Saturday, 26 April 2014

Sun And Sand

Episode 3 of Game of Thrones' fourth season contained an awful lot of scenes.  Exactly two of them have been discussed in any detail so far online. One because it did so much to further suspicions regarding who was responsible for last week's scene that everyone was talking about.  The other because... well, because it was hideous and gratuitous and spoiled everything.

So I guess I'm going to have to talk about those scenes. They are not, however, what I want to focus on.

(TV spoilers follow, book spoilers are mercifully absent.)

Let's start with Jaime and Cersei. I don't want to go into too much detail here. Not because it doesn't fit in with my family-by-family approach to discussing Season Four - when something this upsetting for people comes up, it's a terrible idea to bypass over some trivial matter like structure.  Really, though, I have almost nothing to add to Jack Graham's objections here. I'd quibble over how inconsistent the scene was with Jaime's arc - to me it's easily readable as proof that Jaime's redemption is utterly contingent on him abandoning his entire wretched family, not because they're a bad influence on him (which they are, but citing that in this case would be tantamount to suggesting Cersei is complicit in her own rape, and I'm not going anywhere near that idea)  but because they allow him to excuse his own worst instincts, which, as we've seen, are terribly bad indeed. This is an idea rather reinforced by the siblings' final exchange: "It's not right!", "I don't care!".

Of course, coherent interpretation is not the same as justification. There are any number of ways to reinforce that point in a manner that's less hideous and damaging and upsetting and triggering.  The last time Benioff and Weiss deviated so far from the source material it was to make the Red Wedding - where two sympathetic main characters are cruelly betrayed and murdered - even more unpleasant by stabbing a pregnant woman to death. This time it was apparently decided that estranged sibling-lovers grieving by the body of their dead incestuous offspring wasn't grim enough, so sexual assault was needed.  The fact that these scenes happen within five episodes of each other and both involve upping the suffering of women is damn concerning.

But as I said, I don't want to go too far into that particular aspect of "Breaker of Chains".  I want to slap Benioff and Weiss about over an entirely different issue: the Dornish.

Ever since GoT began, people have been criticising it on racial grounds.  Not all the criticism has struck me as completely fair - or at least, some of it has come down to the kind of damned-if-you-do... complaints that are generally sympathetic, but don't really offer any way out for white guy writers (not that I'm asking for sympathy, you understand).  A lot of accusations struck home, however. One of the most obviously correct was the appalling paucity of speaking roles for non-white actors.

There are certain explanations for this, of course. The most plausible one is the the nature of the source material combined with the needs of abridging that material for a television show.  The original novel does not completely lack non-white characters, but almost all of them are sufficiently small parts that they were obvious choices to be pruned from the narrative. Many of the parts that remain (Qotho, Mago) were so cut down as to be filled by actors so obscure that I can't find out what racial identity they give themselves, but it's certainly clear that the number of non-white actors who got to say words on camera during the first season was, at an absolute maximum, four, and three of those only existed to cause problems for the little lost white girl constantly threatened by the big ol' nasty foreigners (something which the book worked hard to undercut, and the show pretty much didn't.)

So people - myself included - were pissed off.  Things got a little better in season 2, when the show took no fewer than two white characters from the show (well, I think the Quartheen are supposed to be white; I guess "pale" isn't necessarily synonymous with Caucasian) and gave the parts to black actors. The cynical amongst us might want to point out that this simply demonstrates how unnecessary the first season's monochrome approach was, ut at least it was a start.

And besides, there was hope.  Sometime in season 3, or season 4 at the latest, we were going to get the Dorne.  Throughout the first few seasons the nature of the Dornish was discussed at length, and no small
number of people voiced the opinion that this would be a perfect opportunity to hire some South Asian actors.  It would be perfectly consistent with the background, and it's not like the casting directors aren't spoiled for choice considering their preference for drawing from Western Europeran acting pools.

Instead, they've announced they've settled on a "Mediterranean European" model for the Dornish. This is a tremendous disappointment, not just because of the choice itself, but because of the absolutely piss-poor nature of the showrunner's defence, which boils down in it's entirety to "sorry, but that's how it is in the novel".

Which; fuck off.  Fuck off forever.  I can just about stomach a line of argument saying it might be a problem to take a majority-white culture and start inserting non-white characters without explanation.   It's an argument flawed in several ways; it ignores the fact that people are savvy enough to know how television works differently from books, it white-washes our own history by making it seem as though immigration and cultural assimilation are so new a phenomenon to make their appearance in fantasy require explanation (which is not only untrue but rather condemning of fantasy fans in general, when you think about it), and it reinforces the suggestion that white characters are the default and anyone not matching that has to explain why. But all of that represents larger issues with the nature of the fantasy genre - particularly on TV - rather than something we can slap Benioff and Weiss about for.

But the argument above, flawed as it is, doesn't apply here. Benioff and Weiss has a golden opportunity to introduce a non-white family in a way that made total sense in the context of the background they claim to be slavishly devoted to, and they decided they wouldn't bother.  However poor the justifications for the racial problems thrown up by fantasy in general, they got the rate chance to bypass them entirely, and decided they wouldn't bother. Because the Dornish seem more Mediterranean than South Asian in the books.  Even if this were true, it would be supremely irrelevant. If you choose slavish devotion to the source material over fighting against the supreme over-representation of white people in western television in general, and the shocking absence of South Asian characters in American TV in particular, you are a terrible person.

