Sunday, 18 May 2014

Flames And Death

With three scenes in the last four episodes either involving it or narrowly escaping it, season four of Game of Thrones seems destined to go down in history as "the rapey year". But such obvious and sustained unpleasantness isn't the only moral problem thrown up by the show this year.  Indeed the other major contender - Dany's imperialist hi-jinks in foreign climes - is an issue that's been brewing since the show's very beginning.

(TV spoilers follow; book spoilers strictly set aside.)

The Dany problem can be fairly separated into two parts, with season two's messing around with bald Scottish sorcerers and pissy Wallace Shawn lookalikes working as an intermission of sorts.  We discussed the year one Dany problem at the time, but it's worth revisiting here as a way of framing the second, ongoing iteration. The original Dany problem was fairly simple: a pretty young white woman spent the first half of the first season being sexually abused by big scary grunting barbarians, and the second half alternating between trying to get them to risk their lives so she could beat up some other white people, and trying to get them to live more moral lives, as defined by a white person.

And fair enough. In no way are these ridiculous criticisms, even if I'm not totally unsympathetic to a line of argument that at least some of the complaints brought into play here are so general as to essentially apply to any kind of culture-shock story, which amounts to suggesting those stories can never be told from a white perspective [1]. We can also go back and forth on how much better the original novel does in presenting the Dothraki (and how much a richer painting of a non-white culture can make a difference here in any case), but none of that stops these criticisms from being amongst the fairest of cops.

Except... by the end of season one we're left in no doubt that Dany's approach has been disastrous.  It's already very clear by episode seven that the Dothraki are not simply tools for Dany to apply to her problems when Khal Drogo turns "please help me take my throne" into "please rape every woman between here and King's Landing" (Emilia Clarke's changing face as Jason Momoa gets to the unpleasant parts of his speech in a made-up language is probably my favourite moment from her acting-wise so far). But the point at which the chickens truly sign the lease on the roost and stick their corn supplies in a delivery van is Dany's interventions in Lhazareen, where her interference triggers off a duel which ultimately results in Drogo's death and the dissolution of his khalassar, and where her assumptions as to who owes her what come back to bite her in the arse.

Now, it's true that if we're casting around for intended morals from Dany's failure here that one could plump for "putting effort into trying to make people better is a waste of time", but that would be somewhere between uncharitable and flat-out ridiculous. Not because it wasn't what the author intended (plenty of horrible points are made by accident) but because the actual point being made is so clear: good intentions are not enough if you're thinking about interfering in someone else's culture, and believing you an fix everything is presumptuous not only because you lack the power of omniscience, but because even if you could see everything, only your own arrogance could lead you to believe you'd react in the right way, or that the "right way" even meaningfully existed.

That last part, of course, is the mistake Dany made with Mirri Maz Duur. Dany's need for the Iron Throne led directly to Drogo's slave-snatch in Lhazareen because it didn't occur to her Drogo would attempt to fulfil her desire in ways she wouldn't approve of.  Compounding that, it never occurred to Dany to hear Mirri's story, which might have led he to question whether Mirri would be grateful for the fact that although Dany's needs got her village burned to the ground, her friends sexually assaulted and/or taken as slaves and/or murdered, at least she herself was only raped three times instead of four (classic "where's my cookie?" behaviour, of course, though in this case Dany didn't want a cookie so much as medical assistance for the man who murdered a significant proportion of the people she wants credit for helping).

In short, Dany's season one arc started out looking like classic Caucasian imperial hubris, but ended with her having to pull three dragons out of the bag just to avoid probable death and certain historical irrelevance. The golden rule of A Song of Ice and Fire remained in force: you cannot deconstruct a trope before you have presented it.

All of which is worth bearing in mind as we pick apart Dany's story across the first five episodes of season four.

