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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.01: “Dragonstone”


Welcome back one and all to season seven of Game of Thrones and, along with it, the great Chris and Nikki co-blog—in which we dissect, debate, recap, and just generally dork out on an episode by episode basis.

In the season seven premiere, we watch the dissolution of House Frey, see Euron Greyjoy go all emo, sow the seeds of a Stark sibling rivalry, suffer through bad, bad celebrity casting, and suffer also alongside Sam as he learns that grad school isn’t what the brochure said. Oh, and Daenerys returns home.

Seeing as how Nikki played us out at the end of last season, she gets the first word. Nikki?


Nikki: The episode opens not with its trademark credits, but at a party that looks suspiciously like the Red Wedding. Walder Frey is holding court in front of the people who aided him with the Red Wedding, which happened ages ago… or, wait, no, maybe this is a flashback, since we all saw Arya feed Frey some beautiful finger food (snort) in the previous episode before slicing his throat in the same way her own mother’s throat had been sliced at the wedding. So… if he’s alive and chatting, maybe we’re seeing a flashback to shortly after the wedding happened. But wait, there’s that frumpy wife of his who just became his wife recently, I think. He’s got his harem/daughters/who knows anymore pouring wine for all of his soldiers, thanking them for their work at the Red Wedding, and adding that they did a good job killing a bunch of innocent people (cue WTF looks being passed around by the soldiers) but they didn’t actually kill all of the Starks. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe,” he says.

And then the men start dropping, which we knew would happen. They die in horrific ways, much the same way Joffrey died at his own wedding. (Might I say that the wine murders are highly effective on this show.) And then, just as viewers are starting to catch on — if they hadn’t when Frey was talking — Frey pulls a Scooby-Doo, yanks off his face, and it’s our beloved Arya Stark. She turns to Frey’s shocked wife and says that if anyone asks what happened here, “Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

YES!!! And with that, cue credits. What a wicked opening.


For the last time, people, it isn’t Wun Wun!

Because the writers have to cover a ton of territory from this point on, we get a flash of The Walking Dead: Northern Exposure as the white walkers come in a swirl of blizzard, moving southward while bringing the storms with them. Then there’s a quick cut to Bran arriving at the Wall with Meera (Eeee! Reunions are coming!). And then we cut to Jon Snow and return to the main story.

What I really loved about this episode is that at the end of season six we were left with a few “certainties”: Sam Tarly had the best job ever, Jon Snow and Sansa were aligned in their leadership in the North, Jaime was going to probably kill Cersei for what happened, Euron was going to take a while to get to King’s Landing… and many of those expectations were undermined in this first episode.

What did you think of Jon Snow’s meeting when we see him for the first time this episode, Chris?


Christopher: Well, first, let me just say it’s amazing to be back discussing this show with you, Nikki, especially after having to wait two and a half months longer than usual. Worth the wait, though—that cold open was, to my mind, the best the series has given us (not that it has much competition—there’s only been a few in the entire run of the show). And I had the same Scooby-Doo vibe when Arya pulled off her Walder Frey mask, though it occurred to me that it was a reverse Scooby-Doo—in which the werewolf / ghost / vampire pulls off his own mask at the end to reveal Old Man Jones, who laughs at the success of his evil plan while the gang all lie dead at his feet.

Yeah, my mind takes dark turns at times.

Sansa is right when she later tells Jon “You’re good at this.” He is—he carries authority well, and commands the room, no thanks to Sansa herself. But more on that in a moment.

As always, Lyanna Mormont is the star—this time telling off one of Jon’s lords when he scoffs at the notion that he should put a sword in the hand of his granddaughter. It was a wonderful speech, but it also left me thinking “would this hard-bitten Northman really cede authority to a woman, much less a girl, so meekly?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally team Lyanna in this; and the look on Brienne’s face as she’s speaking is worth the price of admission. But for a fantasy series that invests so much of its capital in a certain amount of historical realism, I found the lord’s diffidence a bit of a stretch. To be certain, the larger portion of the ass-kicking that has happened on this show (literally and figuratively) has been doled out by women, but I hardly expect Lord Wossname from the remote North to have internalized such a fact. At least a little truculence or annoyance on his part would have made the scene more believable (and would have set us up for a deeply satisfying moment at a later date when Lady Lyanna saves his ass).


That look you get just before you file adoption papers.

Most significantly, of course, what this scene sets up is what will likely be one of the sticking-points of the season: a conflict between Jon and Sansa, aggravated by Littlefinger’s whispers. We saw that coming a mile off at the end of last season; Jon is stubborn and doesn’t recognize that Sansa has a subtler mind than him (“So I should listen to you?” he asks. “Would that be so bad?” she responds); after several seasons of being by turns passive, victimized, and abused, Sansa has come to recognize her own abilities, and is clearly frustrated to be sidelined. Jon would do himself a great favour by in fact listening to her, but I did more or less agree with him that it’s a bad idea for her to undermine him in front of the lords. Their argument about the castles could really go either way for me—rewarding loyalty with land elevates those you trust; on the other hand, Northerners are deeply invested in tradition, and Jon’s reluctance to disenfranchise families with centuries of fidelity because of the actions of a few just recently likely resonated with many of the people in the room—but Sansa’s opposition on a potentially very divisive question could have the effect of sowing dissension at a dangerous time.

But again, to be clear: Jon needs to listen to Sansa. I have a sinking feeling I’m going to be spending much of this season smacking my head over the bloody-mindedness of Jon Snow.

(Incidentally, Sansa throwing “Joffrey never let anyone question his authority” in Jon’s face totally effaces any moral standing she might have had here, which she seems to recognize a few minutes later when she has to admit that Jon “is as far from Joffrey as anyone I’ve ever met.” Yet that comes to be a bit of a backhanded compliment, as she makes clear that the kind of pure virtue that is the antithesis of Joffrey—which Jon embodies—is its own detriment. “You need to be smarter than Father,” she says. “You need to be smarter than Robb”).


However this division develops, I do hope they don’t make it about jealousy or resentment. It was clear in this episode that Jon and Sansa have what might prove to be incommensurably different worldviews, which each arrived at by way of how they learned hard lessons over the previous six seasons. Sansa’s maturation occurred in the stew of King’s Landing intrigues, and her personal experience of just how cruel people can be to one another; when she tells Jon she “learned a lot” from Cersei, that’s shorthand for learning not to trust other people and looking out for oneself. Her concern at this point is worldly politics: the Lannisters are a threat, she thinks it folly not to disenfranchise formerly disloyal houses, and is generally preoccupied with her own survival and the survival of those closest to her. Too much honour, she tries to tell Jon, got their father and brother killed.

Jon, by contrast, is preoccupied with otherworldly concerns, and I don’t just mean the supernatural threat from the North. Though we now know he wasn’t Ned Stark’s son, he’s nevertheless very much Ned Stark’s son, if by temperament rather than birth. And he has internalized the North’s deep obsession with tradition and honour, and its long, long history. The idea of disenfranchising families with centuries of loyalty to the Starks, however they might have acted in recent days, in nonsensical to him … as, probably, is the notion that he can have “too much” honour. With regard to the White Walkers and the threat they pose, he sees the big picture—or rather, having been confronted by the big picture north of the Wall, he’s disinclined or simply unable to see anything but. “I’m consumed with the Night’s King because I’ve seen him,” he says. “And believe me, you’d think of little else if you had too.” As far as he’s concerned, the squabbles of warring houses are all but irrelevant in the face of the White Walkers; unless everyone can get on the same page, they’re all going to die anyway.

And while, as I said, I do more or less agree with Jon that undermining each other in public is a bad idea, he needs to listen to Sansa. She’s the pragmatic one; he’s the wide-angle guy. I came away from their argument thinking that he’s the equivalent of someone who recognizes climate change as an existential threat. Everyone else, including Sansa and Archmaester Quincy, Medical Examiner, seems inclined to downplay the threat: “the wall has always stood” is the Westeros equivalent, it seems, of recycling and buying a hybrid car. And that’s not even getting to all those White Walker Deniers. But at the same time, arriving at a solution requires a certain amount of political savvy, which is increasingly looking to be Sansa’s forte. Together, they could be a pretty formidable team, if only Jon would listen and Brienne could relieve Littlefinger of his head.

What do you think, Nikki?


Nikki: Agree with you as usual, my friend, and I love how close our notes are at times. I’ve written down that awesome throwdown line from Lyanna — “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me” [under her watch the TARDIS would have never allowed a man inside yet] — and then beside it I have written “OMG Brienne’s FACE.” Every season you and I mention what spinoff road-trip-show pairings we want, and my new one is Lyanna and Brienne. With Tormund bringing up the rear.

The scene was very well played, as you point out, with Jon saying one thing, Sansa another, viewers trying not to reach into the TV to smack Jon in the head, but then realizing well, ok, he’s got a point, and then Sansa saying something else, Jon contradicting her, Sansa posting angry emojis under Jon’s comments on Facebook, Jon blocking her from his feed… and all the while Baelish smiling to himself in the corner while all our stress levels rise steadily. The Karstarks and Umbers will keep their family castles, but the only people left in those families are children (and I can’t be the only one who thought Alice Karstark was Sansa’s younger double). Now, when it comes to Lyanna, we certainly can’t undermine children in any way, but this also isn’t Lord of the Flies: will they be able to fight the White Walkers?

Though, you know, something tells me Lyanna could have them turning tail and running.

Like you, I’m hoping I don’t spend the season flipping out over Jon and Sansa. They must get on the same page, and I don’t want to see Littlefinger smiling smugly in the corner anymore.

But then Jon gets a raven from Cersei demanding fealty, and as he says to Sansa, he was so caught up in the enemy of the North, he forgot the one in the South. Just as Sansa had made the Joffrey comment earlier — almost making it sound like Jon fell short of that little bastard by not being like him — now Sansa tells Jon not to mess with the Lannister queen, because she’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. “You almost sound as if you admire her,” he says. “Learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replies.

Like you said, Chris, just because Sansa is listening to whispers from Littlefinger and making comments about Joffrey and Cersei that are… questionable… doesn’t mean we should not listen to her. Cersei and Baelish might be the bad guys but they also know a thing or two about power. And with Sansa’s knowledge of how they work, funnelled through Jon Snow’s inherent goodness, they might have something here. Together I would think these two could be nearly unstoppable, he just needs to pay attention to her and give her the respect she’s more than earned.


This episode’s lesson: if you want to be queen, you need a sweet map.

But now let’s to King’s Landing, where Cersei is drinking (natch) while walking on a giant map on the ground, since apparently a small one drawn in a book wouldn’t have been good enough (listen closely and you hear a very quiet version of “Rains of Castamere” playing in the background… it’s like Cersei’s personal breakup music or something). Dragonstone might have a wooden slab with little people on it that Stannis could move around, but Cersei’s going to have a goddamn map drawn on the floor, to scale, by someone she will no doubt kill as soon as he’s done. It’s a beautiful visual, though, when the camera peers down from the ceiling: Cersei, standing mighty over the kingdoms of Westeros, in the centre, and as she walks around she talks about how Daenerys is going to land at Dragonstone to the east, that Ellaria and her Sand Snakes threaten her from the south, the Tyrells are in the west, and the Starks are in the north. She’s surrounded, but unfazed. In her new black get-up, she stands over these kingdoms and proclaims she will prevail.

Jaime, standing off to the side, quiet, wonders why they’re bothering. They’ve lost everything — all three of their children they’ve created together — all for this, and yet, without them, what does it mean? Cersei is saying she wants to have a dynasty — not one with Joan Collins and Linda Evans, that’s a DIE-nesty, and Cersei quite Britishly calls this one a dinnesty — but as Jaime adeptly points out, a dynasty suggests it’s being passed down to future generations, and does he have to repeat himself that they no longer have any children?? Cersei then basically says she’s going to do it for their own honour, that they’re the last of the Lannisters “who count” and that she will win this bloody war, dammit.

But then again, her army consists of an orange-haired musician who can’t bloody well act so WHAT DOES SHE KNOW. #whenstuntcastinggoeswrong

ANYWAY… and while Daenerys was already on her way over to Dragonstone at the end of the previous episode, but Euron had to build a thousand ships in order to get to Cersei, somehow he beat her there and here he is on Cersei’s steps pledging himself to her. (And yes, I know people are going to say that the ships are probably being built and he headed over there on a single ship but I found some of the way these storylines lined up seemed a little odd timewise.) There’s something about Euron I kinda love, I don’t know why. I tend to hate the Greyjoys on principle, and he’s a complete dick, but I love that he shows up looking totally different from when we last saw him with this new rock star appearance: shirt opened at front, hair shorn closer to his head… still giving off a distinct Oliver-Reed-as-Bill-Sykes vibe but now with a distinct Noel Gallagher swagger about him. And he has the nerve to show up at the steps of what is probably the most powerful woman currently in Westeros and say, “So, yeah, whaddya say: you, me, few goblets of wine, we could spend the rest of our days plotting the deaths of our family members, amirite?!” like he’s somehow the greatest catch in the land. In fact, this gave me the one big laugh-out-loud moment of the episode when he proclaimed himself the greatest captain of the 14 seas, and Cersei mumbles, “But not the most humble.” Ha!


I don’t know how seriously I can take anyone who looks like an emo version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.

Cersei, to her credit, declines. She knows if he could stab his own brother in the back, what the hell would he do to his wife? “You murdered your own brother,” she says to him. “You should try it, feels wonderful,” he responds with a sneer. Jaime shuffles and hopes this isn’t foreshadowing. But Euron’s not giving up, and says he’s going to come back with a gift. Whose head will it be, I wonder…

And then… the montage from HELL. As I said on Facebook, at the end of the previous season, when we saw that spectacular library of the maesters, I said if I could be one character on the show, it would be Samwell Tarly. I take that back now. What did you think of this, um, shitty symphony that was Sam’s new life, Chris?


Christopher: Well, first I just want to add how much I loved Pilou Asbæk’s performance in that scene—I was underwhelmed by his turn as Euron last season, but he’s definitely upped his game. And he has one of the two best burns of the episode: “Here I am with a thousand ships and two good hands!” he leers, as Jaime looks on angrily (the other best burn being Sansa’s elegant “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish—I’ll assume it was something clever.” Ouch!).

As for Sam … well, about halfway through the oddly rhythmic books/bedpans/food montage, I said “Ah! Sam’s a grad student now!” Considering that at least half the people with whom I watched the episode are former and/or recovering grad students, it got a big laugh. But of course, such drudgery is something we should have expected; though both you and I ended last season in a Sam-like state of bibliophilic bliss looking at the Citadel’s unearthly library (both of us, as I recall, likened it to our own first visits to U of T’s Robarts Library Rare Book Collection), the truth of any apprenticeship (academic or otherwise) is one of tedium and drudgery punctuated by moments of epiphany. (I can’t possibly be the only person who saw Sam sneaking by night into the restricted area and thought of Hermione’s forays into the forbidden sections of the Hogwarts Library). Sam is training to be a maester, which is not exactly something one can fast-track. His exchange with Archmaester Ebrose, aka Quincy, was a few moments of quiet brilliance in the way it articulated both the virtue and drawback of the scholarly mindset. The Archmaester employs the Westrosi equivalent of Occam’s Razor to Sam’s claims: “The simplest explanation for your grating obsession with the White Walkers,” he says, “is that you’re telling the truth. And that you saw what you say you saw.” Not that that means he’s about to aid Sam in his quest. “In the Citadel, we lead different lives,” he tells Sam. “We are this world’s memory.” And as the world’s memory, they stand aloof from the occasionally catastrophic events of the realm, always enduring. He echoes Sansa’s assertion that the Wall has always stood, and that winter always ends.


His speech is a paean to knowledge and scholarship, and hearkens—for the real world—back to the role played by monasteries in the dark and middle ages of Europe in archiving books and knowledge. For me, however, his words resonate with the ostensible role of the university, whose oft-maligned “ivory towers” maintain spaces of inquiry and research free from the pressures and incursions of quotidian politics. Of course, this characterization bears little resemblance to the reality, but the Archmaester’s words strike a chord because the inertia of the academy is at once its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw. In the context of Game of Thrones, we know that his complacency is foolishness; in the present moment, we in the university environment with the privilege of full-time positions are being shaken out of our institutional torpor by the pressures of austerity economics and the push toward corporatization. And yet that torpor is slow to slough off—too many of us assume the Wall will always stand.

Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes these university analogues strike too close to home.

On a lighter note: Twitter was ablaze after this episode with the Ed Sheeran cameo, and I can tell you have some, er, rather strong thoughts on the subject. Tell you what, Nikki: considering I wouldn’t know an Ed Sheeran song if it walked up and bit me in the arse, I leave commentary on that bit of casting to you. I will however say that my fangasm came during the autopsy scene when I realized that the archmaester was played by Jim Broadbent. Not sure what that says about me, but here we are.


