Monday, 22 June 2015

"Enough Is As Good As A Feast"

The best shot in the whole finale. The dragon is so tired from its dance
it can't stop its circle becoming a feast for crows.

"Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever. But get over it." - Cordelia Chase.

"They say you don't have a problem until you start bringing it home" - The Hold Steady, You Can Make Them Like You.

Hey, Game Of Thrones. Can we talk? Everyone's worried about you.

(Spoilers from jump, people. No book spoilers of course, though at this point some minor nods at Arya's future are all I could manage anyway. And once again, I must put up a trigger warning for sexual assault. One last shout-out is due to @la_jellybean and @GeekPlanetDave, whose bottomless well of seething disgust I have drawn from several times.)

This is an intervention, Game of Thrones. It's not about judging you. It's about wanting you to change so you no longer hurt yourself or the people you love.

Some of this is our fault, and we know it. When you first started using misogyny, you claimed it was a social thing, and we believed you. We all wanted the grotesque deck-stacking of our culture to be studied and critiqued in a fantasy show, and so we let you revel in it a little too much, hoping you would generate a damning indictment that never came.

Instead the indictments are all being thrown at you.  And I can hardly claim they're unfair. With the season over,  the entirety of Sansa Stark's plot can now be described as waiting for someone else to tell her how to get vengeance, being raped, and needing to be saved by the man who betrayed her brothers and got at least two people she'd known all her life killed.  You made her story about Ramsay's evil, which we knew about, and Reek's redemption, which we didn't care about. You looked at the long, horrible story of Sansa's time at King's Landing and decided the biggest problem with it was that at no point was Sansa literally fucked.

There was still one moment here where you could have slowed the rot.  Not saved the storyline, of course, that moment passed weeks ago.  But as Reek and Sansa share looks of shock after Myranda's death, there was still some small hope in me that Sansa would take charge, that whilst the ruin of Theon had helped out she would, in the end, essentially rescue herself, becoming, albeit horrifically belatedly, a protagonist in her own story.

But no. In the final analysis, Reek, a man who has been repeatedly tortured, badly maimed, and subjected to vicious psychological abuse to the point he doesn't just serve his tormentor, he specifically helps him commit more crimes, ends up being more able to effect escape than Sansa. Whilst there is a certain irony that this has allowed you to replace Theon's season three arc as the absolute worst story you've told so far, that isn't something you should be expecting applause for.

And Sansa isn't the only woman you treat appallingly here.  Hell, she isn't even the only daughter of Catelyn Stark you treat appallingly here. I've no doubt you were punching the air in the writing room when it occurred to you that you could give Arya Stark a new face for when she is being physically beaten for another man's sexual gratification, but the idea that the worst possible outcome of that scene was that Maisie Williams might have to be in the whole of it demonstrates just how unmoored from reality you've become. Like making sure the actual rape of Sansa Stark was as tasteful as possible, you've convinced yourselves that as long as the actresses are protected from nay possible lascivious male gaze, it doesn't matter how the characters are treated. Which is a truly dazzling failure to understand the most basic aspects of fiction, though if this episode proved nothing else, it's that five years running the biggest show in the world can lead to some pretty extraordinary atrophy in actual talent.  "You need bad pussy," Game of Thrones? Really? Have you ever met a real woman, Game of Thrones?

Back to Arya. The way you made her killing of Meryn Trant so relentlessly horrible and soulless - Arya doesn't even feel the need to look her victims in the eyes anymore, or perhaps actively tries not to, hence why they were early targets - is a brilliant inversion of the last name she struck off the list, almost two full seasons earlier. In that dingy Riverlands tavern you framed Polliver's death as righteous, a moment of justice for poor Lommy, with Arya cast as the avenging angel paying back a life owed. The way she repeated Polliver's own words back to him gave the scene a sense that this is how things should happen, at least in fiction. Villains should see justice, and that justice should be poetic. Now you give us the other side of this coin, which is that vengeance killings delivered by a horribly traumatised young girl look like any other kind of killings delivered by a horribly traumatised young girl: unbearably sad and ugly. Which is great and all, but by forcing Arya to be assaulted for the sake of sexual gratification first you equate her suffering with the suffering of every one of the long list of women suffering sexual violence in this narrative. You want us to realise how awful it is that Arya has to suffer so, but you keep again and again parading that suffering in front of us. Like the prudish scolds who will never shut up about sexual deviancy, seeing it in every corner and on every street, one eventually has to conclude that the level of obsession is so intense it cannot stem purely from dislike.