In fairness, season four's Dany problem cannot sensibly be considered except in light of season three, in which Dany's entire storyline consisted of visiting picturesque locations in Asia Essos and overthrowing their governments in accordance with her European western Westerosi conception of morality. Which in one sense might seem fair enough, in that Dany was smashing cities built on slavery, and slavery is tremendously out of fashion these days. But of course that's a blind alley; choosing genuinely hideous people for the white girl to impose her morals upon makes the problem harder to spot, not harder to object to. A racist story doesn't become less racist just because the people the white characters are fighting are genuinely awful - indeed the exact opposite is true.

So season three was a big problem in isolation, as was made inescapably clear by  its final moments, in which an ocean of brown humanity lift Danys up from the ground so that her wonderfulness can become all the more clear.  It was a cringe-worthy image, and a far cry from the comeuppance Dany suffered in the first season. Benioff and Weiss made some sense when they explained they needed one triumphant image to end the season on after so horrible and gut-wrenching an event as the Red Wedding, but the ends do not justify the means in television any more than they do in war.

All of which is to say - after... Jeez, ten paragraphs - that we entered season four with more than a little in the way of baggage. And purely in terms of television structure, that's completely and in all ways fair enough.  But it's worth remembering/noting that on this one occasion, we can plausibly forgive the television show on the grounds of the book. Because really, we're not actually watching season four at all; we're watching the second half of a double-length third season.  Which means we have to wait twice as long for the backlash.

And the backlash was always coming.  The show was smart enough to show us that in this season's very first episode, when we learned that Dany's dragons are becoming increasingly feral and uncontrollable. Like her power base, like the three cities of Slaver's Bay; Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal are spiralling out of her control.  Her relationship with Daario - supposedly nothing more than the captain of her first mercenary company, but in fact Dany's first romantic interest since she provided her erstwhile husband with the crappy end of a pillow - may well be doing the same thing. But Daario represents something else as well; the seductive nature of the quick, violent fix.  Daario is completely and utterly about the short game. Which, fair play to him, he's pretty good at - witness the hilariously quick dispatching of Meereen's favourite lance-wielder/bladder-emptier -  but his boss-massacring, ship-stealing antics are examples of a "seize what you want right now" mentality which could lead to all sorts of problems for Dany.

Which, of course, it already has. Dany's big problem over the last fifteen episodes has been to mistake power for control. She shows up somewhere, murders all her enemies [2], tells people how its gonna be from now on, and waltzes off to do the same thing somewhere else. But if the Iraq War (four years in the future when this material was originally published, of course) has taught us anything, it's that conquering is a far easier process than keeping the lid on somewhere you've ostensibly "liberated". If I might be humoured and allowed to stick with the US foreign policy metaphor, Daario represents the kind of hawkish fool who blows off any awkward questions about what happens post-invasion so they can devote themselves fully to planning which country gets invaded the time after this one.  The world shrinks to an endless list of what to go after next, with all thoughts of what to do with those things already acquired tossed aside as irrelevant. 

Dany has been following the Daario approach for far too long now. And as she herself says in "First Of His Name", her recklessness has worked out for her so far. Her uncomfortably familiar story of careless white imperialism - of imposing morality at spear-point [3]- has seen her reach her greatest level of power since she was born. But again, as with season one, you cannot critique a trope until you have presented it.  You cannot undermine something not yet built.  And here, fourteen episodes since Dany first caught sight of Astapor, we finally learn where this storyline has been headed all along: disaster.  Running into a foreign city and murdering all its rulers is probably very tempting if said rulers make their money mentally and physically abusing their labour force through violent enslavement (or by using them as signposts [4]), but an ignorance of the psychology of the people you are dealing with almost guarantees your hastily slapped-together alternatives will just cause new and unexpected problems.