We shift from Oldtown back to Winterfell, and witness the next stage in Tormund’s courtship of Brienne. Gotta say—dude has to up his game. If all he’s going to do is make googly eyes and waggle his eyebrows, the Lady of Tarth is going to remain resolutely unimpressed. Though given his wistful observation that Pod is “a lucky man”—just after the poor boy has been made to faceplant into a snowdrift—it might be that he’d be happy just receiving arse-kickings from Brienne. I hear some men like that sort of thing.

What did you think of Sansa’s wintry conversation with Littlefinger, Nikki? It’s obvious he means to stir the pot, and just as obvious that we’re being primed for conflict between Jon and Sansa, but she seems about done with his shit. “He wants something,” says Brienne in her role as Captain Obvious. “I know precisely what he wants,” Sansa replies.

What gives? Is Sansa seriously ready to kick him to the curb, or is she just playing it close to the vest?


Nikki: I loved Sansa in this scene, because there are moments in Game of Thrones where you glance at a character and can’t help but think of how far they’ve come in the past seven years. This was one of those moments. In season one, Sansa was an insufferable girly-girl who needed Arya to start acting girlier, who giggled and flirted with any boy who looked in her direction, and who left the real thinking to the men. And look at where we are now. She’s strong, she never even looks at Baelish once in this scene the entire time he’s talking to her, and she just stares off into the fighting grounds with her eyelids heavy, as if his very presence bores the hell out of her. Baelish remarks that Brienne is “an impressive woman” and Sansa’s face looks like she’s fighting back an eyeroll, as if to counter, “Brienne isn’t an impressive woman, you twerp, she’s an impressive fighter, period. For god’s sakes the Ghostbusters are women, Wonder Woman has the best superhero film out there, and the main hero of Star Wars is Rey, get with the effing program, you twat.” Instead, she just holds back that eyeroll.

Baelish asks her why she’s not happy, and what will make her happy, and she simply says peace and quiet in a bid to get rid of him. But I couldn’t help but look at her in that moment and think, in the past six years she’s lost her parents, her siblings, and she believes she’s the last Stark standing. The only one left is her bastard brother who is currently at odds with her on how to lead, and despite the leaps and bounds she’s made in her life she’s still struggling to earn anyone’s ear or respect. As Littlefinger leaves in his rather Cersei-ish gown (did anyone else sense a weird flip of gender stereotypes between Sansa and Baelish’s body language?), Sansa mutters to Brienne that they do actually owe him their lives, and that without the Vale the battle would have been lost.


And then we cut to Sansa’s sister, who was having a nice, peaceful ride through the woods until she heard the voice of an angel breaking through the trees. Arya pauses for a moment, thinking, “Oh wow, I feel like I know this voice but usually his songs are so bland and boring and yet this is intriguing and…” and… yes it’s Ed Sheeran, member of the the Lannister army (as IF, worst casting ever) singing “Hands of Gold.” I had to look it up to see if this was a song that actually existed in the books, and turns out it does. (Chris can probably elaborate more for context in his next bit.) Apparently a singer in book three finds out about Tyrion and Shae and writes this song about them, threatening to tell everyone. Tyrion pays him blackmail money but eventually orders Bronn to kill him, and as Tyrion kills Shae with the golden chain around her neck, he sings one of the lines of the song:

He rode through the streets of the city,
Down from his hill on high.
O’er the winds and the steps and the cobbles,
He rode to a woman’s sigh.
For she was his secret treasure,
She was his shame and his bliss.
And a chain and a keep are nothing,
Compared to a woman’s kiss.
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!

Of course, during the song I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics seemed to fit Jaime: his hand is made of gold, and it’s even referenced earlier by Euron, as Chris pointed out. And he does ride and sail to get to the woman who is both his shame and his bliss.

But back to the horrible stunt casting of Ed Sheeran. And, a wee bit of behind-the-scenesery here. As many of you know, Chris and I write this in stages. I write my bit, send it to him for his pass, he lobs it back to me, etc. It usually takes a few days, and during that time I avoid other reviews of the show and try to avoid anyone’s comments on social media because I don’t want anyone else shaping my opinions. I assumed I was going to be in the minority on Ed Sheeran because he’s a hugely popular singer whose popularity has always surprised me, because his music is sooooo boring to me. But then I saw an article that showed I was actually in the majority, and that people didn’t just hate his cameo, they loathed it. So much so that he’s been getting a ton of hate mail via Twitter and as of Tuesday, actually deleted his account.


While he was deleting his Twitter account, I was writing a vicious takedown of his appearance in this scene. And then I found out that happened, and I’ve deleted it. Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually hate Ed Sheeran. I don’t even think of Ed Sheeran. He’s just not my thing and I find his immense popularity kind of baffling.

But he was cast in this role as a surprise to Maisie Williams, who is a huge fan. Which… is cute, but… seriously? This is the biggest show on television and they’re now basing their casting decisions on what would make their young stars giddy? We all love Maisie, but that seems a bit much.

Now, for those who are Sheeran fans, I know what you might be thinking: you were jumping up and down when members of the National appeared at the Red Wedding. You were squeeing with delight when Sigur Ros played the troubadours at the Purple Wedding. But the thing is, they were cast to play musicians and then disappeared from the scene. The problem here isn’t Ed Sheeran. The problem is the writers who thought it would be fun to keep him in the scene, having him sit next to his biggest fan, and then give him NOTHING to do. My original takedown talked about how he just sat there like a big grinning idiot with a brain injury. But that’s the thing: what else was he supposed to do? They didn’t give him any lines, they just made him sing and then he was forced to sit there. And he’s ED SHEERAN, meaning many, many, many people were going to recognize him. Even Sigur Ros fans don’t know what Sigur Ros look like, so when they were fumbling on the ground for the money Joffrey nonchalantly tossed at them, they just looked like three extras. But Ed Sheeran is a massive star, and instantly recognizable to a lot of people, and for that entire scene we were taken out of Westeros and it was made abundantly clear that this is Ed Sheeran sitting next to Maisie Williams, who is trying desperately not to make eye contact with him. She ceased being Arya, he was never a soldier, it was just two stars sitting on a log with her giggling and him giggling and viewers taking to Twitter to tell Ed Sheeran he’s the worst actor in the world.

My daughter begged me to take her to Pitch Perfect 2 last year. Aside from being two hours of my life I’ll never get back, the movie had an Ed Sheeran cameo that was actually kind of funny. Now, he was playing himself, and he wasn’t in Westeros, so it worked. Making him a Lannister soldier with no lines who has to sit through a scene that now feels SO MUCH LONGER than it should have been, didn’t work. The fault isn’t with Sheeran: who among us would say NO to Benioff and Weiss if they asked us to appear in an episode of Game of Thrones? Not one of us. It’s the fault of the writers for doing this. They could have found a way to use him in a funny way, perhaps even just having him sing to himself in a ditch as Arya was passing by, maybe even have her make a comment about how grating she finds his singing to be ironic, and we would have all found that amusing. Yes, for that one brief moment it would have been Maisie and Ed, but it still would have been funny. This scene simply didn’t work, and now I’m actually sad to know that Sheeran has deleted Twitter, is probably having one of the worst weeks of his life, and will probably never be able to watch the show ever again.

I remember being infuriated when Ashanti was cast in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet, oddly, they made it work. The gal could actually act. But the writers just couldn’t make this scene work at all.

But enough about terrible stunt casting and back to the episode (see, Game of Thrones? You pulled me so far out of the world of Westeros I’m talking about Buffy again… but I won’t get into that time Oberyn was on Buffy or we’ll be here all day).

So Sheeran and his fellow troubadours soldiers have been sent up from King’s Landing to the Riverlands because they heard there were problems at Frey’s. Arya keeps her poker face the whole time and then flatly tells them she’s going to kill the queen. There’s silence, they all stare at each other, and then they start laughing. Because of course I’m not going to kill the queen I mean OH MY GOD did I just say that out loud hahahaha!

And then we cut away to the next scene. I assume that she gets on her horse and travels away from them and they head off to Frey’s where Ed Sheeran’s character contracts dysentery. A girl can dream.



And we’re back to the Hound, making fun of a guy’s man bun (HA!) in a scene that harkens back to a scene from season four, when the Hound and Arya came upon a little house with a man and his daughter. The farmer was kind to both of them, and offers to give them some money, but when the Hound realizes the man has a bag of silver he takes it from him, leaving the man hurt and the little girl tending to him. Arya is angry, but the Hound argues that they’ll be dead by winter anyway. And now, in the present, the Hound is back at that farmhouse and he sees their corpses, but enough of their bodies remain that he can see the agony on their faces, and knows what he’s done to them. In the midst of starving to death — probably due to a lack of funds to buy any seeds or food — the farmer killed his daughter for her own good, before taking his own life. We all know the Hound is not one to show sentiment, but we know he feels it. He was fond of Arya, and he cares about people. Unlike his brother he’s not an automaton that was put on this earth to bring misery, so when he actually does, he atones for it.

Clegane snidely refers to the “fire worshippers” who make up the Brotherhood Without Banners with whom he’s now travelling, and he comments that he distinctly remembers seeing Beric at the tournament at King’s Landing, Beric being the man who keeps dying and is brought back to life by Thoros of Myr. Thoros tells Sandor to come and look at the fire. If there’s one thing the Hound is afraid of, it’s flames (it’s how he lost one side of his face) but he very carefully comes close to the fire… and sees something. And in a moment that surprises everyone in the room — most of all, Clegane — he sees an image of the Wall, the castle, and the dead marching towards that castle. The show has had so much destruction on it, but with fewer than two seasons left now, we’re going to start seeing solutions. If Beric was brought back to life, could there be an answer coming soon as to how?

We know that the Hound will never become an acolyte, it’s simply not in his nature. Later he buries the bodies of the dead farmer and his daughter, and Thoros comes out to find him there and help him. Sandor begins to say a prayer to the Seven, but forgets how it actually goes and says some pithy words that they deserved better than to die like this. Thoros ascertains that the Hound actually knew the people, and that’s why he’s burying them, but the Hound brushes him off. This isn’t going to be a guy dressed in robes and chanting around a fire, but perhaps his skepticism has been shaken a wee bit now.

What did you make of the Hound’s vision in the fire, Chris?


Christopher: I didn’t love it. It makes a certain perverse sense that the flame-phobic Hound should be the one to see a crucial vision in the fire, but the whole scene was played without any affect. I find it difficult to believe that someone as cynical and skeptical as Sandor Clegane could suddenly find himself having a vision, and be so blasé about it. Where’s his incredulity? His anger and resistance to the whole thing? It was a little too pat for me, which is unfortunate, because Rory McCann is otherwise so brilliant in this episode. He does such an amazing job of bringing a sense of humanity to a person who has otherwise only known brutality, violence, and cynical self-preservation his entire life. His atonement and redemption narrative is subtle and nuanced precisely because we understand just how little use he has for the ideas of atonement and redemption while desiring them in spite of himself.

When he tells Thoros that he’s “burying the dead,” it occurred to me that this is the Hound’s raison d’etre from here on in: burying the dead of his past both literally and metaphorically.

From there we move to Sam and Gilly and Little Sam, where Sam is forcing himself to read in spite of his exhaustion and Gilly’s remonstrance. Once again, overtones of grad school! He pores over his ill-gotten texts, finally coming to a map of Dragonstone with the island’s wealth of dragonglass clearly marked.


Did you notice how maps are a crucial motif in this episode? We see Circe plotting her next move as she paces around an unfinished map of Westeros, the episode ends with Daenerys entering the map room of Dragonstone (more on that in a moment), and Sam discovers what will presumably be a key plot point in episodes to come almost literally marked off like a treasure map. Two maps that represent dreams of conquest, and a third that promises salvation: we begin every episode with a reminder of Westeros’ geography in the opening credits, and it seems to me that, as we move toward the endgame, the show is intent on hewing to the “game” metaphor by giving us maps on which the players will place and move their pieces.

Sam’s discovery of the Dragonstone map sets us up for Daenerys’ arrival—finally!—at the island itself, but there’s a brief, poignant scene in between that acts almost as a connection between Sam and Dany. In yet another tedious task, Sam takes empty food bowls away from what look like prison cells. But as we realize, it’s more of a sanitarium, in which people infected with greyscale are kept quarantined. Including, as it turns out, Ser Jorah Mormont, who begs Sam for news of the Dragon Queen. Sam of course knows nothing, but presumably that will change as news of her landing spreads.

The last we saw Jorah, he’d been sent away with orders from his Queen to find a cure for his disease—a quest that seems to have led him to the Citadel. Judging by the progression of the disease and the quality of his voice, Jorah’s in a bad way. Will the Citadel be able to cure him?


The reminder of his plight tempers the triumph of Daenerys’ long-awaited return home—as she is rowed up to the beach, it is hard not to think of Jorah’s despair and what he would be feeling if he could be there with her. That being said, it is a deeply affecting scene: beautifully shot, and done without words until the final moment. (I couldn’t help thinking as we see the craggy spur of land to Daenerys’ right as she approaches the beach, that there’s where the dragonglass is).

When last we saw Dragonstone, it was inhabited by Stannis Baratheon and his forces, and it was invariably dark and brooding—most of the scenes took place at night, and we never really saw the castle in all its glory. Here it is the precise opposite: seen in beautiful and sunny weather, the oppressive castle of Stannis’ days is breathtaking in its architecture and the rugged cliffs from which it rises. Though the symbolism is not overt, the suggestion is the dawning of a new day.

Walking through the throne room (pausing to tear down a Baratheon banner on the way), she passes into the room with the ornate table carved into a map of Westeros by her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, who plotted his Westrosi campaign in that room. Again, the set design here is stunning, especially the dragons carved in bas-relief into the walls. I loved Tyrion’s quiet awe—one senses in Peter Dinklage’s expression Tyrion’s sudden apprehension of the enormity of what they are about to attempt.

And then: “Shall we begin?”

Yes. Yes we shall.


That’s all for this week, friends and neighbours! It kind of sucks that we’re only getting seven episodes this time around, but we’ll make the best of it for you. Once again, Nikki, it is a delight to team up with you on this ride. For everyone else, stay warm and beware of stingy old men who suddenly want to give you wine.



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American Gods Episode 1.02: “The Secret of Spoons”


Apologies for such a late posting—writing about the second episode three days after episode three went up is rather more than tardy, but I plead a particularly recalcitrant piece of writing I needed to get done for this past Sunday that occupied all of my attention. So, without further ado: episode two!


First, a review.

My first impression of this episode was essentially meh. It started well with Mr. Nancy’s magisterial speech aboard the slave ship, but from that point on was rather uneven—the pacing was odd, and it lacked a cohering through-line, thematically or otherwise. There were some stellar stand-out moments, to be sure—Mr. Nancy, Gillian Anderson as the god of Media in the guise of Lucille Ball, Wednesday’s many little brilliant moments, Cloris Leachman!, and of course Peter Stormare’s vituperative, chain-smoking Slavic god Czernobog—but at first glance, the episode felt like a patchwork of unevenly-paced set-pieces interrupted by a montage of Bilquis’ equal opportunity predatory sex.

My second and third viewings made it clear that this is a series that rewards rewatching. That’s not necessarily what television execs want to hear, but it speaks to the depth of material on display here, the quality of the writing, and the brilliance of the performances.

On this last point: can we sing songs of triumph for Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare? I’m particularly hung up on Cloris Leachman, whom I’ve loved since first I watched Young Frankenstein. I want to single her out because the other three are given virtuosic text—and they all rise admirably to it—but she manages to bring remarkable gravitas to a part that could easily be played as a one-dimensional stereotype. Considering the dark threat Stormare brings to his role, it’s a testament to Leachman that she makes it clear this is her home.


Second, my thoughts.

As I said above, there’s no clear unifying theme in this episode, with the exception of Czernobog’s comments about race, which close a circle with Mr. Nancy’s speech aboard the Dutch slaver (about which, more below). Rather, the episode unfolds almost as a trio of one-act plays—or four, if we include the wordless montage of Bilquis consuming her lovers/worshippers, and then having a wistful moment at a museum where she looks upon a statue of her old self and the jewelry her acolytes would wear.

I cannot say enough about Orlando Jones’ impassioned rage as the trickster spider god Anansi, appearing in flamboyant twentieth-century garb on a Dutch slave ship. Did I say last week that American Gods seems to be leaning into the racial politics of American history? The raw rage he communicates here is mind-numbing, and strips away whatever platitudes and obfuscations we might employ to euphemize the brutal, inhuman reality of slavery and its legacy:

“Shit! You all don’t know you black yet!” he says, a line that will resonate later in the episode. “You think that you’re just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black!” As much, however, as he inspires and channels the anger of the slaves—and as much as his speech communicates his own rage at what has been done to his people—Anansi ultimately goads them into a blood sacrifice that will benefit him. When one of the prisoners protests that they will be killed if they rebel, Anansi sneers, “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.” A sacrifice, it turns out, for Anansi, whose incarnation crawls ashore amid the flotsam of the destroyed slave ship, an African god transplanted to America.

