I have three follow-up thoughts to our previous post; because Nikki and I decided to focus mainly on the episode’s final scene, some things had to be left out—including, in my case, some extra thoughts on the episode’s final scene. Two of my three considerations here are largely complaints about how, even with the series’ unsparing pruning of storylines, we’re starting to experience compression problems, in which what otherwise might be thoughtful and nuanced elements of the show suffer from being rushed.
On the other hand, my final addendum is a closer reading of how the show does manage to get things exactly right much of the time.
The Sand Snakes
Fan consensus tends to rate book four, A Feast for Crows, as the least favourite. It could hardly be otherwise, coming as it did on the heels of A Storm of Swords, which contains the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the saga of Jaime and Brienne, Daenerys’ conquest of Slavers Bay, Stannis’ attack on the Wall, and Jon Snow’s election as Lord Commander. That, coupled with the fact that GRRM hived off the Jon Snow and Daenerys storylines for A Dance with Dragons, meant that A Feast for Crows was inevitably going to disappoint a large contingent of readers.
It didn’t disappoint me, largely because of the Dorne storyline. The inside politics of Westeros’ southernmost kingdom were (to my mind) a good counterbalance to losing Jon and Dany. But of course the series has to make hard choices, or else risk packing in way too many characters and story threads at the expense of audience interest and the ability to actually tell these stories with a measure of nuance. In choosing to feature a Dorne narrative, Weiss and Benioff discarded the Iron Islands narrative also featured in book four, in which Theon’s sister Asha (or Yara, as she’s known in the series) negotiates the dangerous politics of succession after her father, Balon Greyjoy, dies.
Even with this wholesale dumping of a story thread, there’s still a lot of balls to be kept in the air, and it’s a shame that the Sand Snakes suffer as a result … especially considering how impressive they were on first encountering them. Their scene in this episode is disappointing on a variety of levels: first, the fight isn’t that well shot or choreographed; second, the convenient timing of Bronn and Jaime’s arrival made me roll my eyes; and finally, the pat end to the Sand Snakes’ plot is too easy, too cheap, and unworthy of a trio of characters who were poised to join Game of Thrones’ ranks of nuanced, compelling, and strong female characters.
Their plot in the novel is more protracted and allows for more development not just of their characters but those of Prince Doran and his inscrutable bodyguard Areo. In the novel, the plot is foiled because, as it turns out, Doran had always been one step ahead of them and always knew what was going on. Something of the sort happens on the show too … but without more time spent with the main players, it loses all of its dramatic tension, and the payoff is just a cheat.
GRRM has frequently complained about HBO’s insistence that every season be limited to ten episodes—arguing that one or two more episodes would let the show do more with the capacious source material. I agree with him, though I understand HBO’s ironclad rule; the show is already hugely expensive to produce, and even with its popularity, those extra episodes might be too much. What I wonder is why don’t they run longer episodes? In the early days of HBO’s new dramas, you never knew when an episode of The Sopranos might run to seventy or eighty minutes (or sometimes pull up short at fifty). Episode length was a lot more elastic in those days, and it’s something I think GoT could benefit from.
Loras and the Sparrows
I read a good article in Salon yesterday lamenting the way in which Loras Tyrell has gone from being a strong character, acting as something of a Lady Macbeth for a less-than-ambitious Renly, to being a caricature of a closeted gay man, providing winking humour at Sansa’s obliviousness during her brief engagement to him, and simple awkwardness when he’s betrothed to Cersei. All of which makes his arrest at the hands of the Sparrows less affecting than it would be if we had any emotional stake in his character. By the same token, the fact that he becomes the focus of the Faith Militant’s hatred—and by extension all gay men and women—is a clumsy shorthand to allegorically connect the Sparrows to contemporary Christian conservatism, rather than providing a more nuanced portrait of how the Sparrows emerged to begin with.