So now the Yunkaii are back to doing what they've always done, only now the powerful have scores to settle with the powerless, and we all know how ugly that can get. What good has Dany done there?  Astapor is now ruled over by a murderous butcher, and whilst I have no idea whether the average Astaporian thinks things are better now than when the Masters were in charge, that uncertainty just underlines the point that Dany simply stumbled in with no idea about what she was doing.
 Which is explicitly what this story is telling us. All Dany's time playing the conquering hero and being lifted into the air by crowds of dark-skinned extras looked like fun and games and neoliberal wish-fulfilment, but it was a trick stretching out over a year and a half of television.

And whilst it's obviously commendable that Dany has realised her mistake and wants to take some time to try and fix the mess she's created, the uncomfortable question is raised: will this round of interference go any better than the last round of interference. To return one last time to US adventures overseas, can she Dany turn around Iraq now she's committed to trying?  Or is there really no option here that would be better than simply pulling out?

[1] Though of course the obvious comeback here, "Don't we have enough of those already, and aren't plenty of them offensive for other reasons too?" is a pretty powerful one. 

[2] Or has other people murder them for her. One way this season has learned lessons from the last one is by having Dany offer weapons to Meereen's slaves so they can claim their own freedom if that's what they decide to do. In the language of the interwebs, she's acting here as an ally rather than a white knight.

[3] Again, the fact that in the case of Dany vs Murderous Slave-Absuing Fuckwads no sane person would take the latter side isn't really relevant, because a white author can't justify white imperialism by making the people they're invading more unpleasant. Doing so is one of the most basic propaganda tricks employable. I also find it interesting that Missandrei is teaching Grey Worm Dany's mother tongue, despite the fact Dany can understand everything Grey Worm is saying perfectly.  I don't know if Grey Worm requested this to be able to confer with Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan, but in the context of this story about white people imprinting their cultural imperatives onto non-white people, it's an interesting development.

[4] Which of course is just one more way of tempting Dany to spring into action convinced of her own moral superiority.  In truth, this one felt a bit like overkill.  It's hard to credit that anyone in Meereen could possibly be so stupid as to think a trigger-happy leader with a bug up her arse about slavery is going to be deterred by the brutal murder of slaves.  But then I guess there was bound to be at least a few Great Masters convinced there was some hypothetical number of slaves they could murder before Dany would decide she needed to back off.  I'm sure the word "resolve" was batted around a few times, too.


Tomsk said...

You're imposing your post-colonial moral relativism on a pseudo-middle ages fantasy, thus YOU are the imperialist!

I wonder what these regimes would have to get up to in order that Daenerys could legitimately invoke Responsibility To Protect...

SpaceSquid said...

I find it hard to imagine a real-world Slaver's Bay wouldn't be completely fair game for overthrow according to RtP, but then if in real-life a secret cabal of Jews started killing and eating babies I'd be all in favour of storming their compound. That wouldn't make writing a story called When Jews Scoff Kiddies unproblematic.

Tomsk said...

Sure but my (admittedly opaque!) point was not about racism but rather whether modern concepts like RtP are actually useful in critiquing the plot - although I guess Daenerys's story does invite this kind of analysis thanks to her thoroughly modern distaste for slavery and indeed apparent race-blindness.

On the racism angle: having now seen season 3 I pretty much agree with what you wrote back then. Though I do have considerable sympathy for the writers if they are being accused of being racists as any kind of "imperialist" plot would invite such accusations no matter how deftly it is handled.

darkman said...

Why dismiss Daenarys distaste for slavery as "modern"? She comes from a society (Westeros) where slavers are executed and she herself was essentially a slave. Why wouldn't she has a distaste for slavery? Let's also not forget that in the real middle ages slavery was largely abolished and not accepted again before (relatively) modern times:

darkman said...

It's also worth noting that racism is also a relatively new invention, even the word "race" was almost completely unknown. If anything the era is defined by large groups of people going to other countries and fucking the ones they found there regardless of their skin color.

SpaceSquid said...


Considering I'm ten months into a progressive critique of the background to a mindless wargame, there's no way I can take any position other than contemporary critiques are always useful.


Good points, though I think they strengthen Tomsk's underlying argument.