You're just too fundamentally compromised now, Game of Thrones.  Your addiction is simply too obvious. You've long ago surrendered the right to be given the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there was something of interest being said about the nature of power in the Winterfell plot, as Amanda Marcotte argues, but how can we be expected to extract that from the morass of horror you poured over it? Perhaps Arya's willingness to silently endure torture so she could kill her enemy is a demonstration of just how much she has and will sacrifice to get what she wants (a theme of course that surfaces elsewhere in the episode), but how can we consider that when the foul taste of seeing her beaten by a pervert is still so impossible to wash from our mouths?  Perhaps the long walk of Cersei Lannister was as uncompromising and as far from titillating as it could be made - I thought this did well in capturing Neil Gaiman's thoughts regarding Calliope, namely that there's a point where nudity stops being arousing and becomes desperately sad - but in a show that so regularly has women disrobe to sate the male gaze both within and without its fictional world, how can you expect anything but accusations of showing more than you needed to, for longer than you needed to?  Yes, Cersei's walk of shame is a critical part of her story in the later books. Yes, it demonstrates that no matter how high a woman rises in the world, there will always be men (be it the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant, or in Dany's case terrorists who hide their faces and so label themselves as men with their very name) who will find ways to tear them down. Removing the scene from this adaptation would have been a genuine sham., But if something worth doing no longer should be done, yours is the only door at which we can lay the blame.  You've undercut your position here so totally that even the scenes that most make sense in context now carry with them an unpleasant smell. The tale is lost in the foulness of the telling.

Take the last days of Stannis, for example.  Some have criticised you for taking a standard trope from classical literature and utterly failing to figure out how to use it.  The great sacrifice, as Agamemnon will tell you, has two immutable properties: it must damn the protagonist, and it must work. Seeing Stannis agree to his own daughter's agonising death to allow for an attack which then sees his army crush and himself killed [1] is completely at odds with how storytelling is suppose to work. Ordinarily, I would be inclined to call this objection wrongheaded. One of the main attractions you offer, Game of Thrones, is how you invert classical tropes, after all. But the problem here isn't that a trope has been subverted, it's been subverted in a way that makes it vastly less satisfying. You can't just change the way stories are constructed and hope the sheer act of alteration will generate something worth the telling. You have to know the rules - have to understand them - before you can break them.  What rankles here is that Stannis' choice leads to the death of both his daughter and his wife, and then almost immediately sees his years-long quest collapse. The loss of two long-standing female characters are apparently necessary simply to carve a short-cut to cutting Stannis out of the narrative; their deaths stem from a shrug of the shoulders. "How do we get rid of Stannis?" "Well, maybe if we kill his wife and kid?".

The murder, rape and humiliation of women have stopped being a horrible fact of life in the show and become the default position, the skein mined to solve every problem. How do we finish of Stannis' plot? He burns his daughter and his wife kills himself. How do we give something for Sophie Turner to do this year when Martin is massively spinning his wheels regarding her endgame? She gets locked in a tower and raped every night. How do we sell how badly Arya's quest for vengeance is actually hurting her? She gets beaten up by a paedophile. How can Reek be redeemed? He pushes a woman to her death. How do we end an incredibly pointless season-long plot arc in Dorne? Princess Myrcella gets poisoned. On and on and on.  The big surprise a the end of this season is not that Jon Snow is killed - this makes three for three for odd-numbered seasons that kill a male Stark - it's that Gilly wasn't casually killed alongside him, or raped in the aftermath. You're not shocking when you shock anymore, Game of Thrones.  You shock when you show restraint.

Um, OK. In the end, that turned out to be very judgemental indeed. But you need to know the damage you've done. You need to take time over these next few months to sit down and really think about what you want to do, and to be remembered for. Do you want to be the show that swapped effortlessly between mining fantasy tropes and deconstructing them to create one of the most satisfying television narratives of all time? Or do you want to be the show that was just horrendously unpleasant to women whenever you worried things were getting a little bit dull?

The clock is ticking, Game of Thrones. Winter is coming. What do you want to be?

[1] Or so it seems.  There's an obvious out here, but Benioff & Weiss have spoken about how little they like the character, which is presumably why they've so spectacularly bungled him ever since introduction, no through no fault of Dillane, who's been brilliant. In other words, the show easily could bring Stannis Baratheon back, but there's little reason to believe it will want to.


darkman said...

At least we didn't get a detailed depiction of Daenarys shitting in the woods. I count that as a victory.

SpaceSquid said...

Small mercies, as they say.