Monday, June 13, 2016

You can't escape who you are


We've known for a while now that Arya would never be able to become one of the Faceless Men. Her identity as a Stark is too much a part of who she is as a person. The fact that she's even in Braavos and the House of Black and White in the first place is because of her identity as a Stark, since she asked for Jaqen's help in order to continue her mission of taking vengeance on everyone she blames for the death of her family. And family and identity are what this episode ("No one") is about, from Arya's assertion of herself to Jaime's confrontation with the truth about himself that he's tried to avoid to Tirion's attempt to get those around him to see life the way he does (consisting mostly of booze and bad jokes.) These are all expressions of who these people are, even if they're not what they'd like to be.

The example that's been driving this point home is the theater company that's been performing in Braavos since the beginning of the season. This is the framing element that D&D have been using to drive the point home that the great game of thrones is, in the end, largely about family/clan loyalty, just like the historical model that Martin originally based it upon: the Wars of the Roses and the clan wars among the Italian city-states. This is what Jaime cites in his confrontation with Edmure over Riverrun. Edmure can't abandon his son and wife to the depredations of the Freys and Jaime can't change the fact that he's a Lannister and he'll do anything to get back to his sister and lover. It pains him to admit that he's subject to the whims of another, even if those whims defy the notion of the man that he'd like to be and which Brienne attempted to remind him of. But, in the end, he's a Lannister and Cersei is Cersei. He can't escape it.


In some respects, the meta question created by the play is whether many of the main characters are acting of their own free will. I think that question is answered for Jaime and Arya (one is not, the other clearly is) but it remains to be seen how many others are merely actors in the play that makes up their lives and whether they would be someone else if given the opportunity. I think Tyrion is the best example, as he wistfully imagines owning a vineyard and making (and drinking) his own wine. But when pressed at various times in the books, he's still stated that he's a Lannister. The clan loyalty is still there. But it's obvious that, at various times, Daenerys has clearly imagined being someone different and not being saddled with the responsibility thrust upon her. Only in recent times has she finally fully embraced the idea of claiming all that she sees as her rightful heritage. And why? Because she's a Targaryen and her family once ruled all of Westeros, so she must do so, as well.

We can carry that meta idea even a step further and question the basic way in which the story is told. There's a debate among fiction writers about whether stories are plot-driven or character-driven. In the simplest and most biased interpretation, the former are about action and the latter are about feelings. But my estimation of the concept is a little different. Character-driven stories are centered around the actions and experiences of one (or perhaps two or three) characters. Without them, the story doesn't exist. Most superhero comics are character-driven. Captain America, the comic, doesn't exist without Captain America. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is plot-driven: the story of what happens is going to proceed without or without any particular character. As we've seen so often, the deaths of what seem to be major players are just steps in the painting of the final picture. This is a story about events and those events are often driven by the actions of the main characters, but it's not reliant upon their actions to propel it forward. The snowball is already rolling downhill and everyone just better be able to keep up. In that respect, they're acting out their roles as surely as anyone who's ever stepped on a stage and performed. That's also what the play in Braavos is saying.


The interesting thing about the intersection of the play with the other identity story in Braavos is that the House of Black and White is essentially a cult of assassins. Those assassins are frequently hired by the wealthy to remove each other. It plays a role in the game of thrones. But it's accepted and even welcomed among the common people of Braavos for the service it provides to those in need. The life of the common person is often hard and the House of Black and White provides the release they seek at the end. In a city founded by ex-slaves, it's understandable that the regular person would be fine with the masters continuing to fight and kill each other, as long as the ones doing the killing did so at least partially amidst the ideal that, in the end, one dead person is the same as any other. Whether you're killed in the game as part of a noble family or released from disease on the streets of Braavos, the House brings everyone to the same level, where identity is irrelevant. In short, all of life is explained by Sandor Clegane.