Mr. Nancy - spider

It is a reminder of something we’ve already been learning from Mr. Wednesday: gods in the Gaiman firmament are not deities who exist prior to humanity, on whom we are dependent; they are the product of human belief, and are therefore dependent upon us for devotion, worship, and above all, sacrifice. As such, they are grifters, reliant upon trickery and prestidigitation to goad us into giving of ourselves. Mr. Wednesday, we have seen, is quite the accomplished con man, playacting his way into a first-class seat in the first episode; in episode three, he employs an even more elaborate grift to rob a bank (but more about that in my next post). On one hand, his roguish behaviour is entirely in keeping with the Odin of Norse myth, who delighted in outsmarting his enemies even more than he took pleasure in battle. But his grifting is also what passes for worship in his new reality, as he feeds on the gullibility of everyone he cons. In a speech to the other old gods in the novel—which I will be very surprised if it isn’t repeated verbatim in the series—he says,

We have, let’s face it and admit it, very little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

Except, as we’re coming to realize, America isn’t entirely without its own gods. For those who haven’t read the novel, last episode’s encounter with Technical Boy might have been somewhat baffling; Shadow’s latest run-in brings things into slightly more focus, as Media—played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson as Lucille Ball (sorry, Ricardo)—makes her pitch for Shadow’s defection:

“The screen’s the altar,” she tells Shadow. “I’m the one they sacrifice to … Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood.” The battle lines are being drawn: the old gods versus the new, the transplants from around to the world to this “new land without gods.” Religious devotion has changed, shifted, to the deities of secular modernity. Media’s crass little proposition to Shadow—“Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”—provides a striking contrast to the kind of desire at the root of religion most obviously, and explicitly, manifested in this episode with the extended Bliquis montage. Religion, or more elementally, belief, is rooted in desire as much as anything else: desire for knowledge, for safety, for plenty, for health, for children, for another year of life. There is a dual critique built into Gaiman’s novel, and it will be interesting to see how much of it the series realizes: a very humanist critique of religion itself, and a critique of the postmodern moment’s monetization of the needs and impulses that led people to create gods in the first place—a critique that is as much about America itself. There’s something vaguely pathetic in Bilquis’ serial seduction of willing victims, both on her part and theirs—her need degrades the rite, as does the obliviousness of her lovers. Her moment of nostalgic longing as she looks on her statue evokes a time in her past when she was worshipped openly and her acolytes were willing sacrifices, which reflects poorly on her need to employ internet dating to feed her needs.


By the same token, one of the novel’s unanswered questions, which has come up whenever I’ve taught American Gods—if the New Gods have so much of America’s attention, why can’t they just crush the Old Gods?—speaks to the degraded nature of worship itself in the present moment. “Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood,” claims Media, but how powerful is a sacrifice when it is partially a product of indifference? “They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me,” Media tells Shadow, but “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand, so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” Obviously, Media seems to think of this as a good development for her, but it is hardly exemplary of worshippers’ focused devotion. Her offer to show Shadow Lucy’s breasts degrades the understanding of “icon,” with all of the word’s religious connotations, and sets itself squarely in a media environment of hacked cell phones and nude selfies.


But, onward to Chicago, where Wednesday means to acquire his “hammer.” It’s worth acknowledging the little head-fake here: by this moment in the second episode, viewers will undoubtedly have grasped the central conflict between old and new gods; which of the old gods Wednesday is might still be unclear to some, and his mention of a hammer followed by images of lightning might lead some to wonder if he’s Thor. That question is cleared up, however, when Czernobog calls him Wotan—the Germanic name for Odin (and those who know their days of the week know “Wednesday” is derived from “Woden’s Day,” Woden being the Old English name for Odin). And the hammer is question is Czernobog’s, a relic of his days working in a slaughterhouse before the introduction of the captive bolt gun (used to such devastating effect by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men).

Czernobog is an old Slavic god—the “black god” of death (whose brother Bielobog, the god of light and sun, is alluded to but never named), who came to America with the Zorya sisters (more on them in my next post). I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Peter Stormare’s casting in this role—in the novel he is described as being much older, but I was not accounting for Stormare’s ability to play a dissolute and embittered old man who wears the threat of violence on his shoulders like a thundercloud. I loved everything about this sequence, from Zorya’s first ambivalent greeting of Wednesday (“You are worst man in the world!”), to her response to Shadow calling Czernobog her husband (“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive … even if you do not like them”), to the final scene in which Shadow loses a game of checkers, and with it the wager of his life, to Czernobog. “A shame,” he sighs, “You’re my only black friend.”

I freely admit to laughing out loud to this closing line, which would have been funny under any circumstances, but was particularly poignant after Czernobog’s dinner conversation with Shadow. When he observes that Shadow is black, and Shadow tightly asks whether that’s a problem, Czernobog essentially shrugs:

We never cared so much about skin like the Americans. Where we’re from, everyone is the same colour. So we must fight over shades. You see, my brother had light hair and beard, and me dark … like you. I was like the black man, over there. As against my brother, the white. Everybody thought he must be the good one! So I became me.

This little speech resonates with Mr. Nancy’s revelation to the African slaves: “The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided they white, then you get to be black, and that’s the nice name they call you.” It’s a reminder that the very idea of blackness is an imperial invention: a distinction that drew lines between those with power and those without, between those who arrogated to themselves the innate right of rule and those unfit to rise in American society; between the “worthy” nations and countries of origin (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Christian), and those whose people possessed the taint and degradation of lesser blood. While we should never equate the immigrant experience with that of African slavery, it is nevertheless important to remember that the waves of immigrants in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe—the Czernobogs of America, in other words—were not considered “white” in the way their descendants are today. Czernobog’s words to Shadow—and Mr. Nancy’s words to the men in the slaver’s hold—speak to the contingency and constructed nature of race.


Who is “white”? Who is “black”? Who decides? Those to whom we give power. And if Neil Gaiman’s inversion of our relationship to the gods teaches us anything, it’s that we hold the power ourselves.

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A Wee Bit of Comics Context

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re moving on to Fun Home by Alison Bechdel this week, which is the text on this course I’m most trepidatious about teaching—mainly because, as I’ve said before, I’m not much of a comic book / graphic narrative person. Of all the various species of nerdiness I enthusiastically embraced when I was young, comic books were not in my wheelhouse … I think, in part, because I was a very fast reader. I loved to read, and could tear through a medium-sized novel in a day or two. Comic books were a matter of mere minutes, so when the time came to spend my allowance, it made far more economic sense to buy a chunky fantasy novel by Terry Brooks or Anne McCaffery.

That being said, I seem to be having a mid-life comic book renaissance, having read Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (on the most excellent Nikki Stafford’s recommendation), the new Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as re-reading all the Sandman comics while we did American Gods in class. And of course I’ve read such staples as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, but this still leaves me far from being a competent commentator on comics.

Enter my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman, who not only embraced the comic book dimension of nerdiness in his youth, but has parlayed that love into scholarly production: he has published articles on Spiegelman’s MAUS, has taught classes on comics and graphic novels here at Memorial, and since his first sabbatical two years ago has been plugging away at a massive project annotating Watchmen. And most recently he presented a paper at “Mixing Visual Media in Comics,” a conference on graphic narrative held here at Memorial just a week ago that featured some of the biggest luminaries in comics and graphic narrative scholarship in the world.

We’re going to have two discussions, the first of which will deal with comics, or “graphic narratives” as a field of academic study more broadly; the second will look at Fun Home more specifically.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Let’s begin with the question of comic books as a field of scholarship, something that once upon a time, like film studies, would have been considered unthinkable as a viable area of academic inquiry. But now there are numerous English departments that feature classes on comics, many scholarly books and articles have been written on the subject, and our colleague Nancy Pedri can get a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant to host a conference devoted to it—and, indeed, feature respected scholars who have built their careers publishing and teaching on the subject. How would you characterize the emergence of comics as a scholarly pursuit?

tintinAndrew: That’s a complicated question. The first important point to make, I think, is that while North American comics studies have only emerged in the past fifteen years, comics studies in France emerged considerably sooner. The first work of criticism I ever bought was Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ Les Metamorphoses de Tintin; the second was Benoit Peeters’ Les Bijous ravis. These studies of Hergé’s Tintin albums were published in France in the early 1980s. So while Comics Studies was until recently unthinkable in the Anglo-American context, it has been thinkable in the European context for decades.

In the Anglo-American context, Comics Studies is still new, and it hasn’t yet established a firm toehold in the academy. Part of this belated emergence has to do with the disdain for mass culture that was part and parcel of the Anglo-American academy, which saw mass cultural forms, including comics, as Kitsch. I know you’re familiar with that prejudice from your interest in TV and genre studies: Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno cast long shadows. Part of it has to do with histories of censorship in comics: I’m thinking specifically of the Comics Code Authority, which came into place in the McCarthy era, which was modeled on the Hollywood Production Code, and which imposed various restrictions on mass-market comics, largely confining them to a child readership at a time when Children’s Literature itself flew under the scholarly radar. (The emergence of Children’s Literature studies is a related disciplinary tale.) And the largest part of it has to do with the slow emergence of the kind of the literary comic of which MAUS and Fun Home are exemplars.

was a breakthrough work for what would become Comics Studies, in two respects. First, its success emboldened publishers to take risks on other “weighty” comics, so that MAUS’s publisher, Pantheon Books, later published Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Marjane Satrapi, and David B., and gradually there accumulated a critical mass of the kinds of comic that people mean when they use the not-very-useful term “graphic novel.” Secondly, because of MAUS’s seriousness of purpose, literary critics could appreciate it in a way that they couldn’t appreciate a work like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. In its way, Watchmen is just as formally daring as MAUS; in some ways, because Spiegelman mostly kept his formal experiments at bay while writing MAUS, Watchmen is even more daring (there’s nothing in MAUS equal to Watchmen’s chiastic Chapter V). But Watchmen was still a superhero comic published by a mass-market publisher – that is, still caught in the grates of the mass-culture gutters. (I remember showing Watchmen to my Shakespeare professor at the University of Calgary. “It’s very violent,” he said, before returning to his lectures on King Lear and Titus Andronicus.)

The thematic seriousness of MAUS was its passport to the academy: it was often the first comic ever taught in university literature departments, because English professors could both appreciate it themselves and also represent it as a legitimate work to skeptical colleagues. Geoffrey Hartman wrote about it! And it made those other colleagues receptive to the argument that there might be other works that were as interesting and challenging, even a whole field worthy of scholarly inquiry. By the time I came to Memorial, I encountered only nominal resistance when I proposed a course on comics – only from the usual departmental mastodons, and even then only in the “this isn’t what I understand as literature, but go with God” attitude of the already-resigned.

I should add that comics scholars in Canada tend to be relatively young: we’re generally mid-career, which means we came of age as readers in the 1980s and later. MAUS and Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been part of our cultural landscape. It isn’t surprising that as we displace an older generation of critics, we remodel the institution so that it reflects our own sensibilities. But we have no reason to be smug about that: you’ll remember, I’m sure, how our department reacted when someone proposed hiring a specialist in Gaming Studies. “The idea!” we all said, dust rising from our clothes as we shuddered.

Christopher: Right, I’d forgotten about that. Though for the record, I’m not opposed to the idea of hiring a Gaming Studies person, I just want us to hire the half-dozen other positions on the departmental wish list before we get there. Though now that we’ve absorbed Communication Studies, perhaps that IS something we should consider …

Okay, there’s a lot there in what you said that I want to unpack, but just a quick question first: in my introductory blurb, I made a point of saying “comics” and was careful to mark out “graphic narrative” just like that, in scare quotes, because I want in our classes on Fun Home to trouble that distinction; to my inexperienced eye, it sometimes seems that there’s a tacit (or not so tacit) hierarchy of texts in which “graphic novels” are designated as serious or literary, and “comics” play a role comparable to genre fiction in literary study (and your lovely history of comics scholarship seems to bear this out). Is this still a thing? Are these distinctions points of dispute?

Andrew: Your eye may be inexperienced but it’s keen. “Graphic novel” is a term associated with the comics artist Will Eisner, who started using it to describe his work in the late 1970s. But the term owes its present currency not to him but to publishers and booksellers, who liked the distinction it implied from the vulgar comic book. Hey adults! Graphic novels! It would draw in the status-conscious readers that booksellers coveted – and power to them, because without those readers and the market they helped create I probably wouldn’t be teaching comics.

joe-sacco2From a critical perspective, though, the term is troubling. It associates comics with a single literary form – the novel – with its own complex history and its own contract with readers. Among the terms of that contract is the (typical) expectation that the novel is a work of fiction. (I know that that adjective “typical” does a lot of work, but that’s my point: why saddle comics with all the sub-sub-clauses of the novel’s particular contract?) Is MAUS a novel? No, though in some respects it’s novelistic: it’s a work of dramatized testimony. Fun Home isn’t a novel, either, but rather a memoir; Joe Sacco’s Palestine isn’t a novel but rather a work of comics journalism. It’s true that “comics” isn’t a perfect term, either, insofar as it implies that we should respond to MAUS with laughter. A term that gained currency in the past few years, “graphic narrative,” is only marginally less bad than “graphic novel.” Finding the right word for this strange form is tough work, and maybe the only thing to do is to use different terms situationally and always ironically. But “comics” has one key virtue: it isn’t pretentious.

Christopher: Amen. This all reminds me of the New Yorker ad for season five of The Wire (which I noted in an early post for this series), which is basically an interview with Tony Kushner on why he thinks The Wire is great art—basically, giving permission to the intelligentsia and literati to watch television without guilt.

We’ll talk about the distinctions between “graphic novels,” “graphic narratives,” and “comics” in class, but I think in general I’ll stick with “comics,” however inaccurate the term might be at times.

Something I’m curious about: many of the “literary” comic writers/artists, like Spiegelman and Bechdel, emerged from a bohemian underground of “alternative” comics; again, not something I’m overly familiar with, but from what I gather, Spiegelman cut his teeth writing comics that were the equivalent of garage rock or poetry chapbooks, and Bechdel made her name with the lovely but (at the time) necessarily niche comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. By contrast, as you point out, such luminaries as Alan Moore (or for that matter, Neil Gaiman) came up through the more popular, superhero-laden imprints, and thus took longer to gain academic recognition—in part because of their ostensibly unserious subject matter, but also because of their popular appeal. Does this kind of—what? I guess since we’re talking comics, I can say “origin story”—does this still obtain? (I guess in some ways I’m asking you to make a Frankfurt/Birmingham argument here. Sorry).


Andrew: I plead guilty to having first become aware of The Wire thanks to that very ad. But no one understands how much I love Tony Kushner. At least twice a month, I make pilgrimages to the Stephen Barclay Agency website to see if his profile mentions any new upcoming work. I’m still waiting for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures to see print; I cling to the hope that he’ll write the Phenomenology-of-Money cycle that he mentioned fifteen years ago; and I’ll be first in line if he and Spielberg ever make the Eugene O’Neill biopic he conjured up somewhere – maybe in his notes to the National Theatre’s 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I brought his comments on Sir Thomas Browne to the comics conference just in case someone asked why I thought Alan Moore might have read “The Garden of Cyrus.” (No one asked.) I love him. So I’m guilty – but I hope I get a reduced sentence.

You’re right that Spiegelman and Bechdel both come from alternative scenes, and that Moore and Gaiman’s path, lined as it is with capes and cowls, has set the terms of their institutional recognition. But Moore left DC years ago, and he went on to write many, many works that neither conform to recognizable genres nor would be well-received in the mass market (try pitching From Hell or Lost Girls to a media empire). Even so he still doesn’t have the critical stature of Spiegelman or Bechdel of Chris Ware. One suspects other factors at play. His work is seriously uneven (though Spiegelman’s is, too). He’s too weird for the generally middle-class critics who’ve made it through the polishing machine of graduate school and the job market (he worships a snake puppet!). And unlike, Spiegelman and Bechdel and Ware, who are all writer/artists, he relies on collaborators (as does Gaiman). That last one may be the most important: in spite of the collaborative example of film and theatre, cultural criticism remains most comfortable with single authors (witness the auteur theory in Film Studies, or the status of the showrunner in prestige TV).

I’d guess that critics’ preference for the alternative comics creator will persist as long as the high art/low art binary does. To me it seems robust. Bart Beaty recently wrote a critical study of Archie Comics in a spirit of rebellion against the canon-builders who’d only choose “respectable” artists while scorning the “litter auteurs” (if I may). An honourable project – but I think there are institutional and cultural forces working against him.