One very astute point made in the Salon article is the suggestion that the series’ depiction of the Sparrows is crafted for an audience that cannot conceive of how religious evangelicism and fundamentalism could evolve out of what is essentially an egalitarian movement—the Sparrows, initially, are Occupy King’s Landing, though that is something made clearer in the novels. It seems odd to the contemporary sensibility, but rural evangelicism in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century was largely wedded to leftist, not to say socialist, politics. Some of the most vocal proponents of leftist populism were ardent Christians, most famously William Jennings Bryan—who besides being the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate three times, is most famous for being the antagonist in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
The puzzling shift of rural states from leftist populism—a politics that specifically focused on the interests of largely working-class populations—to red state social and fiscal conservatism is a tangled narrative much better dealt with by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? The point here is that in the present moment, conservative Christianity is most easily associated with homophobia. The populist and egalitarian dimension of the Sparrows has been, at best, only vaguely gestured at before they are transformed into fanatical thugs. In A Feast for Crows, they converge on King’s Landing as refugees from the war-torn countryside to place the bones of their dead at the Sept of Baelor as a symbolic plea that the crown honour its sacred obligation to the people. The crown is unsurprisingly unsympathetic, and it is only when Cersei sees them as a means to an end that they receive any consideration at all.
At this point, the fury boiling beneath the surface of the populace, the rage at the privation, violence, exploitation, and the rapine of the noble houses’ armies, has had no salve or outlet. When Cersei re-establishes the Faith Militant, they do what angry mobs have done throughout history when given the chance: they enact vengeance on anyone and everyone they imagine has been their tormentors.
All this is by way of saying that the too-quick transformation of the Sparrows from suffering supplicants to club-wielding morality police elides one of the more interesting political critiques in A Song of Ice and Fire; similarly, after introducing Loras as an explicitly gay character in seasons one and two, the writers lost the script on him, and in so doing missed a golden opportunity to have him be more than a humorous caricature. And that loss resonates in the moment of his arrest and trial, because we haven’t had the chance to be invested in him.
That Final Scene
One thing I wanted to write about, but didn’t because the post was already overlong, is the imagery and camerawork. With the obvious exception of the actual rape itself, the rest of the final scene is hauntingly beautiful, but it is a beauty that makes everything that much more painful to watch. And perhaps more crucially, the entire sequence is a betrayal of all the dreams young and innocent Sansa cherished at the beginning of the series.
At this point it is hard to remember that Sansa was (aside from Joffrey) season one’s most-hated character: whiny, petulant, haughty, and so caught up in her dreams of romance that she betrayed her father rather than let him take her away from King’s Landing and her dream wedding to Joffrey. Way back then, Sansa was the representative voice of romantic fantasy, which views the world in terms of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and the absolute correlation between the former and latter. She loved the pageantry of it all, the knights in their bright armour, the sumptuous feasts, and the (so she believed) handsome and noble prince to whom she was betrothed.
As we know, Sansa’s road since then has been the systematic destruction of all those dreams and illusions. And so it is a particularly cruel turn of events that her wedding to Ramsay unfolds like a fairy-tale.
The first shot of Sansa in her wedding-dress is from outside, through the casement in her tower: it is soft-focus, or perhaps softened by the window-glass, with snow drifting prettily past. This brief shot evokes the trope of the princess imprisoned in her tower, waiting for her prince to rescue her. But the prince who comes is the broken shell of a man who, though he once styled himself the crown prince of the Iron Islands, is now a slave who sleeps in the kennels—and a man who, she believes, killed her two younger brothers.
The wedding itself is like a dream: lanterns light the way to the Godswood, seeming to hover like faery-lights over the snow. One is hard-pressed not to think that, of the numerous wedding ceremony fantasies young Sansa almost certainly had, this comes pretty damn close to what she’d imagined.
Her journey has been one in which all the things she once thought beautiful have had their ugliness exposed: knights in shining armour are ruthless, bloody killers; beautiful queens like Cersei are cruel and manipulative; her handsome prince was a sociopathic monster; and traits like honour and loyalty can and will get you killed. And so here at the heart of the dream wedding, in the heart of her home, is the man who killed her brother, and his monstrous heir.
As Nikki observed, a last-minute rescue by Brienne or some other saviour would have been a betrayal of a show that—like its source material—has been primarily about subverting the fairy-tale tropes that are common in fantasy. The pageantry and romantic veneer of Sansa’s wedding is a reminder of how often ceremony, ritual, and romance are employed to obscure the cruel realities of power and politics.