Sunday, 7 June 2015

"The Dice Are Dancing On The Table. Between Now And The Time They Stop, That's The Greatest High In The World."

"We fight for highest stakes. Victory goes to those who take the greatest risk." - Captain Sorin, The Curse of Fenric
This week, we're all about the slot machines. Well, we always are, aren't we? The game of thrones, at its base, is nothing but the largest roulette table ever conceived. It's players are legion, its rules are unclear at best, its penalties are severe, and practically everyone cheats. Some, like Littlefinger, would surely argue that makes it all the more fun to play. I wouldn't go that far - like most probabilists, I have little time for gambling even when there's no chance of a bad spin costing me my head or genitals - but I will certainly allow that it makes it all the more fun to watch.

(Watching from this point on will involve TV spoilers.)

Part I

So if the whole game to date has been about gambling, how is it more worthwhile to discuss the fact regarding this episode than for any other? The short answer would be the fact that the topic appears directly in the text, in the form of the thin man at Ragman's Harbor who's running an insurance scam on the local sailors. It's a reminder not only that the game is a gamble, but that the gamble is rigged. It's instructive in just how the game is rigged, too. If the gambler bets with a captain that his ship will return, there are only two outcomes. Either the ship gets back, and the gambler is paid, or the ship goes down, and the people the gambler owes money to are women and fatherless children, exactly the kind of people men can essentially ignore in the patriarchal cultures which pack the show.

But of course whilst every game is rigged, there is always the hope that the game won't stay rigged. There is always a chance the scales can be balanced. This is Worlderos, of course, so balancing the scales is no simple act to be performed by those pure of character (just witness how screwed-up the High Sparrow's attempts are). In Braavos what justice is to be found comes at the point of a needle carried by a traumatised young girl - a fatherless child. Arya's experiences since the day she left Winterfell have left her completely aware of the fundamental injustice of society, and totally blind to the concept of proportional response. The people she has in mind to murder do not engender the slightest sympathy in us, of course, but this is a classic Martin trick. The first people our heroes bring down are always the ones that most deserve it (or the ones that pose the most urgent threats, like that poor plump stable boy). Sooner or later though the House of Black and White might call for the death of someone rather less obviously unpleasant, and Arya might learn that the Many-Faced God is running a game no less crooked than anyone else's.

Still, while one might be concerned about Arya's approach to justice, we can at least be thankful there are those in the world who wish to pursue it at all. For another example - a woman who once too was a fatherless child - we can head east to Meereen. Here to we find someone determined to gamble not by playing the game, but by changing it. If anything, that is a more dangerous gamble still, and yet Daenerys is convinced it must be taken. She explicitly rejects what she considers the most sensible course when she announces she will not have Tyrion executed. This is great news for the audience, of course, since it promises further scenes between Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage - both of the two we got this week where absolutely wonderful - but it also brings us to the real focus of this episode; not the gamble itself, but the way by which characters attempt second gambles after previous gambles have failed.

As Dany suggests, after all, taking on Tyrion as an adviser is not without risks. I'm sure she could not have forgotten in any case that the first man from her homeland that she took on to advise her on Westeros betrayed her to the very person who forced her into exile, but just in case, here Jorah is in front of her once again, all wounded pride and sulky puppy-eyes. He literally shows up to offer her the chance to take the same chance on Tyrion as she did on himself (that's not his motivation here, but it's what happens). The result isn't what Jorah wanted - and note how the instant Plan A goes against him he returns to the fighting pits, quite literally buying in to the gamble he will survive long enough to see his Khaleesi again - but Dany goes for what is offered. Which is impressive. Second risks always are, compared to the first. We can all take that initial chance, back before we've been burnt by failure. What shows character is to screw up horribly, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and make the exact same choice again because it needs to be done. "Once bitten, twice shy" might scan well, but as an animating principle it can lead to inaction, and inaction can be fatal.

The question of when prudence becomes passivity, and the associated dangers therein, has perhaps been most thoroughly explored in Sansa's arc over the years. Time after time Sansa has been thrown into situations in which passivity was not just not a reasonable response, but a necessary survival skill. But the hyper-cautious approach comes with its own risks. Given how events shook out, it's probably for the best she chose to note flee with the Hound following the Battle of the Blackwater, but that's sheer presentism; we can't say Sansa made the sensible choice just because we now know had she fled with Sandor the odds are good she would have ended up dead at the Red Wedding (though actually, more likely she'd 'just' have ended up engaged to Ramsay Snow one season earlier). I'm not saying turning Clegane down was clearly the wrong option. If Sansa figures the known horrors of Joffrey are preferable to the drunken sociopath who wants to get her alone on the road, I have no basis for criticism. But I don't think it was clearly the right option. And just a year and change later, and she has to be almost dragged bodily from the disintegrating wedding of her tormentor despite the smart money being on her ending up on her being held responsible [1]. This season, when presented with a candle she could use to escape her latest murderous fiance, she chose to not risk using it. At the time I believed that meant she had a long game in mind, but subsequent episodes seem to have made it clear this wasn't the case. Whatever Sansa's plans or goals, it seems her unwillingness to use the candle was a simple refusal to take the risk, a calculation which changed only when she discovered just how hideously awful life with her new husband was going to be.