Side notes:

This is the eighth episode and we're clearly in the home stretch. Given that, it was no surprise to see that Benioff and Weiss had returned to being the lead writers on this one. As you'd expect, it was well done. However, there were a couple down notes. While I understand the usefulness of the "drink with me and tell jokes" scene, the whole thing kind of fell flat. We get that Tyrion isn't particularly thrilled with the role that he has to play. That was never more obvious than when he was bidding farewell to Varys, knowing that they might never see each other again. I was still waiting for the punch line to the whole "drink and joke" scene when Grey Worm went running out of the room. I have a feeling that the editor had to be used on that one. Similarly, was there some point to the shot of the Hound pissing into the river? I mean, we knew what was happening. I'm not sure why we needed the view of the ripples on the water. If he'd been pissing on a corpse he'd just made, that would have been something worth taking the extra moment for.


In contrast, the showdown between the Mountain and the Faith Militant was really well done. Cersei's smirk at the beheading could not have told a more detailed story about her as a person and the shot of the blood running into the drain was a perfect example of the methods that she's always employed to get her way. Similarly, the chemistry between Gwendolyne Christie and Nikolai Coster-Waldau has not faded one bit in the last couple years. Their meeting in the tent had all the elements of what remains perhaps my favorite scene of the entire series: the moment in the baths ("Jaime. My name's Jaime.") While they both feel duty-bound to their roles for very different reasons, it remains fascinating to watch them deny what's in front of them, especially in Jaime's case, since the obligation to duty he feels is comprised mostly of his desire to return to another woman. It was great to get a dose of that again.


Was it only me or did The Waif tracking Arya through the city feel like The Terminator? They even used the comic-like impact shots that James Cameron loves so much, when The Waif would step into the shot again and the flicker of emotion would go across her supposedly robot-like face. If she'd started speaking in Austrian-inflected English, I'd have probably been OK with it. Also, it was interesting to see the end result of the widespread speculation on the Web last week about Arya leading her into a trap. While I was a little put off about how easy it seemed for Arya to ignore her fairly dire injuries after rolling down a few dozen stone steps (especially when confronting Jaqen H'ghar in the last scene), the salute with the sword and the return of the water dancer let me gloss over that a bit. Also, the little wry smile by H'ghar at the end was perhaps confirmation that even he doesn't know all the desires of the Many-faced God and perhaps here was the one person who went through all of the trials presented and rejected what she's been given. This was perhaps the truth revealed in another manner.

Finally, it was nice of them to acknowledge (by Varys, of course) the fact that Tirion had essentially made the same mistake as Cersei in giving in to the wishes of fanatics in order to accomplish what seems to be a greater goal. Having the catechism of Daenerys Stormborn spread by the priests of the Lord of Light will almost certainly involve larger complications in the future. With only two half-seasons to go, is there time for a holy war between the Red God and the Seven?

Lines of the week:

"Essos is east and Westeros is west, but what's west of Westeros? That's where all the maps stop."
What happens when you choose your own path?

"Those are your last words? 'Fuck you'? Come on, you can do better than that."
"Cunt!"
"You're shit at dying, you know that?"
The Hound is still good at the killing, brohim.

"She'll come back. She has to. My heart's been broken too many times already."
Varys with the reality of being the Master of Whispers.


"Podrick fucking Payne. I thought you'd be dead by now."
and
"The way all women look at him is frankly irritating. Preferred working with the little brother on that count."
and
"Lesson #1: Assume everyone wants to hit ya. Because they do, Pod. Everyone wants to hit a fuckin' squire."
Seriously. This is why Jerome Flynn is still in the show and why we're all thrilled that he is.

"This is my home. And if Jaime Lannister wants it, he can bloody well take it the way everyone else does."
Siege or go home, no exceptions for prissy Lannisters!

"Your place is in the gallery with the other 'ladies' of the court."
Kevan Lannister with the slight.

"Why don't you drink? Why don't either of you ever drink?"
I need this, so you need this!

"You imagine yourself a decent person? Is that it?"
Edmure with the smackdown, even if he couldn't keep it going.

"We all bloody die! Except this one here."
Beric Dondarrion defying the good sense of the Hound once again.

The almost-winner:

"I choose violence."
No quote better embodies Cersei's preferred approach and Lena Headey delivered it perfectly. That was excellent.

Because the Hound's always the winner
And the winner:

"There was a time I would have killed all seven of you just to gut these three."
"You're getting old, Clegane."
Because the Hound's always the winner, even if Thoros is right.

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