But ask me again tomorrow and I might tell a different story. The elevation of comics’ reputation has given rise to wonders: The New York Review of Books reviewing a Batman comic; Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther. We may yet wake up in a world where Nicole Eisenman is drawing Wonder Woman, and where Archie Comics are understood to be just as significant and sophisticated, on their own terms, as MAUS is, on its.

Christopher: I was going to save mention of the Ta-Nehisi black-pantherCoates Black Panther until later in this discussion, but since you brought it up, there’s no time like the present. When I first conceived of this course, I knew I’d want to include a comics component (in spite of my ignorance of the field). At the time when I was first jotting down the notes that would evolve into “Revenge of the Genres,” I was avidly reading Coates’ blog and his account of what it was like to write a comic book when this was something he’d never done. I was also, at that point, reading his heartbreaking and deeply affecting essay Between the World and Me, his cri de coeur about being a black man in America.

His Black Panther was in very close contention with Fun Home as the representative graphic text for this course.

I won’t ask you what you think of Coates’ take on Black Panther (that, presumably, will be an informal conversation over beer); I will, however, ask you what your thoughts are that a person who is arguably the leading African-American public intellectual of our historical moment (Toni Morrison has compared him to James Baldwin) has taken authorship over one of the very few black superheroes we have?

Andrew: It’s astonishing. I hope Suzan-Lori Parks or Tarell Alvin McCraney or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gets an invitation next (I’m naming playwrights because I think they’d make the transition to comics more easily than would an essayist). I had an intimation that Coates might try his hand at comics a year or so ago when the New York Times asked him what he was reading. He mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks, which was the sort of book I would expect him to read; and then he mentioned Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Avengers, which was not. That’s when I first learned that he’s part of the nerd collective; I gather some wise person at Marvel figured that out sooner. It still gives me vertigo when I see his name on the covers of Marvel comics. Time will tell if his run is just a fluke convergence of personal inclination and corporate canniness (Disney jealously eyeing Coates’ cultural capital): that kind of literary tourism happens semi-regularly (“Why not dash off a comic or two, Ms. Atwood?”). But of course I’d love to see him alternate between essays and comics over the long term – especially as he becomes more dexterous as a comics writer.

But apropos of his take on Black Panther – why wait for beer? – I’ve read the first two issues and found them pretty forbidding. Coates has inherited the continuity and characters from earlier writers, and he begins in medias res, during some sort of Wakandan civil unrest. I’m sure it all makes sense to Marvel habitués, but I’m afraid I come to Black Panther knowing nothing about the character – so I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it so far. But I want desperately to believe. I’ve rarely been moved by any paragraph as much as by this one, from Between the World and Me:

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

Someone who can write like that is worth trying and trying again. I’ll be buying the trade paperback.

Christopher: That actually sets up both a great final question to end this discussion, and a useful segue into Fun Home. Which is to say: given its place on the literary fringes, do you think comics studies offers a more fruitful space for previously marginalized voices to make themselves heard than “literary” fiction?

Andrew: Not comics studies, but maybe comics – maybe. The received wisdom is that because American comics have been perennially a despised form, marginalized voices have made themselves heard there. The great example is the superhero, created by young writers who were overwhelmingly Jewish American. But if that received wisdom is true, then as comics come increasingly into the literary spotlight, they’ll become less, not more hospitable to marginalized voices: the legitimation of the form will be bad for its diversity. But the story is no doubt more complicated than the received wisdom would allow. Those inventors of the superhero were overwhelmingly men, for instance, while “literary” authors of the 1930s included many women. Where gender is concerned, “literary” fiction today is still substantially more diverse than comics. And the legitimation of comics seems to have made them more rather than less hospitable to gender diversity. Alison Bechdel is a trailblazer not only because she’s a Lesbian cartoonist but also because she’s a woman: in 2004, two years before she published Fun Home, The New York Times profiled five comics artists – Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Seth, and Chester Brown – and as you can see from that list, there was not a woman among them (there were of course women writing comics, including Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, but they didn’t have the stature or visibility of those five men). Fantagraphics – a major publisher of comics with pretensions to art – was still largely a boy’s club. Glance at the comics section in a bookstore now (sorry, the “graphic novels” section), and you’ll see a number of women represented there – the brilliant Eleanor Davis, Leela Corman, Rutu Modan, Jillian Tamaki, Sarah Glidden, and many more.

But literary fiction is itself at the fringes of culture, so maybe we’re making the wrong comparison. Compared to Hollywood, comics are a festival of difference, and present a grand opportunity to those true artists, no matter their gender, ethnicity, or class, who are prepared to live hard-scrabble lives in draughty roach-choked apartments, struggling to make ends meet while they craft heartfelt works of subtlety and beauty that will finally come to press when they’re in their late 40s.


Christopher: And on that ringing endorsement of the comics-writing lifestyle, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thanks so much for talking with me about this, and for bringing your encyclopedic knowledge to bear on a topic for which I am but a neophyte.

And thanks everyone for reading. Stay tuned for the next installment: Andrew will be back to talk in more depth and detail about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

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My Idea of Canada: An Apology

Stuart McLean has suggested that the proper descriptor for a group of Canadians is an “apology.” Stephen Colbert joked that “I’m sorry” means both hello and goodbye in Canadian. The old line is that a Canadian is someone who apologizes to someone who steps on his or her foot.


We’re mocked for it, and we even more mercilessly mock ourselves, but I do believe that being apologetic is quintessentially Canadian. It’s a key element of our national character. But for those who say it’s a sign of meekness or weakness, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re wrong.

Apologies aren’t necessarily meek or deferential: they are frequently ironic or sarcastic, passive-aggressive, or rank insincerity in the face of bloody-minded or tyrannical ignorance. A case in point: when Galileo recanted his theory of the movement of the heavenly bodies under threat of torture and death, he muttered “Eppur se muove” under his breath. “And yet it moves.” And though he lived the rest of his life under house arrest, he quietly continued his studies and disseminated his research anonymously.

About as Canadian as a seventeenth century Italian can be.

Apology isn’t surrender. The word derives from the Greek apologia, which means a strong defense against a charge or accusation. Considering that one of the most basic elements of Canadian identity is angst over what constitutes Canadian identity, especially in our efforts to distinguish ourselves from Americans, it makes sense that we derive strength and meaning from defending our senses of self against the barrages of the U.S. culture industry.

Apology does not indicate weakness. In its most significant instances, it is about having the strength of character to admit wrongdoing and error, owning one’s past, and possessing sincerity of purpose going forward. When I find fault with my country, it is most often when this last element is lacking.

Apology is humility. It is about always having in the front of one’s mind the knowledge that we may be wrong, or may be in the wrong; not necessarily conceding the point, but waiting, watching, and weighing so as to best understand the given situation, as opposed to arrogantly asserting what we’re determined is the truth.

Further to that, apologetics refers to a series of reasoned arguments: the understanding that the knowledge of how best to govern, improve, or simply live is never a given but the result of honest and open discourse in which disagreement should never obviate listening.

Apology is courtesy. It is politeness. It is the acknowledgement that we share space with other people, and that our right to swing our fist ends where another person’s nose begins. (Unless they’ve just cross-checked you. Then the gloves are on the ice).


This post started its life as a reflection on everything I believe we’ve lost under Stephen Harper’s government, and became an exercise in articulating my particular understanding of Canada in contradistinction to Harper’s, as we can understand it through his governance.

I think it’s safe to say that Stephen Harper is one of the most unapologetic prime ministers in this nation’s history. His administration has forced our government scientists to mutter eppur se muove under their breaths, because they have otherwise been effectively prevented from disseminating their research or speaking publicly. He has steamrolled the messy, angsty, self-deprecating diversity of Canadian identity with jingoistic nationalism, a celebration of militarism rather than peacekeeping and diplomacy, and the demonization of ethnic and religious minorities. He is congenitally incapable of admitting failure or wrongdoing, relying instead on the hope that people have short memories. He does not allow for alternative perspectives, even within his own party and caucus, denigrating and mocking anyone who calls for anything resembling nuance. He goes out of his way to shut down argument, either by having moronic mouthpieces like Paul Calandra repeat talking points until they’re non sequiturs, or by ramming massive omnibus bills through Parliament in unconscionably short periods of time.

And finally, he is a bully. Of all the pernicious ways he has made good on his promise that “You won’t recognized Canada when I’m done with it,” the fact that he is simply mean-spirited and nasty is perhaps the least of them. And yet to my mind it emblematizes the very spirit of his governance. He has used the PMO to attack and bludgeon whomever he sees as his enemies, political or otherwise, embracing the politics of cruelty as developed in the U.S. by Lee Atwater and refined by Karl Rove. Since taking office, Harper has made it clear through word and action that he prefers the American style of politics to ours, and gone out of his way to do so: from Rovian attacks and smears, to the transformation of the PMO from Westminster—“first among equals”—to the west wing. All the while systematically denuding everything Canada has symbolized on the world stage.

Of the myriad things that I, as a Canadian, feel compelled to apologize for, I won’t apologize for my Prime Minister. He doesn’t deserve the consideration.



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Game of Thrones 5.07: The Gift

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10Hello again sports fans, for the latest installment of the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog! This week: Samwell Tarly cowboys up, Theon totally fails to do so, Bronn gets the worst lapdance ever, Cersei ain’t so smug now, and Tyrion and Jorah find themselves as extras on the set of Gladiator. We who are about to die salute you!


Christopher: We begin at the Wall, with Jon Snow releasing Tormund, giving command to Alliser Thorne in his absence, and departing for Hardhome in the hopes of recruiting the wildlings to his cause. And with his departure, attention shifts to Sam and Gilly: we feel very sharply how alone they are now that Jon is gone, especially as we see Maester Aemon on his deathbed, growing ever more delirious.

Storylines from the novels have been discarded of late like things that one is eager to throw away, and with the passing of Maester Aemon we lose yet another story thread that runs through A Feast For Crows. Our one glimpse of Jon Snow in that novel comes right at the beginning, when Jon sends Sam away with Gilly and Maester Aemon. He wants Sam to go to the Citadel in Oldtown, an entire continent away, and study to earn his maester’s chain. He also wants Aemon sent away for his health—both for the benefit of a warmer climate, but also because he is concerned that Melisandre might look at the ancient Targaryen and get some ideas about what she could do with the royal blood in his veins. As it happens, Aemon dies before they can arrive at Oldtown, but in his final delirium he has an epiphany: Melisandre, he says, has gotten it wrong. She has proclaimed Stannis the prophesied hero who will do battle with the forces of ice and darkness, but in reality the prophecy refers to Daenerys (duh).

I suppose that Sam might still be sent to the Citadel, but I have to imagine that is now a vanishing possibility. And with the passing of Maester Aemon, the Wall loses its single greatest storehouse of lore and wisdom. The scene is touching and poignant, especially with Aemon revisiting his memories of youth, seeing in Gilly’s baby his own little brother Aegon—or “Egg” as he was nicknamed. (I won’t go into the vagaries of Targaryen history, but the story of Aegon V before he was king is told in a series of novellas, The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight, that detail the adventures of Dunk and Egg, aka Aegon and his sworn sword Duncan the Tall). I must say I was a little disappointed: in the final stages of his delirium, I was expecting Aemon to gasp and have his epiphany about the prophecy … but no.

aemon_pyreAnd again, Sam is more isolated, something that Alliser Thorne is grimly happy to remind him of: “You’re losing all your friends, Tarly.” The Wall has always been a hostile place to Sam, but up until this moment he has had the friendship and protection of Jon and Aemon—the absence of which is felt quite soon when two of his sworn brothers come upon Gilly alone and, when Sam attempts to intervene, beat him bloody.

On the heels of last week’s episode, this scene was particularly difficult to watch. What follows, however, was quite well done, in part because Sam wasn’t the heroic saviour. Ghost plays the unlikely deus ex machine (unlikely, because why the hells isn’t he with Jon Snow?), which makes the resolution unfortunately hackneyed, but that’s small beer (it would have been better, or at least more likely, for Sam and Gilly to have been saved by someone like Alliser Thorne coming on the scene). Sam and Gilly needed an exit, and Ghost was as useful a saviour as any. The point is that Sam was, for all intents and purposes, as unable to prevent what was happening as Gilly. But he doesn’t stay down. “I killed a White Walker,” he tells their assailants. “I killed a Thenn. I’ll take my chances with you.” Without Ghost’s intervention, it would almost certainly have played out as predicted: with Sam dead, and Gilly raped (and probably dead). And Sam knows that.

gillyLater, as she tends to Sam’s wounds, Gilly upbraids him for it. “The next time you see something like that, you leave it alone,” she says. It is an interesting moment, a reminder of where Gilly comes from. She has lived a life of abuse and violence at the hands of her husband-father Craster, a life in which sexual violence was simply a basic fact of life. To her, Sam’s doomed efforts to protect her are foolishness, because getting himself killed means he won’t be around to protect her child. “Just promise me, whatever happens you’ll be there to take care of Little Sam,” she chides him. “But of course I will,” he replies. “And … I’ll take care of you too.”

What’s so touching and poignant about the blossoming love between these two—aside from the fact that there aren’t many other couples on this show at the moment genuinely in love—is the way each of them takes the other out of their assumptions about themselves and the world. Sam, in spite of his accidental heroism with the White Walker and the Thenn, is a coward—not someone who would otherwise choose to enter a fight. But he takes strength from Gilly, even though he knows he isn’t up to the task. And Gilly is stunned that he would choose to do so, that there are men in the world who aren’t brutal, violent, and selfish. Their sex is about the only genuine lovemaking we’ve seen since … what? I’m at a loss.

But of course, this is Game of Thrones, which means that these scenes are intercut with those of Sansa, Theon, and Ramsay. What did you think of the Winterfell segments, Nikki?theon_tower

Nikki: It’s so funny you should ask when the last time we saw genuine lovemaking on this show, because I wondered the exact same thing. Jon and Ygritte, maybe? Yikes, that seems like so long ago. Tyrion was kind to Sansa but she wanted nothing to do with him, so there’s nothing there. Margaery is using Tommen, so while it was an amazing time for him, it wasn’t so much for her. And we don’t need to mention Sansa and Ramsay. The last time we saw Jaime and Cersei together it was a rape… oh wait, I have one: Daario and Daenerys. Although even that at times feels a little political.

But I digress. I must also admit that when Ghost suddenly appeared, my husband and I cheered (as we always do when one of those magnificent beasts appears) but right after I said, “Wait… why wasn’t Ghost with Jon?!” Glad I wasn’t the only one who wondered that.

The Winterfell segments were heartbreaking, especially in the midst of the bit of tiny glimmer of hope we had left after the scene last week. Sansa’s arms are now covered in bruises, and she spends her days curled up in a fetal position, locked in the room, waiting for Ramsay to come back and ravage her once again. There’s a very brief moment when she’s later speaking to Ramsay — and has the audacity to bring up the fact that he’s a bastard, and he’d been given his name by the authority of Tommen Baratheon, also a bastard — where I saw a flash of the Sansa that will not be kept down. And where I thought, in the right circumstance, could she bend him to her will the way Daenerys did Khal Drogo? After all, their wedding night consisted of her being married to a man against her will, and then being bent over and him having rough sex with her, yet we never referred to that as rape. She eventually takes over and brings him to her side, and makes him utterly devoted to her.
Then again, Khal Drogo might have been a merciless warrior, but he wasn’t a psychopath like Ramsay. I don’t think anyone will be able to bend that little bastard to their will, and Sansa seems to know that and doesn’t even try.

But earlier, when she cornered Theon and grabbed him by the arms, he looks terrified, and she says to him — clearly having no clue what he’s been through — that it couldn’t possibly be worse than this. Even though his eyes are wild and he looks like a raving lunatic half the time, there’s a spark of sanity still left there, and when he looks back at her and tells her to trust him, it really could be so, so much worse, she’s actually taken aback. I’m not sure she buys it (if she actually knew HOW much worse maybe she would) but she certainly takes pause. She recruits him to put the candle in the window of the Broken Tower, and while Theon is scared for his own life, he decides to go with it.

What happens next was probably what we all expected — Theon rushes across the grounds of Winterfell, looking like he has a purpose for the first time in years, and climbs the countless stairs to get to the top… where Ramsay is sitting in front of a feast, waiting to surprise him. Later Ramsay shows Sansa the bloodied, tortured corpse of the old woman who had promised to help Sansa, and tells her that Theon was the one who snitched. Had he already found the woman by the time Theon got up to the tower? Or did he just randomly choose that place to have his feast (how in hell did they get all that food, and a table and chair, up there, by the way?!) and when Theon got there, he immediately reverted back to Reek and fell upon the mercy of his master, telling him everything?

