Sunday, June 10, 2012

Game of Thrones 2-08: The Prince of Winterfell

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Episodist, a testament to the determination in my madness.  Hopefully I've got the hang of this by now.  A big thanks to all of the readers, who (judging from my stats) mostly stumbled here looking for "Archer Pam porn" or "incest in Suburgatory" but maybe stayed for a moment before backing out and looking for something that would actually satisfy their carnal cravings.  Speaking of weird sexual stuff, here's Game of Thrones.

The central metaphor of Game of Thrones is right in the title: it's all a game, a view of politics as a strategic struggle that can (and has) been rendered into a boardgame.  This means that the series takes a gamer's perspective: it is not a question of morality, but rather of competence.  The characters that can succeed strategically are glorified: they get all the best lines, have things turn out their way, and win every argument.  The characters that fail are verbally (and sometimes physically) beat up at least once an episode.  Game of Thrones is not really morally nuanced, as its fans argue, it just has a morality that runs parallel to the one we usually think of.  It's the morality of competition: the central sin is weakness and stupidity, which the whipping-horse characters of Game of Thrones are constantly accused of.  This is why the series is almost entirely unconcerned about the mass of people that live in this fantasy world.  They aren't nobility, so they've already lost the game.

The biggest example of this in this episode is Theon, the titular false prince.  He's captured the central castle of the Stark family, but is unable to get respect even from the young children he captures, who are incredibly nonplussed and easily escape.  Later in this episode, his sister stops by to spell out for him and the audience why he's being dumb and will be unable to hold the castle.  The whole conversation has the air of somebody writing a political screed disguised as a dialogue: his sister is hyper-rational and sympathetic at the same time, taking Theon's beliefs apart piece by piece, while he responds with only increasingly emotional blurts.  It's a strawman dissection, but the strawman isn't really a political position, but a strategic one.

Joffrey, the young king, is another example of those pilloried characters.  He's basically a sociopathic, cartoonishly evil ruler, but this is not enough to earn the series' condemnation.  Instead, as Tyrion (often an authorial voice) argues in a previous episode, he's mad and an idiot.  We only have one scene of his in this episode, where he proposes leading the charge himself, which confirms his vainglorious nature that goes against the show's belief in realpolitik and dirty, effective strategizing.  Joffrey accrues negative personality traits like an evil Katamari, all of which stem from his strategic ineptness, which began (the series suggests) with executing Ned Stark and starting this whole messy war.

Finally, we have Catelyn Stark, who in this episode lets her camp's prize prisoner, Jaime Lannister, go free in exchange for the possibilities of seeing her captured daughters again.  Her son Robb upbraids her for her sentimentality bordering on treason and takes her prisoner.  (You could probably do an interesting Freudian reading of this whole scenario, but it would be a bit of a stretch).  True to form, Cat isn't given much verbal ammunition to defend herself for this strategic blunder, and comes off as an idiot for not being willing to sacrifice her daughters for strategic value.  We don't even see the release, a scene that would require us to enter her perspective at least a bit.

But daughters are so often sacrifices in the Game of Thrones universe that it's hard not to feel a bit for Catelyn, and I don't think the series is entirely unsympathetic to her either.  In an earlier episode Tyrion married off Cersei's daughter for her own safekeeping as well as a good bit of strategic advantage, and last season Catelyn had no issue with promising the absent Arya (along with Robb) to the disturbing Frey family in exchange for a momentary advantage.  Even if the girls' lives are not literally consumed, their lifetimes are used as fodder for political gain through marraige.  Seemingly every female character (except the masculine Brienne and Arya, whose lack of interest in girly things makes them immune from such degradations) uses sex to get their way, usually on behalf of some male power.  Catelyn's act is an ineffectual, desperate rebellion against the patriarchy of the world, a patriarchy which Game of Thrones does not hide despite its distaste for all things feminine (besides breasts).

