Sunday, 14 June 2015

"But It is One Thing To Read About Dragons And Another To Meet Them"

"Are you sure we really have to watch this?"
"Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not." - Mark Twain, The War Prayer 
This Is What They Want - Warren Ellis, NEXTWAVE Vol 1 title.
Game of Thrones has just gone three for three in staking out its episode theme in inescapably clear terms. Perhaps it was worried it was being too subtle before, though this seems unlikely ("Hey, guess who else is 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken' in this story? Let's callously fuck that right up! YEEEEAAH!"). More likely the show is enjoying the ability to show focus in its episodes rather than having to rely on the soap-opera model of incremental progression overshadowed by occasional tent-pole events. Either way, the question we're looking at is clear: has "any great thing ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?" Like the giving of gifts or the necessity of gambles, this question is very much in the foreground, to the point of appearing in dialogue.  Here, though, we can go a step further; Hizdahr's question is just one narrow part of a much larger quandary: how much are we to blame for the horrible consequences of what we insist we want to see?

(TV spoilers below, of course, and a trigger warning since I'll be making oblique references to sexual assault, including the sexual assault of a minor. Also, a doff of the kettle helm to @la_jellybean and @GeekPlanetDave, who hashed out some of what follows with me.)

The idea that any great cause requires sacrifice is probably one of our very oldest, obviously. Indeed, it's long since died as a vital, living idea and passed into the cold, misty land of the careless bromide. A simple rhetorical cantrip; a justification considered so universal as to be beyond actually justifying. The problem with reaching for the quote off the peg is that it makes it too easy to bypass any real thought as to who and what is actually being sacrificed.  Instead of sacrifice becoming a personal act of devotion to your aims and ideals, it becomes something others must experience for the "greater good".  The sacrifice becomes an ongoing act of horror entirely separate from those insisting sacrifice is necessary.

This is always the way of power, of course - see every government ever, especially the conservative ones. It's the nature of the game; a term which itself is designed to distract from the severity of the consequences for the "pieces". No-one loses in this game more frequently than the powerless, whichever side is claiming their loyalty. And this remains true whoever is holding the reins of power, whether it be someone as concerned about her people as Dany, or as outright sociopathic as Cersei. The answer to Hizdahr's question is "No, never. Obviously".

But though this answer is certainly accurate, it's also close to useless. Of course revolution comes at a cost, and some and probably most of those who pay it were innocent people just trying to live their lives. Dany learned that lesson all the way back in season one, when asking Khal Drogo to help her reclaim her family's power led almost immediately to a city she'd never even heard of being violently despoiled for slaves and plunder. The hope might have been that this would change once Dany was completely in control this kind of injustice would come to an end, but if that hope was ever truly alive it died in the streets of Meereen. I mean, who didn't, right?

What matters then is not the answer itself, but how one responds to recognising it as the truth. For power addicts and bloodthirsty fools, the inevitability of suffering is proof that there is no point in seeking to avoid it.  For anyone wanting to avoid rubbing shoulders with the great and the ghoulish, though, the fact that bloodshed cannot be avoided makes it all the more critical that it be minimised where possible, and when it isn't, that it is as justified as violence ever can be. At the bare minimum, that means facing up to what it is you are calling for. This is where Zo Loraq's oh-so-smug argument about Dany's hubris in assuming to know her subjects' minds better than they do falls apart. It's not that there's no truth to the idea that Dany could stand to understand the motivations of her people better than she does, but the absolute last person to lecture her on this is her new husband. Hizdahr has fallen into the common trap of believing once a person has chosen to do something, no further questions need be asked. If a man asks to risk being brutally murdered for sport so he can earn some money, then that's his decision and we have no right to question it. This, as my handy chart demonstrates, is colossal bullshit. Economic desperation is coercion, and Dany's stated goal of trying to work to end that economic desperation is a hell of a lot more palatable than her spouse's morally bankrupt philosophy that someone will always end up getting the shitty end of the stick so it might as well be transformed into entertainment.

Which is the keystone here. Murder as entertainment is exactly what we're watching. It always has been. Two men were slaughtered in this show before we even saw the opening credits for the first time. People die on this show more often than they have sex, and they seem to have sex more times than they eat breakfast. And this, for millions of its viewers, would seem to be exactly why they watch the show, or at least it forms a large part of it.  Just look at the episodes that gain the highest standing amongst the audience. It's not the ones where people sit down and talk out their differences (even though Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister are both awesome at it), it's the ones awash in blood and death. I have literally come across no-one, myself included,  who has chosen an episode other than "Hardhome" as the highlight of the season to date, an instalment in which hundreds if not thousands of innocent people are brutally murdered and reanimated as wights. And whilst the episode certainly doesn't shy away from the human cost of the massacre at Hardhome, the focus is on the excitement of the battle and the coming thrills for season six as a gigantic army of the undead heads southward to beat up the Night's Watch. The tremendously effective downer ending isn't about who has been lost, so much as how worried Jon Snow is about how long it will be before we start losing people we've known the names of for more than twenty minutes. About how the next tremendously exciting set-piece is going to go, in other words.

