Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Whirlwind Of Wedding Plans

"The chief difference between a war party and a wedding party is that the former can legitimately claim to take no real pleasure in the vicious fighting that they will almost inevitably become embroiled in."

This week it's all about tying the knot in Game of Thrones.  More to the point, it's about the uses of marriage in politics and warfare, and a reminder of how women in the medieval world far more often represent power than wield it.  Daenerys' absence this week is perhaps no coincidence. Today we'll be talking about how women can be used as weapons against men.

This isn't exactly thrilling news to those fans of the show with a feminist bent.  Of course, there's representing patriarchal views, and there's dabbling in them. My opinion of which way the show has gone on this issue of late are well-known, so my consideration of "The Climb" will dip a little into what the show has done to redeem itself after last episode's problems.

(TV spoilers below)

Perhaps the two most important scenes with regard to the gender politics issue are those that bookmark the episode.  We open an episode dealing with with the cynical use of wedding vows as political manoeuvring with two characters who aren't married at all.  Indeed, Samwell Tarly never can be married, and after the sexual abuse Gilly suffered at the hands of her father (and almost certainly grandfather) Craster, one can imagine she'd never want to hear the word "wife" ever again.

It's therefore wonderfully ironic that their non-marriage works far better than anyone else's here. Sam is the man, but it's Gilly with the power to keep them alive in the wilderness, simply because she actually has some basic survival skills.  Comparing her ability to make a fire with Sam's veneration of an obsidian dagger he has no idea how to use or if it even can be used, and it's clear who's calling the shots here.  Beyond the Wall, a woman can be free to be the driving force.

This is true of Ygritte as well, of course.  Like Sam, Jon Snow has found himself in a relationship with a Wildling woman that's more born of feeling than any marriage in the Seven Kingdoms.  Whilst marriage is being applied as a weapon across the continent, it is only here that the knife is held by the woman herself.  Now that Jon and Ygritte are together, she can insist he not betray the Wildlings, in order to keep her love, and perhaps keep her safe.  Jon's arc this season was always going to be about the difficulty of living alongside those you intend to abandon, and Ygritte is savvy enough here to attack Jon exactly where he's weakest: his big dumb heart.

South of Wildling lands, the actual business of actual marrying is going on, and a hollow farce it is indeed, as is demonstrated by the hilariously awkward scene between the newly (and secretly) betrothed Sansa Stark and Loras Tyrell.  It's just so horribly obvious that even were Loras straight the two would make for a comically awful couple.  There's nothing even remotely resembling a spark there, for all Sansa's utter inability to see it.  The message here is clear: Westerosi marriages are not built on mutual love and respect.  So what good are they?

That depends a great deal on your point of view.  Catelyn Tully and Cersei Lannister both were given to powerful men in order to shore up those men's grasp on power.  Yes, Eddard used his power justly, and needed the support of his wife's forces not for personal gain but to fight to free the realm from an insane king.  That doesn't change the fact that both marriages were political calculations.

The same is true here.  The newly brokered marriage agreement between the Freys and the Tullys is simply an extension of warfare (I doubt either Edmure or Rosalind are as unhappy as the thousands of Frey soldiers who just found out they're going back to war).  The wishes of Edmure Tully are of no more relevance than that of Rosalind Frey.  The fact that we're watching a man essentially forced into a marriage might seem to help address the gender balance issue, but really, does it?  After all, when Edmure throws a tantrum and refuses to countenance an arranged marriage, those around the table seem concerned that everything is about to fall apart. Is there any chance Rosalind got to speak her mind so clearly?  That she might've come so close to wrecking Walder Frey's plan to marry his daughter to the Lord of Riverrun?  Edmure's situation is proof that the men of Westeros can't entirely get away from these problems, but if your family wants you in a political marriage, it's still much better to have a dick.

