game of Thrones felt so much slower was because their source material, the work of George RR Martin, was significantly slower. It's an argument that holds water and has merit EXCEPT in what GoT does not do, but Martin does. AFFC and ADWD might be slower than the three previous books but GRRM takes that time to allow for philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings as well as intense character development, be it of the good kind or the bad kind. And why not? Is that not how war and trauma work? Yes, war is loud and in your face and there are dates and events that become solidified in the public conscious as important, normally circled in red sharpie, but there is also the "after" of war. People wonder why did we do this as they begin to look past the actual conflict and look at the toll it has taken on the world and its people. That is, essentially, what A Feast For Crows is. And it's important. It's essential to have Ellaria Sand speak against the blood lust and vengeance that fuels her family in the wake of Oberyn's death. It's essential to have Septon Maribald speaking about broken men who never return home from war. In a lot of ways, GRRM is writing an anti-war narrative and thus when Game of Thrones only shows the horrors of war and men in general but not the characters reflecting on said horrors, it only gives one side of the story. 

Instead of these introspective and quiet moments, the characters this season simply moved from plot point to plot point in order to reach the desired endgame. I have come to believe, after watching the whole season, that the show runners worked backwards in order to write all of season five. They knew they wanted the final three episodes--Hardhome (Jon's battle against the White Walker), The Dance of Dragons (Dany's flight), and Mother's Mercy (Cersei's Walk and Jon's death)--to be the final images of this season. All three are incredibly powerful in text and certainly could be watchable TV designed to generate buzz. The problem is that the writers still had to come up with enough plot to get the characters to those points. I guess that's one way of writing--instead of letting your characters lead you where they want to go, you come up with their final endgame and then write the narrative to get them to point X. Whether or not that is an acceptable way to write fiction is a debate for another day. In brief, those are my overall thoughts on season five of GoT. Lack of introspective, meaningful, conversation and thought that lead to some awkward storylines full of plot holes and bizarre turns up until the the final three episodes which ranged from spectacular to rage inducing to confusion. And of course this is to say nothing of the continued sexism and torture porn GoT is becoming so famous for. So what in particular worked? And what did not? Grab a flying lizard and let's go.

I have written this review three times now--and deleted it each time. Thus the lateness and the somewhat scattered nature of this final attempt. As I said in the introduction, I thought this season was simply....bad. One great episode does not a season make nor does it endear me toward the other 9 episodes which were either slow and boring or offensively bad. I wasn't sure if this was going to turn into a season review or an episode review, so I think it's going to turn into a bit of both. All I can say is that I don't know if I can continue to watch Game of Thrones; I don't know if I can continue to watch HBO and the two show runners hack George RR Martin's world to bits the way that they are doing. There are adaptations that work when you taken differences in medium into account (say, for example, the first season of Game of Thrones) and then there are adaptations that remove the heart and soul that it is adapting from. It is like the show runners decided that the best way to craft their narrative was to do the opposite of whatever was going on in the books and add in elements that were never there to begin with, which always--always this season--ended up being a nightmare of epic proportions. Book readers get a bit of a bad wrap in this fandom when we launch criticisms at the show because we are told that we are being snobbish and that the books aren't the show but here's the deal: the characters and the narrative should at least resemble the books in something more than name. Yes there is a Doran Martell in Game of Thrones but his resemblance to the book version ends there. Yes, there is a "For the Watch" in Game of Thrones but the spirit and impetus that lay behind the book version of the same event is lacking to the point of being non-existent in the show. The Brienne of Tarth in the books in no way resembles the kind and caring and somewhat naive Brienne in the books. I considered breaking this review down into "stories that worked" and "stories that did not" except that in each case--from Meereen to the Wall--there were elements that worked and did not work. Except for Dorne. That was just drivel from start to finish. I am only going to hit a few stories and a few points because talking about this episode as a whole would (and already has) left me exhausted. It was bad, guys. It was just bad.

