Monday, 11 May 2015

"They Say Dragons Never Truly Die, No Matter How Many Times You Kill Them"

"Two rulers, both alike in dignity
In cruel Worlderos, where their people seethe"

Like so much of season five to date, "Sons of the Harpy" is above all a study in the nature of rebellion. We may have finally reached the point where in places the peace stops looking fragile and starts looking actually broken. There are at least five strands unravelling here, but our principle concerns here are the stories of two queens.

(TV spoilers follow)

It is by now a point fully hammered home that this is a story of opposing poles; north and south, east and west, summer and winter, ice and fire. But the poles can shift from episode to episode.  This week there was little obvious taking place at the Wall, which makes me hesitate to pull the standard trick of discussing parallels between Castle Black and Meereen,  I think there is a link in terms of them lying on opposite ends of a spectrum, in that Stannis is hoping to start a rebellion against the Boltons (with minimal success if the Mormont response is representative; I imagine Sansa will have rather more luck once she gets stuck in to Operation Vengeance Is Coming) whilst Daenerys's city has just erupted into violent unrest. But really the action beneath the Wall - such as it is - downplays that angle in favour of... well, not really doing much at all, seemingly.  At first glance, there seems to be nothing going on oop north beyond marking time.

Actually, I have my doubts if this is true; I think Melisandre's cringe-worthy seduction attempts and Stannis' lovely scene with his daughter are both building to something truly upsetting. We've never seen Mel seduce a man without the end-game being using their blood for some murderous spell (which reminds me, we've not been to the Iron Islands for a while; did Balon Greyjoy get himself murdered at a wedding yet?), and if fan theories about Jon Snow are correct she may have been after royal blood that might be running in his veins. If she can't have his though, well, there's only one other obvious source north of Moat Cailin, and you've got to figure she won't have all that much to spare. We might all end up wishing this episode's time with the Night's Watch really was as inconsequential as it appeared.

In any event, a better place to hammer in our opposing pole to Meereen is King's Landing. We have here a perfect opportunity to do what I at least probably don't try enough; a direct comparison of the two queens we've been following from the very beginning. Both Cersei and Dany's season plot-lines so far centre on armed forces operating outside official boundaries - forces which only exist because of them, in fact - but whilst Dany is fighting hers, Cersei is relying on them.

The sheer lunatic folly of Cersei's decision to restart the Faith Militant should be entirely obvious at this point.  If you kick-start a populist movement in order to defend the king, I'd argue that at a bare minimum said movement shouldn't threaten to kill the king if he doesn't leave their leader alone.  For a while I wondered whether the encounter on the steps was simple mummery, with the sparrow-guards and the Kingsguard alike under orders from the High Sparrow and Cersei to face off without bloodshed. This might be a risky strategy - if Tommen had stood his ground, what then? - but Cersei knows her son better than we do, so it seemed plausible enough she could be sure it would play out the way she predicted. But even if that were true, and I'm far from certain that it is, the shouts of "ABOMINATION!" demonstrate that at least someone in the Faith Militant didn't get the message. Cersei has given the High Sparrow and his people the job of tearing down those in power who pervert the will of the Gods. What could possibly possess her to believe that the king's brother-in-law could be the very first target, but the king himself would not only be safe, but safer than he was?

The answer to that, I think, stems directly from who Cersei is as a person.  I've mentioned before I'm sure how strong a tactical thinker Cersei is, and how thoroughly wretched a strategic thinker. At the very least, I must have mentioned it after that season two episode (I forget which one) in which Tyrion points out she doesn't appear to know the difference between the two.  Cersei Lannister is Westeros's very own John McCain, scrambling to Win The Morning every day without the slightest thought about what's coming tomorrow.

