Monday, July 24, 2017

The nature of the thing

Li'l swipe from Ralph Waldo on the title. Follow the greats, yo.
Bryan Cogman was the writer for this episode and that strikes me as singularly appropriate, because he has a very good grasp of the essential nature of many of these characters. Cogman started as an assistant to Benioff and Weiss and, human nature being what it is, had enough conversations with them about characters and screenplay ideas that they eventually signed him on as a regular writer. It's not what you know, but who you know, etc. But in this case, it's also what you know, as Cogman had been a reader and fan of the books long before D&D made their pitch to GRRM and HBO. And it's that identification of many of these characters' essential nature that forms the underlying theme for this episode.

We get that from the very beginning on Dragonstone, when Daenerys lays out the basic truth about Varys and his ever-malleable loyalties. Varys responds with what is largely the same truth he relayed to Kevan Lannister (while killing him) in A Dance with Dragons: Varys doesn't care about any regime. The only thing he really cares about is the people suffering under all of them, just as he did as a child, subject to the whims of others. Despite his ruthless application of the knowledge provided by his little birds in the name of whichever king he's been serving, his basic goal has been to try to serve the public weal.

Hey! You're my dog! Wait. No.
But that was a confrontation in which the essential nature of a character that we all basically understood was merely confirmed by his own admission. There were a couple more instances in which that realization was more of a surprise or revelation to the person in question, even if we'd understood it for a while. One of the most heartfelt to many fans, I'm sure, was the long-awaited reunion between Arya and Nymeria. While I initially arched an eyebrow at Arya's decision to (temporarily?) abandon her vengeance and head north to find her family again, I realized after a couple minutes that it provides even more of an interesting story angle because that impending reunion brings into question the person that Arya has become. The meeting with Nymeria only confirms that: Arya is a loner. She always was as a child, never doing what the other girls (especially Sansa) were doing, and has become the ultimate loner as an almost-Faceless Man; not even connected to the tiny cult whose powers she now wields. When she sees her long lost pet and tries to reconnect on the level they once shared, her realization emerges in her own words: "That's not you." Nymeria, at root, is not a pet, anymore than the other wolves were or Ghost is (since he's more of an occasional companion, rather than a pet.) By the same token, Arya is not one to have or maintain attachments, despite Hot Pie's earnest attempts to reassure her that she has some.

You guys and your book-learnin'! What good are ya?!
Similarly, Sam's essential nature is that of hope (and stubbornness.) He refuses to believe in the impossible, confident that with enough determination, all things can be overcome. He was the one who pushed Jon to take the leadership role that was naturally his. He was the one who rescued a daughter of Craster from beyond the Wall, brought that woman and her child to Castle Black where they're forbidden, brought her again to the Citadel in Oldtown where they're also forbidden, and now is intent on rescuing Jorah Mormont from an "incurable" disease. This is the story of Sam played out again and again, in which he risks his own well-being and overrides his own trepidity in order to aid others. Here we have the complexities of what, indeed, makes up any human. Is Sam brave or a coward? Both? One more than the other? This is the hallmark of great writing and excellent acting to back it up, because one of the other aspects to Sam's character is his honesty. I think the pinnacle moment of his character in the series to date is the point where Jorah asks him if he's done this treatment before and Sam simply says: "No." The archmaester, attempting to urge Sam into the role of many adherents to their discipline, that of observer and recorder, unwittingly(?) pushes Sam in the direction he wants to go when he tells him: "This is your moment. Use it wisely."

Heroic death or wasting away on a log in the Narrow Sea?
But perhaps the most interesting contrast in this thematic approach was that between Theon and Grey Worm. In the case of the former, we have a confrontation that purports to expose Theon's basic nature as not a warrior (Tangent: I hesitate to use the word "coward" here, since there's a solid argument that genuine bravery is often defined by the willingness to not resort to violence, but I think that moves us a bit far afield from what I'm trying to write here, so I'll just resort to the clumsier "not a warrior.") An easy response could be that it's the mutilation and abuse by Ramsay that changed the basic premise of the man. Where before he was willing to swing a sword at anything and slaughter innocents to achieve the glory he felt should be his (or, at least, that he felt his father thought should be his), now he's no longer willing to do so when confronted with someone obviously stronger than he is. But when one looks back on Theon's actions, they often revealed the approach of the bully. As we've seen throughout history (and many of our childhoods), most bullies are insecure about their own character and use violence and a mien of toughness to hide that and protect themselves. That's "not a warrior", either, so I'd argue that Ramsay's treatments simply forced Theon to accept his essential being. We saw a hint of Theon's acknowledgment of the warrior role not being the be-all and end-all back in season 1:


Believe me, you need this.
That's the opposite of the situation with Grey Worm, whose mutilation and rigorous training could be seen as removing the basic aspect of humanity that is sexuality. After all, not being able to engage in what most people consider "sex" and having been trained as a small child to treat all such impulses as "weakness", as he refers to Missandei, one could conceivably label Grey Worm and all the Unsullied as "asexual." But sexuality takes many forms, as do the actions that accompany that basic impulse. Missandei pushes him into lying with her and tries to break him down to his fundamentals (We put the "fun" in fundamentalism!) She knows the drive is in there. She knows that he desires her. It becomes a matter of getting him to acknowledge that a shell has been built up that doesn't allow him to acknowledge himself as a sexual being. This isn't simply an essential nature of Grey Worm, but that of all humans and I hope it isn't dismissed too easily by the audience as a moment of titillation or sappiness. Most of Game of Thrones is about war and ruthlessness. That moment was about love, no matter what form it takes.

