The Gentrification of Genre, Part One

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar this autumn that I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres.” Here, again, is my hastily mocked-up poster:

Revenge of the Genres

Yes, that’s the poster from Hamilton that I’ve stolen and over-written; and yes, that means I’ll be including Hamilton on the course. It will be the last thing we cover, in part because it’s the most recent text, but also because I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s promise to film a performance for posterity makes it onto DVD or iTunes before we get to it in class.

This course is the product of several intersecting influences in my own reading and viewing habits, as well as a lot of thought I’ve devoted in the past few years to how genre has come to function in mainstream culture, and how it has come to be regarded in scholarly contexts. My doctoral dissertation, which was on conspiracy theory and paranoia, jumped gleefully between such capital-L literary texts like Gravity’s Rainbow, to classic films like Doctor Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate, to episodes of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anyone who has read this blog more than just occasionally will know of my love for such genres as SF/F, and my addiction to prestige television. And while the traditional canons of literary study still comprise the core of most English departments, not only are interdisciplinary crossovers into different media and popular texts increasingly acceptable, but increasingly expected.

More and more we see cross-pollination between fiction, film, television, poetry, theater, music, and social media; more than perhaps at any point in history, literary influence has been shattered from Harold Bloom’s almost exclusively patrilineal (and white) “anxiety of influence,” which posits that writers of genius emerge out of an agon with the great writers preceding them, into a constellation of cultural forms and texts in which a poet is as likely to borrow imagery from classic Hollywood or post-structuralist theory as from Keats or Yeats.

Purists may wince, and often do, and conservative pundits fill column inches decrying the feckless drift of humanities degrees (if Margaret Wente hasn’t written something on this point recently, she will soon—that’s simply inevitable). But part of the point is that in this expanded universe (to borrow an expression from one particular genre canon), there’s still plenty of room for purists (whatever they may look like these days) and unreconstructed literary curmudgeons who don’t think anything of value was written after 1922.

Meanwhile, this cross-pollination and the general acceptance of forms and media formerly dismissed as lowbrow has opened up an intriguing space in which we can look at how many of these texts use generic conventions—or shrewd critiques or subversions of them—to expand our literary and cultural vocabularies. This space—or rather, these spaces—are what my course will be examining. And as I said in my previous post, I am keen to get this blog back into gear, so one of the things I will be trying to do is write one or two posts a week dealing with whatever text we’re looking at. These posts will be designed in part to foment class discussion (I’ve never written a textbook I can make my students buy, so the least I can do is force them to read my blog).

That being said, I’m also hoping that this course might interest people enough to read along at home, as it were, or to contribute to the discussion if we cover something you particularly love.

Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here are our readings, in order that we will be covering them:

AmericanGodsNeil Gaiman, American Gods. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been nerding out hard over the last few days with the release of the trailer for the television adaptation. I was concerned at first that STARZ is the network doing it, as they’ve tended to be far more erratic than, say, HBO or AMC. But the team they’ve assembled is stellar: the showrunners are Bryan Fuller, who brought us Hannibal, and Michael Green, whose nerd cred is pretty strong with such shows as Heroes and Smallville. But beyond the showrunners, the cast they’ve assembled so far is mind-blowing: Ricky Whittle (The 100) as Shadow Moon, Emily Browning as Laura Moon, Gillian Anderson (!) as Media, Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka on The Wire, Pornstache on Orange is the New Black) as Mad Sweeney, Crispin Glover as Mr. World, Jonathan Tucker as Low Key Lyesmith, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, Kristen Chenowith as Easter, Peter Stormare as Czernobog … but of course if none of those people were involved, I’d still watch to see Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to have that nerd braingasm.

Ahem. Putting Gaiman on the course is a bit of a cheat, as this is an American Lit course, and he’s very much a Brit. He does live in the U.S., however, and the novel is manifestly about America. Gaiman is an example of a literary jack-of-all-trades, moving with alacrity from comic books to prose fiction to children’s literature to TV writing (two episodes for Doctor Who); and all his work is profoundly influenced by myth and legend, and gothic horror. He is a genre author who has attained an enviable level of literary acclaim, and as we’ll discuss on the course, one way to read his figuration of gods and divinity is as an allegory of genre itself.

 

zone-one-paperbackColson Whitehead, Zone One. If Neil Gaiman is a genre author who has garnered literary acclaim, Colson Whitehead is a literary star who confused the literati and intelligentsia of the New Yorker set by writing a zombie apocalypse novel. I’d read his novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor, and was blown away by all of them: Whitehead writes with extraordinary lyricism about race and blackness in America in all three, but Zone One elides race as a factor until a key moment late in the narrative. It is instead preoccupied with images of a desolate and empty Lower Manhattan. His main character is a “sweeper,” someone tasked with clearing out zombie stragglers in order to secure the city south of Canal Street so that business and industry can return. As with his previous novels, the writing is gorgeous; Whitehead has an extraordinary talent for language, an ability to introduce unexpected and startling metaphors into the description of the most quotidian things.

 

StationElevenEmily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. I should point out that each of these texts has something bridging it to the next. Gaiman and Whitehead have the literary/genre inversion linking them; Station Eleven picks up from Zone One as a post-apocalyptic novel. In Mandel’s case, the world is wiped out by a virulent influenza, and we follow around a group of traveling actors who make their way performing Shakespeare for the pockets of survivors two decades after the Fall. Why Shakespeare? Because in this post-apocalyptic world, it seems to be the great works that feed the souls of the survivors—and because, as is written on the side of part of the troupe’s caravan, “Survival is Insufficient”—there must be something to survive for.

The fact that the motto specifically comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager speaks to the novel’s broader preoccupation with genre, and its juxtaposition with art in the form of Shakespeare. The title refers to a graphic novel called Station Eleven, about a space station shaped like a planet fleeing an alien invasion. The graphic novel becomes something of a talismanic object for the survivors, as its themes come to intersect with their own preoccupations.

 

FunHomeAlison Bechdel, Fun Home. I must confess, of all the geeky obsessions and indulgences I have owned in my life, I have never been a reader of comic books or graphic novels. I don’t know why I find it an effort to read them. But Fun Home had me rapt. I knew I wanted to have a graphic novel on this course, as doing a class on genre in this way without bringing in a visual narrative would be a big elision. Fun Home is particularly appropriate, not just because it is a beautifully drawn and written memoir, but because it leapt genres to become a successful musical on Broadway.

Bechdel’s story of her childhood, of her queer awakening, and the realization that her father—who dies, possibly suicidally, not long after she comes out to her parents—was a closeted gay man, is a poignantly told story that grounds itself in the traditions of Joyce and Proust.

 

OscarWaoJunot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Truth told, this is the novel that really got me thinking about doing a course like this. I’ve taught it several times now in a handful of classes, and it is always a joy to introduce it to students. It tells the story of a hapless young Dominican man named Oscar, who embodies all the negative geeky qualities: overweight, myopic, socially awkward, obsessed with women but incapable of interacting with them, and addicted to every kind of fantasy and science fiction film or novel that crosses his path. The narrator, Yunior, is a closet nerd but corresponds to the masculinist Dominican ideal; his narration is peppered with Hispanic slang juxtaposed with Lord of the Rings references. The novel is, above all else, about the collision of worlds: of male and female worlds, of immigrant worlds with America, of nerd culture and everything else.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton. I so, so hope we’ll be able to watch the filmed stage performance. Failing that, though, the cast recording is not something I ever see myself getting tired of.

Considering how much has been said and written about Miranda’s work of genius, it feels redundant to offer my pale commentary. Instead, here’s their performance at the Tony Awards.

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Blogging, or The Intrinsic Value of Shouting at an Empty Room

I’ve been a very bad blogger. Every so often I go through a burst of energy and put up a handful of posts in quick succession, but it’s been some time since I posted on a regular basis. Certainly this past year has seen a lot of inaction on this site. If it weren’t for my Game of Thrones posts with Nikki Stafford, I’d have put up next to nothing.

Which isn’t for lack of wanting to. I have journals full of notes chronicling my thoughts on a host of topics, many prefaced with the hopeful header “possible blog post”; and I have a folder on my desktop containing an embarrassing number of half-completed posts that I just couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or which languished until their subject was no longer current.

One of the reasons for my blogging absence has been one of the more epic cases of writer’s block I’ve experienced in my adult life. There have been a variety of factors contributing to that (which I won’t get into here), but one of them is the way in which writer’s block gets worse the more you don’t write. I haven’t posted much this past year because of writer’s block; but one of the reasons I’ve had writer’s block is because I haven’t been posting to this blog.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my level of blogging activity is a bellwether of my productivity more broadly—sometimes I just don’t really have anything to say here, but am getting a lot of writing done in other arenas—but there’s something to be said for keeping the pump primed by posting relatively clear and coherent arguments or meditations.

What is this blog for? It certainly isn’t aimed at a large audience. If my ambition was to write for thousands of people, I’ve failed miserably here. Fortunately, that has never really been a concern. Most of my posts garner in the neighbourhood of fifty readers, which likely corresponds to the number of my Facebook friends actually interested in what I might have to say on a given topic. The Game of Thrones posts tend to top out at about one hundred and twenty readers. Three years ago, I made it to three hundred and fifty with a pair of posts about that whole David Gilmour thing, and Margaret Wente’s entirely predictable response to it. And the most readers I’ve ever had was for a post I wrote, apropos of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, about The Wire and police militarization, which garnered twelve hundred readers—mainly because a friend of mine posted the link to Reddit.

So, I’m hardly swaying anyone’s opinion on such matters as Donald Trump, as I can say with a great deal of confidence that everyone who read my previous point probably agrees with everything I said. The fact that I’m almost invariably preaching to a (very small) choir has occasionally bothered me. Why go to the effort of parsing my thoughts if I’m not reaching people who will disagree with me, or whom I can engage in substantive, meaningful debate?

That thought underpinned a lot of my more self-defeating capitulations to writer’s block, at least as far as this blog was concerned. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in a different way: less as a means of engaging in a broader conversation, than as a conversation with myself. What I’ve been missing this past year is the exercise of thinking out loud. On my old blog I once compared blogging to shouting at your empty kitchen to something you hear on the radio. I think that analogy holds: articulating thoughts, giving them form and shape, is a valuable exercise even when no one is listening. The difference between writing things out in my journal and composing a post is that the latter is technically public—meaning that the act of composing takes precedence. Only a handful of you are actually reading this, and fewer still will have read this far. For those who have: Hello! I am happy that you’re interested enough in my thoughts that you’re still with me.

Don’t get me wrong: a large audience would be nice, but I’m not about to do all the things necessary to broaden my appeal. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know what those things would be (aside from employing more clickbait-y titles and keeping my posts more succinct. Yeah, that’s not happening).

I do however want to do more with the blog, and write more, and more frequently. One of my favourite series of posts I’ve done is when I taught a course on The Lord of the Rings two years ago, and did a series based on my lectures. I intend to do something similar this fall: I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar course I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres,” which will deal with texts that play with the “genre” appellation in a variety of ways. I’m planning to do a series of posts for each of the texts we cover, which will hopefully fuel discussion both in and out of the classroom. I’ll say more about that course closer to when we begin in September.

Revenge of the Genres

I’ve also got, I’m sorry to say, a cluster of Trump-themed posts on the back burner. Yes, I know … we’re all suffering from Trump fatigue, and I encourage people to actively avoid reading them. They’re more for my own benefit, to clarify my own thoughts more than to make specific arguments.

And I’ll be picking up the threads of research I had intended to do over the past few months. I won’t say much about that now, other than that it involves zombies, crowds, and soldiers.

That’s all for now.

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Winners and Losers

I watched all four nights of the Republican convention in Cleveland. All four. I did it in part so I could follow along as Andrew Sullivan liveblogged it: since he retired his epic blog The Dish, I’ve been in serious withdrawal from Sullivan’s incisive, insightful, and often entertainingly cantankerous perspective on politics, American and otherwise. But mostly I did it to bear witness to history in a way not available to those who watched the Reichstag burn down. They could not have known what was coming, that a comical Chaplinesque clown would use his influence over populist rage to vanquish the forces of the moderate establishment. The Junkers and the bourgeois conservatives assumed that Hitler would be malleable once in power, that he would be a useful cudgel to hammer the socialists, and that ultimately they could use him to their own ends.

Well, we know how that worked out.

Don’t go calling down Godwin’s Law on me. Smarter people than I have pointed out the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, including Adam Gopnik (twice) and the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan. Read them and come back to me with a denial on this point.

But that’s not my primary concern in this post. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of winners and losers, something near and dear to Donald Trump and his idiosyncratic rhetoric.

donald-trump-1080x608

After everything that went down over the four nights of the RNC, I find it interesting that one of the things that continues to rankle for me is his Beyonce-like entrance on the first night to the strains of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” I’m not alone: there was a chorus of anger that the putative figurehead of the Republican Party would appropriate Freddie Mercury to his own ends. Trump’s brief shout-out to the LGBT community in his keynote speech on Thursday night does nothing to obviate the GOP’s systematic opposition to, and attempts to roll back, gay rights; it certainly does nothing to counter the fact that he chose one of the Republicans’ worst offenders to be his running mate. That he would use the music of a gay icon to accompany his entrance is tone-deaf at best, and actually obscene at worst.

queen

All that aside, it is utterly unsurprising that Trump would favour “We Are The Champions.” Taken entirely out of context, the song articulates what is quite obviously something close to Trump’s sense of self. If I had to guess what his favourite lyric is, I’d have to say “No time for losers!” Even if you ignore his biography to the point of his announcement on June 16th, 2015, there is no avoiding the fact that Donald Trump’s primary method of interacting with the world is to divide it into winners and losers. He, obviously, is a winner. Those people he likes and approves of are also winners (though this is a redundant observation, as one assumes being a winner is a prerequisite for the Donald’s approbation). His opponents and enemies, just as obviously, are losers. He chose to run for president because America is no longer a winner, and that is unacceptable. America has been losing for too long: to China, to Mexico, to Russia, to ISIS. His entire candidacy is about being a winner again. “We’re gonna win so much,” he famously declared at a rally, “we’re gonna win at every level, we’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with health care and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”

The rhetoric is childish and risible, and has justifiably come in for a great deal of mockery, but we make a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is less Trump’s actual words than his world-view that resonates: there are winners and losers, and if you stand with me you’ll be a winner like I am. Trump is essentially the schoolyard bully writ large, who inevitably attracts a sniggering entourage of toadies eager for the bully’s approval, people who really are just desperate to not be the objects of bullying themselves. There is no sense that making common cause with the others being bullied is an option, because winners vs. losers is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, someone else must lose, so best to hitch your wagon to the hugest, most bombastic star in your firmament.

The irony of Trump’s use of “We Are The Champions” is that, in spite of its soaring anthemic chorus, the song contains a distinct measure of pathos in its slower, quieter moments. It speaks of paying dues and suffering, of making mistakes, and—that great mark of the loser!—having sand kicked in one’s face. And let us not forget that the struggle is ongoing: “We’ll keep on fighting till the end!” Mercury sings, suggesting that “champion” is less an achieved status than a state of mind, and that the struggle never ends—a sentiment made all the more poignant by his high-profile death at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Perhaps if Freddie Mercury was still alive, still touring with Queen and headlining shows alongside the Rolling Stones; perhaps if “The Show Must Go On,” which now indelibly inflects “Champions” with an elegiac quality, wasn’t the last song Mercury recorded before succumbing to his illness; perhaps if his career had not been a great, glorious, campy fuck-you to the voices of censure, of disapprobation, of authority; perhaps then “We Are The Champions” might fit a bit better into Donald Trump’s ethos.

freddie-mercury

But of course none of those things are true, and we can add Trump’s use of Queen to the long list of politicians completely misapprehending the nuances of songs they use while campaigning (the ultimate example of which is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, though Paul Ryan’s professed love of Rage Against the Machine is even more cognitively dissonant). And in the long run, playing “Champions” to accompany his entrance on stage is small beer compared to his countless other outrages: fomenting anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic sentiment, playing upon people’s fears and anxieties to further his personal brand, and basically reinventing the Gish gallop by an order of magnitude such that fact checkers quite simply can’t keep up with his mendacity, all of which have immediate and pernicious real-world effects.

