Feb 21, 2020
Your Game of Thrones takes are bad
Apparently some people have some feelings about what’s happening on Game of Thrones this season. Every Monday these days is Bitch About The Show That We Won’t Just Stop Watching Day on social media. I haven’t seen so many fans turn on a show in its final season since Dexter, which actually deserved it much sooner. I’ll be the first to admit the show has been better, and as it barrels towards its finale, it’s getting more streamlined, less subtle, and less complex; in a word, dumber. But the proliferation of bad-faith and downright illiterate interpretations of this show’s final season is really dispiriting to see. Here are some of the crap takes that are giving me the most headaches.
[SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 AHEAD…]
I’m not going to launch into a whole spiel about how the episode looked just fine if you watched it on a fancy 4k TV with all the specs fine-tuned by a professional cinematographer, because I watched that episode on a $200 laptop, and it looked fine to me, and I legitimately don’t know what everyone’s deal was.
Some people are so spoiled. I recently found a cache of VHS tapes when I moved, and if you’d sat down with me to watch my old worn-out copy of Star Trek II, you wouldn’t complain about anything on TV in 2019. Shit looked like it was filmed through soup.
I can’t interpret phrases like “I couldn’t tell what was going on” as anything but hyperbole. I could almost always tell what was going on and when I couldn’t, I understood that I wasn’t meant to. The darkness was a stylistic choice intended to induce fear and confusion, as a means to get us to feel what the characters were feeling. It’s a way to communicate thematic and character information visually, otherwise known as the whole reason visual narrative media exists.
Bad Take #2: “The characters are doing so many dumb things!”
I think the operative mistake here is mixing up flaws in the characters with flaws in the characters’ writing. Yeah, Jon Snow is doing a lot of dumb stuff this season. You might not have noticed yet because you’ve only known him for eight years, but Jon Snow is kind of a dumbass.
It’s like everyone’s forgotten that most of the show’s major players are people still in or barely out of their teens, who are trying to keep a lid on their own horrendous trauma while struggling with decisions that send people to their deaths by the thousand. They’re going to make a lot of bad choices. This isn’t the kind of fantasy where every protagonist is a super-competent wizard who merely has to struggle against circumstance to get everyone to do the objectively right thing. If they’d wanted to make a show like that, they would have made it. Desperation and failure are two of the main colors on Game of Thrones’s emotional palette.
I think that these kinds of critiques can be traced to the Cracked/CinemaSins school of nitpickery. But it’d be wrong to blame those guys for it, because their whole shtick is just a goof; Instead, blame everyone who thought they were doing actual movie criticism. I love indulging in pedantry for shits and giggles, but I can’t imagine actually interacting with a show that way. Was it idiotic for Daenerys to send her entire Dothraki cavalry charging ahead into total darkness? Yes. Did the sight of a massive elite fighting force getting gobbled up in a few seconds by a pulsating wall of dead flesh hit me right in the pit of the stomach? Also yes.
So… you think the central metaphor of Game of Thrones is an existential threat posed by a force of monolithic supernatural evil that everyone has to shoulder together? Are we watching the same show?
I only ask because it’s been pretty clear to me from the beginning that Game of Thrones’s whole deal is deconstructing tired Tolkienesque fantasy tropes. A Dark Lord who forces the races to put aside their differences and stand together in a clash of good and evil—that’s old hat, man. On Game of Thrones, the machinations of petty, self-interested humans will always pose a crueler and more dangerous threat than any dopey external enemy. How the humans have acted since killing off the White Walkers perfectly encapsulates this. The second the civilization-destroying enemy is defeated, they jump right back into squabbling over lands and titles and bullshit.
Sandor Clegane: You’ve changed, little bird. [drinks] None of it would have happened if you’d left King’s Landing with me. Littlefinger, Ramsay, none of it.
Sansa Stark: Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest… I would have stayed a little bird all my life.
—from”The Last of the Starks”
Oh boy, this one. There are a couple of different things the Hound could be referring to, but the thing that springs most quickly to mind (for both the viewer and Sansa) is Sansa’s brutal rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, with whom she was forced into marriage. Critics lambasted the line as yet one more example of Game of Thrones “us[ing] the brutalization of women as entertainment”, and lamented that the perceived implication that getting raped was what made her strong. Kathryn von Arendonk articulated it thusly on Vulture:
First off, that’s not what Sansa’s saying. If you take her line on its face, all she’s doing is acknowledging that her trauma changed how her life turned out, because duh. They wouldn’t call it “trauma” if it didn’t.