But whilst John McCain is a useful (if increasingly outdated) figure to use as a comparison, Cersei's problems are reminiscent of the whole group to which the senior Arizona senator belongs: foreign policy hawks. The obsession of hawks like Charles Krauthammer or William Kristol with Cersei-style short-term thinking is entirely obvious (which isn't to say they have her gift for it). Such people cannot get to a microphone fast enough to shout that any delay in action is betrays "weakness" or  "lack of resolve", even - especially - when that delay is explicitly stated to be so a coherent long-term plan can be gamed out. Instead, the hawk demands an instant, maximalist response, in the belief that whatever occurs as a result can also be dealt with an instant, maximalist response, until victory is finally achieved. As @la_jellybean pointed out when we discussed this over Twitter, Cersei's plan at this point seems to basically be 1)Kill all Tyrells, 2) ?, 3) Victory! The Underpants Gnomes approach to feudal power consolidation, in other words, which might be quite amusing except you can easily replace "Tyrells" in there with "Iraqis" and get what was basically official US policy in 2003. Hell, if we think of Cersei's latest gambit as the arming of the populace so as to achieve her ends without risking her own troops (i.e. the gold cloaks and whatever Lannister forces Ser Kevan hasn't taken with him back west), then this starts to look an awful lot like the standard US wheeze of handing guns to whomever promises to shoot them at the "right" people. Which means it might not be long before Cersei learns the lesson of Afghanistan: sooner or later, the people you give the weapons to always end up thinking you look like a pretty juicy target yourself. Ultimately Cersei's problems might end up looking a lot like Dany's. And once you've got an insurgency on your hands it, like the dragons of Essos, can prove impossible to wipe out for good.

Another problem Cersei and her real-world counterparts share is that, even where the question mark to be filled in with something halfway plausible, there's still the issue of what "victory" even means. House Lannister has won its war against the North and all but shattered Stannis' ambitions, with every armed conflict in the continent now happening a month's ride or more from the capital. Cersei's son is ruler of seven kingdoms with the support of those kingdom's two richest houses and its largest army. What is that, if it isn't victory? But the problem here two-fold. Firstly, Cersei has become so obsessed with the quest for power that she's long since lost any conception of what "enough" power would be. This might well be because of her (entirely reasonable) chip on her shoulder about how badly women are treated in Westeros; she's conflated power with respect and so is desperate to keep gathering more and more influence until men finally take her seriously. Which of course will never happen, because men, whether in Cersei's world or ours, don't treat a powerful woman with respect but with suspicion and bitterness.

Obviously, that's not something I'm blaming Cersei for, though I'd argue given the sheer impossibility of her goal Cersei might want to aim for some other prize, if only for her own peace of mind. The larger issue, though, which is closely connected to her drive for more power, is that Cersei has developed that strange form of paranoia that insists the more powerful someone is, the more danger they are in, because people's desire to see them brought low is so much greater.  It's this half-baked nonsense that shoots through the thinking of people like Lindsey Graham, for instance, who spends half his time crowing about how invulnerable the US military is and the other half quaking in terror as he discusses the foreign foes of his country that are perpetually seven seconds away from obliterating America.   It isn't enough to have the most powerful military in the world, or a GDP per capita unimaginable to almost anyone else. There has to be literally zero threat from any source.

The fact that such a situation is self-evidently impossible isn't a concern. The fact that striving for it is obviously counter-productive (as again Tyrion has pointed out to his sister) doesn't matter. Put another way, it isn't enough for the Lannisters to be awash with power (or, as the hawks prefer to call it, "influence", a rhetorical switch used because influence is harder to measure than power, and thus the hawks can claim their country is bleeding influence without sounding so utterly deranged as they would if they insisted the US was losing power). Everyone else has to be powerless. It is for this reason that Cersei has spent the first few episodes of this season working so hard to separate the Tyrells from the levers of power, despite the horrendous risks involved. Let's just take a moment to take in just how disastrous it would be for the Iron Throne should the Tyrells decide they've had enough of the alliance. The Lannisters cannot hope to defeat the Tyrells in the field; their best general is dead, their sources of income are gone, and Highgarden is much closer to the capital than is Casterly Rock. A shooting war would be a nightmare for the lions, but I still wonder if on some level this is what Cersei is hoping for. Like the hawks who shriek about how they don't actually want war, there's a strong sense that open conflict is the only state of play in which Cersei is truly comfortable.

The reasons for this might not be all that complicated; during peace-time everyone gets the chance to rebuild and recoup, and that includes your enemies (as we've seen with the Sons of the Harpy themselves. of course). Cersei is exactly the sort of person to focus on her enemies gaining strength rather than the same effect in her own faction. From her perspective, the only time you can be sure those enemies are not secretly gathering their strength for an attack is by when you're attacking and so weakening them. The quickest way to stop having to fear if someone is secretly an enemy is by guaranteeing their enmity. The risks in this approach are obvious (or at least, they damn well ought to be obvious) but it perhaps becomes less unreasonable as the the chance someone is already your enemy grows. And for Cersei everyone is the enemy, because everyone is after the same coin she is. This is another link to the hawk obsession with influence; if you insist on focussing on one objective to the exclusion of all else you end up assuming everyone else is focussed in exactly the same thing. Everything Cersei does is in the pursuit of power, therefore she assumes everything everyone else does is in the pursuit of power, and therefore needs to be stopped in case they succeed.  That's why she berated Eddard Stark for failing to grab the Iron Throne when he (briefly) has the chance. That's why she removed Mace Tyrell from the Small Council as quickly as she could (or at least one of the reasons); it was inconceivable to her that he would be satisfied with merely being Master of Coin.  He must want more, because she would want more.