But the rhetoric of winners and losers as a zero-sum game really should disqualify anyone seeking high office—or really, office at any level. If government has a responsibility, it is to the “losers.” This has been the guiding principle of all our great humanitarians and humanists, and is the central tenet of almost every single religion in history—including the Christian faith to which Trump pretends. I am an atheist, but was raised Catholic, and to this day the part of the Gospels that resonates most for me is Matthew 5:3-11, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus celebrates the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and so on. As a witness to American politics, I have yet to see the right wing square their devout Christianity with their dismissal of the people Christ specifically sought to elevate.

Despite his ultimate fame, Freddie Mercury was a loser: a shy young man born as Farrokh Bulsara in colonial Africa (in the British protectorate of Zanzibar) to Parsi parents, whose savant-like musical skills made themselves obvious at an early age. As his fame grew, his sexuality asserted itself more and more, becoming something akin to an open secret. But it was something he reveled in in his public persona, and he was as frequently vilified as he was celebrated. In the world of social conservatism, Mercury is doubly suspect: not just gay, but foreign. And not just foreign, but born in Africa to parents of Iranian extraction.

It is perhaps no wonder that the music of Queen speaks so frequently to the underdog. Not that this is unusual in the history of rock and roll, which has so often given voice to society’s losers, as has so much of rap and hip hop. And what is blues music, if not the cri de coeur of the downtrodden? It puts me in mind of the wonderful speech Jon Stewart delivered on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. He talks about working in a bar in central New Jersey, hinting at his aimless and angst-ridden youth, but that when he listened to the music of Bruce Springsteen, “everything changed … and I never again felt like a loser.” When you listen to Bruce’s music, he says, “you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers.”

I have no pithy end to this post, no rhetorical flourish. At one point I thought I could end on something like “But if Trump wins, we’re all losers,” but I think if I wrote a sentence like that in earnest I might actually have to stab myself in the eye with a knitting needle.

I came relatively late to the music of Queen: they weren’t on my radar in high school for the simple fact that no one I knew listened to them (or admitted to it). I chalk this up in part to the fact that a Catholic high school in the 1980s is about as homophobic a place as you’re likely to find. I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 almost in its entirety, largely because of all the guest musicians, and ended up being transported by the Queen songbook.

After night four of the GOP convention, as I thought about going to bed, I felt I needed a life affirming anthem.

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Game of Thrones 6.10: The Winds of Winter

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings all! Welcome to the final recap/review/exegesis on Game of Thrones season six, as executed by myself and my wonderful friend Nikki Stafford. It’s hard to believe, but the season is now over … how quickly it flew. The finale did not disappoint, however, and it gives us a whole lot to look forward to in season seven.

It was a long episode—the longest yet aired—so we have a lot to get through. So, without further ado …

 cersei_cityscape

Christopher: Game of Thrones has gotten us used to having a pretty spectacular penultimate episode, followed by a finale that is more about housekeeping than anything else, with perhaps one or two “Holy shit!” moments to prime us for the next season (see: Jon Snow, murder of). But I think it’s safe to say that this finale was wall-to-wall holy shit moments. To wit: Cersei blows up EVERYBODY real good; Tommen offs himself; Varys shows up in Dorne; Jon Snow’s lineage is CONFIRMED, and he’s named King in the North (much to Littlefinger’s, and possibly Sansa’s, dismay); Arya, having presumably left Braavos with a bunch of spare faces in her carry-on, feeds Walder Frey’s sons to him and cuts his throat; Daenerys finally sets sail for Westeros; and Cersei, dressed like every evil sorceress from every 80s fantasy film, is crowned the MOTHERFUCKING QUEEN OF WESTEROS.

All I can say is: enjoy it while you can, Cersei. Dragons a-comin’.

We begin with a rather lovely view of King’s Landing, as Cersei looks down from her rooms over the city, peering specifically at the Sept of Baelor. Then follows an interesting musical montage of several key individuals dressing (or in the case of everyone but the Sparrow, being dressed). Knowing as we do that Cersei and Loras’ trials are nigh, this sequence feels not unlike the sequence in a sports film when the athletes don their gear. It is, in essence, a pre-battle scene, except that two of the four people pictured do not show up: only the Sparrow (clad in what I assume is his formal burlap) and Margaery go to the sept. Tommen remains broodingly in his chambers, and Cersei is well into her morning wine.

I loved the use of music in this sequence. It was just this side of verging on overdone, but the rather anachronistic piano score lent the scenes a melancholic, almost dirge-like quality—especially when, as Lancel is stabbed, it changes from piano to pipe organ. And it’s worth noting that there was a lot more cutting between scenes than this show tends to employ: usually we have little parlor dramas that go on for five to ten minutes before cutting away to a different story. In this case however, we get the scene in the sept, Cersei in her chambers, Tommen in his, Pycelle’s murder, and Lancel’s discovery of the wildfire. All of which is brought together as we watch Cersei watch the Sept of Baelor go up in flames.

pycelle

I should note that there is an interestingly tangential intersection with A Dance With Dragons in terms of Qyburn’s use of murderous children to do away with both Lancel and Pycelle. Two episodes ago, Varys departed from Meereen for unspoken reasons, referring cryptically to a “mission” he was undertaking. I, and presumably everyone else who has read the novels, speculated that perhaps he was heading to King’s Landing to stir the pot. Dance’s epilogue has Ser Kevan Lannister (who is a far more sympathetic character in the novels) cautiously optimistic: having done her walk of shame, Cersei seems properly contrite and sedate, and unlikely to rock the boat; and after a long period of unrest, things seem to be settling down in King’s Landing, and in the Seven Kingdoms more generally. He receives a message from Grand Maester Pycelle asking to see him, but when he arrives at his chambers he finds him dead. He is himself shot with a crossbow … shot by Varys, in the eunuch’s first appearance since he abetted Tyrion’s escape in A Storm of Swords, two novels ago.

Why has he killed Kevan? Because he was “threatening to undo all the queen’s good work,” by which he means Cersei’s catastrophic misrule that has continued the chaos of the war. In bringing stability, Kevan threatens to undermine Varys’ ultimate goal—the re-installation of Targaryen rule in Westeros. And while Varys has shot him with a crossbow, it is not the eunuch that deals the killing blow:

Ser Kevan was cold as ice, and every labored breath sent a fresh stab of pain through him. He glimpsed movement, heard the soft scuffling sound of slippered feet on stone. A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind the Grand Maester’s chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together. And in their hands, the daggers.

But as it turns out, Varys has gone to Dorne, to stir the pot in an entirely other fashion. More on that later.

Meanwhile, the children with daggers are in the employ of Qyburn, and visit death first upon Pycelle in a manner that very closely mirrors Ser Kevan’s death in Dance. Qybrurn’s apology, indeed, is almost identical to Varys’ in the novel. And one of the children lures Lancel away into the vaults in what is, unfortunately, a rather contrived sequence. Why does he follow the child? What does he care if some urchin runs down the cathedral steps? His task, after all, is to go and bring Cersei, kicking and screaming if necessary, to her own trial. I have to imagine this is a task he relishes. But no, he follows the kid down into the basement of the sept, only to discover that part of Bran’s wildfire vision was not of the past, but the future.

marg_warning

Margaery, meanwhile, gets the screaming heebie-jeebies when Cersei doesn’t show, and when she attempts to share her fears with the Sparrow, is condescendingly mansplained to. It is unthinkable to him to end or postpone the trial—this, after all, is his moment of triumph. He has cowed and humbled two great houses, robbing one of its heir; he makes it clear that he’s entirely prepared to level judgment on Cersei whether she shows up or not.

And then … BOOM.

What did you think of this episode’s opening, Nikki?

wildfire_plosion

Nikki: I’ve often referred to episodes of television that cause one to feel all kinds of emotions (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use the term “all the feels”) as the best kinds of rollercoasters. But if other TV episodes are rollercoasters, this is the Leviathan. I don’t recall ever screaming, gasping, and throwing my hands up in the air as often as I did with this one. There were no tears, so I guess that would be the only thing it was lacking, but to use the word “lacking” with any part of this episode would be nitpicking in the extreme. I think the episode was damn near perfect.

In the previous episode, as Daenerys talked about burning her city down, Tyrion calmly reminded her that her father had once stuffed all of King’s Landing’s underground tunnels with wildfire, and that the reason her father was truly the Mad King is that he was willing to burn to death every man, woman, and child, every innocent person in the way, just to get to the few people he wanted to kill. Only a truly mad person would do such a thing. I wondered why they were repeating this story — just last season he told the same story to Daenerys as the two of them sat across a table and he explained what her father was really like, and how in her quest to become queen she must never, ever be like him. And now I realized they needed that story fresh in our minds, because as Tyrion is warning Daenerys about her father planting the explosives in the first place, it never even occurs to him that his own sister might be the one to use it.

wildfire_casks

And use it she does. My GOD when Lancel looked up and I saw the glowing green goop on the ground I dropped my pen and gasped aloud. “WILDFIRE!!!” And immediately the consequences of the action — before it had even been set off — were in my head. She’s going to kill everyone in the Sept of Baelor.

Now, I will admit to some, um, stupidity on my part. It never occurred to me that the sept and the castle were in two completely different locations — for some reason I always pictured them as adjacent to one another. They always seem to be in their chambers, then say, “Walk with me” in an Aaron Sorkin sort of way and then… they’re in the sept. I thought the buildings were pretty much attached. And yet now I realize well DUH, Cersei had to have done her walk of atonement from the sept to the castle, and therefore they must be in two different spots. But I never realized they were THAT far apart. That was one long walk of atonement.

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I also had a horrifying moment when the Mountain stopped Tommen in his doorway that Cersei — bedecked in her black dress as if vying for the role of Evil Queen in some King’s Landing Disney musical production — had actually ordered her own son’s death in retaliation for him removing her right to choose a champion and have a trial by combat. And I was baffled: no matter what Tommen would do, she would NEVER kill one of her children. They mean everything to her. Of course, she wasn’t going to kill Tommen — she was just going to destroy him emotionally and psychologically, and kill everyone he ever loved. No big.

We go from the wildfire killing everyone and everything to Cersei waterboarding a nun (or maybe “wineboarding” would be the more accurate word), and I couldn’t help but think, “Cersei, seriously, you’re OK with wasting all that wine?” The only person worse than Cersei in this scene is Septa Unella, who has been a hateful, horrible character from the moment we first saw her. Despite everything Cersei had done, watching Unella ring that bell and shouting, “Shame!” in that holier-than-thou voice of hers put our sympathies with a Lannister, and for that alone, she should be punished. Cersei tells her to confess that she enjoyed torturing Cersei, before Cersei happily lists all of her favourite things. And no, they don’t include whiskers on kittens or snowflakes that stay on her nose and eyelashes.

I drink because it feels good to be drinking
I killed my husband because he was stinking
I fucked my brother and clipped Sparrow’s wings,
These are a few of my favourite things!

But she can’t reach Unella and her piousness. The nun just looks at her smugly and says she’s ready to meet her god. To which Cersei has a hearty chuckle, and in lumbers Ser Gregor Clegane. I was chatting about what to expect in this week’s episode with another parent at my son’s soccer game last week, and both of us thought they were going to show the Mountain’s face this week. I didn’t want to see it; he totally did. “This is Ser Gregor Clegane,” says Cersei as she walks out, leaving Septa Unella to untold amounts of torture. “He is your god now.” And with the tiniest bit of joy she can muster, Cersei begins chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as she shuts the door.

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If I must be tortured, I would choose wineboarding.

And we cut to Tommen looking out over the city. You mentioned the gorgeous score in this episode, Chris, and because it’s so different than the music we heard before, you’re right in that it stands out a lot. It was gorgeous. But in this scene, there’s no music whatsoever — the only score is the screaming coming from the streets below as green smoke billows out of the Sept of Baelor. Which is why no one was prepared for what happened next. When Tommen removes his crown and turns to leave, the camera holds on the window for what seems like too long a time, I suddenly gasped in horror about two seconds before Tommen came back into view, realizing exactly what was going to happen. It’s a horrifying moment, and he acts quickly before he can think his way out of it. And there’s no heightened drama in the moment at all — no music, no sound effects, no opening of his arms and screaming, nothing. He simply walks back to the window, steps up onto the windowsill, and falls forward silently, like a log.

His mother has just killed his wife without a second thought. And his wife’s father and brother. And the High Sparrow and the acolytes — to which Tommen had just pledged his fealty. He loved Margaery, even if she didn’t love him, and he was willing to change his entire belief system to match hers. And now he realizes his mother is a monster. That his personal happiness doesn’t mean anything to her because if she doesn’t like someone, she will have them killed. It doesn’t matter if it happens to be Tommen’s beloved wife.

And with that, Cersei has lost all three of her children. Joffrey died because he was a sadistic tit, but he had always been that way, urged on by Cersei, who never said no to him and who encouraged his evil ways. Myrcella died because Cersei made the ill-fated decision to have the Mountain squash Oberyn’s head like a melon, and it forced Ellaria to wreak her revenge on Cersei in the most painful way. And now Tommen, her youngest, who was just a kindergartner when this whole story began, is gone. All their deaths were caused by her desire for power, but we know she would do anything for her children. They’re all gone. How does a mother continue after this? What is there left to even live for? Any piece of humanity that Cersei had left in her body went out the window with Tommen, and her heart is nothing but a sliver of flint now. She wept and screamed and raged at Joffrey’s death. She cried quietly when Myrcella died and wondered if she’d just lost the only thing that reminded her she was a good person. And now, with Tommen’s death, she bears it without even changing her demeanour. “Burn him and bury his ashes where the sept once stood,” she says.

And all of THAT, our dear readers, was just the opening of the episode. Jeepers. The only downside to all of this? Now we’ll never know what Margaery had been planning all this time. But one thing’s for sure: Grandma Tyrell is gonna be pissed.

And now we’re back over to Riverrun and Walder Frey, who is aligned with the Lannisters. (Snicker.) What did you think of Jaime and Bronn’s verbal sparring here, Chris?

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Christopher: It was a lot different on rewatching as I realized that the girl Bronn’s initially ogling, whom he assumes is all hot and bothered for Jaime, is actually Arya in disguise. The first time around, the scene was just vaguely annoying—I love Bronn as a character except when he goes all frat-boy—but the second time around the coy look the serving girl gives Jaime is vaguely chilling. Knowing that’s Arya, in my head I was imagining her calculation: “Can I kill Walder Frey AND the Kingslayer? Nah, best to stick with Frey. Jaime was never on my list.” That little shiver up Jaime’s back is his lizard brain being suddenly grateful that Arya doesn’t know he shoved Bran out a window.

I’m beginning to think that the worst fate in Westeros is to be born a Frey, as it seems to entail being congenitally petty, incompetent, and jealous of other people’s successes. Walder Frey’s little speech at the beginning of this scene is quite possibly the most insufferable bit of oration we’ve heard in this series, and I’m including all of Joffrey’s pronouncements. His suggestion that from this day forth, everyone in that room should accompany killing blows to their enemies with the words “The Freys and the Lannisters send their regards!” is a bit of piggybacking self-aggrandizement that would make Erlich from Silicon Valley blush.