I know that was a lot of text to set up what I'm getting at but here's the crux: Game of Thrones more often than not relies heavily on shock value that is too dissociative from its narrative framework and how they've presented the characters thus far. It is done with very little explanation or understanding of Martin's world and is increasingly being done for no other motivation that to claim to be innovative and shocking and pushing the envelope when in reality, the show writers are relying heavily on some fairly old and redundant tv themes. Is there any agency left for any woman in this series that feels natural and organic? Sansa was raped and tortured and in the end it did not push her to save her own skin or take down Ramsey Bolton like many claimed it would, but instead it opened the door for Theon Greyjoy to become a hero who saves Sansa from her sad fate; a fate that she is more or less accepting of and passively prepares herself for when she is confronted by Miranda in the final Winterfell moments. I have never denied the violence of Martin's world, though a large portion of that violence happens offscreen and is related through various POV's who are either at the center of (but after the fact) or on the periphery of said violence. However, when violent acts do take place, they are not random nor haphazard; they fit into an already established narrative arc that also aligns with the characters as we uncover their multifaceted layers. Arya walking the Riverlands shows the horrors of war and her hardening heart toward such bloody acts, as an example. After the rape scene in episode 506, the internet was abuzz with both praise (for realism in this medieval setting) and outrage at having yet another rape scene for what seemed like pure shock value. I happen to agree with the latter stance but let's work through the former. In one regard, yes this rape kept in line with Ramsey Bolton's character--a non POV sociopath who is only ever seen through the eyes of another, mostly Theon-turned-Reek. Ramsey is known for his ill treatment of beast and man alike and is probably as close to "pure evil" as one can get in Martin's grey speckled world. With regards to the realism debate, I will never deny that marital rape is a very real part of Martin's world: to do so is to deny Cersei and Robert and to deny (the beginnings at least) of Daenerys and Drogo. It is also to deny what happens between Ramsey and his Book Bride, the Fake Arya Stark. The marriage and subsequent rape in the show, however, did not make narrative sense nor did it have any sort of satisfactory conclusion or emotional follow through. It was also heavily cliched. Sansa's rape was for Theon's character development because Hollywood continues to deny the female agency and perspective and instead myopically focuses on the male. I hated the rape aspect as a whole, but from an objective standpoint it is part of GRRM's world, rape in general and marital rape specifically. But during a time when we're supposed to be focused on Sansa's trauma, heartache, and pain...they went to Theon and instead we focused on how Sansa's rape was affecting him. That's a big no-no for me. And in the end, it is Theon who is the hero to poor defenseless Sansa. Nothing about the rape of Sansa and her situation furthers her character. It makes her pitiable but after 3 seasons with Joffery, Sansa is already pitiable. It makes Ramsey a monster but after watching him flay and slice up Theon, he is already a monster. It makes the Bolton family the enemies of the Starks, but after Roose betrayed Robb at the Twins and then took Winterfell for himself, the Boltons already are the enemies of the Starks. In other words, packing Sansa off to Winterfell and having her married and raped by Ramsey Snow served no purpose in furthering Sansa's arc or the arc of the grand narrative. I'll just keep reminding myself that Sansa is really in the Vale, eating lemon cakes, and toying with Harry the Heir at Littefinger's insistence.

Daenerys is presented as a bad ass who feeds men to her dragons when they piss her off (something Dany in the books never does; hell, she barely goes to see her chained up dragons in the fifth book) and forces men to marry her while they cower on their knees in a dungeon. Except, you know, Dany is actually a far more complex and complicated individual than that. One who sends traitors to be tortured, who is constantly trying to renegotiate her own identity in light of ruling Meereen but ends up chaffing and chained under the conventions placed upon her by the patriarchal slavery society. A woman who feels like an avenging dragon after crucifying 163 slavers but then also can't stand the smell and sounds of their dying and tells herself that it was for the children. A woman who avoids her literal dragons once they are chained; a woman is talked into marrying Hizdahr zo Loraq because he can bring her peace even though it is fairly obvious that he too is a Son of the Harpy. A woman who finally, at the end of the fifth book, rips off her veil and takes off her floppy ears and saves her dragon by taming him with nothing but a whip and words because "he is fire made flesh and so am I," who finally remembers her house words and comes to realize that she doesn't belong in Slaver's Bay and that dragons plant no trees because the soil in her new kingdom is rotten and it's her job to be both destruction and creation, two forces living together in one being, a never ending cycle of death and rebirth and...Ok, look. I could go on forever (and have done so in other places) about how much I flipping love Daenerys Targaryen. That is my QUEEN. Yeah, she's got a violent streak and is morally gray and probably the most controversial character in ASOIAF, but she's got a vision of the future and I'll follow her where she goes. Show Daenerys is nothing like this. To the show writers, Dany only works for them if she's being "a badass" like randomly feeding men to her dragons and telling Hizdahr that they're going to be married, no ifs ands or buts and with no outside counsel. Because oh! It's shocking! Dany is a woman but look how strong and badass she is! Let's only ever show her being strong and badass cause she's a woman and it's unexpected and trope-breaking! Please. Woman can be strong and independent and powerful and still be faulty, wrong, morally complex, and be plagued by self doubt. If the writers of GoT actually read the books (because I am no longer convinced that they have) they'd know this. See for example: every single woman in the series!