This assumption that everyone is playing for the same victory conditions underpins Cersei's mistake in restoring the Faith Militant; she assumes the High Sparrow's chief goal is power, and that therefore he will remain loyal to her because she can offer him more power than anyone else.  There's a clear problem here. Well, two clear problems, obviously: sooner or later Cersei will tire of giving him power the same way she did with the Tyrells, so she'll need a new ally to deal with the old ally who dealt with the older allies (this is getting pretty close to the song about the old lady swallowing a fly). But the other problem is that it's transparently obvious power isn't what the High Sparrow wants. He wants revolution. He wants a new world order where the pronouncements of God mean something again, dammit. He wants a fundamentalist religious state where religion doesn't prop up the system, it is the system. It's not even that he's not interested in acting as Cersei's private police force. It's that the idea is explicitly contrary to what he's actually after. Meanwhile, the Queen Regent/Mother believes he is in her pocket because he's grateful the crown will no longer oppress the Faith's military arm with extreme prejudice.

Which brings us to our final parallel between Cersei Lannister and John McCain: the total inability to understand that others might react to external pressures in broadly the same way you might. This works for both positive and negative developments.  Cersei expects those she offers power to to be grateful, even though every time Cersei has been offered the chance to gain or even to retain power, her response has been to take offence at any strings attached. I'm not inclined to even slightly blame her for not being more grateful her marriage to a drunken adulterous fool who ultimately upgraded to domestic abuse, of course, but I can point to her staggering lack of gratitude to her father for winning the war or the Tyrells for building the superstructure she needs to keep the "Baratheon" regime going. Those who have followed, say, the flow of the "special relationship" between the UK and the US will be all too familiar with a dynamic where one cannot gain gratitude, only gradations of disinterest and anger (America: world's most selfish boyfriend. Discuss).

But the parallel works just as well, if not better, when considering disincentives. There's a truly delusional tendency amongst hawks to assume that their enemies will roll over and bare their throats the instant the "good guys" do them sufficient damage. This is the exact opposite of how the hawks themselves react in similar circumstances - not one of them was demanding an American surrender following 9/11 - and the exact opposite of how American enemies have behaved in the past. It took months of saturation bombing, two atomic detonations and the Soviet Union declaring war on them before the Japanese finally gave up, and there was an attempted military coup launched to try and stop the surrender. Yet somehow these people have convinced themselves that the others can be cowed by the exact same actions that would enrage them themselves. It is the same with Cersei. As I've said, I think Ceresi is hoping at least subconsciously for open war. To the extent she's trying to persuade herself she'd rather avoid full military mobilisation, though, she's pinning her hopes on a campaign of humiliation and isolation cowing Margaery, despite the fact it is her own isolation and her own humiliation at Margaery's hands that has helped fuel her desire to strike.

To fit in with the metaphor, we could call this "Lannister exceptionalism". So how does Daenerys Targaryen fit in here? After all, if there is any family in the show who at one time considered themselves exceptional, it must surely be the one that regularly practised incest so as to keep the ruling bloodline pure.

It's obviously easy to point out that Daenerys is a very differnt queen to Cersei Lannister.  What's interesting is exactly how they differ. After all, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the two queens share some similarities. There is, in particular, reason to think that Dany is no better at long-term thinking than Cersei is, at least at first.  The Last Dragon's desire to become Queen of Westeros is almost certainly more sympathetic than  Cersei's need to cut out her allies so as to rule entirely by her own lights, but this doesn't imply Dany's long game is any better than Cersei's.  It's just that Dany is further behind regarding timetabling."I will be queen!" is an ambition, not a strategy, and it's not unreasonable to ask how much of the differences between Dany's long game and Cersei's is just that Cersei has already ticked that ambition off her to-do list.  And if anything was proved by Dany's liberation of Astapor and Yunkai, it's that she didn't think past getting people to say they'd do what she wanted. In short, her motivations for her actions are much more sympathetic than those Cersei, but the actual effort put into ensuring her actions led to long-term stability and prosperity does not seem obviously greater..