This holds true for Tyrion Lannister as well.  If nothing else, he's got a much better chance of continuing to screw Shae post-wedding than Cersei does Jaime.  Whatever else Cersei might be, she's right about the difference between how men and women will be affected here - the difference really between treating a child like a servant and a child like an object.  Just ask Sansa, whose response to Tyrion's house call must have been so horrible to watch even this show didn't want to subject us to it.

The machinations of the Lannister family brings us to what must count as the thematic centrepiece of the episode - scaling the Wall is deeply impressive, but at the end of the day it's not really about much more than getting really, really high up - the conversation between Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister.  This contest as to who can force who to marry whom is brilliantly fun, but there's a lot at stake here as well.  Tywin needs Cersei wed both to quiet rumours of her incestuous relationship with Jaime (how strange a world in which a woman marrying her daughter-in-law's brother is an attempt to reduce gossip), and ensuring the Lannister-Tyrell alliance has a grounding not entirely dependent upon Joffrey's continued good behaviour is a wise move.  Really, though, he's simply making sure the Tyrells can't make a marriage pact with anyone else, keeping them fully invested in Lannister success.  That's what ultimately tips things in Tywin's favour; he doesn't care if Loras marries Cersei or joins the Kingsguard, either way closes off the Tyrell options.  Marriage isn't just a way to hurt your enemies; you can use it to screw over your friends as well.

And all it costs you is the future of some poor girl who could never be of any use any other way.  They may as well be used as a method of influencing the behaviour of other men.

This, alas, is an attitude that has very much stayed with us into the twenty-first century. Consider how many works of fiction even to this day utilise female characters basically as plot points for male characters to stumble over.  A dead wife.  A raped girlfriend.  There's a reason why Women in Refrigerators got started.  I said at the top of this post that there's a difference between portraying sexist attitudes and actually demonstrating them, and I said the first and last scene of this episode are the ones that really drive this point home.  Sam being gently helped along by Gilly was a lovely scene.  The death of Ros is a moment of profound ugliness.

First of all, though, a few words on what I'm not objecting to.  I'm not objecting to Ros being killed off-screen.  Ordinarily, this would indeed be something worth flagging up as problematic, even if only in narrative terms, but the horrible fate of Winterfell's former premiere call-girl is so horrible that I can't feel much other than relief at having escaped seeing it.  I'm also not objecting to just how horrific Ros' fate was.  That's not because I think there's no mileage in talking about exceptionally unpleasant ways of killing of female characters, it's just not a topic on which I'm sure of my ground.

Let's stick with what I do know. Ros was in 14 episodes of this show.  That's as many as Gendry, one less than Bronn, and only two less than Ros' eventual employer Varys.  That's a fair number of appearances for a show only 26 episodes old.  And yet, what do we know about her?  That she's a whore who doesn't like babies being murdered.  What kind of character does she have?  A bit mouthy, but with sympathy for those around her - basically, a tart with a heart, AKA the most cliche rendition of a prostitute possible.  What do we know about her hopes, her dreams, her motivations, or her foibles?  Nothing. The only thing, in fact, that I can recall about her is the fact she could read, and even that had no context to it, appearing out of nowhere a few episodes ago at a point where not being able to read would have made it more difficult for her to fulfil the needs of the plot.

And now this entirely blank slate is dead so that one man can make a point to another man. Just a punctuation mark on a man's soliloquy. We never even learn she's in danger.  One day she's discussing how impressive Podrick's dick is, the next she's already dead.  The most prominent character in the show that has no real equivalent in the book, and she's casually discarded because Littlefinger is EVIL and Joffrey is EVIL and no-one can have been expected to work that out before now.

This is not goood. As I said last week, if you're going to write a show about a deeply misogynistic society, you have to put some real work into making sure the show keeps its metaphorical hands clean.  The last two episodes have magnificently failed to do that.  Here, the show has become part of its own theme, which is a real problem.

Which leaves us with an important question.  Just how much more damage can the show do to itself over the next four episodes?

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