What irks me more, though, is that they can't carry that line of thought--Dany is a badass--through when it matters. Dany riding Drogon for the first time is a badass moment; it's a self empowering moment for her. But instead the show made it all about how Dany has to be rescued, so thank god she has a male dragon around (along with her brave knight and sellsword/lover of course)! The wrongness of Dragon's First Flight was followed by the complete and utter bastardization of Dany's final POV chapter in ADWD in which she remembers who she is while out on the Dothraki Sea. In the books Dany is literally walking back to Meereen in the hot sun, while sick and while having a miscarriage. Her walk back to Meereen is all about "vs": Peace vs War, Dragon vs Harpy, Meereen vs Westeros, Monster vs Mother. And all of that--ALL OF THAT--was cut from this "adaptation." They want Dany to be a badass except when it comes to the really important non-dragon, non-fire and blood moments when they clearly find her boring or something (or maybe they don't get her). If I look back I am lost, to go forward I must go back, dragons plants no trees, sitting next to Drogon waiting for the Dothraki, remembering that her house words are "fire and blood...." ALL of those are so incredibly important to who Dany is: she is the balance of life and death, the harmony of the never ending cycle of rebirth and loss of life. She is the Mother and The Dragon. She is war and she is peace. She is Brahma and Shiva. She can create a new world ONLY after she has destroyed the old one. But if you were just watching the show you'd only know that 1) she's hot 2) has dragons 3) has a lot of men that are in love with her and 4) is in deep shit cause oh no! the Dothraki found her! I bet they are mad or something! Golly, I hope those two men who love her so much find her quick cause otherwise she's doooooomed! Poor Sad Female! 

Fun fact: in the books, Shireen and Stannis are about 1,000 miles apart from each other. While I've always seen Stannis as an Agamemnon figure, I've also seen him as someone who subverts Agamemnon, especially where his daughter is concerned. Where Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, I've often predicted that Stannis will arrive too late to save his daughter from his own wife and his Red Woman (who has stopped wearing red in the show...odd). Once again, Stannis burning Shireen at the stake without so much as a blink is a disconnect from what was previously established for the character of Stannis. A few episodes prior to the conflagration, Stannis gave the most passionate speech I think we've ever heard from him about how Shireen is his child, two weeks ago he sent Mel away for even suggesting that they hurt Shireen. And then he decides to burn his only child--his heir--why? It doesn't make narrative sense for Stannis to go from point A to point Z without a layover in point B-Y. How did he get to that emotional point? HOW?! Just because of the lack of food? Because in ADWD, they are at that point and know what Stannis says: "pray harder." Also, they aren't lacking food given that Stannis orders the slain 100+ horses to be cut up into meat. In the books, those he burns are traitors or his enemies, not his own men and not his own family. If Stannis were to arrive back to Castle Black (where Mel and Shireen are in the books) it would be just right after Mel sets Shireen ablaze. That's Stannis's tragedy. He's always just off by a bit. So why have Stannis burn Shireen? Because the writers don't want us to cheer for anyone except Tyrion, Jon, and Dany. Those are their three big damn heroes and everyone else be damned, never mind the very carefully layered book construction that paints all three as far more grey than white hatted heroes. So Stannis burns his child because it's shocking; because it would set the audience's heart aflutter and make them talk and tweet and watch next week to see if the sacrifice was worth it--never mind the fact that R'hllor does not actually exist in Martin's universe. But it was an unearned scene; the situation was not that horrible, no more so than it was the previous episode unless I am willing to suspend all my disbelief and accept that Ramsey Bolton really stormed into an entire army encampment with 19 men and killed hundreds of horses and burned all the foodstuffs without anyone noticing (really...not one person noticed or captured one of the Northmen?) And finally to have it be Selyese, who all season has been Queen Burn-All-The-Things, be the one to suddenly turn into the considerate parent who doesn't want her daughter burned and then kills herself in the finale. It was like watching a Greek farce in which one bad thing happens, one right after the next: Stannis burns his daughter, men desert him, his wife kills herself, and Mel leaves. Why did Mel leave exactly? Mel in the books wouldn't abandon her Azor Ahai (even though he's clearly not Azor Ahai). The writers on GoT just straight up hate Stannis for some inexplicable reason and don't seem to understand him. It isn't ambition that drives Stannis; it's duty. His final words to Brienne (whom I'll be skipping since she is so far removed from Book Brienne I don't even think we can call her Brienne) "do your duty" are actually perfect so I applaud the writers on that, but otherwise they don't get that Stannis is the best commander in Westeros, knows how to conduct war and what it takes to win a war and win a siege, and doesn't actually want the Throne but feels that he has to take it because it's what his duty requires of him since he is Robert's true heir.