So at long last, after more than three full years of avoiding any proactive action (and again, this is not to suggest criticism of that avoidance) Sansa takes her first real chance, and tries to turn Theon. And last episode it all went drastically, horrifically wrong. The first risk Sansa was willing to entertain, arguably since the show first began, ends up with her only friend in the castle skinned alive and her monstrous husband even less inclined to treat her with kindness and respect than he was previously.

And yet Sansa still takes another chance, by trying once again to turn Theon. By forcing him to confront who he is and what he's done, and not letting him pretend Theon is dead and therefore he is cannot be guilty of what Balon Greyjoy's last son did.  It's interesting to remember that Theon too once gambled for the highest stakes; taking Winterfell with a mere handful of men. The gamble absolutely didn't pay off, and as a result he has perhaps suffered more and worse than any other person in this story, save Sansa herself.  Sansa has decided to keep risking, and for her risk to pay off, Theon needs to risk something too.

Of course, whilst we hope that Sansa's risk pays off, and therefore Theon's too, others in the castle stand poised to throw the dice, and we're rooting for utter failure. Not for snake eyes, for the dice to explode and burn off the the thrower's face. Roose Bolton is the inverse of the established pattern here; whilst everyone else is shaking off the effects of their first sour gamble, Roose is riding high on how successful his was. Betraying the Young Wolf got him the whole of the north to play with, and having risked so much to gain it he's apparently far less interested in risking anything to keep it, preferring instead to wait behind Winterfell's high grey walls.  I can see the virtue in such an approach; after all, Cersei didn't know when to stop pushing her luck, taking gamble after gamble until eventually something went horribly wrong and she seemingly lost everything [2]. But as always, there are risks in taking no risks, and since Ramsay hasn't actually taken any chances since we first met him, he's champing at the bit to get a few dice rolls onto the scoreboard. We can only hope that his first gamble is his last.

(Actually, @GeekPlanetDave came up with a thoroughly awesome theory when we discussed this episode on Tuesday: if the Boltons have any royal blood in them, Melisandre could capture Ramsay and sacrifice him for whatever spell she has in mind to get Stannis moving again. That way the son could be used to bring down the father. That's a great idea - certainly better than any other scenario the show is point towards - and it does have support from the original text, with the Boltons of old being known as the Red Kings, who fought with the Kings of Winter for generations before the latter became the Kings in the North. The only potential problem here is that having Ramsay die in the snow north of Winterfell makes it that much harder for Sansa to achieve anything that might make up in some small way for how godawfully horrible her plot has been this year so far. Naturally the idea that B&W are putting any real effort into that kind of damage limitation is not one I'm sold on; the level of intelligence necessary to see how badly Sansa's arc needs emergency work is rather greater than the level of intelligence necessary to see that the final scene of Episode 6 was a fucking disgraceful move.)

[1] That might be presentism too, I confess, but I don't think it is. Sansa has had plenty of time to mull over the fact that the Lannisters are perfectly happy to punish the innocent if it gives them satisfaction; Cersei taught her that lesson in the very second episode, and there have been reminders since. She also knows her husband despises the king and just gave him the wine that apparently murdered him. With Sansa's self-preservation instincts on full alert pretty much at all times, I find it very difficult to believe that there wasn't at least some part of her brain that had tripped the red alert switch the moment Joffrey collapsed. 

[2] That scene with her forced to suck water from the cracks in dirty flagstones was a real gut-punch, painful to watch despite knowing how unpleasant the (former?) Queen Regent is. As a thumbnail sketch of how far Cersei has fallen, it was pretty much perfect, and an infuriating reminder of how well Benioff and Weiss can do this sort of thing when they're not going for the lazy shock or cynical listicle-topper.

Part II

Speaking of gambles that go wrong, then, let's finally turn out attentions to the second half of this episode, in which the standard Thrones model of incremental progress amongst multiple plots is abandoned in favour of almost thirty full minutes of frenetic action north of the Wall. And what action it is; this is far and away the most impressive battle the show has ever managed, an extended scene of utter horror and carnage that seems a world away from the total skipping of Mormont's stand at the Fist of the First Men.  In fact, this scene represents the point at which the show stops cutting out the battle scenes included in the books and stars adding in its own; becoming more focussed on the brutal reality of the wars of Worlderos as the precise moment Martin's writing becomes so flabby that battles become like buses that keep coming but never arrive [3]. Indeed, you might even say this is the show practising what it preaches and giving us a gamble of its own; basing a full episode and presumably a vast chunk of its budget on a scene that exists nowhere in the books (well, the Night's Watch do go to Hardhome, but without Jon all we learn of the mission is from brief surly letters from the man in charge). If so, it's a gamble that pays off rather better than any other one so far this year. The battle looks and sounds gorgeous - which is to say appropriately ugly and upsetting. The nameless giant and his plank of burning death is wonderful, as in their own horrific way are the poor zombie children, unable to join in the early massacres because of their short little zombie legs. Seeing the White Walkers again (something else Martin seems bizarrely reluctant to have happen in his novels) is always a spine-chilling thrill, and finally seeing proof that Valyrian steel can do for the frozen sods is a satisfying pay-off for years of speculation (something Martin seems bizarrely reluctant to have... well, you get the idea). If I have one complaint, it's in how badly Birgitte Hjort Sorenson is pissed away as Karsi. With Ygritte dead the show was crying out for another female Wildling of a different mold to Gilly, and wasting her for the sake of a cliched inability of a mother to fight zombie children is short-sighted, gendered, and cheap. How much more interesting would it have been for the troublesome Thenn from the Mountains of Manly-Men to have been the one to be bamboozled by the zombairns, for instance?

That complain aside, though, this is astonishingly competent stuff. Quite aside from how impressive this all is realised, though, the episode's imbalance is no more obvious than it is appropriate. Sansa and Theon might be gambling with their lives, Ramsay (and, off-screen this week, Stannis and maybe even Brienne) with the fate of the north, and Dany with the very social structure of the realms of man, but Jon Snow is gambling with the fate of all humanity. He plays for highest stakes, and so he must take the greatest risk; heading to Hardhome with literally every weapon the Night's Watch has that can damage the White Walkers. A present for the Free Folk, to remind them that they are, at long last, all on the same side, or at least if they're not, they'll all be on the same side of the grave.

And the gamble goes wrong. The obsidian is lost. The attempt to avoid swelling the ranks of the dead is mainly unsuccessful, with the most useful fighters in the Free Folk now zombified, along with doubtless some amongst the best men of a horribly depleted Night's Watch. It all came down to timing in the end; just a few more hours and Jon's gamble would have paid off.  But a plan that fails by the narrowest of margins still fails. Stannis could have told him that after the Blackwater. Jon just presided over Westeros' very own Dunkirk, and as Lord Gort could once have attested, that doesn't tend to lead to an exceptional career. Like Gort before him, Jon did an impressive job of minimising the damage once everything went to shit, but that doesn't change his responsibility for things having turned to shit in the first place. Jon lost almost every effective weapon and presumably more of his increasingly precious fighting men evacuating thousands of hungry mouths to feed, whilst the warriors he had hoped to ally with to "give the fuckers a fight" (and how I loved every second of the conclave in that wooden hall) have now swelled the army of wights that have now had their first taste of how to successfully break through walls.

What's interesting here is that Jon's mission has almost totally succeeded as a mission of mercy, with many if not all the children and elderly escaping, and completely failed from a strategic perspective. Given I remain convinced the former was his focus (or at least he was sufficiently concerned about the latter that it seriously influenced his thinking on the latter) it will be interesting to see how he spins events when Ser Alliser Thorne and his cronies insist the evacuation of Hardhome has proved an unmitigated disaster. Beyond that, though, the question is: will Snow take a chance once more? Until now he, like Roose Bolton, like Cersei until only last week, has succeeded in every gamble he has initiated. He gambled he could pretend to turn his cloak and Mance would spare him, and he was right. He gambled he could reveal himself at the old horse trader's hut and make it back to Castle Black alive, and he was right. He gambled he could take a small squad of Night's Watch rangers and end the deserters in Craster's Keep, and he was right. He gambled he could circumvent the chain of command when the castle was under attack without long-term consequences, and he was right. He gambled he could survive executing first Mance Rayder and then Janos Slynt, and he was right both times.

This is the first occasion Jon has gambled and lost. Not lost completely, sure, but lost solidly. So the question is, where will the next gamble come from, and is Jon going to take it? The realms of men cannot afford any more mistakes of this scale, but neither can they afford inaction. Of course, with the news of the debacle at Hardhome fresh in their ears, the men Jon left behind at Castle Black might decide the realms of men cannot afford Jon Snow as the Lord Commander. The last loss to the White Walkers ended up with Jeor Mormont's skull turned into a beer stein, and he was a noble who'd led the Watch for decades. If Jon can't spin his only military action since taking command as anything but a total catastrophe, who will there even be left to follow him anyway? And with the rapists who attacked Gilly still alive, and Thorne gleeful about how thin on the ground Jon's loyalists have become, will there still be a Watch worthy of the name left for Jon to get back to?

Jon has escaped Hardhome. But what has he escaped it in exchange for?

[3] TV viewers may well not know this, but the fifth book of the series spends its entire length building up to two huge battles which it then doesn't have room for. Problematic gender politics notwithstanding, Martin started this series as one of the most competent fantasy writers of his generation. At this point he doesn't even see the need to pay off 900 pages of build-up, so long as he can fit in enough coats of arms and genealogies and feasts.


darkman said...

"The nameless giant and his plank of burning death is wonderful"
He's not nameless, it's Wun Wun (Thormund shouts his name during the battle).

SpaceSquid said...

Ah, I'd missed that. Thanks!

Tomsk said...

My hopes for a Borgen/Game of Thrones crossover plot were dashed as quickly as they were raised.

SpaceSquid said...

I really should get around to watching that, particularly now I know there's a very pretty Wildling involved...