As a criticism of what the show focuses on, that cuts deep, but it cuts us no less. This is what we want. This, indeed, is what we've come to expect from the episode 9 blow-out; a totally new state of play brought about by murder. So how interesting that this time the episode 9 blow-out actually takes place in episode 8, and episode 9 then critiques those blow-outs. Once again, we're watching as people slaughter each other in the name of entertainment, but this time the spectacle is played out for characters within the narrative as well as for us. And the characters we've come to see as being at the heroic end of the spectrum are disgusted.  Disgusted at what they are seeing, and disgusted that anyone could possibly think that just because something might ultimately be necessary it is somehow OK to revel in it. 

The culpability of the audience is on full display in Meereen, then. But it's not just the Yellow City where our complicity is revealed, because it's not just there where we have been cheering someone on to get on with the business of killing their enemies. Fan sympathies - and certainly fan interest - may lie far more with Daenerys than they do with Stannis, but the desire to see him sweep southward and give two of the show's most hissable villains the pointy end of his magic sword is pretty strong. What that means, of course, is that we are praying for war, and as I nodded to above, Mark Twain had some things to say on the matter.  When we beg our gods (or even our showrunners) for victory in war, what we state aloud is:
[A]n ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —
But that's not all we're asking for. The rest, as Twain says, is unspoken, but it is what we are asking for all the same:
“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — 
For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! 
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."
This is the true war prayer, and it's what we wish for every time we hope Stannis will smash the Boltons to pieces. By all accounts, at least in the books, Stannis keeps his troops under a tighter leash than most, with his conquests being rather less rapey/pillagey than most, but even the most well conducted sack of a castle still involves a castle being sacked. People will die, and not all of them will deserve it. Hell, the men who fight for Bolton may well not deserve it; Locke was an arsehole, but others are surely simply doing their duty, which is to say obeying their liege lord so he doesn't set fire to their hut and murder their family.

And sooner or later, children are going to die too. They'll die because they get trapped in burning buildings, or because they wear the wrong sigil on their lordly clothes, or simply because their father was killed in a struggle over a castle they've never even seen, leaving them to starve come the winter that has almost arrived. Revolution always comes at a cost. What Melisandre's solution to Stannis' dire straits does, then, is force Stannis to pay that cost himself, rather than simply know it will be paid by someone else [1].  The same is true for us as an audience. Rather than simply knowing children will die as the north collapses into civil war, we've been forced to watch a child we've known for years die in the service of that war. We're being confronted with our complicity in enjoying a show about endless violent death. And yes, none of the death is real. So what? Shireen isn't real either. Either the fictional events we see have meaning despite not being real, or they don't. My position on that hardly needs spelling out. We are still culpable. I spent no small amount of time chatting last week about how cool and scary the zombairns of "Hardhome" were, and all of a sudden I think I can turn around and call on-screen child murder beyond the pale? No. I may be a culprit here, but I try at least to not be a hypocrite about it.

It's this need to force the audience to confront the horror of what they're hoping for that even justifies Shireen's terrified screams, I think, which I gather is one of the greatest points of contention about the  scene. It's certainly a horrible experience, but that's completely the point. If you are going to confront us with the cost of the war we want, you have to do it fully. We don't get to look away, not this time. It's also worth noting, as Phil Sandifer has, that this development has been built up to for at least a full season, with Stannis gradually having his choices chopped away - by the Night's Watch not joining him to give him more men, by the Wildings spurning him so he lacks anyone with the ability to help his army move through snow, by winter descending on his camp just a week or two too soon, by Ramsay's attack on the camp forcing him to face the very real chance of his army starving even if the Bastard of Bolton doesn't try another attack, which he almost certainly will - until this was the only option to the death of his cause and much of his army. It's not even clear if Stannis' force can make it back to Castle Black at this point. I mean, probably Stannis himself could, with Melisandre and Selyse and, in other circumstances, his daughter. But hundreds if not thousands of others would die on the long march, and the united north Stannis presumably is hoping for [2] would never materialise, rather ramping up the chances that everyone on the continent is going to end up a blue-eyed shambling corpse.  In short, I'm not even sure Stannis made the wrong choice, let alone a completely unjustifiable one.

If there is a problem here, I think it's in the similarities this scene shares with the conclusion to episode 6. In both cases a link is made between characters and the audience as they both watch horrific events which are played out through aural rather than visual information. Further, in both cases a young female character who has been with the show for years is being treated horrifically by someone who, on paper, should be their protector rather than their tormentor (I am of course referring to a husband's role as "protector" purely in the context of the culture of Westeros, of course). Further, neither scene appears in the books, though in Shireen's case this is unlikely to stay true forever. Which means Shireen's death fits rather too snugly into an increasingly obvious and endlessly awful pattern in the show. Each time Benioff and Weiss go off-piste it's to undersell and humiliate women at best, and to brutalise or murder them at worse. I've no intention of downplaying how serious a problem this is. If anyone wants to argue that given how far this show and particularly this season has gone down the misogynist rabbit hole it now simply cannot even try to expose the culpability of its audience in this way because it lacks all standing to do so [3] then I certainly accept the weight of that. Naturally, YMMV, but on this occasion, I'm inclined to believe the critique stands despite the season's other problems, at least to a point.