And if Brienne is standing in a nearby inn, watching that window for the glimmer of a candle, why didn’t she see the candlelight from Ramsay’s candles, which were all over the table, and take that as a sign?

brienneWhile, as I said last week, I’m glad Brienne didn’t swoop in to save the scene because it would have been disingenuous, I must say I’m a little disappointed that she’s yet to make a move. Sansa has arrived at Winterfell, met the Boltons, Baelish has left, she’s been betrothed, has dined with them, walked around Winterfell some more, reunited herself with Theon and some old servants, got married, got raped, and then has been repeated beaten and raped every night… how long has Brienne been standing at that window, exactly? And what the hell sign is she WAITING for? I’m a little frustrated by the inaction. I know the Brienne bit — and the Sansa bit, for that matter — are not from the books, but I’m worried they’ve added them in and now don’t know what to do with them.

The other thing they don’t seem to know what to do with would be the Sand Snakes. As I was saying on Facebook on Monday, in last week’s recap I said I enjoyed the fight scene with the Sand Snakes. To be honest, the fight scene was exciting for the 40 seconds it actually lasted, but then it all fizzled out like a dying firecracker and didn’t amount to anything. I was undaunted, however, assuming that the Snakes had something more up their sleeves. Instead, they’re stuck in a dungeon listening to Bronn sing bawdy songs about Dornishmen while Tyene is flashing her breasts at him. I don’t know what to make of this trio anymore, but I’m really hoping this isn’t it. Tell me there’s a lot more awesomeness to come with the Sand Snakes, Chris, please?


Christopher: Wait—did Theon go up to the broken tower? My sense was that they made it seem as though he might be, but instead simply went straight to Ramsay’s rooms. Certainly, the room in which Ramsay is eating looks far more well-appointed than the room in which we first saw Jaime and Cersei having sex. That would make a difference: if he went to the tower with all best intentions of lighting the candle, that means there’s more of a vestige of Theon there than we had hoped … only to have it squashed by Ramsay being clever. My read, however, was that the camera did a bait-and-switch—having Theon look at the tower, seeing Theon from the window through which Jaime pushed Bran, but in the end he went right to his master. In which case he’s farther gone (or just as far gone) as we suspected.

I like that they leave that ambiguous. I’d be interested to hear what our readers think on this.

But to get to the Sand Snakes: I honestly don’t know how much we’ll be seeing of the Sand Snakes, or whether what we see will include awesomeness. Both the Sand Snakes and the High Sparrow initially seemed determined to prove my complaints in my supplemental comments wrong, in both cases giving us a more nuanced sense of these characters. But to me, at least as far as the Sand Snakes are concerned (the High Sparrow is another story), it’s a case of closing the barn door. One of the complaints I’ve been reading a lot in various reactions to this episode is the superfluousness of the scene between the Snakes and Bronn: what does it add to the story? How does it move the plot forward? Why are we wasting time on this interlude when there’s so much else to attend to? Was this any more than just an excuse for Tyene to show us her breasts?

I don’t think the scene was superfluous so much as mistimed. What we did get out of the scene was a better sense of who these women are, and how they interact with each other—for me the highlight was Nymeria rolling her eyes the moment she realized what Tyene was doing, a nanosecond of face acting that spoke volumes about the personalities involved. This scene would have been brilliant if it—or something approximating it—had come as a function of the Snakes suborning some man or men to their plot. Instead, it is wasted as a bit of after-the-fact sexposition that offers no exposition. I suppose if, going forward, the Snakes have a more substantive role to play (as you and I dearly hope, Nikki), then this moment contributes to our understanding of them; failing that, I am so far underwhelmed by the writers’ treatment of a trio of women who could have been, and indeed deserve to be, awesome.

nymeria_eyerollOn the other hand, the other Dornish scene was quite well done. Poor Bronn … the lowly underling gets to spend his sojourn in a dank cell, while the nobleman has the gentleman prisoner’s arrangement of a comfortable and well-lit room. That being said, I think Jaime has the harder time of it—even taking into account the fact that Bronn nearly dies of poison. “I’ve come to take you home,” Jaime tells Myrcella. “This is my home,” she snaps. “This has been my home for years! I didn’t want to come here, but I did as she said. I did my duty, and now she’s forcing me to go back?” She then proceeds to tell him she’s in love with Trystane, and that they will be married. “I don’t understand,” says Jaime. “Of course you don’t!” is the retort, and then the body blow: “You don’t know me.”

Or in other words, you know nothing, Jaime Lannister. He loses so much in that moment, as he (presumably) realizes what a fool’s errand this was, and how wrong he was when he repeatedly said to Bronn “It has to be me.” As it turns out, he’s more or less irrelevant to the young woman he’s obliged to call his niece.

More and more, Jaime is becoming one of this show’s tragic characters, even as he becomes more sympathetic. Two things have defined him in the past: his skill with a sword and his love for his sister. Those were all that mattered to him. The loss of his sword hand has made him at best an encumbrance to men like Bronn, and as their family fortunes sink, Cersei is becoming more and more distant, grieving for her dead son and spiraling down into a series of plots to keep her living son close to her. Jaime embarks on this quest to regain what they once had, but finds that an increasingly impossible task.

Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, Cersei thinks she has won. But we’ll come to that in a moment. In the meantime, I’m interested to know what you thought of the meeting between The Queen of Thorns and the High Sparrow, Nikki. Did you feel the same thrill as me at watching two brilliant actors showing the young ‘uns how it’s done?


Nikki: First, I can’t believe I fell for a bait and switch! You must be right, because I remember the Broken Tower as being, well, broken, and Ramsay is in this bright room with candles, and then the camera cuts to Brienne watching a dark, unlit tower, and I couldn’t put the two together. Oh Theon… maybe you’re gone after all. That would explain why he simply hangs his head in shame before Sansa rather than shaking his head.

But on to the Queen of Thorns and the High Sparrow. What a brilliant scene that was, and for exactly the reason you say above. Here we have two magnificent British theatre veterans, going toe to toe on the screen and just showing what remarkable talents they both are. Lady Olenna has crushed everyone who has tried to verbally parry with her, especially Cersei. Tywin seemed to have an upper hand in parts of their conversations, but she would always dominate by the end… and in the very end, she killed his grandson. Now she spars with the High Sparrow, who remains calm before her insults, then pulls them to similar ground as they compare elderly aches and pains, before holding up a mirror to exactly who she is. She’s there to argue for her grandchildren, and he simply waves her off, telling her they’re degenerates and they will be punished. She similarly waves him off, offering him gold, and he waves her off, saying he serves the gods, and can’t be bought. He proceeds to quote from the Seven-Pointed Star, and she waves him off again (the constant dismissal each has to the other kept this conversation sparkling from beginning to end) and says of course she’s read that book, and that’s when he turns everything on her, asking, if the Tyrells are known for their agriculture, how many fields has she tilled? How much back-breaking work has she actually done? When you think about the various Houses, the Targaryens fight in battles, as did the Baratheons, and the Lannisters, the Martells… the Tyrells, on the other hand, are the ones who provide food to the other kingdoms, and where the heads of the other Houses have actually earned their spots, Lady Olenna just sits around doing nothing and throwing coins at any situation that gets in her way. But if that’s all she can do, and she’s suddenly faced with a situation where coins aren’t accepted… what will she do? “You are the few,” he tells her, lumping her in with all the other wealthy rarities who have no idea how the majority of people actually live, “and we are the many, and when the many stop fearing the few…” And he just lets that thought trail off as he picks up his bucket and goes off to scrub another floor.

high-sparrow_floorIt’s a glorious scene.

Later we see Olenna with Baelish, another man famous for his words, and he’s back seeing his brothel for the first time, its former glory now a ravaged hall of shredded sheets and broken glass. Baelish tries to also jockey for verbal dominance in this scene, but Olenna’s not about to be beaten twice in one day. She tells him that their fates are joined. “Together we killed a king,” she declares, and implies that should anything happen to her or the people of the House Tyrell, he’ll get dragged down with them. Where it looked like there was no way out for Margaery and Loras, Littlefinger might be it.

And that brings us to Cersei herself. A few weeks ago we were discussing how she keeps putting things in place that backfire, and boy do they backfire in this episode. What did you think of the handling of her story?


Christopher: Well, this is one of those moments that line up more or less nicely with the novel. In A Feast for Crows, Cersei’s attempt to defame Margaery fails when the sparrows actually interrogate her false witnesses rather than accepting their sworn testimony. And by “interrogate,” I mean torture and beat bloody, until they give Cersei up. So they’ve changed things around here, but the result is the same: Cersei, blithely arrogant until the end, finds herself thrown in a filthy cell. And we might have felt a wee bit of sympathy had she not just been visiting Margaery in a similar cell, all the while wearing an insufferably smug expression.

Her conversation with the High Sparrow was also a work of art, at least as far as Jonathan Pryce’s monologue went. In this scene Cersei plays unwitting foil to his lengthy disquisition on the history of the chapel and the simple beauty of its spartan interior. She is oblivious to the significance of his words, impatient for him to finish. Lady Olenna, by contrast, however much she dismissed everything the High Sparrow had to say, was at least shrewd enough to realize this was not an ordinary man she could manipulate.

I find it rather amusing that my complaints in my supplemental comments about the development of the Sand Snakes and the sparrows were both met in this episode with scenes that I would have loved to have seen earlier. As with the Snakes, the High Sparrow’s scenes lend a greater understanding of who he is, and what the motivations of his movement are. In this case, however, the after-the fact exposition works somewhat better. His final words to Olenna—“you are the few; we are the many”—remind us that, however religiously inspired, the sparrows are a populist movement. But unlike the Occupy movement, however, they have divine law on their side, which makes them the final arbiter in moral matters. Which wouldn’t matter nearly as much if they WEREN’T ARMED.

I bet Cersei’s really wishing for a separation of church and state right now.

high-sparrow_candlesThe High Sparrow’s speech about the simplicity of the chapel cites above all else the philosophy of the Protestant Reformation. His sentiments would be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a church of one of the more austere Presbyterian sects:

“The people who built this place didn’t inflict their vanity on those that came after them, the way Baelor did with that great gilded monstrosity up there. Their faith was clean. Strip away the gold, and the ornaments, knock down the statues and the pillars, and this is what remains. Something simple. Solid. And true.”

I’d like to say this is one of those lovely moments of creative anachronism that fantasy often engages in—and it is—but it could also be read as an alternative history of the Roman church in which the Franciscan Order somehow became ascendant and pulled down the gilded edifices of the papacy. One way or another, however, this final scene is one of the most beautiful bits of schadenfreude we have yet seen on this show. As creeped out as I am by the High Sparrow’s absolutism and the fanaticism of his followers, it is still so deeply satisfying to see Cersei hoisted on her own petard.

Which brings us to our final bit of business, namely the new careers of Tyrion and Jorah, which apparently is to be extras on the set of Gladiator. Seriously. Was anyone else quoting from that film as Yezzan gave his new slaves their pep talk? “Thrust this into another man’s flesh, and they will applaud and love you for that!” I said as Yezzan declared that “This is the day your lives actually start to mean something!”

But I suppose that when gladiatorial combat is the spectacle of the day, such comparisons are inevitable. What did you think of the Jorah/Tyrion storyline in this episode, Nikki?


Nikki: The scene of Tyrion striding out onto the battlefield to meet Daenerys is the one I’ve been hoping for all season, and it didn’t disappoint. One thing we can’t forget is that Daenerys stands apart in this series as the one character who never encounters any of the others. The major characters were mostly split up — Stannis and Melisandre; Jon Snow at the Wall; Cersei and Tyrion in King’s Landing; Daenerys in Meereen; Jaime and Brienne wherever; Arya in Braavos; Sansa in various places: Baelish wherever the action is. But with the exception of Daenerys, they’ve all crossed paths. Back in the first episode, the Lannisters and Baratheons descended on Winterfell, bringing all of those characters together, and then the entire gang went to King’s Landing for a spell. Stannis and Melisandre came to King’s Landing in the Battle of Blackwater, and then ended up at the Wall. But Daenerys stands apart from everyone… until now.

While I agree with you that watching Cersei finally gets hers was infinitely satisfying, as an editor I would have put the Tyrion scene at the very end of the episode to finish it off spectacularly. The battle scene itself was fantastic, and everything the Sand Snakes battle wasn’t. It was gory, and watching Daenerys turn her head in horror was interesting — on the one hand, this is the very thing she didn’t want. On the other hand, many thousands of people have been slaughtered at the hands of her own army, and she never flinched once. But that, as far as she was concerned, was for the betterment of people who desperately needed her help, whereas here it’s for sport. The whole time I kept thinking, “Oh my god she’s going to get up and leave, and we’ll have to wait until NEXT season for Jorah and Tyrion to cross paths with her.” Thank the gods that didn’t happen.

The auction scene with Tyrion and Jorah was interesting, because we saw Tyrion’s exaggeration of Jorah’s prowess when he was trying to avoid having his penis lopped off, and now the slave trader exaggerates his powers even more. And yet, the moment Jorah enters the ring, it’s like every single word both men said was 100% true. Jorah mows down every warrior in the ring as if they were toddlers holding Nerf swords. She looks impressed — this isn’t a man who seems to revel in the pain of others, but who quickly and cleanly deals with everyone in his path as he moves towards her. She looks at him with awe and respect… until he removes his mask. And the disgust that washes over her face in that moment is devastating. Remember, in season 4 she banished him because she found out that he had been hired by Robert Baratheon to spy on Daenerys and report back to Varys, telling Baratheon everything he needs to know about the surviving member of the Targaryens. He had told Baratheon about Daenerys’s pregnancy by Khal Drogo, leading her to almost be poisoned. Of course, if it weren’t for Jorah knocking away the cup and warning her of it, she would have died, but she argued that if he hadn’t spied on her, she wouldn’t have been in danger at all. She could no longer trust the one person she trusted above everyone else.

And so now, many months later, he’s back, calling her Khaleesi, a memory of the worst betrayal she’d ever endured, and she wants him out of her sight. But just as Tyrion had talked himself quickly out of the situation with the slavers last week, Jorah tells Daenerys that he’s brought her a gift… and out walks Tyrion. For me this was the single best moment of the series so far. The look on her face was priceless — “A dwarf? Are you kidding me?” — but it only got better. Because no sooner does Tyrion stride out on the battlefield than he says, “I am the gift. My name is Tyrion Lannister.” And hearing those five words, she is utterly, deeply confused.

jorah_watchingAfter all, the Lannisters are her sworn enemies. They were in bed — literally — with the Baratheons. Tyrion’s brother killed her father. Robert Baratheon led the charge to slaughter her entire family. Her brother Rhaegar and his son Aegon were brutally murdered by The Mountain, who works for the Lannisters. Why the hell would he be a gift?!

I cannot WAIT for the scene that follows this one. I’m confident Tyrion will be able to convince her — he’s the man with the golden tongue, after all — and putting these two together will strengthen her claim, and infuriate everyone at King’s Landing, more than I could have possibly dreamed. (This is my fantasy way of how this plays out, so if instead she simply feeds him to the dragons, don’t tell me!) 😉

tyrion_giftBits and Bobs:

-I just realized that we completely forgot to mention Stannis and Melisandre’s discussion in this episode, so for the record I’ll say that I hope that scene we saw a couple of weeks ago, where we see just how much Shireen means to Stannis, will be the one thing that will strengthen him against the Red Woman. Could this be the one request that just goes too far for him?

-Also, despite all the terrible things Cersei has done, I felt she was being 100% sincere in the scene where she told Tommen she would do anything for him. Despite her hatred for Tyrion, her despicable treatment of Margaery, and her general booziness, this is a mother who loves her children more than anything.

And on that note, we shall see you all again next week! Thanks for reading.

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Game of Thrones 5.06: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10Hello again and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. This week’s episode has lit up the interwebs with argument and controversy, so let’s just get to it, shall we?


Nikki: What an episode. In one hour we have discussions about faith, a queen is imprisoned, a turncoat turns… turncoat, Arya finally discovers where the bodies go, Olenna and Cersei show us the importance of commas, and we end on one of the most brutal scenes this show has ever shown… without them actually showing it.

I’m not sure exactly where to start, so I’ll just pop into the middle and go from there. I’m terrible with actually keeping up with casting decisions, so I was thrilled when Adebisi/Mr. Eko showed up as one of Daenerys’s slavers. Though I must admit, I was a little disappointed that he was missing a tiny little hat on a jaunty angle on the side of his head. (Maybe with little dragon wings? I’ll ring the costume designer and get her on that…) And not only is his first act to order the slicing of Tyrion’s throat and capture of Ser Jorah, but he delivers perhaps the greatest line ever on this show: “The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant.”

If there were Emmys handed out for single lines, this one would be unbeatable.

As we know, Ser Jorah is Daenerys’s previous advisor, and Tyrion is the one we’re hopeful will be the advisor of the future. Together, they become a great team. With a knife at his throat (they’re going to chop off his head, then his penis, and sell it on the black market because apparently dwarf penises have magical properties), Tyrion is somehow able to move past his horror at losing the thing most dear to him and instead explains — quite rationally, I might add — that to do so would be a major mistake. You must take him whole to the cock merchant, and then lop it off so he KNOWS it came from a dwarf. Brilliant. Unless, of course, they actually get to the cock merchant and Adebisi follows through.

