Sunday, 31 May 2015
"The White Man, Disguised As A Falcon, Swoops In And Yet Again Steals A Salmon From Crow's Talons"
With a name like "The Gift", it was never going to be too hard to find a unifying theme for Game of Throne's forty-seventh episode. One of the characters is even kind enough to reference the title as the episode approached its end. "I brought you a gift."
As the circumstances there show, though, sometimes the gift's what is less important than its why, and the how. How did these gifts come into the giver's possession in the first place? Were they bought, or found? Most often it's neither: most often they are stolen. Which of course makes them no gift at all. "Nemo dat quod non habet", people. You cannot give what you do not own.
So who is giving what to whom, and why, and from where did they get their gifts in the first place? There are several packages to unwrap as we work out way through this week's instalment. First, though, we need to return to the ugliest scene the show has yet generated, and talk about how it's all gotten so much worse.
(The material below the fold carries both a spoiler warning and a trigger warning regarding sexual assault).
I wrote at some length last week about how the rape of Sansa Stark was, whilst ultimately wrong-headed, far less gratuitous and unjustifiable than many were saying. It was, I argued, a mistake not because it made no sense or failed to tell us anything about Sansa, but because what it did tell us was that she was willing to be complicit in her own sexual assault in order to gain revenge. That's not something we as a culture are ready to sensibly discuss, but I suggested that should the show stick the landing, this plot-line at least has a discernible utility that might actually make it one of the less unjustifiable instances of rape in the show.
Here we learn that the producers didn't stick the landing, instead flying full-speed into a mountain in the shape of a giant extended middle finger. My quasi-defence of last episode's ending hinged on Sansa having judged her plan for vengeance required consummating her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. But now we learn there was no plan, so far as can be discerned. Sansa apparently decided to just wait and see what happened, not reaching for the candle-flare until after the wedding because... well, we're no closer to understanding it. Apparently, this just isn't something we're supposed to think matters. When Sansa walked into Ramsay's bedchamber, I assumed she must have some kind of long game in mind. Assumptions were all I had, because the show didn't think it worth putting any effort into explaining Sansa's motivations beyond vengeance. But I believed that there had to be something.
I don't believe that any more. If Sansa had a plan at all, all indications are is that either it was to wait to see how things developed, which is appalling passive and months out of date for the character, or for Petyr to rescue her, which is much worse. If she had no plan of her own, why agree to Petyr's? If she wanted help in an escape attempt, why wait until after what she had every reason to believe would happen actually happened? If you intend to treat a beloved main character so awfully - to say nothing of upsetting hundreds of thousands of rape survivors and their loved ones - you need to ensure what transpires is either inevitable from either a character or a plot perspective, and preferably both. This was neither. Not even close. I complained last week that Beniof and Weiss are becoming ever more reliant on a writing model which relies on major events - the more shocking the better - acting as milestones in-between long stretches of dull meandering; half-formed ideas slapped on screen to approximate a logical route between the marquee moments. This was irritating when we were discussing wasting Alexander Siddig or waiting for Stannis to march south. The realisation that Sansa's rape was a scene the showrunners thought was so important they didn't really need to set or follow up properly is probably the most damning thing to date I can say about a show with far more than its share of problematic material.
(It also led to what I assume was an entirely unintended parallel; if last week Theon reflected the horror of the audience, this time Brienne took that role, as she stands watching Winterfell and hoping something not totally shitty would finally happen to break the cycle of enraged misery and profound tedium.)
Faced with all of this, the fact that Sansa gifts Theon with a stolen candle and he responds by stealing her hope, essentially by giving it to Ramsay, doesn't really seem worthy of discussion. So let's move elsewhere. Elsewhere geographically, I mean. Thematically, alas, not so much. Consider the gifts Gilly and Sam exchange with each other this episode, namely her consent and his virginity. We might kick around the idea that they give each other what they cannot give themselves; Gilly's virginity was stolen by her own father, and Sam's consent was taken by... well, Gilly, arguably. After all, the poor guy was probably concussed and likely high on the opiates the Westerosi use as painkillers at the time. Genuine consent seems out of the question, for all that there's precisely zero doubt in my mind he'd consent under essentially any situation he was able to.
But whilst that might be a neat observation, maybe even a clever one, it totally misses the real significance of what's going on here, which is that gives Sam sex as a reward after he saves her from rape. There are at least three ways in which this is a fucking terrible idea. The first is global: it is so utterly beyond high time that men stop thinking that sex is a reward for good behaviour, especially when that good behaviour is standing up to rapists. Let's not forget that it's only been twenty or so episodes since Sam literally saved Gilly and her son's lives from a rampaging ice demon who wanted to steal little Sam from his mother's breast. That didn't get him laid. But saving Gilly from rapers? Well, that's different, I guess. And as far as I can see, the only reasons it might be different are if you believe that either a) rape is worse than kidnap and murder, which is ridiculous , or that b) by standing up to the rapists Sam has proved himself better than they are and thus deserving of being given what they could only take by force, which is horrible and wretched, though depressingly plausible as something a man might think was true.