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(Walder Frey is one of those characters I can insult just because of whom he played in another fantasy franchise. During his speech I kept thinking, “Oh, just shut the fuck up Argus Filch, you fucking squib wizard wannabe”).

Jaime is quite obviously unimpressed. Wait, did I say unimpressed? I think I mean he would sooner cut off his other hand and use it to gouge out his eyes than listen to another word from Walder Frey. But these are the tasks nobility drops on the 1%, I suppose. His indifference to Bronn’s frat-boy banter is one indicator of his desire to be Anywhere But Here. He manages to divest himself of Bronn by being wing-man extraordinaire, but must immediately regret his helpfulness when Bronn’s seat is immediately taken by none other than Frey the Elder himself.

I loved Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in this scene. I think he’s done a fantastic job of realizing Jaime Lannister anyway, but in this moment he’s the audience’s proxy, radiating contempt for this useless cocknapkin of a lord, and finally expressing what we’re all thinking throughout the scene: precisely what fucking use ARE you, Walder Frey? The expression on his face as Frey tries to equate himself with Jaime is priceless. “Here we are now. Two kingslayers! We know what it’s like to have them grovel to our faces, and snigger behind our backs. We don’t mind, do we? Fear! It’s a marvelous thing.” If we recall Jaime’s account of what led him to kill the Mad King, it’s a bit of miraculous self-control that he doesn’t just beat Frey to death with his golden hand. Instead, he settles for pointing out that no one fears the Freys—they fear the Lannisters, and if the Lannisters have to ride north to recapture the Riverlands every time the Freys lose them, “then why do we need you?”

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We cut from a discomfited Walder Frey to Sam, Gilly, and Little Sam as they arrive at Oldtown—which is a moment probably somewhat more poignant for readers of the novels, as this ancient southern city has been imbued with so much myth and legend and significance. It is the site of the Citadel, the university (basically) that trains maesters, as well as being one of the oldest cities in all of Westeros. It’s worth noting that as Sam and Gilly arrive, they see a flight of white birds leaving the city—one of which we later see gliding into Winterfell. Theses are the white ravens, which in the GoT world are sent from the Citadel when the Maesters agree that yes, in fact, winter has arrived.

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I loved this scene, as Sam’s first view of the Citadel’s library is essentially book lovers’ porn. I remember having a similar expression to Sam’s the first time I walked into the Robarts Library Rare Books Collection at U of T … except that the stacks there are far less impressive than what CGI has done for the Citadel. I also loved that Sam’s nascent feminism founders on the shoals of books. “No women or children!” the functionary at the desk thunders at Gilly, and Sam’s expression—in which apology wars with excitement—is priceless. “Sorry, babe. I’d express solidarity with you, but … BOOKS!”

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I hope that next season we just cut from whatever momentous events are happening to Sam reading an ever-growing stack of books. Just for a few seconds. DRAGONS LAYING WASTE TO LANNISTERS! Sam reading. WHITE WALKERS ASSAULTING THE WALL! Sam reading. CERSEI DRINKING WINE! Sam reading.

Repeat as necessary, GoT writing room. You’re welcome.

We then cut to one of those white ravens Sam and Gilly see (Jeebus, these birds fly as fast as Yara’s ships can sail) gliding down to Winterfell. Jon is having a bit of difficulty adjusting to his new position, observing to Melisandre that he was never permitted to sit at the high table during feasts. “It could have been worse, Jon Snow,” she points out. “You had a family. You had feasts.” Good observation, murderous red woman! It’s that kind of common-sense advice we’ll miss because you thought it was a good idea to burn the innocent child of the would-be king whom you thought, erroneously, was the child of prophecy.

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How awesome was Liam Cunningham in this scene? Twelve years ago I saw Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, with Sam Waterston as Leonato. The speech he delivers to Claudio, in which he accuses Claudio of essentially killing his daughter, Hero, from grief, was spoken with such spitting, shuddering, barely contained rage that even sitting in the back row I felt it in my bones. That’s what I thought of while watching Davos put Melisandre on the spot. “If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil!” You know what? That’s a fantastic rule of thumb when it comes to choosing your deity. “I loved that girl!” Davos thunders. “Like she was my own! She was good, she was kind, and you KILLED her!” Honestly, my heart was breaking in these moments. Davos has lost everything—his sons, his family, the man he believed should be king. And he’s lost Shireen, the little girl who taught him to read and who might have given Lyanna Mormont a run for her precocious money.

In a promising moment of wise compromise, Jon Snow sends her south. He can’t ignore the fact that he’s only alive because of Melisandre, but he also cannot ignore the enormity of her trespass. I doubt Davos thinks it sufficient, but it’s a good first gesture for the man who’ll become the King in the North by the end of the episode.

Jon watches her ride away from the battlements, and is joined by Sansa, who addresses the fact that she hadn’t shared her communications with Littlefinger with him. In our last post, I said that Sansa’s omission was bad writing; others have suggested that Sansa is actually far more savvy and ruthless than I was giving her credit for. What did you think of her apology, re: Knights of the Vale, Nikki?

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Nikki: First I just have to concur that Sam walking into that room of infinite books almost made me forget every other moment of the entire series. If you get to choose your heaven where you will spend all of eternity, the showrunners just gave everyone a glimpse of mine. I pictured Gilly and little Sam sitting out in the waiting room for YEARS as little Sam grows up, hits puberty, moves out of the Citadel, all while Sam Tarly just stood in that same spot, mouth agape, staring at the wonder and beauty that surrounded him. And Chris, I thought EXACTLY the same thing when I saw it: I had the same reaction you did when I walked into the Robarts Rare Book room (maybe you and I were in the same bibliography class?) and when they pulled out the original Shakespeare folio I thought I was going to faint. I remember putting on the gloves to slowly turn the pages of a first edition of Dickens, and my eyes kept glancing upwards at all of the stacks of books around me all the time. GLORIOUS.

People always imagine what character they’d want to be on Game of Thrones. In that moment, it was clear to me: I want to be Samwell Tarly.

But now back over to our Sansa. Yes, you said Sansa’s omission was bad writing, others said it was just more evidence of Sansa’s stupidity and that Rickon’s death was on her head, while I held my ground that we all know Littlefinger is a complete dick so why are we assuming that Sansa knew he was coming and that she is the bad guy? And of course this scene didn’t really answer anything. All she said is that she’s sorry she didn’t tell him, but she didn’t elaborate what there was to tell: that she’d sent the raven to Littlefinger? That she’d gotten a raven back saying he was coming? That she knew all along or that it was a mere possibility? Either way, Jon is clearly far more forgiving than the fans, and has a much longer memory and knows they’re stronger as a family than breaking apart. He knows what his sister has been through, and he knows that where he was shuffled off to the Wall, she was betrothed to Joffrey, mocked by the court, ridiculed by Cersei, watched her own father’s execution, became a prisoner, thought she would die at the Battle of Blackwater, heard of the deaths of her mother and brother, assumed Arya was dead, was married to a monster against her own will, escaped at the last minute before she could be executed for standing nearby while Joffrey died, was brought to the Eyrie and was there when her aunt died, had creepy Uncle Baelish come on to her, then was shuffled off to House Bolton where she discovered what a REAL monster was and where her memories of Winterfell would forever be tarnished, thought her two brothers had been murdered, was raped and beaten repeatedly before finding the fortitude to escape, found out what her ward/brother had gone through at the hands of Ramsay, escaped through the snow chased by Ramsay’s dogs, and THEN was reunited with Jon. So yeah, she’s been through some stuff, and while the men have been trained in weaponry and war from the moment they were big enough to pick up a wooden sword, she was trained in embroidery and how to curtsey, and yet by osmosis this little girl has grown into a woman who can help strategize against the enemy.

In that moment he realized the fault was as much his as it was hers — she didn’t tell him about Littlefinger, and he didn’t listen to her when he should have. He tells her they have to trust each other, because right now, they’re all the other one has. He tells her that he’s going to have the lord’s room made up for her — she should have the chamber that had previously been occupied by Ned and Catelyn. She says he should have the room, because he’s the lord. (It wasn’t clear to me if their chamber was the same one in which Ramsay had repeatedly raped her — if it was, I can imagine it’s not a room she’s keen on having.) He shakes his head and says no, he can’t, because he’s not a Stark. “You are to me,” she says, and for all they know, she’s the last surviving Stark, and if she says he’s a Stark, he’s a Stark. (Even though we know he’s also something else, but more on that later.) She tells him that a white raven has come from the Citadel: “Winter is here.”

I don’t know about you, but that line elicited a gasp from me that was as loud as anything else in the episode. For SIX YEARS we’ve heard that “Winter is coming,” which was something Ned Stark said all the time. And it seemed like it would never come — it was just that thing that everyone warned about, but I started to wonder if the show would end with winter still on the horizon. Here come the white walkers.

But as the snowflakes swirl in the air above Winterfell, we now move to Dorne, where Lady Olenna is dressed all in black, showing us that she knows, and she is FURIOUS. And she’s gone to the one place where she knows she has a bunch of women with a SERIOUS beef against the Lannisters, and most importantly, Cersei. Olenna has never hidden her disdain for Cersei Lannister, as if she knew if House Tyrell ever had a downfall, it would be at Cersei’s hand. But of all the Tyrells Cersei killed, she left the most powerful one still standing, which is her biggest mistake. As I said earlier, everything that has happened to Cersei happened because of her own mistakes — the deaths of her children, the rise of the High Sparrow — and two of the three children died because someone took revenge on them to get back at Cersei. And in the case of the first child, it was Lady Olenna who did it. And now she’s back. She can’t come at Cersei through her children, so she needs to think bigger. Cersei took away her future — she killed her son and both grandchildren. What does Cersei have left? King’s Landing and Westeros. OK, let’s take that from her. Ellaria looks at Olenna (who is not threatened one bit by the Sand Snakes, telling them to shut the hell up and telling Elbara she looks like an angry little boy) and tells her that she will give Olenna her heart’s desire. “And what is my heart’s desire?” asks Olenna, with an eyeroll and a pfft. “Vengeance,” says Ellaria.

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“Justice.”

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Varys.

Last week the soccer dad and I were discussing where Varys could have gone, and we both agreed it was Dorne. If he basically lives to see Daenerys Stormborn take back Westeros, who are the people who hate Cersei the most? Who are powerful enough to topple empires like they did in Dorne? Who are, like Daenerys, women? (Her alliances now are with the Sand Snakes and Yara Greyjoy.)

“Fire and blood,” he says as he emerges from the shadows, all Doctor Evil–like. And…

We cut to the fire: Daenerys Targaryen. Guys, it is ALL COMING TOGETHER!!! Daenerys is making her plans to go to Westeros, and tells Daario that he has to stay to keep peace in Meereen, but he’s having none of it. And she’s having none of him having none of it. She holds her ground and tells him she needs to think politically now, and needs to marry someone with power to gain power, but Daario loves her fiercely, and won’t let her go. She just stares at him coolly and tells him his instructions are awaiting him, there shall be no more dalliances with this dragon. It’s a heartbreaking scene, mostly because of the lack of emotion she shows and Daario having nothing but emotion. He blames Tyrion, and she says this isn’t Tyrion, it’s her decision (it’s Tyrion’s) and Daario pleads with her. “Let me fight for you,” he says. But Tyrion knows Daenerys really does have a single-minded purpose, and Cersei didn’t: Cersei wanted the power, but she loved her children so much she allowed her enemies to get at her through them. When you love someone, they will become your greatest weakness. And Daenerys can’t afford any weaknesses right now. “You’ll get the throne,” says Daario. “I hope it brings you happiness.” He tells her that he pities the lords of Westeros right now, for they have no idea what’s coming for them.

She shows far more emotion with Tyrion, and tells him that she just said goodbye to a man she loved and felt nothing. And we realize what she just didn’t wasn’t some tough love act to save Daario’s life — she truly never loved him the way he loved her. Tyrion says this is all happening right now: all she’s ever wanted are ships, armies, and dragons, and now she has all of them. “You’re in the great game now,” he tells her. “And the great game is terrifying.”

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And then, like Spike to Buffy in the penultimate episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he looks at her and tells that he’s never believed in anything in his life. He was taught to believe in certain gods, in family, in power, in the monarchy, in the military, in his father, in his brother and sister, even in himself, and believing in any of those things never got him anywhere. “And yet, here I am,” he says. “I believe in you. It’s embarrassing, really… I’d swear you my sword, but… I don’t actually have a sword.” And with that she makes him the Hand of the Queen, even pinning the brooch on him that Ned Stark wore back in season one. The pin didn’t get Ned anywhere positive. And when Tyrion himself wore it as Joffrey’s Hand, things were just as bad. But he’s not following Robert Baratheon, or Joffrey Baratheon — he’s the Hand of Daenerys Stormborn, a woman who has shown herself to be an excellent leader, and who has learned to listen to her advisors, which is something no other monarch in Westeros has done in recent memory. He looks genuinely touched, and bows before her.

And from there we cut to Walder Frey eating what looks to be a delicious pie! How much were you squeeing in this scene, Chris??

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Christopher: Squeeing and throwing up a little in my mouth. That finger in the pie didn’t look like it had been washed. That’s how you end up with the Norwalk virus, you know.

It occurs to me that Arya’s actually done a pretty impressive job of checking the names off her death list. A man wonders if she’ll be the one to finally take Cersei off the board? Wouldn’t that piss off Olenna and the Dorne women!

There isn’t much to say about this scene aside from how perfect it is. As revenge killings go, it’s almost as satisfying and poetic as Ramsay’s. Walder Frey spent his long life obsessed with the status of his family, creating many Freys with his succession of young wives, to the point where he’s not sure if the serving girl is his daughter. And when he is assured that she is not, he proceeds to be gross and gropey. Ick. That just kind of puts the cherry on the vengeance cake, though, as the random girl he feels so entitled to take liberties with fools him into literally eating his family legacy before revealing the face of a Stark Who Got Away. It’s particularly satisfying that he dies while sitting in the very same seat from which he presided over the Red Wedding.

A lot of viewers have expressed dissatisfaction with Arya’s sojourn in Braavos. Two seasons worth of apprenticeship to the Faceless Men, only to finally reject them and head home? Isn’t that just a whole lot of wasted storyline? I must admit, I felt a little like this myself … until this moment. If the payoff of the Braavos storyline is that Arya becomes an uber-assassin who starts knocking off Stark enemies, starting with the man who killed her mother and brother, then I say that was time well spent. It’s almost a little sad that Joffrey is no longer around for her to kill.

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From one Stark daughter to the other, we cut from Arya’s satisfied smile to the Winterfell godswood, where Littlefinger finds Sansa hanging out under the weirwood tree, reflecting on all the times as a child she’s prayed to be elsewhere. She’s come full circle, returning to one of the sites of her childhood, and in this moment we see how much she has grown, learned, and matured. She has certainly learned enough not to trust Littlefinger. “What do you want?” she asks him, and he responds with one of the more shocking revelations of the season. “Every time I’m faced with a decision,” he tells her, “I close my eyes and see the same picture. Every time I consider an action, I ask myself: will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes.” As he speaks he leans in closer to her, his voice dropping conspiratorially, suggesting that he’s about to confess his love and desire for Sansa. But what is the picture in his head? “A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by my side.”

Wow. I’m not surprised or shocked that Littlefinger’s end game will be a play for the crown; I’m gobsmacked that he would say it out loud, and make clear his overweening ambition to Sansa. We’ve always known, as Varys once put it, that Littlefinger would watch the world burn if he could be king over the ashes, but it seems at least a little presumptuous to declare as much when there’s really no path for him to claim the throne outside of outright conquest.