The other and last aspect I am going to talk about are the events of the Wall (because I can't touch Dorne with a ten foot pole). If I just said go read the books would that be enough? No, probably not.  There was no build up, no time spent on why the men of the Night's Watch are angry, why this is "for the Watch." In the books, there is a moment--a singular moment--in which Jon chooses something that casts him as an Oath Breaker. Up until that point, the men under him are upset with Jon's decisions but they don't oppose him violently. But when Jon makes his decision to, essentially, break his oaths to the Watch, that's when the men decide to kill him. And it's powerful and sad--the men doing the killing are actually crying. And of course Jon's not really dead but you wouldn't know this from the show. In the books it's clear based on clues to what--or who--Jon really is and it is his final words, "Ghost," that indicate that Jon has most likely warged but we don't even know where Ghost is here in GoT! Does Ghost still exist for Jon? He appeared once this season for Sam..... There was none of this Emo Olly nonsense in the books and this "Olly" insertion is the best example of something that is straight from the minds of the show runners that just abysmally fails. But what angers me more than the messed up For the Watch moment were the final moments between Sam and Jon. In what universe does Sam leave Jon willingly? In what universe does Sam ask to be sent away from the danger? None. There is no universe in which that is true. It is so so so so important to both characters that it is Jon who orders Sam to go to Oldtown and become a Maester. He does it to keep Aemon Targaryen (already dead now) and Mance Rayder's son (who does not exist on the show) safe from Melisandre and her obsession with King's blood. Sam goes to learn more about the Walkers, but it is Jon making a very cold, hard decision that is all about killing the boy so that the man can live. But Sam asking to go to Oldtown reeks of desertion and fear and being a coward. And while Sam might be a coward, he'd never willingly abandon Jon Snow. It just goes to show that the show runners don't understand the characters GRRM handed them on a silver platter. 


Overall, season five was a mess. It really was. It relied far too heavily on shocking moments and titillating out of character events to ever be considered concise storytelling. It continues to move further and further away from the books that GRRM has crafted, and that everyone should read! Shock and titillation have their place so long as they contribute to character development and a cohesive plot. This season failed in that regard. There were so many times when the show just missed the point of these huge moments that happened in AFFC and in ADWD. Honestly, did any of the character move forward emotionally or realistically? It felt as though at the end of 10 episodes they were right back where they began, having never moved forward at all. No one was really pushed or challenged. Almost all the plot lines felt stalled and remedial and in some cases far outside of GRRM's universe. I'm struggling with my continued viewing of the show since so much of it is coming back to torture porn (Meryn Trant, anyone?) or rape or violence for the sake of violence with no careful consideration of what happens after. Be realistic; be gritty; be tough. But be realistic, gritty and tough in all matters, not just when you want to assault a character on screen. Don't just rely on shock value and ignore the narrative at play. I doubt I'll review a GoT episode or season again; being a book snob gets me into far too much trouble with this show. But I keep my promises.

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