But then a better idea comes along, when Tyrion convinces them that Ser Jorah is a great warrior, and if Daenerys has indeed opened the fighting pits in Meereen, then Mr. Eko would have no greater chance at making a ton of cash than to throw Ser Jorah into the pit as a ringer, thereby hustling everyone who bet against the old guy thinking he didn’t stand a chance. Mr. Eko goes for it, and the two advisors are safe… for now.

But let’s rewind a bit to the conversation they were having before this moment: Mormont and Tyrion are chatting, and Tyrion asks Mormont if he’s a cynic or if he actually believes in God. Jorah replies, “Have you ever heard baby dragons singing? It’s hard to be a cynic after that.” Until this discussion, the men have been at each other’s throats. But now Tyrion listens to him — he did, after all, just witness his first dragon — and then he tells Mormont that his father had been a great man. And it’s only when he tells him what a great man he was (past tense) and that the world will never see another one like him, he looks up and realizes that Mormont didn’t even know his father had passed away. First he finds out that he’s got greyscale, and now his father has died? Ser Jorah is having a really bad day.

tyrion_inquisitiveOn that note, however, I must admit that when he sat down next to Tyrion on the log, I kept thinking, “Don’t touch him, don’t touch him” and then later, when Tyrion is standing near the rock and Mormont grabs him to pull him back, I recoiled. Is Mormont just as contagious as the Stone Men? Notice he never actually touches Tyrion’s skin: he only grabs him by the shoulders, which are draped in fabric. But the slavers end up grabbing Mormont and tying up his wrists and no doubt touch his skin a lot. And then they grab Tyrion. How fast could this stuff spread? (Or are we supposed to be thinking like that??)

While Tyrion and Mormont are on their way to see the queen and the fighting pits, Baelish has returned to King’s Landing to see another queen. And, as usual, you just don’t know what side he’s on (though if I had to guess, I don’t think there’s any way he’s turning over Sansa to Cersei… though… could it be worse than the fate he’s left Sansa to in the moment?) What did you think of the scene of those two back together, Chris?
olennaChristopher: First, let me add my delight to yours at seeing the Tyrion/Jorah road show coming into its own, especially where the news of Jorah’s dead father comes into play. I’m loving the way they’re developing these two. And I’m just as delighted as you are to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, aka Simon Adebisi, aka Mister Eko make an unexpected appearance as a pirate-slash-slave trader. I’m actually quite surprised not to have heard of this casting in advance: the show has generally been quite boastful of the talented actors they’ve scored, and given Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s niche appeal to HBO fans and Losties, one would have imagined he’d have been brought in with no little fanfare.

(And I must admit, I had a moment of doubt about whether it was him—the voice is unmistakable, but he’s put on some weight, and he seemed somewhat shorter than he always did on Oz and Lost—which makes me think that Iain Glenn is a tall, tall man).

(Also, I think Tyrion’s line that prefaces Adebisi’s “The dwarf lives ‘til we find a cock merchant” matches it as one of the show’s best lines: “It will be a dwarf-sized cock.” “GUESS. AGAIN.”)

adebisi02But to return to Cersei and Littlefinger: his entry into King’s Landing is as perfect a contrast to King Tommen’s impotence on the steps of the Sept as could be crafted. We of course know that his brothel has been attacked and (presumably) put out of business, and that he is notorious as a man who has made a significant amount of money in the sex trade. So he’s naturally a target for the newly formed Faith Militant, and we see Lancel’s eagerness in confronting him. But Littlefinger is no Tommen: he’s completely unimpressed by the dirty-robed fanatics who bar his way. “I have urgent business with the Queen Mother,” he says calmly, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Shall I tell her I’ll be delayed?” As always, his armour and weapons are not steel, but his mind: he sees the Faith Militant for what they are, just another group jockeying for power in the game of thrones, even if they don’t have to wit to see it themselves. “Step carefully, Lord Baelish,” Lancel warns. “You’ll find there’s little tolerance for flesh peddlers in the new King’s Landing.”

Littlefinger’s response is one of the most subtly meta- moments we’ve seen on this show: “We both peddle fantasies, Brother Lancel. Mine just happen to be entertaining.” On the face of it, he’s speaking of the illusions his whores and whoremongers sell, that of their clients’ power and desirability—such as which was on pathetic display in episode three, when the High Septon has his religious pantomime played out. But it is also a wonderful little encapsulation of Baelish’s own theatrics. On every level, he peddles fantasies: be they the fantasy of an overflowing treasury he gave King Robert, the dream of power he used to bring the Tyrells into alliance with the Lannisters, his deft misdirection that made Cersei convinced it was Tyrion who poisoned Joffrey, and all of the schemes he is spinning this season: his alliance with the Boltons, his promise to Sansa, and now his suggestion to Cersei that, once the war in the North is settled between Stannis and Roose, he will lead the Vale to victory at Winterfell. All in exchange for being named Warden of the North … which may or may not entail putting Sansa’s head on a spike.

littlefinger_blockedIt is this last demand of Cersei’s that throws Littlefinger’s enterprise into question, for whatever his cold calculations, there has always been the underlying suggestion that he desires Sansa as a surrogate for his frustrated love of her mother. But … really, who the hells knows? Baelish’s talent, as he points out to Lancel, is the ability to spin out pleasurable fantasies. Which corresponds to his desires?

I don’t have an answer to your question about what side he’s on, Nikki … I think the Littlefinger we get in the series is something more of an improviser than we get in the novels. GRRM’s Baelish always comes across to me as a chess grandmaster, someone who sees the moves happening twenty turns ahead of anyone else. The Baelish of the series strikes me as someone who plants a whole bunch of seeds and sees what takes root. He simply has too many balls in the air right now (yes, I’m mixing my metaphors) to be that precise—he’s waiting (I think) to see what happens with such conflicts as Stannis v. Roose before making his next moves.

As for Cersei … one of the things I love about her character, both in the novels and in the series, is that she’s an overstated but ultimately inept villain. She imagines herself to be a schemer, but lacks her father’s (or for that matter, Tyrion’s) ability to play the game of thrones coolly. Arming the faith, as we’re starting to see, was mounting a tiger. In her meeting with Littlefinger, we see how deftly he plays her, how easily she allows her emotions and hatreds to guide her judgment.

All of which speaks to the fact that Ellaria Sand had it spot on: if the Sand Snakes had succeeded in killing, hurting, or otherwise harming Myrcella, Cersei would not have hesitated in launching an ill-advised war on Dorne.

What did you think of the southern part of this episode’s story, Nikki?

sand_snakesNikki: I loved the anticipation of the Sand Snakes, the way Ellaria stood below the palace and gave them their marching orders, the way they chanted, “Unbound, Unbent, Unbroken,” even if the actual scene didn’t quite live up to the promise of these magnificent women. The problem is, they weren’t counting on Jaime Lannister being there. Or Bronn, for that matter.

And neither side was expecting that Myrcella would actually be in love with her betrothed, and refuse to be taken away. Jaime’s there to take her back home to her mother; the Sand Snakes are there to kidnap her and use her as a bargaining chip. Prince Doran, confined to a wheelchair, was watching Myrcella moments earlier and commented to his captain that he’d better remember how to use that axe, for he’ll probably need to use it soon. Where, as you pointed out above, Chris, Cersei rules with her heart and emotions, Doran Martell is more calculated, thinking through everything. It’s no wonder Doran’s captain and his army show up soon after the fighting breaks out; Doran had already anticipated it and had the men watching Myrcella and Trystane as they walked through the garden. Trystane, Doran’s son, seems to have inherited his father’s cunning, for when Jaime and Bronn first approach Myrcella, he looks down and immediately notices the blood stains on their clothing, and knows they’re not actual Martell soldiers.

When the Sand Snakes show up, they fight fiercely, and I loved the action scene, but Martell’s soldiers quickly stop it, taking away Jaime, Bronn, and the Sand Snakes, as well as Ellaria, who was waiting under the palace for her girls to return.

arya_washingMeanwhile, over in Braavos, a girl washes a woman and a man and another man and a girl and a man and … and never actually discovers why she’s washing all of these people. The young surly woman who is often with her continues to be harsh, but I noticed that when she speaks to Arya, she says “you” and not “a girl,” so I’m thinking that despite all her bluster, like Arya she is not yet able to become one of the Faceless Men (if, indeed, she strives to be). When Arya finally asks her to explain her deal, the girl tells her a story that sounds right out of The Brothers Grimm — her mother died, her father remarried, and her stepmother had a baby girl and wanted that baby to become the heir to their fortune, so she tried to poison the girl. The girl went to the Faceless Men, and, as she put it, her father was widowed once again. For the first time since meeting her, Arya looks at her with some respect, a small smile playing on one corner of her mouth… until the girl asks her to decide whether or not that story was true. The smile instantly fades from Arya’s face, and she’s told she’s still not ready.

Later, Jaqen awakens Arya and asks her who she is. I expected her to say, “No one,” but she knows better, and begins to tell her story. Every time she so much as wavers from the truth, Jaqen beats her with a switch he’s holding, and she corrects herself, reverting to the true story. But when she says she hated the Hound, he hits her, and she repeats herself, and gets hit again. We viewers know there was some affection there, and leaving him was as painful as it was satisfying, but while Arya can’t seem to convince Jaqen of any of her lies, she’s certainly convinced herself of one of them. On the floor, with her mouth bleeding, she tells Jaqen that she’s no longer playing his games. “We never stop playing,” he shoots back.

And then Arya gets a chance to bring peace to someone else. When a girl is brought in, and her father begs for them to just take away her pain — knowing he’s asking for her to be euthanized — Arya steps up and lies convincingly to the little girl, telling her that drinking the poisoned water will actually make her pain go away, and that she’d done the same thing herself. Later, when she’s washing the corpse, Jaqen appears in the doorway and signals for her to follow. He had watched her with the little girl and saw that she was able to convince someone else of a lie, and she pretended to be someone else and did so as if she truly believed it. And so now he deems her ready to see where the corpses really go… and the truth was shocking. Down in the catacombs of the House of Black and White are pillars covered in the faces of the dead — faces that the Faceless Men use to become other people. And he tells her that she’s not ready to become no one, but she’s ready to become someone else. Looking at the pain and misery so many of the characters on this show have endured, becoming someone else almost feels like a luxury. I can’t imagine Arya with a different face, but we’ll see where this storyline takes us next.

Are they following the Arya storyline from the books, Chris? And what did you think of the Tyrell storyline in King’s Landing?


Christopher: For a season where they’ve more or less thrown out the script for almost all the major storylines, Arya’s story is all but identical to the novels—with the one crucial exception being that it is not Jaqen who mentors her. That being said of course, given that the Faceless Men can take on whatever visage they want, there’s no way of knowing for sure that Arya’s guide in the novels isn’t Jaqen. Like you, I’m delighted the series made that minor change, because I really like that actor, and having him return offers a certain structural resonance to the story.

As for the Tyrells … well, first off, it’s great to have the Queen of Thorns back. Lady Olenna’s brusque, tart tongue is once again a wonderful counterpoint to Cersei’s mannered spite. “As for your veiled threats …” Cersei starts to say, only to have Olenna snap “What veil?” As in her exchange with Littlefinger, we begin to see the extent of Cersei’s self-deception, best expressed in her arrogant assertion that “House Lannister has no rival.” Um, Cersei, may I draw your attention to an observation made by Petyr Baelish several episodes ago? Tywin Lannister is dead, Jaime has one hand, Tommen is a soft boy, and the title of Queen Mother means less and less with each passing day.

Yet Cersei can only see what is immediately in front of her nose, which in this case is her hatred for Margaery and her petulant need to cling to power … which she obviously believes she has succeeded in doing. And for the moment, it appears that she is successful, playing her trump card with Loras’ lover and implicating Margaery in his “perversions.” (For the record, this is different from the novel but not dramatically so: in the novel, Cersei concocts a story in which Margaery and her ladies-in-waiting had sex romps with a pair of brothers in the Kingsguard, whom Cersei seduces into testifying against her).

loras_trial_everyoneCersei’s question to Olenna is ironic: “The Lannister-Tyrell alliance brought peace to a war-torn country,” she says, and asks: “Do you really want to see the Seven Kingdoms slide back into warfare?” The question is ironic, because she’s putting the obligation of pragmatism on Olenna, while she herself proceeds from a place of purely personal vengeance. Olenna’s response is to remind Cersei about her father: Tywin was ruthless, cold, and often brutal in his tactics, but was never emotional in his decisions—and it was for that reason, in spite of her own antipathy to him, that Olenna was willing to enter into the alliance to begin with. Whether she’s being cynical or just stupid, Cersei is relying on all the other actors in this drama being unwilling to have conflicts renew, blind to the fact that some, like the Tyrells, probably are; and the fact that others, like Littlefinger or the Sand Snakes, actively want war again. And meanwhile, Cersei has gone and isolated herself from all those who might have been valuable allies.

Which brings us to the heartwrenching conclusion of this episode, and the question of whether the title—“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”—isn’t just the motto of House Martell, but an allusion to all that Sansa has endured since the death of her father. The horror and in many cases the anger of many people when they realized what Littlefinger’s plan for Sansa was bound up in the prospect of her wedding night with Ramsay. The sparse hope many of us had lay in the possibility of a deus ex machina in the form of Brienne or Stannis.

But it was not to be. And in the days since the episode aired, there has been a great deal of outrage and argument about it. Some have said the scene was vile, yet another example of Game of Thrones using sexual violence as mere plot point, citing the also-controversial scene last season where Jaime rapes Cersei as evidence that this kind of exploitative use of rape is endemic to the series; others are angry with the entire shift in Sansa’s storyline, that it necessarily brought her into Ramsay’s twisted grasp; others are outraged that the scene focuses not on Sansa’s anguish but Theon’s. And some, like the website The Mary Sue, have declared that they want nothing more to do with Game of Thrones.

What are your thoughts, Nikki?sansa_tower-shot

Nikki: Well, as some readers may have surmised, right after the two of us had gone through our first passes, the internet exploded into outrage over that final scene. So in the last two passes, we’ve tried to sum up the rest of the episode more quickly to focus the end of this post on what happens in the final scene.

Like you, I was hoping Brienne would stop it. Or the elderly woman warning Sansa to put a candle in the Broken Tower. “The North remembers,” after all. Or perhaps Theon is faking it, and he would stop things. But if he stabbed Ramsay in the neck in his chambers, how the hell would he and Sansa get out alive?

None of that was to be. Instead, Ramsay goes from being saccharine sweet (and as phony as a three-dollar bill) to turning back into the Ramsay Bolton we all know and hate. He forces Theon — interestingly, he’s allowed to be Theon again, because in this instance, it’s far more painful for him to be Theon, the boy who was Sansa’s childhood friend, than to distance himself and become Reek — to stand in the room and watch as he bends Sansa over her parents’ bed and rapes her on the very furs that used to keep Ned and Catelyn warm at night. The bed she was probably conceived in. She has entered Winterfell with her head held high, with her hair dyed black, declaring to Myranda that she’s not afraid of her. But now the black has been washed out, Littlefinger has abandoned her, and it’s just her, the sadistic Ramsay, and the damaged Theon in a room, where Ramsay takes the first step to break her the way he broke the boy she used to play with as children.

The scene is very carefully filmed. We see Sansa from behind as Ramsay rips her beautiful dress from her. The camera comes back around to her front so we can see the look of terror forming on her face. She is bent over, pushing her face into the furs, her fists gripping the hair, and you hear the sound of Ramsay taking off his own pants, and then the camera pans around again and you see Sansa’s body jerk forwards, and her moans of pains turn to screams as the camera focuses itself on Theon’s face. As he shakes and shivers in the corner, his eyes wide with horror, we hear Sansa’s screams and can only imagine the look on Ramsay’s face. Fade to black.

Even the camera acknowledged that what was happening on screen was too horrifying to actually show us. Despite what the article you quoted above stated, I don’t believe this final scene was cutting Sansa out of the picture and showing us Theon’s horror instead; it was saying that what she was going through was so awful they wouldn’t make us watch it. Theon becomes the stand-in viewer, his horror simply mirroring what Sansa was going through. This moment was all about Sansa; we weren’t exactly being sympathetic to poor Theon in this scene, but picturing our dear Sansa, all power being ripped from her.

It’s the most horrific ending of any episode so far. Did I enjoy it? Of course not. Did it horrify me? Yes, it did. Was it meant to? ABSOLUTELY.