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Sansa has learned enough to take everything he says with a boatload of salt, and the moment she pushes him away when he goes in for the kiss made me cheer almost as much as I did when Arya pulled off her disguise. He might have told her that the picture in his head includes her at his side, but Sansa knows too well by now that if he had a choice between the Iron Throne but no Sansa, or Sansa but no Iron Throne, you wouldn’t get the sentence out before he plunked his arse down on the ugly old chair. “It’s a pretty picture,” she says dismissively, and when he points out that he has very publicly allied himself with House Stark, she says, “You’ve declared for other houses before, Lord Baelish. It’s never stopped you from serving yourself.”

I think it’s safe to say that this is the season in which Sansa came into her own (and I may or may not have said “You go, girl!” when she tells him off), but Petyr Baelish is not so easily ignored. “Who should the North rally behind?” he asks her. “The trueborn daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark of Winterfell? Or a motherless bastard born in the south?” Sowing the seeds of dissension already … I have a feeling that next season will see a lot of that sort of thing.

Maybe Arya will arrive and take care of him.

We then cut to “the motherless bastard born in the south” by way of a quick scene far to the north as Benjen brings Meera and Bran to the Wall. He cannot pass the Wall, he tells them, as it has ancient spells carved into its foundations. “And while it stands,” he says, “the dead cannot pass.” Which raises an interesting question for the coming war: will we see the destruction of the Wall when the Night King and his minions come south in force? Because if they’re just kind of stymied by the Wall, standing there saying “Well, fuck,” that would be a bit anticlimactic.

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But having arrived at a weirwood tree, Bran is like an impatient binge-watcher who’s been away from the DVR too long, and just has to get back to the interrupted story of his father. “I’m the Three-Eyed Raven now,” he tells Meera, “I have to be ready for this,” but really, he’s just saying “Let me get back to my stories already!”

Which, let’s admit it, is what we were all thinking, and what we have been thinking since Bran first had his vision of the Tower of Joy. FINALLY, we basically have confirmation of the most pervasive fan theory about Jon Snow’s parentage. Or … well, mostly.

To back up a moment for those casual viewers who somehow missed all the hints (but honestly, I doubt that any of those strange creatures would be reading this blog), it’s always been suggested that Jon Snow is not, in fact, Ned Stark’s son. Rather, it’s believed by almost everyone now that he is in fact the child of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ brother) and Lyanna Stark—the latter of whom we see in this scene. The “official” narrative put about after Robert Baratheon took the throne was that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, and that she died from his abuse. Is however more popularly believed (and there are a lot more hints to this effect in the novels than in the show) that Rhaegar did not kidnap Lyanna; that the two of them were in fact in love, and she willingly ran off with him; and furthermore that the child she births in the Tower of Joy is Jon Snow, whom Ned pretends—at Lyanna’s desperate plea—to be his own bastard fathered on a nameless woman in the south.

This he does to protect Jon. Remember, the Targaryen dynasty is toppled, and Robert Baratheon has a very acute and specific loathing for them—he sends assassins after Viserys and Daenerys, and later Ned attempts to resign the Handship when Robert tries to have Daenerys murdered. Anyone with Targaryen blood would be a threat to the crown, and therefore in danger.

It is one of the sticking-points of Ned’s character in the novels that Mr. Honour would have dishonoured himself and his new bride (he married Catelyn to cement the allegiance between Houses Stark and Tully) by fathering and acknowledging an illegitimate son. It is the one grievance held by Catelyn in their marriage. If you’ll recall, way back at the start of season one, just as Ned heads south to King’s Landing and Jon heads north to the Wall, Ned promises that when he sees Jon next, they’ll have a long and serious talk. Presumably, he meant to reveal to him his parentage.

But of course, Joffrey put an end to that when he peremptorily decided to execute Ned rather than let him take the black. Can Qyburn resurrect him too, so that Arya can kill him all over again?

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Of course, the scene does not unequivocally establish, as the equation on the interwebs has gone, that R + L = J. We don’t hear what Lyanna whispers to Ned, but the graphic match edit that cuts from the face of the baby to that of Jon Snow makes it pretty damn clear that he’s not Ned’s son, but Lyanna’s. The scene that follows, in which the northern houses pledge their loyalty to the new King in the North, plays a little ironically on what we now know. Littlefinger has planted the first seed of doubt for Sansa, and we see her smile fade when she meets his gaze at the end of the scene. The North rallies around a “motherless bastard” whom they all assume is Ned Stark’s son; but we (think we) know that he is in reality equal parts Stark and Targaryen, which would seem to signal that he will be one head of the three-headed dragon when Daenerys finds out his parentage and discovers that he is, in fact, her nephew.

Which probably means she’ll marry him. To paraphrase something Sterling Archer once said, Westeros sometimes seems like the Alabama of fantasy worlds.

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I love that it’s everyone’s new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont, who consolidates Jon’s leadership. As the crowd grumbles and rumbles, we get a quick shot of Littlefinger’s calculating expression, and Jon’s own blank one as he peers out over the room. But young Lyanna isn’t taking anyone’s shit, and calls out all the other lords who did not stand with the Starks against the Boltons. The scene ends with a callback to season one, when all of Robb Stark’s bannerman acclaim him “King in the North.” It’s a stirring scene, but also a worrisome one, for that very reason … and because we don’t quite know how to interpret the look that passes between Sansa and Littlefinger.

From the King in the North to the Queen in the South—Jaime Lannister rides up to King’s Landing and is treated to the sight of smoke rising over the city, and the episode ends with images of rival queens.

Take us home, Nikki.

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Nikki: I have my money on Daenerys and Podrick, for the record. Ahem.

Yes, I agree that the scene of all of the houses of the North chanting, “King in the North!” was meant to hearken back to Jon Snow’s brother — er… cousin? — Robb when he was proclaimed the same.

While Daenerys, Cersei, and Littlefinger have their eye on the Iron Throne, Jon is looking no further than to unite the north and help lead them in their battle to defeat the white walkers. Cersei and Daenerys don’t have a clue about the white walkers, so they can continue their little battle to the south, but for now, they have a much bigger problem on their hands in the north. And if the white walkers manage to get past them… gods help those who live in warmer climes. The problem is, he’s seen them — as far as the other houses are concerned, the white walkers are just bogeymen they use to scare their children out of staying in their beds at night. He’s going to have his work cut out for them on that front, but he can’t even get them to unite behind him. They all grumble and complain about the winter coming, and since no one thought to put winter chains on their horses’ hoofs they’re itching to get home right now. And as you said, Chris, it’s Lyanna Mormont — Lyanna Stark’s namesake, we shouldn’t forget — who stands up and tells off the room. Here is a room full of the leaders of ancient houses, of Free Folk and warriors, of men who just fought in a battle and who are now weary, all arguing amongst themselves, and sitting in the middle, quietly surveying the room, is a 10-year-old girl.

Let’s just ponder that for a second: she’s 10. The first time we heard of her was last season, when Stannis was at Castle Black and trying to get the northern houses to rally around him, and Lyanna sent a raven to him basically telling him to fuck right off, that she would only bend at the knee for House Stark. And she has stayed absolutely true to her word. She stands up and reminds the first dissenter, Manderly, that his son had been killed at the Red Wedding. “But you refused the call.” She then turns to Glover, and reminds him that despite his fealty to House Stark, “In their hour of need, you refused the call.” Then she turns to the young head of House Cerwyn, and tells him that his father had been flayed by Ramsay. “Still, you refused the call.”

“But House Mormont remembers. THE NORTH REMEMBERS. We know no king but the king in the north whose name is Stark. I don’t care if he’s a bastard, Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins. He’s my king, from this day until his last day.” And then she sits. YAAAAAAASSSSSS!!!!! Oh how I love this young woman. All these men do is fight in every meeting, and then a girl stands up, tells them exactly who each one of them is (and she’s right on all counts, including suggesting that Stark blood runs in Jon’s veins), and they begin to respond, and agree they’ve all been pretty shit at running the houses of the north, and that they should have bent the knee to Jon Snow long ago. Jon just looks gobsmacked, like he doesn’t know where this girl came from but maybe SHE should run the North.

Fiercest 10-year-old EVER.

And then Jaime returns to King’s Landing to see it burning to the ground, and his face is a mix of shock, confusion, and “Oh my god, she didn’t” all over it.

cersei_rearview

We cut to Cersei Lannister walking solemnly and singlemindedly into the throne room, marching straight for the throne with purpose. And can I just pause to comment on that outfit? I don’t know what sort of Badass Queens R Us boutique just showed up in King’s Landing, but I’m so glad she opened an account there. Black leather dress punctured with holes that make it look like metal studs are over it, with actual metal shoulder pads and a chain connecting them in the front, that outfit was ca-ray-zee, and SO PERFECT for this moment. “The Rains of Castamere” begins playing somberly in the background as Jaime wanders into the gallery, and listens to Qyburn make the announcement. “I now proclaim Cersei of the House Lannister, first of her name, queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms.” Some people die on battlefields to become the ruler of Westeros. Some are simply born into it. Others burn down the whole fucking city and walk into the room.

As she sits on the Iron Throne and glances over to the gallery and sees Jaime standing there, her face doesn’t change at all. And we know what he must be thinking: his son is dead. The only way Cersei could be sitting on that throne is if their son is dead. What a way to find out you no longer have any children. And not only that, but there’s nothing behind her eyes but complete deadness. He knows the Cersei he has loved for so long is gone, and what is left is this black-leather-clad person who once loved him and their children. Now all she has is that throne.

And, as I wrote in my notes, “Don’t worry, Cersei, Daenerys will soon be there to ruin everything.” For here she comes, riding across the waves in the fleet of ships that Yara and Theon brought to her

cersei_coronation

Long ago, when Robert Baratheon wanted to have Daenerys killed because he found out she was pregnant, Ned Stark talked him out of it. He said there was nothing to fear with the Dothraki, because, as he said, “I’ll fear the Dothraki the day they teach their hoses to run on water.”

They didn’t have to teach them to run on water; they’ve simply boarded them onto the ships that are now making their way over to King’s Landing.

As the majestic music swirls over this glorious final scene, we see the Greyjoys and their armies on the ships, we see the Dothraki and the Unsullied steering others, and we pan up into the sky to see Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion flying freely over the water, where we finally zero in on the front ship, where Daenerys stands proudly at the prow, Tyrion by her side, and Varys and Missandei right behind her.

Winter has come to the North, and fire is coming to the South.

And with that, we end what is probably the best episode of Game of Thrones ever… and now we have to wait another 10 months for more. Uggggghhhhh… What will be next? Will Arya come straight to Winterfell or will she sneak her way through the countryside, being the girl of many faces? Or could she come to Winterfell not as Arya but as another person, just to check up on her family and see where their loyalties still lie? Speaking of loyalties, will Sansa remain loyal to Jon Snow or could there be dissension between the two? After all, he was named King of the North when she is actually the true heir of Ned and Catelyn’s (as far as they’re concerned) and she was the one who brought the army that won back Winterfell. What will happen between Jaime and Cersei? He already killed one mad monarch for threatening to burn down King’s Landing — will he be forced to kill another for actually following through with it? The Sand Snakes weren’t on any of the ships; are they going to be pulled out as Olenna’s wild card later in the game

All of these questions and many more will be answered… in approximately 300 more days. Sigh.

daenerys_westeros-bound

Thank you to everyone for reading our posts week after week, especially this 8600-word one (yeesh). And thank you, as always, to my partner Christopher Lockett, who peppers his brilliant commentary with phrases like “formal burlap” that have me spit out my tea laughing every time we pass these back and forth. I can’t believe we’ve already come to the end of another season. Until next time, Valar Morghulis.

 

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A Feast of Thrones

All this season of Game of Thrones, my friend Andrew has been coming over to watch, and beforehand I’ve made dinner. I love to cook, so as the weeks passed I set myself the challenge of not repeating a meal (which I failed last week—one of our first dinners was burgers on the BBQ, and last Sunday was so beautiful, simply barbecuing some burgers seemed utterly appropriate. For those unfamiliar with Newfoundland in June, you should know that warm sunny days are not a given, so we tend to enjoy them as much as humanly possible when they happen). I’ve done pork souvlaki, barbecued chicken, jerk chicken, pulled pork, steaks, and a bunch of stuff I can’t recall. A few weeks in, Andrew’s son Nathaniel came home from university and started joining us, as did my girlfriend Stephanie.

For the finale last night, however, I decided something big was in order. And so I invited a bunch more Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and cooked a meal inspired by the show. Specifically, I consulted the website Inn at the Crossroads, whose creators Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer set themselves the task of recreating meals described in A Song of Ice and Fire. Their research is impressive: they find medieval analogues to GRRM’s often lavishly-described dishes, compare them to modern versions, and develop their own recipes. The website garnered them a publishing deal with the cookbook A Feast of Ice and Fire. Based on the recipes I made last night, that deal was very well-deserved.

Last night’s menu:

  • Honeyed chicken
  • Nan’s Beef and Bacon pies (with peas and onion)
  • White beans and bacon
  • Cucumber, apple, and tomato salad (not a GoT recipe, but I didn’t want to send my guests home with scurvy)
  • Sansa’s lemon cakes

I know this isn’t this blog’s usual bailiwick, but I can’t resist being a bit of a hipster foodie in advance of my co-post with Nikki. So bear with me, and trust me: all of these recipes are winners.

dinner-spread

Cocktails

When my guests asked what they could bring, I just told them to bring whatever they wanted to drink. Then after a bit of reflection, I sent them this link to Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, and said that if they wanted to bring the makings of any of these, they were welcome.

 

tyrion-shot

The Tyrion Lannister Shot, courtesy of the lovely and brilliant Jennifer Lokash: pear vodka, elderflower liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, mint. These are dangerous. You wouldn’t know from the taste that they have any alcohol at all.

dragon-cocktail

The Dragon Lady, courtesy of the equally lovely Andrew Loman: vodka, lemon juice, mango juice, Triple Sec, dragon fruit (substituted here with papaya), cayenne pepper. It’s the cayenne that makes this, a nice little afterburn to go with the sweetness.

Honeyed Chicken

I tweaked this recipe a little. The website calls for a basic roasted chicken, which you then cover in a honey sauce. I decided instead to baste the chicken with the honey sauce—which is SO tasty—in the last fifteen minutes of roasting or so, and then let my guests drizzle the sauce to their taste over the chicken on their plate.

chickens-cooked

I also went a little beyond simple roasted chicken. I put a lemon in the chickens’ butts (roll the lemon vigorously on the counter for a few moments, then stab it repeatedly so the juice leaks out while cooking), and made a compound butter of garlic and thyme that I put both underneath the skin and smeared on top. This at once keeps the chicken moist and juicy, and helps crisp the skin.

Oh, and be very generous with the salt and pepper on the chicken. I would say that goes without saying, but it always bears repeating.

chickens-raw

Also: one of my favourite ways to roast a chicken is to place it on a thick slice of sourdough bread. This is a pro-tip I learned from the Food Network (specifically, Ina Garten). The bread toasts as the chicken roasts, and gets impregnated with the chicken juice and fat. This is a fantastic way to make croutons if you’re also serving a Caesar salad; last night I just cut the bread into cubes and served them as is. I had some leftovers this morning, but the bread was totally gone.

The honey sauce is ridiculously simple and incredibly yummy. I did make a change, though: the Inn at the Crossroads calls for raisins, and I substituted dried cranberries for three reasons: (1) cranberries felt a little more medieval; (2) I don’t like raisins; (3) the tartness of the cranberries offset the acid of the vinegar and sweetness of the honey.

I also roasted the chickens alongside a whack of small new potatoes, carrots, whole garlic cloves, and fresh thyme. Also not strictly speaking a Game of Thrones recipe, but roasting any kind of meat without also cooking some form of potato (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew!) simply goes against my hobbit-sense.

veggies-prepped

Nan’s Beef and Bacon Pies (with peas and onion)

This one was my own creation. I had originally planned to make the pork pies as described on the website, but none of the grocery stores in my area happened to have ground pork this past weekend. So as I was out for a walk on Saturday, I started thinking about the beef and bacon pies Jon Snow and Sansa reminisce about in episode four of this season (“Book of the Stranger”). Nan’s beef and bacon pies, with, as Jon says in his inimitable accent, “peas and onion.”