You guys aren't gonna like this. Again. But...
And then there's Jon, who in some ways embodies all of the above: the loner, constantly hopeful, willing to lead with his emotions, never willing to shy away from the truth, and aware that violence is rarely the best answer. His long term vision for solving the problems of the North have little to do with being the heroic king that so many think is necessary. After all, he didn't want the job and still doubts his ability to do it (many would call that wisdom...) By the same token, he may not only be fulfilling his desire to handle things directly when he knows that many will doubt the things that he's seen, but he also gives the opportunity to solve the frustration that he may know that Sansa is feeling. He's ignored her counsel and implicitly questioned her judgment yet again, but done so by handing the North to her and giving her the opportunity to be the leader that he thinks she can be, and which she has slowly understood herself to have become, as well.

Side notes:

Of course, Varys protecting Dany and Viserys as children didn't stop him from following through on Robert's order to hire the Sorrowful Men to try to kill her. We can always have the ends justify the means, but if you'd like to claim that Varys was protecting his own ass by following through on a direct order, we have to remember that Varys was looking for a replacement for Robert because he considered him (accurately) to be incompetent as a king. Would he really have known that Varys didn't follow through? Unlikely. Plot/character hole? Maybe. But this stuff gets complicated.

But it's huge, man. Really.
The technological variation in the show is occasionally hilarious. You can just imagine the scene with Qyburn being something like: "My queen: the greatest invention of all time and the answer to dragons... a ballista!" (i.e. a giant crossbow.) Seriously? I mean, not even something with counterweights like a trebuchet? When you think of the complex engineering present in many of the other scenes. suggesting that the answer to the legendary terror of dragons is a basic siege weapon is a little odd.

Cersei doing the "loyalty out of fear" thing with the Tyrell bannermen was mildly hilarious in an obvious-parallel-to-modern-politics kind of way. "You see all those people from the east with their weird religions and dark skins and flying, firebreathing behemoths!" [well, OK, that last one is fair] "If you don't line up with me, they're all coming to get you!" The obvious response here is: "Well, no, they're all coming to get YOU. If we work with them, we'll be fine." But it's easy to give into base emotions because fear of change and the unknown and being herded like sheep is another prominent part of human nature. (Oh, hai, Mr. President!)

The costumes that Grey Worm and Missandei had on (for a while) in their scene were remarkably dull. I mean, I get that what the Unsullied walk around in when not in their armor is purely functional, but to have both of them in what looked like placeholders for their actual wardrobe was kinda weird.

Tasty!
I'm rarely affected by gruesome depictions on the screen, but I'm betting there wasn't a single person in the audience who wasn't cringing even a little as Sam began the treatment on Jorah. Everyone has peeled a scab off too early at some point in their lives. Now imagine doing that over half your body.

As with most of Jaime's scenes, the conversation with Randyll Tarly has huge implications on a number of levels. On the one hand, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of the Tyrells' most powerful bannerman deciding to stick with them or go with the Lannisters. OTOH, it's also fascinating to see the interplay that that conversation let loose. Here's the supreme stuffed shirt of Westeros, Randyll Tarly of Hightower, being encouraged to break his oath of allegiance to Highgarden in order to follow his oath of allegiance to the Iron Throne. On top of that, he's being encouraged to do so by the man he reviles (as so many do) as the Oathbreaker, Jaime Lannister, who assassinated his king as a member of the Kingsguard. But part of Jaime's argument is that House Tyrell is essentially gone, since the only remaining member of the bloodline is the elderly Olenna Tyrell, while House Tarly still has heirs (one of them standing next to him) and could replace Tyrell as the Wardens of the South. Like I said, this stuff gets complicated, but that's an excellent character conflict that can be chewed on for a while.

You guys are so dead!
Farewell, Asha (yes; not "Yara"), we barely knew thee. And we also missed out on the scene that was impending between you and Ellaria, who is clearly the "great gift" that Euron plans to deliver to Cersei. On the one hand, it's interesting to see more of the pieces moving across the board and know that Dorne is one of them. OTOH, the almost complete dismissal of Dorne as anything other than a name on the map still irritates me. (And, again, the name of the city is "Sunspear", not "Dorne.") All of the scenes in Sunspear were an exercise in irrelevance except as a device leading to the death of Myrcella. Similarly, Ellaria is now a plot device and little more. It's really disappointing that such short shrift was given to that whole aspect of the books, but you have to make cuts somewhere, I guess.

Again, the emphasis on women having assumed control of the overall situation continues to be prominent. The strategy meeting was between Dany, ruler of House Targaryen; Olenna, ruler of House Tyrell; Ellaria, ruler of House Dorne; and Asha, kinda ruler of House Greyjoy. Combine that with Cersei ruling House Lannister and King's Landing and Sansa assuming command of the North by the end of the episode and the transfer of power is just about complete.

Lines of the week:

"You're not here to be Queen of the Ashes." Yeah? Maybe it depends on whose ashes?

"All your spies, your little birds, did they tell you Viserys was cruel, stupid, and weak?" Layin' down the truth.

"I know how you wage war. We don't poison little girls here." No, but: Crucifixion? Good. Out of the door. Line on the left. One cross each.

Just to get a pic of the Hand of the Queen in somewhere.
"I like Jon Snow and I am an excellent judge of character." And continuing to be so.

"If they can be wounded, they can be killed." Predator reference.

"The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You're a dragon. Be a dragon." I'm really going to miss Dianna Rigg when the show is over.

"Friends don't pay." Hot Pie, showing how it's done.

"If you want people to read your histories, you need a bit of style." Every writer in the world waiting to be recognized winces like someone's peeling greyscale.

And the winner:

Don't ever leave the inn. Seriously.
"Heard she blew up the great sept. That must've been something to see. Can't believe someone would do that."
"Cersei would do that." Can't argue.

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