Still, discussing scenes not from the books with unsettling misogynistic overtones leads us neatly onto the exceptionally unpleasant scene in the Braavosi brothel. I'm not particularly inclined to defend this; it's another moment of skin-crawling misogyny in a season already packed to bursting with them. It opens up the opportunity for Arya to, as @GeekPlanetDave put it, "O-Ren" Ser Meryn, which is something I'm far from convinced the world needs to happen. And quite aside from anything else, it's lazy writing. I'm sure I've talked about the Harkonnen Dodge before: taking a character within an immensely complex narrative filled with shades of grey and labelling them an obvious villain by making them a paedophile. As though we needed more reason to hate Meryn Trant, the woman-hitting murderous toady and sneering coward.

But even here, in a scene I'd be perfectly happy to see weighted down and dropped to the bottom of the Braavosi lagoon, we can see echoes of our own failings here. Revolution against the corrupt and murderous is not the only kind of justice we can demand. And Arya certainly deserves justice. While the specifics are of course very different, Meryn here is about to traumatise a girl just as he traumatised Arya four years earlier by attempting to kidnap her and murdering her friend and mentor. By contributing to a chain of events that led to Arya being present for her father's execution. And whilst I know of no-one who doesn't sympathise with and root for Arya, the manner by which that support is demonstrated can be problematic. I think it's at least arguable and probably true that the best result for Arya in this story isn't for her to cross off each name on her lift, but to get to the point where she can live her life without feeling the list is necessary. And yet for a large proportion of the fan-base - and I'm not attempting to disassociate myself from this at all - cheered when Arya got the chance to murder Polliver, and now they are loudly expressing their desire for her to finish off Meryn Trant in a similar manner. So here's the question: are we really hoping Arya's life improves here? Or is our desire to see the villains punished overwhelming our desire to see the heroes happy? Whatever else this scene does - almost all of it bad - it does provide a reminder of how and why Arya is so damaged, and why casting her in the role of unstoppable child assassin is in a very real sense to undervalue her trauma. To ignore the results of the sacrifices she has been forced to make.

As I say, though, the fact that this scene can be slotted into the thematic whole here doesn't function as an unassailable justification for its presence. It's ugliness undercuts its own potential to reflect our own ugliness back at us. This, ultimately, is the problem with the whole episode. The early stages of the finale at the Meereen games works well as a critique of our enjoyment of "Hardhome", but the show is so reliant on what is being criticised that the same scene in then descends into exactly the same high-octane bloodshed and fantasy violence everyone was revelling in the week before.

The end result is less an extended meditation of our culpability, and more a half-formed tugging at the conscience that safely submerges once the next cool dragon scene shows up. Maybe that is one last dig at who we are, and what we want, but it really doesn't read like that. It reads like "There, there, don't worry. Here, have some dragons." Which I suppose isn't unreasonable. Or at least, it probably would be unreasonable to expect a show trading in action, intrigue and above all murder to spend fully 10% of a season questioning its own approach.  Even so, if you're not going to fully commit, the question has to be: why did you decide it was worth murdering Shireen and sticking Arya in a paedophile brothel if you were only ever going to half-arse it? 

[1] Obviously Shireen has paid a far greater price, and for someone else's war, for all that she was sure she wanted to help before she realised quite how appallingly high the cost was going to be. I don't want to suggest that Shireen's death is all about Stannis; that would be purblind. But whilst obviously the greatest tragedy here is Shireen's, not Stannis', I'm comfortable saying all the thematic resonance stems from Stannis' choice, which is why I'm focusing on it.

[2] This is a definite instance of the show dropping the ball; there's just not enough sense of Stannis' end goal here. There is, to say the least, a big problem with having Stannis repeatedly insist that with the coming of winter making it impossible to travel from Castle Black to Winterfell it's critical he spends the years of freezing cold and accompanying White Walker infestation somewhere away from the Wall. If I remember Dance With Dragons correctly, Stannis' actual plan is to rescue Sansa (though it's actually a woman forced to pose as Arya in the book) and use her as a figurehead to unite the north under him to fight off the White Walker invasion. This has been completely lost here, though, leaving some pretty damn smart Unsullied thinking this is all about Stannis' desire to become king, making Shireen's death seem less like refusing to deny the horrors of war and more like demonstrating that Stannis is a gigantic turd desperate to be a gigantic turd in a shiny crown.  This of course is one more instance of the show making use of the pay-offs from the books without bothering to cement the build up, and expecting them to have the same effect. See also much of Robb Stark's plot in season three, for instance.

[3] I am reminded here of that gobshite awful moment in "Journey's End" where Davros tries to critique the high death count amongst the Doctor's friends.

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