As it happens, Inn at the Crossroads has a recipe for beef and bacon pies, but as I walked I started working through my own concoction in my head. I was quite proud of what I devised.

I started with stewing beef, which I threw in my slow cooker with beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, and a glug of balsamic vinegar, after browning it in a skillet. (Again, salting and peppering the beef before cooking should go without saying). I let that cook on high for four hours.

stewing-beef

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the grocery store had oxtails (no ground pork, but oxtail? weird), which I used to make my own beef stock. In the same pot I’d browned the stewing beef in, I browned the oxtails, and then threw them in a 450 degree oven with two chopped carrots, one large onion cut in half (skin on), a few bay leaves, and about half a dozen garlic cloves (skin on) cut in half. I let that all roast for half an hour, and then put the pot on a medium burner and added water. That simmered for a few hours.

I then fried some cubed bacon in butter until crisp. Removed the bacon with a slotted spoon, and sautéed roughly chopped onions. When the onions were translucent, I added chopped mushrooms (one carton’s worth), and continued cooking until they were nicely browned.

bacon

onions_fryingonions&mushrooms

Then flour (about ¼ cup), which I let brown (you always want to cook the flour, or else you taste it unpleasantly later) before slowly adding ladlefulls of the beef stock. When that reduced to a nice gravy, I added frozen peas and the beef, which I’d removed from the slow cooker and shredded. You can add some of the stewing liquor now if you like, or else just a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and a glug of balsamic vinegar. And lots and lots of freshly ground pepper. Oh, and put the cooked bacon back in the mix.

peas

filled-tartstarts-unegged

egged_tarts

Uncooked pies with eggwash.

finished_pies

Finished pies.

gluten free pies

The gluten-free option.

Given that one of my guests has a severe gluten allergy, I kept some of beef and bacon aside and made a separate batch with everything but the flour for the gravy, and thickened it with cornstarch. I made some pie pastry with millet flour, which took a bit of experimentation (basically, one cup of millet flour, enough olive oil until it’s the consistency of damp bread crumbs, and half a beaten egg). The regular tarts I made with the recipe off a box of Crisco shortening.

I painted the tarts with egg wash, and baked them until they were nice and brown (sorry, I don’t tend to pay attention to things like time—I usually just eyeball my recipes).

 

White Beans and Bacon

Well, this one is pretty ridiculously simple, and ridiculously delicious. I chose to complicate things by getting dried beans, which means I needed to soak them for twenty-four hours and then simmer them for a further hour or two, but you can simply buy canned beans and skip that step. Again, just sauté the bacon until crisp, remove and sauté a whole chopped onion to desired doneness (i.e. do you prefer pronounced onion flavor? Then undercook it. Prefer sweetness? the caramelize that bastard), add the beans and and bacon, and simmer until cooked through. You’ll need to add a bit of water. If you’re like me and like to complicate things by using dried beans, you can keep the water you used to boil them and add it now.

white beans and bacon

Cucumber, Apple, and Tomato Salad

As I said, not an actual Game of Thrones recipe, but I felt I should offer my guests something that doesn’t contain bacon. And this is a great salad anyway, so you’re welcome.

Basically: chopped cucumber and Granny Smith apples, halved grape tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It’s very simple, and one of the best salads I’ve ever made.

 

Sansa’s Lemon Cakes

This one was also a bit of a cheat, as it wasn’t taken from the Inn at the Crossroads. They offer two variations on lemon cakes, one medieval and one modern, but neither quite appealed to me. So I did a bit of searching, and as it turns out, Sansa Stark’s predilection for lemon cakes has inspired any number of variations on this theme. This recipe is from Bon Apetit, and was quite easily the biggest hit of the night. Given that I followed the recipe to the letter, I won’t narrate my cooking process. I will however say that they surprised me a little by being more custardy than cakey, but holy crap they were sublimely delicious.

 

lemon_slices

If you want to be really fancy, simmer lemon slices in simple syrup for about 20 minutes, and then let dry for 24 hours. Top the cakes with a dollop of lemon creme and a candied lemon slice.

lemon-cake-finallemon-cakes

And that’s all she wrote! Thanks to my guests for a lovely evening.

guests

My lovely guests, clockwise from left: Lady Stephanie the Scrivener, of House Van Der Linde (motto: “We Prefer Not To”), Keeper of the Bulbous Cat; Ser Nathaniel the Gangly, of House Loman (motto: “Um, OK, Sure, I’ll Make Your Poster”), Master Crafter; Lord Andrew the Loquacious, Elder of House Loman, Keeper of Black Cats and Avoider of Meetings; Lord Robert the Apiarist, of House Finley (motto: “Splendid!”), Fledgling Beekeeper and Lord of the Gourmands; Lady Jennifer the Badass, of House Lokash (motto: “You Have A Complaint? Awesome”), Keeper of the Nuthouse; Lady Danine The Recently Deaned, of House Farquharson (motto: “Don’t Even Fucking Start With Me!”), Repository of All Gossip.

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Game of Thrones 6.09: Battle of the Bastards

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings and valar morghulis, friends. Welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog in which we pore with exegetical fervor over Game of Thrones on an episode by episode basis.

Where did the season go? We’re at the penultimate episode, and as in every season of this show, the second-last episode features some pretty spectacular stuff, both narratively and visually: the death of Ned Stark, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the wildlings’ assault on the Wall, and last season we saw Drogon immolate a whole bunch of harpy sons.

But I think this season might be the best yet. What do you think? Nikki?

 daenerys_surrender

Nikki: Welp, in true Game of Thrones fashion, the penultimate episode was SPECTACULAR. Which means next week’s will probably be a wrap-up episode with a lot of exposition in the first half, a few surprises in the second, and something huge happening in the final two minutes.

As is often the case, this episode leaned heavily on the battle (I think every even-numbered season has a battle in episode 9, and the odd-numbered seasons have shocking deaths in episode 9). We all knew this episode would feature the showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (I love that on Father’s Day the show featured a fight between two men whose fathers wouldn’t legitimize them, ha!) but first, we start off in Meereen and another battle that’s already waging.

The episode opened with the men working for the slavers (seriously, that word to me looks like slayers with the y having been cut off) loading catapults on their ships, which they are expertly aiming at various sites on Meereen. Meanwhile, inside the pyramid, Tyrion is discussing the state of affairs with Daenerys. When she was taken away, it seemed she had some grumblings happening, but things were mostly under control. Now she comes back and after a few weeks under Tyrion’s control, the place appears to have gone to shit. The thing is, as he explains, it’s like many cases of new leadership. A new leader is nominated to come in and clean up a country’s mess, but when he first comes in, he encounters so many problems he’s suddenly blamed for everything. But it’s not necessarily his fault — it was the previous leader who caused all the problems, and now it’s his job to use his cunning and patience to actually fix them. Daenerys didn’t fix the city’s problems by freeing the slaves, she simply created new ones by angering the masters for destroying their way of life. As he tells her, the rebirth of Meereen is the cause of all the violence. If her way succeeds, it sends a message to all that a city without slavery proves that no one needs a master. And the masters can’t have that little tidbit getting out, now, can they?

tyrion_nervous

So, Daenerys has a simple solution. She will crucify the slavers, she will destroy their ships, she will go to their cities and burn each one to the ground, and she will win. And so Tyrion must once again stop her and remind her — as he did last season — about who Aerys Targaryen really was. He reminds her that the Mad King had buried wildfire throughout King’s Landing and was planning to set the city on fire, to kill every man, woman, and child in order to get to the few leaders he needed to wipe out. And so Jaime Lannister had to stop him in order to prevent a mass slaughter. If she follows through with her plan, she’ll be no different than the monster her father was, and they need to rise above that.

And so, he says, they need to come up with another plan. Cue the meeting at the top of the pyramid with the three masters Tyrion already spoke to. They tell the slavers they’re here to discuss the terms of surrender. With a smug smile, the masters begin explaining the terms they want Daenerys and Tyrion to follow, before Daenerys cuts them off and apologizes for miscommunicating — what she meant was, they’re here to discuss the terms of the masters’ surrender. Cue faces ranging from shocked to angry to amused. That last one doesn’t last for long.

As we all knew would happen, Drogon shows up and Daenerys climbs on his back. Watching him grow for six seasons is totally worth it (well, it was always worth it) just seeing the looks on the masters’ faces when he lands in front of them. She flies off and Viserion and Rhaegal emerge from the chamber where they’ve remained all season despite the fact Tyrion let them go several episodes ago, but perhaps they needed the scream of Drogon to draw them out through the wall of the place. And now that they’re flying for the first time in months, they get to have some playtime, flying around the harbour and burning everything in sight. It’s a beautifully shot scene as Daenerys, stone-faced, leads her children through the skies and orders them to immolate everyone working for the slavers.

drogon_checkmate!

Checkmate, bitches!

Of course, this only takes care of the people on the ships — the Sons of the Harpy are on the ground, getting all stabby with the slaves and Daenerys followers on the ground. Hm… if only Daenerys had someone loyal to her who could handle th—

Cue Dothraki. We can only imagine the fate of the Sons of the Harpy, but I think it’s a safe guarantee that what’s left isn’t gonna be pretty.

Meanwhile, back up on the pyramid, the masters watch in horror and realize they’ve lost. Tyrion gives them a chance to help him choose one master who will die, and two of them immediately push a third one forward, mentioning he’s low-born and not one of them. As the third one bows and begs for mercy, Grey Worm steps forward and in one motion, slashes the throats of the other two masters. Tyrion steps over to the third one and places a hand on his shoulder. He tells him they will let him go, and he needs to go and find the others, and “remind them what happened when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen.”

tyrion_slaver

This isn’t just an episode about battles, but about preparation for and strategy within those battles. Daenerys was just going to push headlong into pure destruction before Tyrion calmed her down and explained that there was a better way to handle this, and he was right. We’ll see more scenes in this episode of discussions for what to do in battle, where not everyone will be as open to the proposed strategies as Daenerys was.

From here we move over to Jon Snow meeting his monstrous brother-in-law for the first time (a scene that included my new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont). What did you think of the initial meeting between the bastards, Chris?

sansa_jon_parley

Christopher: I thought it set a particular theme and tone that ran throughout the episode, which might be best summed up as the sins of the fathers. Bastardy versus trueborn, illegitimate versus legitimate sons, as we’ve seen over the course of six seasons, is a fraught and freighted issue in Westeros. In this respect, GRRM is more indebted to Shakespeare than anyone else: Edmund in King Lear and Falconbridge in King John are two of the most compelling of his creations, both of them attractive villains whose villainy proceeds from a grievance with the universe—and their fathers—that they were born “base,” and therefore ineligible to inherit wealth or titles. “Why bastard? wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact,” Edmund asks, “My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?” Jon Snow has always nursed resentment that he was the odd one out, but of course has given the lie to the charge of bastardy’s “taint.”

Indeed, he has never been more his father’s son than in this episode, and by the same token neither has Ramsay. Ramsay himself might seem to be an argument for the corruption of the bastard; Roose himself explained his proclivities as its product, but it is hard to make the argument that Ramsay is somehow different in kind from his father, or from his family’s historical fondness for cruelty and torture. Roose rebuked him at the beginning of the season for letting his “habits” occlude his strategic common sense where Sansa was concerned, but it has been obvious from the moment Ramsay murdered him that his cold cunning and ruthlessness has metastasized into Ramsay’s sociopathy. Like Jon, Ramsay is very much his father’s son, bastard or not.

The parley between Jon and Ramsay is itself broadly symbolic of the traits that originally set the narrative rolling way back when: courage versus cunning, honour versus calculation, justice versus ambition. Or to phrase it another way, Stark versus Lannister. In spite of the fact that the former categories have not fared well, in Jon Snow we see their distillation, and that should give us pause. It certainly does for Sansa, who explodes in anger and frustration at Jon when they’re alone. In the preceding war council, both Jon and Davos lay out a sound strategy. Let them come to us. With any luck, anger and confidence will send them charging full tilt. Hold your ground. “They’ve got the numbers,” Davos says. “We need the patience.” He then lays out what has often been a winning strategy for inferior forces: let the center give, and surround them on three sides.

Sansa, however, raises a crucial point that Jon is unwilling, or more likely unable, to grasp: that Ramsay is unpredictable, and whatever Jon thinks he understands about him is simple delusion. Sansa understands him in the most horrible and terrifying ways possible. Jon does not, and cannot.

Jon, however, so completely misunderstands Sansa’s concerns that I want to shake him by his man-bun. “I’ve fought beyond the Wall against worse than Ramsay Bolton,” he retorts. “I’ve defended the Wall from worse than Ramsay Bolton.” Oh, Jon—this isn’t about your honour, courage, or masculine pride. Of course he’s fought worse than Ramsay, at least in terms of scale (defending the Wall), and in terms of the enemy’s implacable malevolence (Hardhome). But in both of these cases, he fought an enemy singular of purpose and uncomplicated in motive—the White Walkers, who seek the destruction of all that is living, and the wildlings, who just wanted to get the fuck away from the White Walkers. It’s worth noting that the only time he’s fought an enemy with nuanced motives, they murdered him.

parley_longshot

Ramsay, by contrast, has no desire or purpose beyond the accrual of power to better facilitate his own pleasure and cruel entertainment. He will play with enemies for the sheer fun of playing with them. Jon is thus as uniquely unfit to deal with Ramsay as his father was with Littlefinger and Cersei Lannister. In this respect, for all his experience with battle, Jon is little better than a naïf beside Sansa, who brings not only her knowledge of Ramsay, but her experience of watching her father executed, her torment at Joffrey’s hands, and her confusing sojourn with Littlefinger at the Eyrie. At this stage in the game, she has the equivalent of a postgraduate degree in power and its abuses, while Jon has yet to pass his GED.

If we were unclear on this point, Sansa’s brutally realistic assessment of Rickon’s life expectancy shows us how much she has learned: “We’ll never get him back. Rickon is Ned Stark’s trueborn son, which makes him a greater threat to Ramsay than you, a bastard, and me, a girl. As long as he lives, Ramsay’s claim to Winterfell will be contested, which means … he won’t live long.” Sansa’s words prove prescient, as it is precisely with Rickon that Ramsay will taunt Jon into abandoning his careful battle plan. Two Starks with one stone, one might say.

sansa_war-council

I thought Sansa was pretty magnificent in this episode, save for one crucial inconsistency. Why has she not told Jon about Littlefinger and the Lords of the Vale? It is understandable that she would have held back that information when she was determined to reject Littlefinger’s help—shortsighted and selfish, perhaps, but understandable considering the hatred she must feel for the man who married her to a monster. Considering that we know she’s sent a raven asking for his help after all, why would she not tell Jon? It’s not as though he’s ecstatic about attacking a force three times the size of his. “No, it’s not enough!” he shouts, a tinge of despair entering his voice. “It’s what we have!” It really makes no sense to withhold this from him, and that one point nagged at me throughout what was otherwise one of this show’s best episodes ever.

But whatever her reason, her heart or her shoes, she refuses to give Jon Littlefinger’s news. Which leads to bleak parting words that hearken back to season four. Sansa avows that she will not go back to Ramsay alive. When Jon promises to protect her, she says bitterly, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.” I don’t know about you, Nikki, but this line made me think of Cersei’s sad reply to Oberyn’s claim that they don’t hurt little girls in Dorne: “Everywhere in the world,” she says, “they hurt little girls.” Jon’s promise is no doubt sincere, but again, she knows more of the world than he does, and he can never understand what she’s been through. He’s been murdered, and he can’t grasp what she’s been through.