And that’s where I’ve been deeply saddened by the vitriol and typical Internet Outrage that has accompanied it. I’m a huge fan of The Mary Sue, which offers a feminist perspective of pop culture and is usually right on the money. And I respect them for actually being calm and measured in their article that stated they will no longer be covering the show because of how upset this scene made them. They weren’t rude or condescending, and in an age where it’s easier to take to Twitter and type “DIE HBO AND GRRM,” I appreciate the way they did it.

sansa_dressHowever, I respectfully disagree with their position. Seeing a woman raped upset you? Good. It should upset you, because — and I hate to be the bearer of bad news here — women get raped. This is not a fictional thing. In the time you have been reading this piece, several women have been raped. There is a young girl right now being married off to a man four… five… six times her age, and she’s about to have the worst night of her life. And tomorrow it’ll happen again to another. Somewhere in the world another girl is trying to figure out how to get her father or uncle to stop coming into her room at night. Somewhere else a woman is on her way home to her husband and children and is about to be accosted by a stranger. Somewhere else a teenage girl is getting drunk at her first keg party and is having a rufie slipped into her drink. Or a wife is being raped by her abusive husband. A young girl is being raped by her older brother. A girl is being gang-raped as punishment for having shown her family dishonour by being raped in the first place.

THIS SHIT HAPPENS AND IT IS REAL. And if the show had glossed over it, and instead Brienne had suddenly flown into the room accompanied by the sounds of sweeping orchestral music, reaching down to Sansa with one arm declaring that Lady Sansa needs to come with her in the name of Catelyn Stark, it would have been disingenuous, and skirting around a very, very serious topic that needs to be addressed.

Sansa’s rape upset you? Good. But instead of throwing your hands up and saying you will no longer pay attention to a show that honours women in all their magnificent glory on a weekly basis, why don’t you use that outrage in another way: why not direct it at the reality that many non-fictional women are trying to overcome rape? Or that some cultures condone it? THAT should make you angry as hell.

wedding_lampsThere was nothing gratuitous about this scene. It’s Ramsay Fucking Bolton. What did you think was going to happen — he was going to lay rose petals all over the bed, peel her some grapes, caress her arm gently, be gentle with her, all while whispering sweet nothings in her ear, run her a bath afterwards, and make her breakfast in bed? No. He’s Ramsay Bolton. He’s the worst sadistic fuck in Westeros, worse even than Joffrey.

I think the line in the Mary Sue piece that bothered me the most when I saw it yesterday was where they wrote that “the extent of Theon’s torture at the hands of Ramsay is barely covered in the show.” What?! Are we watching the same series? Because I remember a huge part of season three being devoted to Theon being tied to a wheel (an emblem now used to denote Winterfell in the opening credits), of having screws literally screwed into the bottoms of his feet, of Ramsay threatening to take off his finger, then shaving it off in pieces, of tricking him time and again — in one scene he almost gets away only to discover he’s been travelling in a circle and is back with Ramsay; in another scene women seduce him only for Ramsay to show up and lop off his penis.

You know what, let’s just sit with that one for a second longer. He is literally dismembered by Ramsay, who mocks him by eating a sausage the next morning to make Theon think it’s his penis, but instead Ramsay sends the penis to Lord Greyjoy to show him that his son is really the screw-up he always thought he was. He strips him of appendages, dignity, and then his very sanity. He turns him into a snivelling animal, and keeps him in the dog kennels.

But yeah, let’s just forget all of that and say the show has glossed over Theon’s torture. To say that Sansa’s rape is unforgivable but Theon’s torture was entertainment isn’t feminism, it’s outright hypocrisy.

Sansa’s rape is meant to invoke fury in us, to make us hate Ramsay Bolton more than we already did, to put us more on Sansa’s side than we already were, to want the Boltons to PAY for what they’ve done to the Starks. It’s meant to make us rise up in an angry tide against Ramsay, the same way killing off Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not Joss Whedon saying, “The only good lesbian is a dead lesbian,” which is what the Internet Outrage-mongers back then tried to peddle, but instead was him saying, “You should be furious that things like this happen to people who are as special and amazing as Tara.”

I hope this scene made you angry. It made me angry. Angry at a world where things like this happen. Game of Thrones is meant to invoke medieval England, and if you think women had it good back then, then perhaps it is better that you stop writing or talking about this show and instead go read a history book or two. In medieval England — hell, in 2015, I hate to say it — Ramsay just had sex with his wife. At least, that’s what it looks like under the law. You can’t rape your own wife, says the misogynistic laws in place in several countries in our modern world, and in every single country in the medieval one.

And if watching this scene made one person decide they were going to use a fictional character’s plight to transfer that ire to the real-world horrific reality — which is so, SO much worse than what we saw — then it was worth it.

I promised I wouldn’t get emotional in my response, and as usual that’s flown right out the window. So I turn it over to you, Chris. I know this scene wasn’t in the book, which is why most people are upset about it (I guess if GRRM had written a rape scene it would magically make it okay?) but I know you have a lot to say about this, too, so the floor is yours, my friend.


Christopher: The final scene of this episode epitomizes something this series has occasionally accomplished, which is to produce a brutal and horrifying work of art. And it also epitomizes the danger and necessity of turning pain, trauma, and the unthinkable into art. When James Joyce was living in Zurich during the First World War, someone asked him if the novel he was working on was an anti-war novel. “The best way to write an anti-war novel,” Joyce replied, “is don’t write a novel about war.” His point, or at least one of his points, was that turning anything, however ugly or horrible, into art aestheticizes it. That is the dangerous element: one risks losing the critical edge of the work with readers or viewers who simply don’t see that there is a critical edge at all, either because they’re thrilled by the aesthetic or, conversely, are so turned off that they simply reject the work wholesale.

Apocalypse Now is one of the most profound anti-war films ever made, and yet the air cavalry’s attack on the village set a new standard for how to do thrilling action sequences, and Robert Duvall’s line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” has gone from being a trenchant comment on the absurdity of war to an unironic cliche of military masculinity.

Or to use an example closer to our subject: I long ago discovered that Lolita is the easiest novel to teach because one third of the class loves it unequivocally, one third hates it with a white-hot intensity, and the remaining third likes it but are totally creeped out by the premise, and this makes them confused. I don’t have to do much lecturing: I just let the class fight about it.

These are dangerous waters, and to be fair, Game of Thrones hasn’t always navigated them well. Last season’s rape scene with Jaime and Cersei is a case in point, and I tend to agree with those who hated it. It was a hamfisted scene, though not nearly as hamfisted as the showrunners’ inane attempts to claim that it depicted consensual sex. It was infuriating, both because the scene itself was terrible, but also because it could have been handled so much more deftly. In the novel, it’s an awkward, hurried sex scene in which the line of consent is blurry—handled precisely that way in the series, it would have been less infuriating and more discomfiting, and would have spawned a far more fruitful series of arguments about lines of consent between sexual partners.

theon_weddingThe Sansa scene is entirely different because there’s no question of consent, and no question of partnership. This is rape, and if it takes place in a scene that is beautifully lit and shot, I hardly think that mitigates what takes place. Quite the contrary: for me it called to mind some of the more touching depictions of lovemaking on the show, such as Jon and Ygritte’s subterranean waterfall dalliance. We can easily imagine characters who genuinely love each other in this candlelit setting, which makes the contrast with Sansa and Ramsay (and Theon) that much more horrifying.

The Mary Sue’s principal line is more or less the James Joyce line: just don’t write a storyline about rape. In some respects I am not unsympathetic to this argument, but as you say, Nikki, this is not what Game of Thrones does, and as Alyssa Rosenberg argues, “Game of Thrones has always been a show about rape.” By which she means “that the omnipresence of sexual violence in the world Martin created is the point, not ‘illicitness … tossed in as a little something for the ladies,’ as New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante wrote in her bizarre review of the show when it premiered in 2011.” A Song of Ice and Fire has always been, before anything else, a high fantasy series whose main project is the upending of the romantic conventions of high fantasy, the demythologization of a genre that tends to depict premodern and medieval settings with a nostalgic glow.

Two years ago, when we reviewed episode 3.03 “The Walk of Punishment,” we talked about the way in which Game of Thrones builds the threat of sexual violence into the fabric of Westrosi society, and the way GRRM is in this respect historically accurate. This was the episode in which Jaime lost his hand; it was also the episode in which he manages to save Brienne from getting raped by their captors by telling them she was worth a fortune in ransom. It was also, if you’ll recall, the episode in which Ramsay “rescued” Theon, who was then ridden down by a group of horsemen and himself threatened with rape—until Ramsay again “rescued” him, only to subject him to a far worse fate in the dungeons of the Dreadfort.

roose_ramsay_weddingThat episode was on my mind as I watched the final scene of this one, because what makes it affecting rather than simply horrifying is the way the camera zooms in slowly on Theon’s face as Ramsay rapes his bride. As I said in our review of “The Walk of Punishment,” Jaime’s advice to Brienne that she just lie back and think of Renly when their captors rape her betrays his fundamental misapprehension of rape, seeing it as different from consensual sex in degree rather than in kind; the focus on Theon’s face in this scene does not, as some have charged, make the moment all about him—rather, I would argue that it makes the thematic connection between torture and rape. Rape isn’t about sex, but domination and subjugation, the violent humiliation of a person and breaking them to your will. This scene is horrifying and terribly difficult to watch, but in the end its point isn’t about violence but suffering. A recent review of Mad Max cited an argument made by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker ten years ago. In a negative review of Sin City, Lane observes,

Nothing is easier than to tumble under the spell of its savage comedy—Marv driving along with the door open, say, holding another guy down so that his head is roughly sanded by the road, or Jackie Boy continuing to chatter with his throat cut. We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed, with less embarrassed glee, by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.

“Knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering.” It is here, I would argue, that the worth of this scene lies: there is nothing here to redeem Ramsay, and nothing to titillate. Alfred Hitchcock knew the value of not showing the shocking image but rather the reflection of the shocking image in a character’s reaction shot. Sansa and Theon’s fraught history is writ there on Theon’s face, and we have been subtly prepared for the moment not only by Ramsay’s taunts over the dinner table, making Theon apologize, but in the scene immediately preceding in which Theon is required to describe himself as the ward of Eddard Stark and to speak his real name in order to give the bride away.

As with any such dramatization, one of the dangers is the people who just don’t get it. The Mary Sue, among others, lamented the fact that this scene would churn up, like sludge from a pond’s bottom, all those who say there’s no such thing as marital rape—that Sansa was just performing her wifely duty, and everyone who says otherwise just have to get over themselves. And of course that fear has been vindicated. But as someone who believes that more speech is always preferable to less, however vile much of it may be, I say: good. Let the trolls and troglodytes have their say. At least we’re talking about it.


And on that cheerful note, we bid you adieu for another week. Be good, dear friends, and work hard, and for the love of the Old Gods and New, remember that friends don’t let friends marry Boltons.

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Game of Thrones 5.05: Kill the Boy


Hello, my friends, and welcome once again to the ongoing Chris and Nikki co-blog on Game of Thrones, in which I have read the novels since the first was in hardcover, and Nikki comes to this series as a neophyte. Normally it would have been Nikki’s turn to lead us off, but apparently she was in Niagara or some such place one Monday, talking to aspiring writers. So I’m leading us off …


Christopher: Tonight’s episode was really interesting, and not just because of the content. Structurally and narratively it was interesting, because the bulk of it took place in the North—alternating between different story threads, but giving us a geographic preoccupation that (I seem to think) we haven’t seen before. Normally, episodes move the different narrative threads in tandem, often giving us only a few minutes in, say, Castle Black and with whatever road-tripping duo is current, almost as narrative place-holders, while giving over more substantive blocks to King’s Landing, Mereen, or wherever. And then every so often there’s an episode devoted entirely to one storyline—the Battle of the Blackwater, or the assault on the Wall. But normally this show has divvied up its story blocks more or less equally.

Which of course makes sense, as it’s in the show’s interests to remind us of all the balls it has in the air at any given time. But I loved this episode because it served to highlight the interconnections in a group of stories whose geographical proximity makes them more immediate to one another. In a given episode what happens in King’s Landing, the Wall, and Mereen are only vaguely connected; here, we see how events at the Wall concern the denizens of Winterfell (or should), we see Brienne’s view of Winterfell from a local inn, and sending word to Sansa through Stark loyalists, and finally watch Stannis marching south shortly after a scene (that shows what I suspect passes for a touching moment in the Bolton family) where Ramsay pledges to help his father fight.

I loved this because it doesn’t show disparate, parallel storylines—it shows the ferment of proximate events, all of which inform and shape each other.

That this northern narrative is effectively bookended by Daenery’s travails in Mereen (with the Tyrion/Jorah bit functioning almost as a coda or epilogue) makes it that much more interesting, as Daenerys’ story works both by contrast and similarity. That shocking opening scene where she feeds one of the Great Masters to her dragons is followed by one about as far away from Mereen as you can get, where Sam reads news of Daenerys to her sole surviving kin. In the moment when Daenerys leaves the dragons’ lair (well, prison), she looks about as alone as we’ve seen her since her marriage to Drogo; and Maester Aemon laments that very fact, saying “She’s alone. Under siege, no family to guide her or protect her … her last relation thousands of miles away. Useless. Dying. A Targaryen alone in the world … it is a terrible thing.” As both a maester and a brother of the Night’s Watch, Aemon Targaryen gave up his family name and birthright twice over, but we see the pain of that sacrifice here as he contemplates Daenerys’ solitude—which is worse than he probably imagines, not knowing that she has lost two of her most loyal and steadfast allies—banishing Ser Jorah, and bearing witness at the beginning of this episode to Barristan’s lifeless body. Who is left? Grey Worm has been grievously wounded; Daario is loyal but mercurial; Missandei is similarly loyal, but cannot offer the same counsel of her absent knights; and in her grief and anger she makes an example of one of her subjects in a manner that would have made her mad father proud.

The pairing of Mereen with the North makes great thematic sense, especially in the balance of Daenerys and Jon Snow—both face the isolation of command.

What did you think of this episode, Nikki?


Nikki: I agree with your excellent assessment of what made this episode great. On the one hand, it’s not as exciting as the previous four episodes have been — each season must have one or two bridge episodes — but on the other hand, we always love those moments that bring storylines together. I still remember the thrill last season of Bran almost encountering Jon Snow, but not quite. For me, the best moment of this episode was where Tyrion finally saw a dragon. FanTAStic.

In addition to the connections you’ve already pointed out above, there was one I’d been waiting to see — the reunion of Theon and Sansa. Miranda — Ramsay’s girlfriend who is engaged in some sort of ongoing S&M thing that clearly involves him starving her — is deeply jealous with his impending engagement to Sansa. While he, frustrated, tells her that he has no choice in the matter but reassures her that she’ll always be in his life, she still decides to get her revenge. This comes later, when she approaches Sansa in the Winterfell courtyard, cunningly uses a compliment about Sansa’s dress to remind her of her mother’s death at the hand of the Boltons, and then leads her to the kennels, telling her there’s something she’ll want to see at the end. The very comment about Sansa’s proficiency in stitching takes us all the way back to the first episode, where Arya was complaining about having to sit still and learn how to embroider like her older sister, when all she wanted to do was go out and practise archery like her brothers. Just as last week’s feather reminded us of Robert Baratheon in season one, now we get the mention of the stitching, as well as the old woman telling Sansa that the North remembers, and to light a candle in the Broken Tower should she ever need anything. The Broken Tower, of course, being the place where Bran was pushed from a window by Jaime Lannister, the incident that sparked this whole damn thing.

But now, as Sansa slowly moved her way through the kennels, I actually have to admit I didn’t anticipate what was there — instead, I was hoping it was Nymeria, Arya’s direwolf, whom we last saw being chased away by Arya, who feared for her life after she bit Joffrey (because of the stitching comment, my mind was firmly back in season 1 at this point). Though the last mention of Nymeria had her down in the Riverlands, I was half-hoping the Boltons had captured her and brought her here, and that she might work with Sansa somehow.

But instead, what she found was Theon, shivering and chained to the wall. “You shouldn’t be here,” he says the moment he sees her, and Sansa, horrified at what she’s just seen, turns and runs as fast as she can out of that kennel.

The last Sansa had heard about Theon was that he had taken Winterfell, and had killed Bran and Rickon in order to do so. Of course, we know that Theon only meant for people to think that, and in fact he’d killed two other boys and strung them up, skinless (the way the Boltons do in the courtyard every day). But Sansa doesn’t know that. For a moment, I thought she’d feel sorry for him, and then the truth of what she believes has happened came washing back, and I realized she’s horrified not at what’s become of him, but that he’s there at all.