An interesting point of comparison is Robb's love affair with the nurse Talisa, which conflicts with that whole marraige-for-a-bridge thing again.  This is strategic foolishness, but once again the show views it as more acceptable, and it receives far less condemnation than Catelyn's plot to rescue her daughter.  (Although that may just be because nobody knows about it).  The whole thing is played as a standard romance plotline, with the earlier marraige as the genre-required obstacle between the lovers, and their sex scene in this episode is shot as a victory, not a mistake.  This relies on the generally assumed supremacy of not just male desire over female desire, but of romantic love over familial love.

I should stop to add a sidebar here.  To a certain extent Game of Thrones is consciously critiquing value judgements like this, and it's highly critical of the restrictions of its patriarchal setting.  But that's not incompatible with believing in a more modern kind of patriarchy, in which girls are cool as long as they play with the boy toys, and the sexual objectification of women is a mark of seriousness and sophistication.  Its would-be feminist critique is estranged from the world we live in, and it seems unlikely to do anything but make the viewer remark about how bad things were back then.  On the other hand, its patriarchal pleasures are immediately accessible to us.  This may be imparting too much intention to the text -- certainly you can make a feminist reading of it (as I've tried to do in the paragraphs above).  But if there is a feminist voice within Game of Thrones, it's a voice that's always displaced and counteracted.

(Even if we do take its feminist argument seriously, it has to be noted that it's the most mainstream, priviledged, and liberal type of feminism, more concerned with the self-expression of a white nobleman's daughter than the brutal lives of the prostitutes the camera lingers over.  But that's a rant for another time).

Speaking of Arya, her adventures are interesting mainly for existing in a significantly different genre than the rest of the series.  Of course, most of the show's scattered plotlines are somewhat generically different, offering up a basketful of different pleasures for its broad viewership.  We have Danaerys's orientalist fantasy, Jon's survival horror story, the main war narrative, and all of it occasionally giving way to sporadic bouts of romantic comedy or softcore porn.  But Arya seems to be existing in a children's adventure story, albeit a particularly dark one, which operates according to different rules than the rest of the broader narrative.  Abigail Nussbaum has suggested that Martin's novels follow a lot of YA conventions, and this seems like the most obvious example.

Take her bargain with mysterious pronoun-adverse criminal Jaquin, in which he offers to kill three people in exchange for her freeing him from a burning cage.  This is a grimdark riff on the classical genie story, a story that abides by the logic of fairy tales: if you do a good thing, magic will reward you.  In the rest of the series, doing a good thing is likely to get you killed, and have Tyrion show up and wag a finger at you for your idealism.  Arya uses her first two deaths on local bullies rather than the big bads of the series, another sign that she seems to be existing in her own dimension with child-sized stakes.  The scene when she escapes Harrenhall with her friends[1] (a hunky love interest and a chubby comic relief right out of central casting) seems like a gang of misfits sneaking out of the house with her friends, although the hanging body does put a bit of a damper on things.

There's a strange contrast between these adventures, which are not light-hearted but certainly seem more innocent than the generally cold perspective of the rest of the series, and that of the setting in which they take place.  Harrenhall is a supposedly invincible castle that was burnt to a husk, and its presence suggests the ultimate doom of all the mythology that the kings and lords wrap themselves around.  What appears to be mythical -- an invicible castle -- is vulnerable to the mortal.  Its hollowness represents the hollowness of power, even the brutal, fly-by-night power of the Lannister army camp.  In the opening credits, it isn't even animated, a formal death.

So the question remains -- is the brutal realpolitik that the series professes to believe in, its gamers' view of the world, the fire that burns away the pretensions of nobility?  Or is it (and this would be more interesting) another facade, another invincible palace, tha is as doomed as Harrenhall?  I doubt the series will ever answer this in a way that satisfies me, and a completely coherent thematic answer would be too pat anyway.  But in the meantime I'll be sitting here, waiting for more idols to go on the fire.

Next week: "Perhaps a good woman will become a better friend for him than a good person."

[1] And that's another thing.  What other Game of Thrones character can refer to someone unironically and unreservedly as their friend?

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