She leaves Jon alone in his tent, brooding, and Davos’ question to Tormund gives us a sound bridge over the edit: “So do you think there’s hope?” War makes for strange bedfellows, none stranger than these two. “You loved that cunt Stannis,” Tormund growls, “and I loved the man he burned … I believed in him. I believed he was the man to lead us through the Long Night. But I was wrong, just like you.” Perhaps, Davos counters, believing in kings is the mistake. Between Mance’s failure and the (not literal) demons whispering the Stannis, between Tyrion’s remind to Daenerys about her father’s madness and Daenerys’ acknowledgement that she, Tyrion, and Theon and Yara all had terrible fathers who left the world a worse place … we get a mini-seminar in this episode about the potentially corrosive aspects of power, and how desiring, getting, and possessing it can deform the mind.

And speaking of the demons whispering in Stannis’ skull, our next stop on our Night Before Battle Tour is Jon visiting Melisandre. Before you comment on that, Nikki, I’m curious: when Tormund thought Stannis’ demons were literally real, did you flash to Guardians of the Galaxy and Drax the Destroyer’s inability to understand metaphor? Or was that just me?

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Nikki: Hahahaha!! Tormund was the BEST in this episode. When Davos says Stannis had demons talking to him, and Tormund says matter-of-factly, “And did you see those demons?” I laughed and laughed. I want to see Davos and Tormund do “Who’s on First” together. Though… I guess then you’d have to explain the concept of baseball to the guy and… yeah, probably wouldn’t be as funny as Abbott and Costello doing it. (Though Abbott and Costello never finished a routine with the punchline, “Happy shitting.”)

And one quick word about Sansa: I could be completely wrong on this one, but my thinking is, Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming until the day of the battle. We saw her send a raven; we never saw her receive one. I’m sure many fans are probably coming down hard on Sansa (though it never occurred to me they would until I just read your thoughts above) but when I watched this episode, I automatically assumed she brought in Littlefinger’s troops the moment they arrived. And leave it to that cock to show up at the last minute after Rickon was already dead. I don’t think Sansa would risk Jon being killed because she wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Petyr? Yes. Sansa? No. I think she was hoping Jon would reconsider the battle, and part of her desperation in begging him to do so is that she hadn’t yet heard back from Baelish.

And why didn’t he RSVP? He received the Facebook invitation saying the battle would be happening on Saturday, and by god he wasn’t going to show up a full night early and have to pay for all of his soldiers to stay at the Best Westeros, so instead he just brought them in the day of, and they showed up a wee bit late. But just in time to stop things from becoming atrocious. Besides, I don’t think I have to go out too far on a limb to assume Baelish is going to want something in return (duh) and that something is Sansa Stark. And since he ALSO wants the North, I would assume he would be quite happy if every other Stark kid died off so Sansa would be the last heir, and he would become king. If Sansa knew he was coming, she would be able to warn Jon to hold off on the beginning of the battle, thus possibly saving Rickon’s life and ensuring Jon wouldn’t die. Baelish ensured the youngest Stark would die and was probably hoping Jon had already been crushed by the time he showed up.

It never occurred to me that Sansa was withholding information — I don’t think she had a clue Baelish was actually coming until he rang her doorbell on Battle Day.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Back to the night before the battle, Jon Snow goes to the Red Woman to seek her advice on the battle, but more importantly to ask her not to bring him back if he should die. She tells him it’s not within her control; if the Lord of Light wants her to bring Jon back, she must do it. “What kind of god would do something like that?” Jon asks. “The one we’ve got,” she replies.

Meanwhile, Davos goes on his traditional walk the night before battle, and finds Shireen’s stag. It’s a gut-wrenching moment where you can see the wheels turning in his head, and he turns back to the camp with only one thought: what monster have I brought into this fray? The same one who gave life to Jon Snow and is vowing to follow him to the end took Shireen’s life when she had vowed to follow another. Remember, it was last season’s penultimate episode where Shireen died, so the show took an entire season to bring it full circle. Also, on a purely production note, as Davos stood on the hill with that gorgeous sunrise behind him and the dark, dark sky above, I thought how long did it take them to line up that perfect shot?

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And these two quick scenes bring us back over to Meereen, where Tyrion and Daenerys are meeting with Theon and Yara. As you mentioned, Chris, apparently they took a TARDIS to get there that fast, but hey, let’s give the writers some artistic license. After all, we really can’t rule out that the Doctor may have spent some time in Westeros.

I really loved this scene. Tyrion won’t let Theon get off easily after making the remarks about his height way back in season one. A Lannister might always pay his debts, but it also seems that a Lannister never forgets. He reminds him of some of the ruder things he said about his dwarfism before telling him how unoriginal they are, and topping it off with a, “So how have things been going with you since then?” Ha! I know Theon has been through hell, and he’s actually become a character I quite like, but I despised him in season one as much as Tyrion despises him now, so I understand why Tyrion would have held onto his resentment.

But the far more important connection in this scene was that between Yara and Daenerys. Half girl-power, half flirtiness, the little smiles and knowing looks between the two were priceless. Theon explains that he’s handing rule of the Iron Islands over to his sister because he’s not fit to rule, but she is. Daenerys looks surprised, and asks Yara, “Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” “No more than Westeros,” says Yara, cunningly. And Daenerys gives her quite the sly smile when she says it. Yara and Theon explain that their uncle Euron plans to come to Meereen and give her his cock in the form of a marriage proposal, and if they were to pledge the Iron Islands back to Yara, that wouldn’t happen. “I imagine your offer is free of marriage demands?” asks Daenerys flirtily. “I wouldn’t demand it, but I’m open to anything,” says Yara. And the two queens smile knowingly at each other again.

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This bit of banter ranked right up there with meeting Lyanna Mormont for the first time.

Daenerys acknowledges that everyone in the room had shitty fathers who were shitty leaders, and that it’s up to the four of them to bring about change in the world. Again, the Father’s Day is about learning to be better than the piece of crap their fathers were. (Now if that doesn’t have the trappings of a Hallmark card, I don’t know what does.) Daenerys steps up to Yara and tells her they have a deal under the condition that the Ironborn can no longer rape, raid, or pillage. “But that’s our way of life,” says Yara, without even the slightest touch of irony. But if she wants to leave the world a better place than her father did, she must change. And with that, Daenerys and Yara grasp hands, and the Daenyara/Yarnerys ship is born.

Before we get to the play-by-play of the final battle, were you as thrilled with this scene as I was, Chris?

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Christopher: I thoroughly enjoyed it, TARDIS and/or jet-powered longships notwithstanding. I was particularly pleased that Daenerys seems to be learning. At least, that is what I took from her willingness to grant the Iron Islands a measure of self-determination in exchange for Yara’s loyalty. She corrects Tyrion when he voices his concern that other regions might demand their independence as well, saying, “She’s not demanding, she’s asking. The others are free to ask as well.” It’s early days, of course, but Daenerys appears to be thinking in terms of alternative political models—perhaps this is part of what she had in mind when she spoke of “breaking the wheel.”

Which brings us to the final battle, which is easily the most spectacular and well-shot of the entire series. And, unsurprisingly, the most expensive—between the dragons routing the slavers’ fleet and the Battle of the Bastards, this episode cost around $10 million to make, the most the show has spent to date. It was money well spent, especially in the latter battle. While the fight for Meereen was necessarily CGI-heavy, for the Jon and Ramsay throw-down, the director (Miguel Sapochnik, who last season gave us “Hardhome”), went a much more Lord of the Rings direction, eschewing the CGI for a far more tactile depiction, employing a legion of extras rather than an army of computer animators. CGI was of course employed, but it is far harder to see where it ends and real people begin than at any other point in the series so far. Though the battle took twenty-four days to shoot, it pays off in one of the dirtiest, bloodiest, and most realistic battles I’ve seen outside of the beginning of Gladiator.

It actually has a bit of the Gladiator feel to it, especially in the opening moments when we see the serried ranks of the forces facing them across the field, as Jon Snow walks his horse to the front. Jon, alas, is no Maximus however, and this battle demonstrates the truth of Ygritte’s repeated charge: he really does know nothing.

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Before getting into a discussion of Jon’s rash stupidity and respond to your thoughts on Sansa’s silence about the Vale knights, Nikki, I just want to point out something that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t until I happened across this article. Namely, this is the first time Game of Thrones has treated us to a proper set-piece battle. By that I mean a battle in which opposing forces draw themselves up on opposite sides of a battlefield and close on one another, with the various stages of the battle itself shown in some detail. All of the other battles we’ve seen on Game of Thrones have been sieges and/or assaults on fortresses, such as the Battle of Blackwater or the wildlings’ attack on the Wall; ambushes or routs, like Stannis’ attack on the wildling or his defeat by the Boltons; or small but bloody skirmishes, like Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep. In fact, the show has done a scrupulous job of keeping all of the other set-piece battle off-screen, usually just showing us the aftermath—perhaps most notably in season one, when Tyrion gets knocked out just as the Lannister army is about to take on the Starks, and he wakes up afterward.

This reluctance to depict large-scale battles in all their brutal glory is understandable. Such spectacles are extremely expensive to shoot, as this episode’s price-tag attests, and can too often end up being underwhelming when not done well (the Battle of Phillipi in season two of Rome comes to mind).

But they got this one right, from start to finish, and as the article I mentioned above points out, it demonstrates a solid grasp of historical military tactics, to the point where the original conception was based on the Battle of Agincourt, with Jon &co. playing the part of the beleaguered English. Though this idea had to be abandoned because of the ever-niggling question of budgets, the prominence of longbows as a crucial weapon lingers on in the thick flights of arrows punctuating the battle.

In fact, never mind Gladiator. It occurs to me just now that this battle’s closest filmic cousin is Kenny B’s Henry V.

The difference of course being that Henry V was not a raging idiot, and was not goaded into a suicidal charge by the Dauphin.

Oh, Jon Snow. You really do know nothing. I wrote in my notes “LISTEN TO SANSA!” as soon as Rickon appeared at the end of Ramsay’s rope. There’s that moment of tension as he raises his dagger over Rickon’s head, but it’s only tense for the characters in the scene and anyone who, for whatever reason, just started watching Game of Thrones with this episode—all the rest of us know that Ramsay’s not going to make things so simple.

And Jon, not unpredictably, falls for it. Sigh. As I said, he is his father’s son. Can we imagine a scenario in which Ned Stark would stand still when a loved one is in danger? Sansa’s dire prediction about Rickon is realized the moment we see him at the end of that rope. The one chance Rickon had of surviving, we realize, was to have been left moldering in the Winterfell dungeon by an overconfident Ramsay.

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Well … shit.

Again, this battle proves to be a distillation of Jon and Ramsay’s characters. Jon is honourable and brave to a fault; Ramsay is cruelly cunning, but also cowardly. He remains comfortably ensconced in his rearguard, from which vantage he can enjoy watching the blood and brutality of the battle. And his weapon of choice throughout this episode is the longbow, which symbolizes both his precision and unwillingness to close the distance between himself and his foe. It is worth remembering that among our first encounters with Ramsay were his “hunting” escapades, when he and the late unlamented Miranda shot fugitives like deer.

By contrast, none can fault Jon for his courage—nor for his skill. While he seems to have a preternatural capacity for avoiding arrows, he is in the thick of the battle from the start. When we’re on the ground and in the midst of the blood and mud, here the filmic analogue is more Saving Private Ryan than anything else. The chaos and confusion is visceral, and Jon’s struggle to escape the press of bodies was not good for my claustrophobia. The sequence did a fine job of shifting between shots establishing the overall shape and geography of the battle, and the ground-level anarchy of the melee.

Before handing it back to you, Nikki, I just want to say another word or three on Sansa’s recalcitrance, re: Littlefinger and the Vale knights. Considering just the story in and of itself, it seems likely that yes, Sansa did not want to say anything because she didn’t know if (a) her message would bring allies, or (b) her message was received at all. But that still makes no sense, mainly because this is no longer the naïve Sansa of season one. Which is why in this case I have to step outside of the story itself and just say that this was bad writing. I understand the need to bring things to a keen dramatic pitch, but in a season that has over-relied on deus ex machinas anyway, this was just hamfisted … especially when there was a way to have the Vale cavalry ride to the rescue and keep Sansa’s behavior consistent. Basically, the arrival of the Vale forces could have been revealed as something orchestrated by Jon and Sansa. If they’d had their fierce argument about the paucity of their forces just one episode ago rather than at the eleventh hour—perhaps ending with Sansa saying something like “There is one possibility …”—we could have had the Vale cavalry summoned by a signal from Davos after Ramsay committed all his men. In this scenario, the battle would have been won by strategy rather than mere chance, it would have been consistent with both Sansa’s character and, well, LOGIC, and it wouldn’t have been yet another deus ex machina but a clever tactical coup.

End rant. Thoughts?

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Nikki: I so agree with you on the Gladiator comparison, and Branagh’s Henry V. I kept expecting to hear the soaring music from Gladiator in this scene (and while we didn’t get it, the score was gorgeous, and kept our hearts pounding throughout the sequence). I’m going to stand my ground that Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming, and yes, she could have mentioned something about having sent the raven, and that in itself was a mistake not to have said something (even Brienne commented on that) but I don’t believe she knew he was coming. I, of course, could be proven 100% incorrect on this in the next episode and if so I’ll admit my mistake, but for now, I’m going to say that one of the themes of this episode was about leaders and advisors. Daenerys wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Tyrion suggested an alternative, she listened to him. Jon Snow wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Sansa suggested an alternative… he disagreed with her. As you pointed out, he believes he knows battle, and as much as he loves Sansa, she’s a girl. What does she know? Daenerys easily and handily wins her battle. And while Jon Snow ultimately wins his, it’s at a very grave cost, and only after Sansa saves them from annihilation at what I’m going to continue to contend was an 11½th hour arrival by Baelish.

But you’re right, Chris, in evoking the modern-day war imagery in what Jon Snow goes through on the ground. We always get the sweeping overviews in these medieval battles, with men on horses and men with arrows and swords. But in WWII epics we get the men in the trenches, in the mud, covered in the blood spatter of their victims while trying not to sink in the muck that surrounds them. This episode featured both.

And I’m going to take this opportunity to announce that my husband has NO FAITH in Jon Snow whatsoever. After Rickon met his horrible and inevitable death at the hands of Ramsay (my notes are just a frantic scribbling of ZIG ZAG… DAMN YOU, ZIG ZAG!!! Isn’t that how you outrun an alligator? Wouldn’t it have worked to throw off Ramsay? Sob…), Ramsay unleashed his army and they went headlong at Jon. “Well, that’s the end of Jon Snow,” said my husband. “No it’s not,” I replied, with an “are you effing KIDDING me?!” tone to my voice. “He doesn’t stand a chance, that’s the end of him,” he persisted.

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So I guess they had SOME viewers convinced he was going to die. I wasn’t one of them. From a purely writerly standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to bring him back to life, wander around the north for a few episodes, and then kill the guy again. That would be terrible writing, and then what? Just bring the dude back to life again? Even I would consider giving up the show if they pulled a stunt like that. That said, this scene was BRILLIANTLY filmed, where you don’t see Jon’s army at all, and when they come it’s an utter shock. Just beautiful. I can’t remember seeing anything like that in any other show. And then the choreography of Jon Snow dodging the horses and swords as he spins throughout the chaos — incredible. Yes, yes, I have no doubt it was green screened but I don’t care. Short of having Lyanna suddenly ride in with a Xena yell and kill them all with her superpower sonic hand cannons, this was everything I could have hoped for in the scene.

The episode didn’t back down on the gore, as you said, Chris. The pile of bodies that form a human death wall is enormous (and I couldn’t help but think, man, whoever ends up taking Winterfell in the end is going to have to deal with one hell of a stench in a day or two) and Jon ends up falling beside a horse just on the edge of the body wall. As the men use him to climb over, not realizing he’s not a dead body, he begins to roll under the actual dead bodies, quickly buried (once again my husband figured this was it for the bastard), and one can see how easily something like this could happen in battle. How often throughout history have men died in battle, not from a gunshot wound or an arrow or a sword, but simply being buried under the dead bodies of their fellow men? The idea is horrific.

And then Smalljon Umber’s men come flying down the hill, and for one brief hopeful moment I thought they were going to turn traitor, and actually mow down Ramsay’s men in fealty to House Stark. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and his men suddenly make the death tally in Snow’s column rise even more quickly than before.

But before Snow can be completely suffocated, he manages to pull himself free, and uses the shoulders of his comrades to pull himself up on top of them. But by this point, Ramsay’s men have surrounded them with shields, and are pushing inward, bit by bit, until they’re being crushed like people in the front row at a Morrissey concert. At this point, I’m yelling, “STOMP THEM, WUN WUN!! STOMP THEM!!” But our poor last giant on earth is being slowed down by the vast number of swords that are hitting him. And then Sansa shows up with Baelish’s men, and they make mincemeat of Ramsay’s men. Or, in the case of Tormund, he, like, eats one of their faces. AAAHHH!!

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ramsay_uh-ohAnd just as you said, Chris, what happens next? Ramsay turns and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, because he’s a coward. And Jon—who is the opposite of a coward— is in hot pursuit, along with Wun Wun and Tormund. I just want to pause here and say that this season has not been kind to the giants of the show, whether literal (Wun Wun) or gentle (Hodor). And in both cases, a door is involved right before they die. Hodor dies holding the door, and Wun Wun dies opening it. There was a part of me that wondered if this might have been a merciful end to the creature; after all, there are no other giants alive besides him, if the legends can be believed, and therefore he is alone. He doesn’t sit around campfires gabbing with the Free Folk; he sits apart. They only want him for battles, where he can take out 15 men in the time it takes them to kill one. Otherwise, I imagine he’s pretty alone. But it’s because of him that everything that happens next, happens.

And I will leave you to break down what happens next, and the very end of the episode, Chris. My last words on this episode are twofold: when the direwolf banner unfurled along the wall of Winterfell, I thought I was going to weep tears of joy. What a beautiful thing, even if at such a cost. And secondly, I think someone got off easy at the end—they could have funded the next 10 years of Winterfell upkeep just selling tickets for people to come and take one thwack at him like a pinata.

Chris, take us through the rest of it.

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Christopher: The simple image of the Stark banner is perhaps the most poignant visual in this episode, much more so than that of Daenerys’ dragons burning the slavers’ fleet—precisely because of what it cost. By the same token, the retaking of Winterfell is far less triumphal than Daenerys’ victory. Her victory was quite literally unequivocal, both in terms of how completely she crushed the slavers, and also because (whatever Tyrion’s mitigating influence) it came without compromise. Indeed, Daenerys returned to Meereen more powerful than ever, as the Sons of the Harpy learned when the khalasar came thundering around the corner.

However many problems she had in ruling Meereen, Daenerys nevertheless comprises a sort of revolutionary ideal, or, perhaps more accurately, an idealized revolutionary. Breaker of chains, freer of slaves, she is an unequivocal saviour and hero.

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By contrast, Winterfell represents the accrual of blood and pain and sacrifice that comes with war. The Starks limp into Winterfell battered and nearly broken. The defeat of Ramsay came at a staggering cost, and everyone is somehow compromised. Winterfell is Sansa’s home, yet it will also always be the site of her rape and systematic brutalization at Ramsay’s hands. For all they know, Jon and Sansa are the last of the Stark children. Rickon was killed. Robb and Catelyn were murdered by the people who took Winterfell from them. Jon came within a hairsbreadth of losing everything. The last of the giants gave his life for people who, a mere year ago, would have happily seen him dead. Davos looks with loathing at Melisandre, who he now knows was Shireen’s murderer. And lest we forget, victory came at the cost of Sansa putting her trust in the man who handed her over to Ramsay to start with. We don’t know what the cost of that compromise will be—what will Littlefinger name as his price?

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That being said, it is not as though the final moments of this episode, from the appearance of the Arryn forces to Ramsay’s ultimate demise, don’t possess a significant number of deeply satisfying elements. Ramsay’s face as the scope of his defeat dawns on him was definitely worth the price of admission; ditto for Jon advancing implacably through his hail of arrows to beat him bloody. And of course his final fate. A few episodes ago, a friend and I started gaming out the Ramsay Death Odds, figuring that there was a reasonably good chance he wouldn’t make it out of this season alive. Given that most of the big bads’ deaths have been at the very least ironically appropriate, I put Sansa killing him at 2:1, and being eaten by his own hounds at even money.

How about that? Called it! As big bads’ deaths go, I rate it Five Tywins On The Shitter.

The final scene was a testament both to Sansa’s evolution as a character, and the quiet strength and dignity Sophie Turner brings to her. She remains silent as Ramsay speaks, until he says “You can’t kill me. I’m part of you now.” His words reflect his particularly pernicious species of evil, which is not merely his penchant for cruelty and torture, but his need to break people, as he did in turning Theon into Reek. It was obvious he had similar plans for Sansa. When she stands outside his cell, with the guttering torches in the background and snowflakes drifting by, it is a visual callback to last season and the shot of her through the cross-hatched casement window as she prepares for her wedding. Though she still carries the trauma of that night and the many that followed, she has survived. The shot through the window turned her tower into a figurative prison cell, but now she looks in on Ramsay in his literal one. The tableau could only have been improved by letting Ramsay know that, as they speak, Theon is on the other side of the world, bargaining with a queen to win his sister a throne.

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“Your words will disappear,” Sansa tells him. “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As she speaks, the camera pans down Ramsay’s battered profile, until we see the hound framed in the open door beside him. “They’re loyal beasts,” Ramsay protests. “They were,” she corrects him. “Now they’re starving.”

As I tweeted after watching this episode: to quote Buffy Summers, as justice goes it is not unpoetic.

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Well, that’s it for now. Join us next week as we wrap up yet another season of Game of Thrones. Thanks for reading, and remember: it’s never a good idea to starve your pets for a week. Not hounds, and especially not dragons.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, television

Game of Thrones 6.08: No One

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Hello, friends—it is that time again, when Nikki and I recap, review, interrogate, analyze, and generally pontificate over the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Can you believe that this was episode eight? That we have only two more episodes to go this season before Nikki and I are again frozen in carbonite until next year, when we’ll be thawed for season seven?

At any rate, this week we saw the Hound go on a rampage, Varys depart for mysterious reasons, Cersei being mildly impious, the happy reunion of Jaime and Brienne, a Daenerys ex machina, and Arya’s best impression of the film Face/Off. Excelsior!

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Christopher: We begin with yet another theatrical retread of the Purple Wedding, this time focusing on Lady Crane’s portrayal of Cersei’s grief over Joffrey’s death. Much of what we have seen of this play has been broad and crude, with a reliance on fart jokes and highly stylized acting, and a great deal of mugging for the audience. But “Cersei’s” speech is much closer of what modern audiences expect of a stage play: though the speech is written in verse, and declamatory in delivery, Lady Crane nevertheless brings a measure of naturalism to her performance that conveys a palpable sense of grief and brings much of the audience to tears.

The fact that we have now seen segments of this play several times develops several themes, not least of which is a greater sense of how the events in Kings Landing have developed into a narrative divorced from historical reality. The first time we watched the play along with Arya, we felt the profound disconnect: between the play’s presentation of an oafish Ned, murderous Tyrion, noble Joffrey, and maligned Cersei, and our own experience as audience to the “actual” events. There was ironic humour to be found in just how wrong the play gets things, but we were also given pause by the parallel between the play’s broken-telephone storytelling and the truth of Ned’s fight with Ser Arthur Dayne, as witnessed by Bran. And this moment, where Lady Crane channels Cersei’s grief at her son’s death, reminds us of how powerful truths can emerge from fabulation and fiction.

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Cersei did not, of course, deliver a moving speech over Joffrey’s body. She was, in fact, all but inarticulate until she started hurling accusations at Tyrion. But her grief was real, and in this moment of stage acting, Lady Crane communicates a mother’s grief well enough to move an audience; and I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I was impressed with her performance-within-a-performance, not least because it evoked one of Cersei’s few redeeming features. We might laugh when the Queen of Thorns muses about whether or not Cersei is in fact the worst person ever, but we cannot doubt the love she has for her children.

As it turns out, Lady Crane’s eulogy for “Joffrey” effectively sets the key theme for this episode. Coming away from it, I reflected that the title is a red herring: Arya’s erstwhile process of becoming “No One” was all about divesting herself of worldly attachments, of leaving behind name, family, loves and hates, and (apparently) any sense of morality or ethics. But this episode is very much about such attachments, the way in which individuals’ attachments to their very personal wants and needs—whether they be about love of another, the desire for vengeance, a sense of honour, hatred or grievance—drive the affairs of state. Jaime will do anything to get back to Cersei; the Hound thirsts for vengeance, and damn all who stand in his way; the Blackfish will not sacrifice his ancestral home to aid his niece; Brienne will fight Jaime if need be, in order to remain true to her oath to Sansa.

And Arya will desert the Faceless Men at her own peril, to embrace her name and her idiosyncratic sense of self.

I kind of love the fact that, in fleeing the Faceless Men, Arya finds her way to the theatre troupe as a way-station, and that Lady Crane ends up being her saviour, after a fashion. The show has used the theatre and the play (and the players) to good thematic effect this season, not just in terms of highlighting the role played by story and narrative, but also as an interesting parallel to Arya’s apprenticeship with the Faceless Men. The role of an actor is not to become “no one” per se, but to dissolve one’s ego into a role; hence, the best actors are often those who can be literally unrecognizable when playing a part. Acting mimics the way in which the Faceless Men go about their business, and so when Lady Crane tells Arya, “I’ve got a feeling you’d be good at this sort of work,” we’re a little obliged to nod in agreement. (Just as an aside, she adds that they’ll be needing a new actress, as she did something horrible to Bianca; were Arya to join them, would she end up playing Sansa? Weird to think about).

So Arya’s safe—for the moment—and falls asleep in Lady Crane’s care. But on the other side of the sea, the man she left for dead begins his <Archer voice>RAMPAAAAAAGE!</Archer voice>. What did you think of the Hound once again embracing a wee bit of the ultra-violence, Nikki?

 

Nikki: You hit the nail on the head with that introduction, Chris. People commented back near the beginning of this season that the episode on Mother’s Day felt like it had been written for Mother’s Day, but to me, this episode spoke even more to that. The best shows, in my mind — Buffy, Angel, Lost, Babylon 5, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, just to name a few — use plot as a device to convey the deep connections people have to one another, and the sacrifices they are willing to make for those people. Interesting that it was Arya who told Lady Crane to change those words in the opening, and it was only on relying on her imagination of Cersei’s connection to Joffrey — connection being the very thing Arya was supposed to divest herself of — that Crane turns the Punch and Judy show into emotional theatre.

But then we have the Hound, the first of the Clegane brothers who has a very busy day this week. Yeesh, I don’t know what Mama Clegane fed these boys for breakfast, but man… As we see the four men sitting and talking like drunken high schoolers, in the background you can see the Hound coming up on them quickly with the axe in his hand, already swinging, and it’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying to watch. He cuts down the first two in no time, before taking out the third and finally burying the axe in the single most painful place one can imagine (I’m a woman, and it still had me crossing my legs and squealing in imagined pain). And before he finishes him off, he allows the man a final word. And when the guy fails at that, Sandor gives him another chance at a final word. And when even that comes from the Al Swearengen Big Book of Final Words, Sandor gives up, kills him with one blow and says, “You’re shit at dying, you know that?”

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Oh, how I’ve missed the Hound.

Meanwhile, over in Meereen, Tyrion is patting himself on the back for welcoming the Lord of Light acolytes into Meereen and bringing peace to all. “You made a pact with fanatics,” says Varys. “And it worked,” Tyrion replies.

“Yeah, that’s what your sister said, too,” says all of the viewers at home. Varys tells Tyrion that he’s heading off on a secret mission, but that he’ll return soon. But in order to do so he needs to take leave of Tyrion, because his mission won’t be so secret if he’s seen being accompanied by the most famous dwarf in the city. Tyrion corrects him — “the most famous dwarf in the world” — and in doing so, made me realize that Dinklage himself might actually hold that honour.

And speaking of Lannisters who allowed religious fanatics into the city and perhaps later regretted it, we’re off to the Red Keep with Cersei and that other Clegane brother who’s come back from the dead. What did you think of the Mountain v. Sparrows death match, Chris?

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Christopher: As I mentioned last week, something that Game of Thrones is quite good at doing is tweaking the audience’s hierarchy of hatred. Cersei for a long time was one of the bad guys (and in some ways still very much is), and of course we hate the Mountain for crushing Oberyn’s head like a melon—to say nothing of the fact that we’re really creeped out by Frankenmountain. But for many, many episodes now, the Sparrows have been infuriatingly untouchable, and the High Sparrow too smug by half. So when Cersei forces a confrontation and chooses violence, there is a certain guilty satisfaction to it, especially considering that Margaery’s gambit denied us the viewing pleasure of watching the Tyrell soldiers storm the sept.

There is, however, a certain amount of pathos to the scene, as we’re all too aware that Tommen has ceded yet more ground to the High Sparrow, and that with every yard he yields, it takes him that much farther out of Cersei’s orbit and influence. For a scene that ended so bloodily, it began with great stillness: Cersei sitting alone at a table with her back to the door, her ever-present glass of wine at her elbow. The news that members of the Faith Militant have entered the Red Keep means, as Cersei divines, that Tommen continues to allow the High Sparrow to dictate to him. The Red Keep, after all, is the seat of the Crown in King’s Landing: Tommen allowing the Sparrows to enter is a surrender of sovereignty, and the High Sparrow’s newfound arrogance in summoning Cersei speaks to his worrisome influence over the king.

That new influence is not lost on Cersei, nor is the knowledge that if she leaves the Red Keep and enters the Sept of Baelor, she surrenders what little protection she has left. “I choose violence,” she says, but she hasn’t actually been left much of a choice—and backing Cersei into a corner isn’t precisely the wisest of courses, as one poor (now headless) Sparrow learns.

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“Uh-oh.”

I do hope her moment of smug satisfaction as she watches the Sparrow’s blood run into the drain was worth it. “Please tell his High Holiness he’s always welcome to visit,” she adds as a parting shot in classic Cersei fashion, but her defiance looks to have some negative consequences. Arriving at a royal announcement for which she was apparently left off the email list, she has to suffer the dual humiliation of being relegated to the gallery “with the other ladies of the court,” and seeing the loathed Grand Maester Pycelle whispering in her son’s ear. And then the boom comes down: after consulting with the High Sparrow, Tommen has decided to outlaw trial by combat … Cersei’s one ace in the hole, the means by which she was to avoid the humiliation of being found guilty, by unleashing the Frankenmountain on whatever hapless knight they send against her.

But no more … and the pathos of the earlier tableau is deepened as we watch Cersei watch her son depart the throne room, unable to make eye contact, unable to reach him any longer. All she has left now is the Frankenmountain … and Qyburn, who cryptically tells her that the “rumour” she had mentioned to him was something much more than just a rumour. Is this her new ace in the hole? One of the things I like about this season being off book is that I honestly have no idea. It will be interesting to see what Qyburn has up his voluminous sleeves.

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The Cersei scenes are juxtaposed with Brienne’s arrival at the Lannister camp, and her tete-a-tete with Jaime. The serried rows of red tents are not what she had expected or hoped for. “Looks like a siege, m’lady,” observes Podrik. “You have a keen military mind, Pod,” Brienne replies sardonically, as she scans the camp and espies Jaime. This much is a boon: one imagines that if they had arrived before the Lannisters invested the castle, the Freys would not have been very welcoming. She sends word down, and is cordially received, leaving Pod outside to be tormented by Bronn.

This was one of those moments from the trailer for this season that looked more threatening than it was: Pod suddenly grabbed from behind, which had some fans speculating that he might be joining the ranks of the GoT dead. But no … just Bronn, having a bit of fun, and reminding us that, once upon a time, they had both been in the service of Tyrion.

“I never thought you’d find her,” we hear Jaime say while Bronn coaches Pod in the art of dirty fighting. “I just assumed Sansa was dead.” In answer to Brienne’s incredulity about the question, he shrugs, “In my experience, girls like her don’t live that long.” Brienne’s observation—“I don’t think you know many girls like her”—is quite possibly my favourite line from this episode. It is freighted with everything we have seen Sansa endure, and Gwendoline Christie delivers it with a deadpan gravity that similarly articulates both Sansa’s hard-won resilience and Brienne’s respect, admiration, and devotion to her.

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Despite the fraught situation without Jaime’s tent, this reunion is a guardedly happy one—though Jaime reminds us that nothing is simple, given that Cersei still wants Sansa’s head on a pike in the belief that she was complicit in Joffrey’s death. But Jaime is not Cersei, and he is quite open to being reasonable. Hence he agrees to Brienne’s proposal that, if she can convince the Blackfish, he will allow the Tully army to march north unmolested to join Jon Snow’s forces.

Oh, what a beautiful dream … how perfect would it have been for everything to have fallen out precisely that way? Jon would get the men he needs, the Tullys would avoid bloodshed, Jaime would fulfill his mission. But as I said in my opening comments, the movement of the pieces on the board are far more subject to the vicissitudes of personal passions, attachments, and desires. The Blackfish will not be moved, not even by the words of his grand-niece who has, as he says, become very much like her mother. “Find a maester,” Brienne tells Pod. “We need to get a raven north to Sansa.” With what message? he asks. “Tell her I failed.”

Not all matters of state are quite so weighty, however … what did you think of Tyrion’s efforts to get Grey Worm and Missandei to drink and tell jokes, Nikki?

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Nikki: Poor Tyrion, stuck with the two unfunniest people in Westeros. I couldn’t help but think, I don’t drink, but I think I’ve been to this party. (And I might have been Missandei in that situation…) Like Missandei, I’m a teetotaler, mostly because wine makes me feel funny, and unlike 99% of the population, I don’t like the funny feeling. But according to Tyrion, “That’s how you know it’s working.”
We’ve always looked to Tyrion as the voice of reason and intelligence on the show, the man who, though small in stature, often stands above everyone. And yet it’s in moments like this one we’re reminded he’s the family joke not just because of his size, but because he long ago turned to prostitutes and alcohol as a way to dull the pain of being emotionally abandoned by his father and loathed by his sister, of being the one whose very birth caused the death of his own mother. He has a weakness, and he gives into it time and time again. While he possesses a mind that could win the Iron Throne, he instead dreams of one day having a wine called “The Imp’s Delight” that he would give only to his friends. And once Grey Worm rejects the wine — “it tastes like it’s turned” — and Missandei discovers that the red stuff isn’t so bad after all, Tyrion settles in and asks them both to tell him a joke. So Missandei tries her hand at it, and it’s surprisingly humorous. Grey Worm one-ups her by telling her it’s the worst joke he’s ever heard… and then has to explain the punchline that it’s the only joke he’s ever heard, having been a member of the Unsullied, where jokes are few.

It’s all fun and games until someone screams, and when that happens, Grey Worm runs from the room to find out what’s going on. These scene stands in stark contrast to when we’ll return to this group, where Tyrion — the leader, who urges them to give in to his favourite pastimes — shows that his political cunning isn’t so hot after all, and it’s the terrible joke-tellers who end up taking over and leading them all.

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But now back over to Riverrun, where Jaime and Edmure have a chat inside the tent where Eddie is being kept prisoner. I was glad they had a lengthy Tobias Menzies scene; Menzies has become quite a sought-after British actor, and Game of Thrones nabbed him relatively early, so I wondered if we were just going to get quick scenes with him. But the scene between Jaime and Edmure is excellent, and ties in to what you talked about in your opening, Chris. Edmure might be ineffectual as a Tully, as a fighter, even as a man, but despite only being his with his wife for a single night, he cares for her, and the baby that their single night of lovemaking produced. Jaime comes into the tent and acts sympathetic towards Edmure, telling him that he’ll make sure he’s made more comfortable. But Edmure’s having none of it. “Do you understand you’re an evil man?” he asks Jaime. Jaime is smug and aloof throughout this scene, but despite the humour of last week’s fake-out throat-cutting scene, Edmure has been tortured for the past three years while other events have been playing out. His wedding ended with the murder of his sister, nephew, and nephew’s wife and unborn child. He thought he was marrying a rare beauty, only to have her snatched from him as he was thrown into prison. And it was all due to the Lannisters and Boltons aligning with the Freys to get back at the Starks. He asks Jaime how he lives with himself, how he tells himself he’s a decent man.

Jaime tells Edmure that he was once imprisoned by Catelyn, who hit him with a rock. He says that she hated him, but he admired her because she’s a mother, and everything she did was for her children, whom she adored more than anything. And in Catelyn he saw the same devotion he’d always known of his sister, Cersei, who, as you pointed out earlier, Chris, and as we’ve discussed many times in these posts, is unfailingly devoted to her children. She would do anything for them. Lady Crane’s portrayal of Cersei at the outset of this episode was truthful in her devotion to Joffrey, and we know the pain with which she endured the death of Myrcella. Now we’re seeing Tommen going down a rocky path, and the internal struggle Cersei is going through — will she end up betraying the only child she has left? How will she get out of this one?

But it’s in that devotion to one’s children that Jaime comes at Edmure. He knows that Edmure cares about the child he’s never seen, and by mentioning his anger that he’s never gotten to see his son, Edmure accidentally shows his hand. Jaime has also lost his children, and he has one left, but there’s only one person he’s ever been 100% devoted to, and that’s Cersei. And as he says to Edmure, he will slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, if that’s what he has to do. He threatens Edmure’s child, saying he will strap the baby to a catapult and launch it into Riverrun just to get the Blackfish’s attention. He doesn’t care about filial ties—all he cares about is Cersei.

And that’s when he gives Edmure an offer he can’t refuse. What did you think of Edmure going to the gates as the Lord of Riverrun, Chris? Was that something that was in the books?

blackfish

Christopher: That was indeed something that happened in A Feast for Crows—right down to the threat to launch Edmure’s child from a catapult. I was wondering how they meant to play this, whether they would sync this narrative up with the novels, or make another departure.

And, well, they’ve mostly been faithful to the text here: Edmure was indeed responsible for negotiating the surrender of Riverrun, though it did not proceed as it does in this episode. Edmure orders the castle’s surrender, but arranges for the Blackfish to make his escape by swimming down the river—something that angers Jaime, as the Blackfish’s freedom is something that could be a problem down the road. Instead, he allows Brienne and Pod to escape (or rather, they make their escape before anyone notices their departure), and Jaime sees them as they row off down the river. Further, the Blackfish ostensibly dies fighting—though given that that happens offscreen, it leaves open the possibility that he also escaped. A possibility, but not a likely one, as it seems improbable that Jaime’s men would lie to him about that, and it would be suspicious if a body could not be produced.

The Riverrun scenes were ultimately more about Jaime and Brienne than they were about Edmure, the Blackfish, or the Tully fortunes. We’ve come a long way from the original Jaime & Brienne roadshow, with her suffering his jibes and mockery with every step, and him the subject of her withering contempt. There is now a deep and mutual respect: Bronn’s idle speculation to Pod on whether or not they were having sex serves as a comic, if crude, contrast to the actual regard they have for each other. Brienne might protest to the Blackfish that Jaime Lannister is not her friend, and it’s entirely likely that she still doesn’t actually like him, but she sees past the simplistic labels he’s been marked with and grasps the complexity of his character, just as Jaime sees past the negative connotations that attach to a woman wearing armour. He refuses to take his sword back, which is a huge gift considering the rarity and value of Valyrian steel; but it is the salute they share as she floats down the river that speaks volumes.

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From one siege to another, we move from the fall of Riverrun to where Meereen is under assault from the masters of Astapor and Yunkai. I don’t have much to say about this scene, aside from that it was my least favourite in the episode—both perfunctory and predictable, it at least means that we won’t have a protracted siege of Meereen played out over several episode. Daenerys is back, her dragons will make short work of the attacking ships, and she has an entirely new army to add to the men she already has. With Yara’s ships making their suspiciously fast way from the Iron Islands, I’m laying even money on Daenerys’ departure for Westeros as the final shot of the season.

More interesting is the Hound’s encounter with the Brotherhood Without Banners, which answers my lingering question from last episode: namely, had this formerly altruistic band of do-gooders gone bad? Had the endless, soul-destroying task of fighting the power driven them onto the Dark Side?

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To which this episode replies: well, some of them. But Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr are still with the living, and pass sentence on their men who rape and pillage. Their sentence is too lenient for the Hound’s liking, but he doesn’t say no to hanging two out of the three. Considering how messily he butchered the others, these ones got off easy.

Thoros and Beric make the case for joining the Brotherhood, and though Clegane is skeptical, it’s fairly obvious this is how things will go. They appeal to his sense of idealism, which is perhaps the wrong tack. “Lots of horrible shit in this world,” he retorts, “gets done for something larger than ourselves.” Having seen the Faith Militant at work, as well as Melisandre’s numerous excesses, it’s not a sentiment we can necessarily disagree with. But having passed through a life of indiscriminate violence, through atonement, and now vengeance again, there is one dimension to the Hound that Beric identifies unerringly, and one that Clegane cannot deny: “You’re a fighter,” he says. That he is in spades, and it looks pretty obvious that he’ll be continuing in that capacity alongside Beric and Thoros.

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This episode, and indeed the previous few episodes, develop the strong sense of the pieces being arranged on the playing board. The die is cast for the battle of the bastards, which may or may not feature the Vale armies playing Rohan to Jon Snow’s Gondor; Daenerys is back and, we assume, ready to make her return to Westeros; the Hound will likely rejoin the fight on the side of the angels; and one other key character is ready to reclaim her birthright and also go home.

What did you think of the climactic showdown between the Waif and Arya, Nikki? And what did you think of her embracing her name and home again?

 

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And the award for Game of Thrones episode that most resembles a Jason Bourne film goes to …

Nikki: I loved the final Arya story of the episode. We begin back at Lady Crane’s flat, where she has given Arya a sleeping draught and is reaching up to the top shelf to grab something else (it’s unclear what it is, since we know the milk of the poppy is already sitting on the side table). And no sooner had I written in my notes, “Boy who looks like waif appears” then the boy who looks like the waif kills Lady Crane in a rather grotesque fashion — and, naturally, it turns out to be the waif herself.

I was sad to see the death of Lady Crane, but it was a strong symbol for Arya and her story. Until now she’s been playing a role. We knew the moment she buried Needle and refused to give it up that there was no way she ever become a selfless, faceless person. She could walk around calling herself “a girl” and pretending to be one of the faceless assassins, but Arya cares too much for her family, her name, and who she is. If she had given up her very self, she’d be turning her back on Sansa, Bran, Rickon, Jon, and the memory of her parents. She’d betray the memory of her brother Robb, who became King of the North and was the first Stark to do so. The Starks are a strong family, and it’s arguable that Arya is the strongest of the bunch — for her to give up her very self would be giving up everything. And besides, after this season word has it they’re pulling a Breaking Bad and giving us two shorter 7-episode seasons, so it’s not like they have a ton of time to take Arya on a journey of utterly losing herself and then finding it again. It’s time to get Arya back.

Lady Crane was a woman who played another woman on stage, an actress who was caring and kind to those who showed her the same, but, from what she says earlier in this episode, wreaks ruthless vengeance on anyone who doesn’t. (Much like the woman she plays.) Arya was the one who told her she needed to introduce a tone of vengeance into Joffrey’s death speech, and in doing so, perhaps she instilled the very idea into Lady Crane. Lady Crane played a character, and then began to embody parts of that character.

So, too, has Arya been playing a character all this time, and yes, she’s taken on parts of who that character is. Before she met Jaqen, Arya had a death list, and she would soothe herself by repeating the names on that list to herself over and over again. But it was only when Jaqen arrived and she saw what it actually meant to be an assassin that she first questioned her future as a cold-hearted killer, and then embraced parts of it. Arya resists doing things she doesn’t believe in — she couldn’t bring herself to poison Lady Crane, for example — but when she believes it’s right, Jaqen has taught her how to get the job done.

The dead actress in the apartment signals the end of Arya’s acting, and she runs for her life, away from the waif who is hellbent on killing her. A theory had been going around the internet recently (I only read the headline and didn’t bother with the theory itself; if it’s true, I don’t want to be that spoiled) that the waif doesn’t actually exist, and that this would turn out to be some Fight Club–inspired thing where the waif is simply another side of Arya, part of her imagination at war with her. Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be true (I don’t think that scenario would be suited to the world of Game of Thrones) and Arya leads the waif on a long, painful journey right to Needle’s nest. And then, just like a blind Audrey Hepburn smashing all the lights in Wait Until Dark when an intruder comes into her apartment, Arya cuts out the candle. She knows how to fight whilst blind — and the waif doesn’t.

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I’ve had the sense for some time that Arya is a favourite of Jaqen’s, despite him being so hard on her. He never has a smile for the waif, who is filled with hatred and jealousy at every turn. He knows the waif believes she is selfless, but this constantly loathing she has prevents her from truly being one of the faceless men, because she feels that hatred too strongly. Jaqen doesn’t kill out of hate: he kills because the person whose name has been chosen… has been chosen. And he needs no more reason than that. He holds nothing personal against those whom he kills. With Arya, I think he saw someone he could shape and mould, but I was never convinced that he believed she could become one of the faceless, nor did he want her to be. When the waif asks to kill Arya, and he makes her promise to do it quickly, I wonder if he meant for her to die quickly, as if he already knew Arya would best her. Did he blind her so she could learn how to fight in the dark? Did he strip her of everyone so she would find the will and the power to overcome the waif in their final battle? Did he know she would triumph and then head back to Westeros to help take back Winterfell?

He knows when a new face has been added to the wall. He descends the stairs amidst the firepots (who keeps all of those going, by the way? Seems a wee bit excessive, but anyway…) And when the face turns out to be the waif’s, and Arya comes up behind him, he looks neither surprised nor disappointed. “You told her to kill me,” Arya says, as she holds Needle out to him.

“Yes, but here you are, and there she is,” he says, moving his body against the tip of her sword. “Finally, a girl is no one.”

“A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell,” she says, “and I’m going home.” And with that, a small smile plays at the corner of Jaqen’s lips, as if he knew this was how it was to play out the whole time. As if he’s actually proud of Arya for refusing to slough off her very self, and for returning to the place she should have been this whole time. It’s a fantastic moment, and one of the highlights of this season so far.

And with that, as you say, Chris, we seem to be putting the pieces in order. As the credits rolled I said to my husband that things are moving very quickly now. I wondered aloud if next season was going to be the fight for Winterfell, and the final season the battle for all of Westeros. And then the “Previously on” section showed after the credits and I realized oh. Maybe we don’t have to wait so long for one of those things to happen.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we’ll see you next week for the penultimate episode!

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