But context is important, so let’s look at it. The reason Sansa didn’t want to go away with the Hound in the first place so many seasons ago is that he’s a well-known brutal murderer (and, for all she knows, a rapist himself). And Sansa’s whole deal these days is that she throws up an icy, unruffled façade and avoids showing even the smallest weakness in front of people she doesn’t trust, which is almost everybody, and the Hound in particular. Like, what the hell was she supposed to say? “Yes indeed, Large Scary Man With Unclear Motives, my rape shattered my psyche in ways that I’ve barely begun to appreciate.” A composed counter-jab like the one Sansa made is both entirely appropriate and in character.
Even if you interpret her line generously and conclude that she really does believe that the horrible things done to her were, in the long run, a net positive… so what? I’m serious; so what? Are you so unwilling to entertain the idea that a survivor might want to tell her story that way? People sometimes deal with trauma by framing their story in a similarly philosophical way. It’s just as well-documented as survivor’s guilt or self-blame or any number of things that “shouldn’t” happen, but absolutely do happen. Sansa’s act of taking for herself something that was forced upon her is something lots of people can relate to.
This is but one of the many messy realities surrounding sexual violence, and not many shows would encourage you to think about them, but Game of Thrones does. It might make you uncomfortable, but arguing that Game of Thrones shouldn’t portray these realities is tacitly suggesting that survivors only talk and think and feel about their experiences in “appropriate” ways, and when you do that, you’re wielding one of rape culture’s most potent weapons.
Lots of people are arguing that Jaime’s abandonment of his burgeoning relationship with Brienne in favor of his duplicitous, murderous sister-lover mooted his whole redemption arc. I can kind of understand this take. Even though, on paper, this is a bleak, cynical television program, and you ought to consider it par for the course that a character introduced to us as completely wrapped up in a toxic relationship should ultimately fail in growing out of it, you do hate to see it when it happens. I can even understand why people are upset that he had that throwaway line about “I never really cared about the innocents”, even though, as in Sansa’s case, it makes sense in context why he’d say that.
But ultimately, I can’t get on board with approaching Game of Thrones from the perspective of fannish wish-fulfillment. Jaime’s arc is meant to be a tragic one; for all his personal growth in other areas, his self-destructive codependent relationship with his sister is the one thing he can’t get past. To say that Jaime “deserved” better than to go back to Cersei, or that Brienne deserved not to get her heart broken by him is making some pretty funny assumptions about how much this show gives a shit about what people deserve. Game of Thrones‘s first season ended with the most unambiguously good character getting ignominiously killed. If you want all the characters you stan to have “satisfying” stories that do them “justice”, the MCU is right there for you. On Game of Thrones, there is no satisfaction and no justice.
Which didn’t you pay attention to: the past season, in which she’s lost a trusted advisor, been betrayed by two others, suffered one cataclysmic military setback after another, saw her friend murdered, lost two children, been rejected by her lover/nephew, and oh yeah, found out that the birthright she’s burned through two continents to reach actually never existed? Or the previous seven, which dropped copious hints about her megalomania, vast capacity for cruelty, and tenuous grip on sanity? She fucking crucified people!
People keep saying that they don’t care that Daenerys went crazy, only that it happened in such a “rushed” manner, and I don’t buy it for a second. This is fan culture at work again. All these people latched onto Dany, bought the T-shirts, shared the memes, and cheered “Yaas Kween, Slay!” whenever she burned someone alive who totally had it coming, and above all bought completely into her bullshit about how she deserved to be a despot, because unlike the others, she really cared. And now they’re mad at the show for showing them what they’ve really been rooting for.
I hate to keep harping on this point, but the rightful ruler ascending to the throne and everyone living happily ever after is not what Game of Thrones is about. The show’s about how the powerful of the world play vainglorious little masquerades fueled by peasants’ blood. And how it’s not possible to rule well when the system you’re ruling is deeply sick. And war is immoral and insane no matter who wages it or why. And there are no heroes, everyone is a big sticky ball of dysfunction, and no one should need or want or be trusted with absolute power. The show is nothing if not consistent.
Anyway, that’s my rant. I don’t really have a tidy way to wrap this up, except to thank Game of Thrones for eight years of top-notch television. See you all at the finale.