And that would be if they were consistent in this approach, which of course they aren't.  Show-runners who are willing to change the source material to add in tits, rape, and the brutal murder of a pregnant woman have absolutely no leg to stand on complaining they've only made the Dornish white because that was Martin's intention.  It betrays a truly disgusting myopia. You can only make this mistake by not giving a shit about racial issues in television in general.  Hell, it took a season of complaints before you introduced two black characters in season two, both of which weren't black in the books.  So changing a characters race to black is cool, but altering it to South Asian is somehow utterly beyond the pale?

As I say, fuck off forever.

People have been praising Pedro Pascal and Indira Varma (who is Indian on her father's side, which makes the Benioff and Weiss stance about keeping faithful to the books make even less sense) in their roles as our first two Dornish characters, but the supreme indifference with which the show-runners have treated this issue makes it hard for me to objectively consider what I'm seeing, especially since I've seen so little.  Take out the orgies and the Lannister stabbing and we hardly know either Oberyn or Ellyria at this point. Hell, if we are supposed to be viewing them as Mediterranean characters, there's an argument to be made that they're horribly cliche; all about fucking, fighting and vendettas, though I will at least give the show credit for making Oberyn explicitly bisexual rather than have it a distant rumour to justify Ellyria's constant craving for pussy.

In truth, though, the blank slate of the Martells is very much the point. If they hate the Lannisters, why didn't they join the rebellion? If Oberyn doesn't believe Clegane acted on his own, why agree to help his greatest enemy rid himself of the only Lanniser Oberyn might be able to form an alliance with? Why would a man who has studied poison feel the need to rely on his enemy's largess in getting to see the killer of his sister and her child, when he could hunt the man down and kill him in any number of ways?

In a certain sense, then, the Martells are a concentration of the show as a whole; a mystery codified by exposition whilst surrounded in tits. Viewed from that angle, Pascal is doing a thankless job (though not so thankless as Indira Varma's role, which is just to look sultry and horny by turns) pretty well. Everything he says seems just off, as though there are emotions and deductions travelling beneath the surface which would reveal his dialogue as utterly false.  A furious and physical man forced to keep himself in check whilst he plays whatever game he is in fact playing. A snake coiled to strike for so long his muscles are beginning to cramp. You can feel it when he speaks with Tywin. Whatever a spear-wielder/master poisoner has in place of a trigger-finger, you can feel it itching.

Unless of course he's already done what he came for. The in-universe explanation for why the Dornish took so long to arrive might be a mystery (though it might help non-book readers to know that Prince Doran has a reputation for being hyper-cautious, which is at least an explanation to be going on with), but in terms of plot mechanics the reason is simple enough; it offers us one more suspect in our game of "Who Killed Joffrey?"

Which brings us to the other scene in this week's episode which had everyone buzzing: Littlefinger's Big Reveal.

How big a reveal it actually was is a matter of debate, of course.  It's not clear how long it took Ser Dontos to get Sansa to Littlefinger's ship. Perhaps someone with less need to hide could have reached Baelish first.  Perhaps he has people signalling to him from the shore.  Maybe off-screen they did that bell thing for when the king dies.  It's not, in other words, a mortal lock that Petyr could only have known of Joffrey's death because he was involved in the plot.  All of that simply represent ways the show could surprise the viewer, however, the clear implication is that Baelish knew, because it's so hard to believe Ser Dontos didn't know, and we now know who he was working for all along.

Of course, knowing about the plot is not the same as being involved. This wouldn't be the first time Petyr has made use of someone else's conspiracy for his own ends.  Hell, it wouldn't even be the first time for a conspiracy involving Joffrey.  Moreover, it's very hard to believe Ser Dontos Hollard could be the actual murderer; whatever else Baelish might be lying about, I believe him totally about not relying on drunken fools for the important stuff. Even if Baelish helped hatch this plot, we must look elsewhere for the trigger-man.

Could it be Oberyn? Killing the grandson of Tywin Lannister has a certain poetic justice to it, and Oberyn's insistence that he doesn't blame children for the sins of their fathers would presumably become irrelevant approximately ten seconds after first hearing Joffrey speak. His knowledge of poisons might also compensate for him having no obvious route to Joffrey's wine glass (other than the Tyrells, for example), but perhaps the poison lay in the pie, or even was administered earlier in the day. Not every poison kills within seconds.  Who knows what bizarre time-delay concoctions Oberyn learned to concoct in the citadel?

Perhaps time will tell.  I pointed out last week that if the Tyrells are responsible we might have to wait for later episodes to explain their motives (and indeed this week we learn that whilst Margaery is probably innocent, her grandmother at least is convinced their family loses nothing with Joffrey dead, and that Margaery most certainly gains something). The same is true for the Martells. It is hard to imagine we will learn what Oberyn wants from being named a judge at Tyrion's trial until we actually get to Tyrion's trial. This too is an example of the show's approach in general, hiding and intwining a seemingly small mystery inside a larger one. The first example of this, of course, was the employer of Bran's would-be assassin, which started as a subset of the "what are the Lannisters up to?" plot but which by the end of episode four had triggered a war.

What will Oberyn trigger? Or Ellyria, for that matter? Frankly, it needs to be something good.  Because right now all we have from the Dornish is a mystery. Moreover, it's a mystery that doesn't really compare to the greater mystery of why the show dropped the ball on them as hard as they did.

No comments: