Monday, May 16, 2016

The Book of the not-so-strange Women

As a writer, it's always fun to see a long-term theme finally reach the payoff. When you plant the seed of a story and finally get to show everyone the fully-bloomed tree (or even just finish writing the scene in which the tree is presented in all its majesty), there's a certain relief that comes with that moment, as well as a great deal of pride in being able to finally reach the point where most of your audience, be they readers or viewers or both, should be giving you the "A ha!" response. I'd like to think that Benioff and Weiss have reached that moment with this episode, not because there's been the huge reveal of one of the many, many long-running mysteries (or not so mysteries) in the series, but rather because the latest episode finally became an implicit response to the recent criticism about their (and Martin's) treatment of women.

Martin created his world to emphasize some of the more deplorable aspects of the Middle Ages, especially in regards to women essentially being treated like property, from the nobility all the way down to the slaves. Many viewers objected to this in various ways, from rolling their eyes at the sexposition (which has been overwhelmingly dominated by female exposure) to outright rage-quitting over the treatment of Sansa by Ramsay Bolton last season. Anyone actually paying attention should have recognized the fact that Martin has never shied away from exposing his characters to the harshest of circumstances and D&D have, of course, followed suit. But in all the outrage and indignation, some people were clearly missing the point: despite having abuse of all kinds and degrees heaped on top of them, the strongest characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are the women, without question. Tonight's episode, "The Book of the Stranger", is where that underlying reality begins to come to fruition.

Reunited for the first time since episode 1, season 1
We've seen 6 seasons of Cersei trying to prove that she's as good, if not better, a player of the game as any of the men around her. Similarly, we've seen Arya prove that she's more canny and able on her feet than most of the targets on her list. But, with few exceptions, most of the other female characters have played the role of the victim, even those as prominent as Daenerys. Most inflicted upon, of course, has been Sansa which has led many to assert that she's annoying because she never stands up for herself. My response near the end of season 4 was that she is, in fact, the strongest character of the show because of how much trauma she's been put through and the fact that she's kept going. Tonight's reunion with Jon, in addition to being a rather heartfelt moment, was the first time she's been in a position of feeling some kind of relief in six years (something like three in show time.) That's endurance, man, and she wasn't the only one.

Sansa convincing Jon that they must fight, Margaery being the strong one for Loras, Cersei still being the (Casterly) rock for Tommen, Asha rubbing Theon's nose in his weakness (he, uh, did used to live with the dogs), and Dany's assertion of control over the entire Dothraki horde are all demonstrable examples of how times they are a changin', not just in the meta perception of the show and its tendencies, but in Westeros and Essos as a whole. The women are finally asserting control over the chaos that the world has descended into and are ready to make real changes to the way things have always been done. It's interesting that most of them are all different methods of demonstrating the will and power to move forward, as well: Sansa (justice), Margaery (sibling love), Cersei (manipulation), Asha (contempt), Dany (destiny?) It's to Martin's and D&D's credit that all of those motivations are completely believable and multi-faceted the way any human's responses to crisis can be. Cersei's manipulation of the King is still tied up in her devotion to her one remaining child. Asha's contempt for Theon's condition is still propelled by her pride for what her house can be, what the Ironmen are, and what she knows Theon was.

There are, of course, no guarantees (this is Game of Thrones, after all.) I fully expect Asha's efforts to come to naught since they have brought Euron into the show and one obviously can't expect Ramsay Bolton to wilt in the face of the oncoming Wildling and Arryn not-quite-a-horde. The one person keenly aware of how to take steps in less dramatic fashion is, as always, Tyrion who proposes a rather Lincolnesque deal with the rest of Slavers' Bay ("Yeah, we don't want slavery but, y'know, take your time.") in the hopes of avoiding the virtually guaranteed war, just as Lincoln hoped (and failed) to do. In this one instance, the female voice which is typically the more reasonable and inclusive (look at our own world for any number of examples of the wiser, gentler hand of leadership often being female), Missandei, is one of those that is still outraged while Tyrion attempts to reason with her. Being close to the topic can give one determination, like Sansa, but it can also create roadblocks and Missandei is in one of those, not least because she believes in the principled mission of the woman who brought her to where she is today: Daenerys.

With that in mind, the final scene was fully expected, since this has been Dany's path since the moment she was married to Drogo. Bringing the horselords across the sea to champion her cause has always carried an air of inevitability. I expect many fans to react in the same manner that they did to the "Mhysa" scene from season 3, in which a white woman is treated like a god by a bunch of brown-skinned folk in true colonial fashion. However, instead of the "you've saved us when we couldn't save ourselves" perspective, this was clearly a power play. Burning up all the khals and the hall in which their women were traditionally trapped (albeit sort of ruling from, at the same time) is a demonstration both of her personal ability and how she's still dispensing with all kinds of tradition (remember, Westerosi society is still largely dominated by the idea of primogeniture.) That said, I was still less impressed by this display than I was the "Dracarys" scene from season 3, which established her as a figure to be feared, and not just because the CGI attaching her head to her body double was a little off (Edit: I stand corrected. See below.) Is it because I'm still a little reluctant to accept that strength can also come with a certain degree of sensitivity, especially in this world? Maybe. It's tough to break the habit of always looking for where the next dagger is coming from. Hey, I did politics. That's how it works. Ask Tyrion...

Side notes:

Speaking of daggers, we couldn't get through a whole review without bringing up the man responsible for the vast majority of this whole situation: Petyr Baelish, who once again proved that his ability to control the weak-minded (Robin Arryn) gives him a leg up on the strong in almost every situation. Littlefinger is, by far, the most intriguing character of the story when thinking ahead to how everyone might end up, since it seems pretty unlikely that either Martin or D&D will give many fans the satisfaction of seeing the master schemer end up receiving any kind of real retribution for his many acts of perfidy.

With that in mind, it has stuck out to me that, in this, the first season nominally without the guiding hand of GRRM's novels, 3 of the 4 episodes have been written by Benioff and Weiss. If you want to make sure the ship comes home, no better hand to steer it than the captain(s), I suppose.

Amusingly, in an episode about female empowerment, before they closed on Dinklage here, the establishing shot was half taken up by an image of Missandei's ass. Now, it's not like I object, since (Lecherous mode, activate!) I could probably stare at Nathalie Emmanuel's ass for a good, long time in any number of contexts, but did they really need to take that angle just to make sure that everyone was in the shot? They had Tyrion climbing stairs, after all, so they don't have the height disparity as that much of an excuse.

On the topic of bodies, I find it amusing to note the change in status of the various actors employed by the show. Lena Headey arrived as an already established star and, thus, has never had to disrobe for the camera. It was problematic for the producers, anyway, since Headey has a considerable amount of ink while, uh, Cersei does not. Thus, the Walk of Shame from last season was conducted with her in a skinsuit (not a stillsuit. Nerd.) and a body double. Emilia Clarke, OTOH, arrived on set with exactly one credit: a British PSA. Thus, when she was showing skin in the first season, it was her skin (amusingly, she wasn't quite 18 when she was first cast, so they had to wait a bit to shoot moments like the bathtub scene in episode 1 of the first season.) Now, of course, she's established and, thus, no longer does that. The first time she stepped from the flames at the end of season 1, it was all Clarke. This time, it was someone else. Rebirth? [Edit: And this entire section is apparently just me musing on the possibilities, because apparently Clarke did her own work.]

In contrast to Littlefinger, the character who has the most predictable end but remains intriguing is Jorah Mormont. He's now the equivalent of a leper (not that leper. Nerd.) and knows that he's doomed. And still he pursues the goals of a woman that he apparently deeply believes in, above and beyond the role of unrequited lover who feels he might yet prove himself, since he can never make contact with her again. The last honorable, yet dishonorable, man? There's pathos there. I just hope that they don't send Iain Glen on too many more "adventure to save the princess!"-type storylines that will diminish that.

While I've loved almost every moment with the High Sparrow to this point (I'm an atheist with a fascination for religious fanaticism; no, I don't really get it, either), today's parable about the cobbler who decided he couldn't stand the smell of sex left me with an expression similar to Margaery's up there: "Wut?" I mean, leading the poor and downtrodden against the rich in the name of virtue? I'm right there with you, man, even if it's for sorely different reasons. And it's not like there hasn't been plenty of evidence for just how poorly the common people are treated to know that they didn't even need the blessing of the gods to start fighting back. If he uses religion as the motivator for justice, be my guest. It makes sense (as history has shown, repeatedly.) However, the whole "I can't stand that icky sex thing" routine threw me off something fierce. It's not like I expected a rational response from a fanatic and the Seven know that the most natural of acts has been a sticking point with the gods-fearing bunch for a long time. (We can get into the whole "is it because the power of creation lowers the estimation of God or is it that sex makes you feel better than kneeling and praying?" thing some other time.) But are we learning a bit more about the petty motivation of the Sparrow? There had to be something that drove him a little harder than all the other things. I'm just sorry that it's because he had to fall in line with the rest of Westeros and demean half the population ("The women we used..." as if the women at the party couldn't be having sex of their own volition and enjoying it?) while carrying on his crusade.

And the little things: the look of absolute venom between Cersei and Pycelle, plus Tormund making eyes at his perfect match, Brienne. There are still any number of priceless acting moments in the show. It's held up well in that respect, in that the actors can still mine little bits like these.

Lines of the week:

"Can you forgive me?"
"There's nothin' to forgive-"
"Forgive me!"
"OK. I forgive you."
Ma'am, yes, ma'am!

"He admitted it, you know?"
"Who did?"
"Stannis. Just before I executed him."
Of all the badass moments for women in this episode, this was one of the badasseriest.

"You will cut off your support for the Sons of the Harpy."
"We do not support the Sons of the Harpy."
"Fine, fine. But you'll cut it off all the same."
Let's talk like we know each other is lying, OK?

"Slavery is a horror that should be ended at once. War is a horror that should be ended at once. I can't do both today."
The voice of reason in the land of passion.

"If I win, I'm the shit who killed an old man. If I lose, I'm the shit who was killed by an old man."
The solution is to stop fighting old men, I guess, Perhaps switch to old women since today they seem tougher...?

"Were you expressly forbidden from standing down?"
Don't just do something! Stand there! Sounds like Congress.

"So we don't spill blood."
"Well, there's always a little blood."
Get three Dothraki in a room and you'll get four murders.

And the winner:

"You've seen my banner?
"The flayed man. Do you eat them after?"
"... No."
"Then I've seen worse."
I'm sorry to see Osha go, simply for lines like that. When you've lived alongside Thenns, Boltons don't seem that impressive.

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