The second problem comes directly from the show's own past, specifically that wonderful moment in season one when Shae points out what should be utterly obvious to anyone - a woman doesn't feel like having sex mere hours after she comes within a whisker of violent sexual assault. Where has that wisdom (by which I really mean "basic fucking common sense", really) gone? How has a show so mired in its awful attitude to women actually managed to regress? I mean, I get what the show was doing here; offering the exact kind of cliched last-minute escape that Sansa was denied. There are several possible reasons for taking this route. One is as a reminder that the show is aware this trope exists, and deliberately didn't use it last episode. A second is an attempt to demonstrate through its use that it's an ultimately unsatisfactory plot beat. I don't actually think either of those are what's going on here, though; the first seems seems entirely unnecessary for a show that generally treats its audience as fairly smart, and the second implies the scene was written to fail, which doesn't strike me as plausible. I think the idea here was to remind us in the wake of events in Winterfell that there are at least some things that go right in Westeros. Sam and Gilly finally getting together would certainly qualify; who hasn't been hoping those two crazy kids could make it work?
Which actually might well have been a good idea, if the show had focussed on Sam and Gilly's emotional bond rather than them screwing, or even better if they'd finally made love without the spectre of rape haunting the scene. Which brings me to the third problem, which is specific to Gilly. Gilly is a survivor of at least one rape at the hands of her own father. More likely, she suffered multiple acts of abuse from literally the only man she ever spoke to until she met Sam. I can't even begin to imagine how that might warp her view of sex, but as Abigail Nussbaum pointed out on Twitter, we can safely assume that said warping exists, and to a very great extent. Given this, the absolute last thing the show should be doing is to link sexual assault and Gilly's arousal, however distantly. So either way, this stinks. If Gilly was really into that shag, that's awful. If she wasn't, but thought it was an appropriate way to reward Sam, that's no less awful. It should perhaps come as no surprise that in trying to make things better, Game of Thrones has managed to make things worse. But one does not have to be surprised to be disgusted.
Let's try and leave appalling gender politics behind, and move on to the gifting process elsewhere. We wander southwards through snowstorms to Stannis Baratheon's beleaguered camp, where Melisandre is promising to give out the same thing she always offers: victory. In the zero-sum game of thrones, of course, you can't actually give someone victory without stealing it from somebody else. Not that Stannis' enemies are necessarily going to be quaking in their wolf-skin boots; Melisandre might always be promising to serve up victory, but what she always seems to actually produce is death. This time, the death in question would be of Stannis' own daughter, a sacrifice apparently too much even for the notoriously unemotional lord of Dragonstone. If the success of his mission hinges on the theft of his daughter's life, then this is finally a price too high for Robert's younger brother to consider. Actually, it's interesting to compare Stannis' response here to that when it was Robert's child who required sacrificing. Back then, Stannis scoffed at the idea that a single life could possibly outweigh the future of the Seven Kingdoms. But was he wrong then, or is he wrong now? With winter finally here, the oncoming storm is closer than ever, and it will be bringing more than snowdrifts when it hits the north like a hammer. And how long before Stannis finds himself no more able to retreat than he can advance? We've known since the very first scene of the very first episode what happens to young girls who cannot escape the advance of the White Walkers. What is it worth keeping Shireen alive now just to see her killed by ice demons just a few months later?
Ser Davos will have an answer to that, of course: everything. Stannis might have changed his position on killing the children of kings, but his Hand? Never. Should his lord and master waver in the face of inclement weather, I think we can rely on Davos to do the same thing he always does; defy his king and extend a shortened middle finger to Melisandre. Except of course that giving Gendry a boat and pointing the prow towards King's Landing is rather more simply than spiriting a princess out of an armed camp and across the trackless wilderness of an unfamiliar land. Tracking footprints in the snow is a lot easier than following the wake of a coracle. Between the difficulty in escaping and the rapidly dwindling supplies of the southern army, Stannis' chefs might be serving up roast Onion Knight before the season is out.
Further south - as far south as south goes - and the storyline in Dorne revolves about the handing out of gifts as well. Mainly, alas, it's the gift of unnecessary tits. Considering how awful the show has been on gender issues in the last two episodes, it seems almost unnecessary to point out how wretched this development is, but I still want to note that against all odds, the Dorne plot has somehow managed to get even worse. Apparently it wasn't enough for the Sand Snakes to be fail to demonstrate any real fighting prowess last issue, we now have to suffer through watching one of them threaten to let a man die unless he says she's the prettiest girl. In fairness, I actually quite like the idea of turning on a man because that will make the poison you gave him kill him more quickly; it's letting him live after he flatters you that sticks in the craw. Yes, the tiny antidote bottle is one more gift in an episode crammed with them, as is Tyene gifting Bronn with his life, which she had only just stolen from him, but this remains the most obvious demonstration yet that Beniof and Weiss have no idea how to run the Dornish plot this season, and that they don't actually care so long as they can hire (admittedly astonishingly gorgeous) women to disrobe on camera.