So the difference between Dany and Cersei - morality aside - is not that one ignores the long game and that one obsesses over it.  It's that Dany has recognised her mistake and wants to correct it. Dany is not a master strategist, but she is a recovering tacticaholic (I assume this is a hangover of the influence Viserys had upon her; that dude was self-entitled hawk all over, right down to insisting his planned invasion would be met with open arms by the smallfolk he would be steamrollering over). This of course is why she chose to halt her march north-westwards at Meereen; her guilt at the chaos her liberation of Slaver's Bay had caused compelled her to stay awhile and at least attempt to untangle the mess (something to point out to those who complain she should have kept on forging westwards; that might have gotten her to Westeros quicker, but it would be much, much harder to claim she deserved to conquer the seven kingdoms once she arrived).

Since that decision, Dany has been trying to temper her earlier, more rash decisions with her recently gained wisdom, without abandoning the uncompromising morality of those earlier stances. At the same time, she's attempting to form a more balanced and nuanced view of the events that led to her exile, helped by Ser Barristan's descriptions of her brother and her father (alas, he seems to have done as much as he can in that respect, which is why I give him rather lower odds of having survived the episode's climactic alley-fight than I do Grey Worm). This is underlined in the books, where in particular there's a lovely moment in which Barristan refuses to let Dany blame Ned Stark for the death of her sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and Dany suddenly realises that Ned can't be any more responsible for Elia, Rhaenys and Aegon's death than she is for the child that Drogon killed. Even in the streamlined narrative of the show, though, it's clear that Dany is trying to rein herself in, hence the not-at-all-subtle metaphor of having to chain two of her dragons up (whilst of course the third remains free, ready to rise up and breathe fire at any moment).

Whether Dany is actually being successful is unclear. The business with Mossador and the unnamed insurgent he murdered certainly suggests more fine-tuning is required; it seemed a great deal like Mossador hadn't get the fair trial Dany was insisting for the Son of the Harpy. That might simply have been an editing decision, but the crowd's reaction to Dany's decision clearly demonstrated she has a way to go before she manages to balance her conflicting impulses. Of course, it may well be that there was no way to please the crowd and satisfy her desire for justice (I do wonder if what she conceives of as "justice" is in fact a little too close to simply "legal", an odd position to be in when one is writing all the laws oneself), and Denioff and Weiss were making a point about how you can never please everyone. Furthermore, it's impossible to believe that the sudden uprising of the Sons has been aided by the former slaves. Yes, foreign liberators can become occupiers very quickly, and casting out the invaders is a hobby that can attract the strangest of bedfellows, but it's been mere   months since former slaves came to the end of generations of being bought, sold, beaten, butchered and raped. Those wounds can take centuries to heal, if indeed they ever can. The former slaves aren't going to jump into bed with their former masters just because their queen isn't nasty enough to other former slavers. At the absolute most, the execution of Mossador might make the freedmen of Meereen work somewhat less hard to help out as the Unsullied and the Second Sons get themselves cut down (which reminds me; I wonder where Daario Naharis is during all of this. Aren't we about due for another betrayal?)

It is of course entirely fitting that the specific reasons for the insurgents to have done so well in their first real attack can't be teased out from what we know now (assuming otherwise would again be a very hawkish thing to do). But assuming Dany's regime survives the uprising (and I suspect it will, if only because I can't credit the Sons of the Harpy having amassed sufficient numbers to ambush the Unsullied in the numbers necessary to  pull down Dany's professional soldiers before they can rally, or at least retreat in good order), she may well face the greatest challenge to her authority since the death of Khal Drogo. The temptation to tear down the embryonic justice system she has created and replace it with something far less lenient will be strong. With Ser Barristan likely dead, the only voice of moderation Dany has available to her is gone (well, there's Hizdhar, but I'm not expecting his counsel to carry much weight for the foreseeable future). Daario and Grey Worm -if he lives - will both almost certainly suggest overwhelming force as a response, and as quickly as possible. They won't want Dany to show weakness, or betray a lack of resolve. For the next few weeks, every bird of every plumage will suddenly become a hawk.

Cersei's storyline is about how she will never take the steps that could make her into Dany.  Is it possible Dany's storyline is about what it would take to make Dany into Cersei? Will they, in the end, become both alike in more than dignity? Or will the seething tide of the people sweep one or both of them away before they get that chance?

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