(Given the theme of the episode, I was surprised Jaime didn't tell Myrcella the truth about her parentage, giving her a new father at the same moment as stealing away her old one. Maybe that's still to come, or maybe that's too much like an actual plot for Dorne this year.)
Onwards, briefly, eastwards over the Sea of Dorne to the Meereen hinterlands. In fact, there's little to be said here. Jorah's attempt to offer Tyrion as a gift (a gift he stole, naturally) is the event that gives the episode its name, but all we can do here is speculate. With Dany and Tyrion yet to meet in the books this is the first plotline to move into presumed Winds of Winter material (as oppose to material which has divorced itself from the books), we can try to cast the bones as to what will happen next - personally I'm desperately hoping Tyrion's next words are "Oh, all these guys? Totes slaves, bee-tee-dubs" - but that's about all. Personally, I think Ser Jorah is drastically overestimating how much Dany is going to want to have hold of Tywin Lannister's youngest child. Tyrion was (I assume) only twelve when King's Landing fell to the Usurper, which even in the world of Westeros seems a little young to be held responsible for his family's actions. Also, if there is anyone in this story who should understand the unfairness of blaming somebody for the conduct of their father or their elder brother, you'd think it would be Daenerys Targaryen. As a source of information on the state of play in Westeros, Dany can doubtless make use of him, but that's highly unlikely to be sufficient reason for her to forgive her former bodyguard, especially since using Tyrion to sell out his ostensible friends and loved ones will remind the young queen exactly what got Jorah into trouble in the first place.
Let's leave Essos as quickly as we came to it, and finish our tour of the game board where the episode does, in King's Landing. It's here that the show gives its own gift, by stealing Cersei Lannister from the game-board, something I'll take over any number of nervous young lovers finally coupling, thank you very much. With the partial exception of Daenerys, Cersei's plot this season has been the only one to be presented as a structure, rather than a series of unfortunate events. This is proper tragedy, in fact, albeit with a particularly unsympathetic protagonist, and even that seems less true every time we get to see Cersei with Tommen and are reminded how utterly devoted she is to his safety. Losing Joffrey may have made her more insanely paranoid than ever, but watching her underline her commitment to her last surviving son makes her far more sympathetic than did watching her press her horrific ideas of how to rule onto Joffrey. And speaking of the late, unlamented sadistic bastard, how interesting that once again Littlefinger and the Queen of Thorns join forces (via the mockingbird giving the rose a gift, of course) to bring down another Lannister. Both times this was as a direct result of Cersei's fuck-ups, whether in raising a monster, undermining a crucial alliance, or mistaking Littlefinger for an intel delivery service who can be summoned from half a continent away whenever it's convenient. It's not just Cersei's obviously self-defeating empowering of the Faith Militant that has brought her to this pass. The pressure has been building in every direction for two decades now. It was only ever a matter of time before the geyser blew, and she found herself toppled by the force.
Much as I love Cersei finally getting her comeuppance, though - and respect for not folding when she's grabbed; her hissed final threat was wonderful, and sounded far more credible than the circumstances should have allowed - that's not my absolute favourite scene in the episode. That honour instead goes to the deceptively quiet meeting between Olenna Tyrell and the High Sparrow. The Faith Militant are a source of deep frustration for me, because they combine a disgracefully retrograde approach to sexuality with an utterly wonderful commitment to what we would call the working class. But if I might be permitted to set aside their fundamentalist approach to gay people, watching the High Sparrow point out that the law will no longer apply to the powerless is a tremendous statement of intent. Of course perjury should be as serious for the queen and her brother as it is for anyone else. Of course it's a grotesque statement of privilege for those who have never worked a day in their lives to talk about "their" grain. Reminding the few that they should fear the many is about the most progressive statement this show has ever made. I don't particularly mean that as a criticism; the very structure of this show and the society it depicts make socialist commentary difficult. But every now and then something like this slips in, a glorious "fuck you" to the whole rotten system, and a direct challenge to those fans who argue about who deserves the Iron Throne, as though there isn't something profoundly ugly about claiming "your" dictator would do a better job than someone else's. The happy ending here isn't Dany taking the throne; it's the throne being melted down and made into ballot boxes.
This too is a gift, then. The gift of revelation, which Olenna may well ignore but which we should embrace. As horrible the cost of the War of Five Kings was, the peace is near as problematic. What we need far more than Dany to progress westward is for Westeros to progress itself. That couldn't happen whilst Cersei was de facto ruler, so we can celebrate her incarceration. But it also can't happen whilst the revolutionaries waste this opportunity to punish the oppressors by rooting out those with alternative sexualities. As always in this story, the cure is not uniformly better than the disease. But some cure is needed, and quickly. The rot is deep, the people are exhausted, and after years of war, food is about to become very scarce indeed.
And winter is coming.
 Note that I'm not arguing it's ridiculous to suggest creating fictionalised portrayals of rape is worse than creating fictional portrayals of kidnap and murder. There are all sorts of reasons why the two cases are very different, most of them involving how well one can then portray the fall-out of said fictional event.