I wondered what was going through her head at the dinner, where Ramsay trots out Reek to stand before Sansa and apologize for what he did to her brothers. What a whirlwind of emotions must be rushing through her head. Ramsay is putting on a show not to torture Reek, but to humiliate Sansa and put her in her place. By making Reek stand there and give her a pat “yeah, sorry ’bout that” apology, and then sit back triumphantly and say, “There, all better now!” Ramsay is not only making fun of Sansa’s pain, but reminding her that there’s nothing that can be done now to bring them back, and a simple “sorry” is all she’ll be getting out of the bargain. As she sits there, looking confused about Reek’s condition, perhaps upset that she didn’t get to do that to him herself, or perhaps concerned about how much of a monster Ramsay Bolton really is, she’s also eminently aware that sitting across from her — not saying sorry — is the man who orchestrated the deaths of her brother, her mother, a sister-in-law that she never met, and a niece/nephew that was never born. And sitting next to him is the daughter of the other man who committed the crimes. It’s a dinner from hell, and Sansa keeps her chin up, letting the wave of emotions wash over her and never betraying any of them for an instant. She smiles, she kowtows, and does exactly what needs to be done to get through the scene. Theon is an example of what happens when you don’t bend to the will of the Boltons. She’ll pretend to do so… for now.

I’ve been watching this show from season one, waiting for Arya’s revenge on everyone who’s wronged her. Now I want to see Sansa’s revenge even more. May it be sweet and painful to those who have killed the ones she’s loved.

After Sansa and Theon leave, Ramsay and Roose talk about Roose’s wife’s pregnancy, and after some particularly cruel comments from Ramsay, it’s clear that he’s worried about his station. If she gives birth to a boy, then that boy will be the trueborn heir. Ramsay has been given the Bolton name for now, but he’ll always be Roose’s bastard son. Roose, on the other hand, after revealing to Ramsay that he’s a child of rape, tells him that he knew from the moment he saw him that he was his son, and he hasn’t forgotten that. Ramsay doesn’t look particularly convinced, and time will tell if Roose will stand by those words.

Time will also tell if Theon is who he’s letting on he is. I’m less certain he’s actually Reek; he immediately recognizes Sansa, knows she shouldn’t be in the kennels, and apologizes. He hasn’t forgotten who he is or what he’s purported to have done, but when Ramsay destroyed Theon to create Reek, he made it clear he was killing the one to create the other. But it’s clear the remnants of Theon are still there.
And killing the one to create the other brings us back around to the title of this episode, which comes from what Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow. What did you think of Snow’s storyline this week, Chris?


Christopher: I can’t figure out whether I think Kit Harrington is a great actor or just lucked into a role that perfectly suits his temperament, but this week’s episode showed him off to his best advantage. It helps that his accent is very similar to Sean Bean’s, but he conveys the gravitas his father did, and takes a similarly sober and unflinching view of his responsibilities and obligations. What I loved about his storyline here was that it perfectly performed—or started to perform—what Maester Aemon told him he must do. He begins by asking the sage old man’s advice; then has a wonderful scene with Tormund, laying the groundwork for his plan; sees precisely the kind of hate and anger he has to deal with when he puts the idea to his men; and in another poignant moment has to tell Ollie that, in the larger scheme of things, the brutal killing of his parents and village matter less than standing united against the enemy—even if it means standing with the very people who killed your family.

Kill the boy, indeed.

As I said above, I think the symmetry of this week’s episode lies in the parallel between Jon and Daenerys as they both face what are effectively impossible situations. Everything Jon Snow argues for is valid: it makes total sense to bring the wildlings south of the Wall for the simple reason that they then won’t come south as a massive army of ice zombies. But of course he’s fighting upstream against millennia of hatred and enmity, to say nothing of recent bleak memories. And the mistrust goes both ways: “You sure seemed like my enemy when you were killing my friends,” Tormund scoffs at Jon’s overtures.

Both Jon and Daenerys are looking at a much bigger picture than their subjects and followers can apprehend. That’s what makes them good leaders; it’s also what isolates them.

Can I pause for a moment and say how much I loved Stannis’ little grammar lesson? During the meeting when Jon Snow makes his case for protecting the wildlings, one of his men advocates leaving them and letting them die. “Less enemies for us!” he says, to much acclaim in the room. We then cut to Stannis, who corrects the man under his breath. “Fewer.” HA! I love that the man who would be king is as strict about grammar as he is about everything else.

stannis_davosA few points here about divergences from the novels. The Jon Snow scenes are more or less consonant with the GRRM storyline, from Jon Snow’s hugely unpopular decision to allow the wildlings south of the Wall, to the expedition to Hardhome to rescue them. The principal difference is that in this version Jon Snow is leading the expedition. In the novel, he sends Tormund and a handful of men with the ships, and gets sporadic messages by raven (mostly bad news). So the fact that he is going himself at Tormund’s insistence represents a significant change … it will be interesting to see what happens out there. (Episode Eight, according to, is titled “Hardhome”).

This show has been so wonderfully cast that I find it difficult to pin down precisely which performances are my favourites—but the person most consistently in the top three is Gwendolyn Christie as Brienne. Every time she is on screen it makes me happy, and here she is, doggedly clinging to her vow even though she was spurned by Sansa. What did you think of her continued attempts to help her, Nikki?


Nikki: Stannis’s upbraiding of that man’s grammar was one of the episode highlights for me. (Incidentally, I watched Mad Men the same night and Don Draper ALSO corrected a kid’s grammar — not once, but twice — making me think I’d missed some wonderful announcement that it was National Editor Appreciation Day on cable networks…)

But back to Brienne. Game of Thrones is a show about people trying to claw their way to the top to get the Iron Throne, in the case of Stannis, Daenerys, Cersei, Margaery, the Boltons, or Baelish. Or it’s about people plotting revenge for those who have done them wrong, like Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, or Arya, Sansa, possibly Theon. And in the midst of the power plays and plots for revenge, we have a few folks who are simply trying to do the right thing. Among those would be Jon Snow, or Sam and Gilly. You have Jaime trying to right a wrong, Varys hoping for a kingdom of peace, and Tyrion escaping a wrongful accusation while no doubt becoming a key player in someone else’s climb to the Throne.

And then there’s Brienne. Of all these people, she lives by a moral code that is unwavering, like Omar Little on The Wire (minus the drug dealing and petty theft). She made a vow to Catelyn Stark, and she will follow through on that vow. The only reason she’s not still chasing after Arya is because Arya escaped and she couldn’t find her, and Brienne has been beating herself up over that ever since. But she’s found Sansa, and despite being rejected by her, she has tracked her to Winterfell and will continue to keep watch over her.

In some ways, Brienne is like a viewer of the show: she’s an outsider to all these families, and therefore can see things objectively and clearly. When Podrick says that Sansa is back at home away from the Lannisters, and perhaps they should leave her alone because she’s safe and better off here, Brienne turns to him and says, “Better off with the Boltons? Who murdered her mother and brother? Sansa’s in danger even if she doesn’t realize it.” We’ve been talking a lot over the past two seasons how Sansa has come into her own and is so much stronger than we ever would have thought that character would become, and yet during the Bolton dinner scene it was clear their manipulations surpass even Littlefinger’s, and perhaps she’s underestimated just how much danger she’s in.
Brienne hasn’t. You can tell as she’s staring out the window that her mind is trying to formulate a plan, and when the innkeeper brings her some water, she spots an opportunity. What’s so remarkable about what happens next is… just how unremarkable the conversation is. He asks a question, she gives him a straight answer. He asks another one, she gives another straight answer. I am here for Sansa Stark, I need to get a message to her, I swore a vow to her mother. “Her mother’s dead,” he sneers, and she replies, “That doesn’t release me from my oath.” Almost any other character would have lied about their true intentions, manipulated the situation to trick the innkeeper into helping them, and then probably killed the innkeeper somewhere along the way to dispose of the witness. And you can tell by the wary look on the innkeeper’s face that he knows that’s exactly how this works, and can’t figure out who this woman is who is… telling the truth. She explains to him with so much conviction that she served Lady Catelyn, and serves her still. “Who do you serve?” she asks. And for the first time, the innkeeper lifts his head and looks straight at her.

As Brienne continues on her single-minded conviction to save Sansa Stark, Ser Jorah Mormont pushes into Valyria in what Gay of Thrones referred to as the “worst Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride EVER.” I thought the production design on these scenes was extraordinary, creating Valyria from GRRM’s words in much the same way Peter Jackson created Middle Earth from Tolkien’s description. We know from previous episodes what happens to people with extreme greyscale (Gilly recalls two of her sisters turning into animals) and Stannis mentioned to Shireen in the previous episode that when the greyscale began on her, he was told to send her to Valyria but he didn’t.

What did you think of the Tyrion/Jorah/Stone Men scenes in Valyria, Chris? Was it similar to what happened in the books?


Christopher: Yes and no. In A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion’s journey is far more protracted: he is taken by litter with Illyrio (not Varys) to the head of the Rhoyne River, where he joins a group of Targaryen loyalists on a river barge. They travel down the river for many chapters. Many chapters. In the novel, the Stone Men are not sent to Valyria, but an old city that bestrides the river, now known as the Sorrows. It is there that they are attacked by the Stone Men. Tyrion survives after falling in the water, as happened in this episode.

It is after this encounter that the group arrives at Volantis, and Tyrion makes his way to a brothel only to be captured and taken by Ser Jorah.

I’m finding the pruning the series has been doing to be quite ingenious at times: they have completely dispatched the river-journey narrative, along with the handful of extra characters it brought to an already overstuffed list of dramatis personae. And we get to see Valyria! The fact that Jorah can steer them through it and survive is another change from the novel: the ruins of Valyria are notoriously dangerous, and no traveler that anyone knows of has ever returned. Here they seem to be suggesting that the fear surrounding Valyria is mostly superstition, and because pirates steer clear of it, Jorah uses it as both a short cut and a route safe from brigands.

But not Stone Men, apparently. More on them in a moment.

The memory and myth of Valyria haunts A Song of Ice and Fire, much as the memory of Rome haunted medieval Europe. “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” Tyrion wonders. “For thousands of years the Valyrians were best in the world at almost everything.” This moment reminds me of Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy The Warlord Chronicles, in which he reimagines the Arthurian stories from a rigorously historical perspective: in 500 CE or so, the Romans would have been gone from Britain for a generation, but the memory of them lingered, as did all of their feats of engineering. Roads, manses, baths, fortresses … all of which are slowly crumbling, but none of which the Britons have the expertise, tools, and technology to repair or replicate. In GRRM’s books, we get fragments of stories about Valyria’s Doom, stories that hint at hubris and arrogance that led to their ultimate destruction. In this episode what we get is a sense of brutal finality. The Valyrians were the best in the world at almost everything, Tyrion says, “And then …” “And then they weren’t,” Jorah finishes for him, and Tyrion quotes from a poem about a pair of doomed lovers in Valyria:

They held each other close,
And turned their backs upon the end,
The hills that split asunder,
And the black that ate the skies,
The flames that shot so high and hot,
That even dragons burned,
Would never be the final sights,
That fell upon their eyes,
A fly upon a wall,
The waves the sea wind,
Whipped and churned,
The city of a thousand years,
And all that men had learned,
The Doom consumed them all alike,
And neither of them turned.

The poetry is original to the series: we hear about this song being sung by a Tyroshi singer named Collio Quaynis in A Storm of Swords, but get no lyrics. “A haunting ballad of two dying lovers amidst the Doom of Valyria might have pleased the hall more,” Tyrion reflects, “if Collio had not sung it in High Valyrian, which most of the guests could not speak.” But here Tyrion recites it, only to discover that Jorah knows a bit of poetry too.

It is a fittingly elegiac moment, and poignantly done, and serves as a wonderful ramp-up to what has to be the most amazing moment of this episode: when Tyrion sees Drogon flying overhead. Even if the rest of this episode had been crap, the expression on Peter Dinklage’s face is would be worth the price of admission. The ruins of Valyria, replete with a dragon … both Dinklage and Iain Glenn have some great face-acting here: the mix of awe and shock as the abstraction of the “mother of dragons” becomes suddenly very real; and Jorah’s pained, lost expression. He’s looking at Drogon, but we know he is thinking of Daenerys.


And then the Stone Men, for this show’s usual dramatic ending. I thought for a moment that they would end it with Tyrion being pulled down into the depths. There’s always a long moment of black screen before the credits role, but this time they head-faked us, and we get Tyrion’s perspective as he wakes up to see Jorah’s concerned face above him. There’s no more pretense about captor and prisoner: after Valyria, there’s no point. Jorah cuts Tyrion’s bonds and goes off to scrounge some firewood … but not before he reveals to us that he’s been infected with greyscale.

In the novel, the leader of the river-barge group gets infected. But with that storyline dispensed with, we instead have a death sentence levied on Ser Jorah. A death sentence and a ticking clock: he now has to fulfill whatever mission he has assigned himself before the disease overtakes him.

What did you think of the Tyrion/Jorah scene, Nikki? And what did you make of Daenerys’ decision to make a power marriage?


Nikki: I knew Tyrion wasn’t going to drown (GRRM can kill just about anyone, but I feel like Tyrion is one of the Untouchables), but like you, I thought they were going to cut to credits as he was going down. Brilliant use of the long black screen — the last time I saw a screen stay black that long was at the end of The Sopranos series finale. I’m saddened to see Ser Jorah affected by greyscale, but wonder if there’s any way he could beat it, too? It seems unlikely; Stannis was able to save his daughter by employing everyone in the country that he could. Mormont doesn’t exactly have Stannis’s standing, so I’m thinking his days are numbered.

As for Daenerys, however, I think she’s finally figured out how to use those dragons. Back in the season premiere, Daario told her that she’s the mother of dragons, and needed to show the world what that meant. She went down into the dungeons but it felt hopeless — her children were lost to her.

Not anymore. That scene of the nobleman being immolated and then ripped in two by the dragons might be the single most graphic effect on the show so far, and it was spectacular. She put the fear of dragons into those noblemen for sure, before taking the remaining ones and putting them into jail cells. But what to do with them? As she explains to Missandei, Ser Barristan wanted mercy for them; Daario wants them all killed. Without a single advisor, Daenerys has many voices ringing in her head, and unlike Brienne, simply cannot see a single correct path, and keeps changing her mind. Now she turns to Missandei, but of all Daenerys’s advisors, Missandei is the one who tells her she needs to make this decision. She has seen advisors tell Daenerys many things, and she’s seen Dany listen to them… or ignore them when she knows there’s a better choice out there. In this scene Missandei becomes Daenerys’s conscience and voice of reason, and suddenly, with an absence of male advisors, Dany makes a decision for herself. She heads down to the jail cell where Hizdahr Zo Loraq is being held, and finally acknowledges what I’ve been thinking all along — that of all the people who have been talking to her these past months, he’s always come off as the most reasonable, the one who calmly tells her the way things are and gives her the advice she needs to keep her citizens happy.

Advice, by the way, she’s completely ignored until now.

She tells him that she agrees with him that he’s been right, and she was wrong, and she apologizes for ignoring him for so long. She will once again open the fighting pits, but it will be only free men who will fight in them, not slaves. Loraq looks pleased, but remains on his knees before her. Then she tells him that she’ll go one step further — she will marry the head of a noble family in Meereen. “Thankfully,” she adds, “a suitor is already on his knees.” And she walks out, leaving him still sitting on the floor, probably thinking, “Did… she just tell me I’m marrying her?”

Yes she did, my friend. Because that’s how Dany rolls.

I hope this is the right decision. But at the very least, we know Tyrion’s on his way to her side to help strengthen her even further… with or without Ser Jorah.

And that’s it for this week’s Game of Thrones! Join us next week, where I hope we drop in to check up on the Sand Snakes and Arya, and perhaps Tyrion and Jorah have some more upbeat poetry they could recite for us. See you then!

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Some thoughts on the Chakma affair

UWO President Amit Chakma.

UWO President Amit Chakma.

I have been watching the recent uproar at the University of Western Ontario lately with keen interest, not just because it is my alma mater, but because it epitomizes everything that is currently wrong with Canada’s university system.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, when Ontario’s annual “Sunshine List”—a publication of every public employee’s salary that exceeds $100,000—it came to light that UWO president Amit Chakma’s salary this year was $967,000, almost twice what it normally is. When people collectively said “WTF?”, a spokesperson for the university’s Board of Governors revealed a clause in Chakma’s contract: that after five years of service, he was entitled to take a year of paid leave to pursue research interests. This in itself is not unusual: it is what we normally call a sabbatical. The clause in question, however, stipulated that, should Chakma choose to work through his leave, he would collect his regular salary AND what he would have earned on sabbatical.

The “WTF?” outcry, predictably, only grew louder—and was aggravated by the fact that the responses from the president’s office were utterly tone-deaf, by turns dismissive, condescending, and entitled. It took them about two weeks to fully realize just how deep the outrage ran, and their attempts at damage control were paltry, culminating in a disingenuous apology from Chakma and a plea for a “second chance.” Most weren’t inclined to give it, and a motion of non-confidence was brought to UWO’s Senate (the motion was defeated, but not by a wide margin).

As loud as the outrage has been, Chakma has not lacked for supporters. The defenses have tended to acknowledge that, yes, double-dipping on his salary was probably not the best of all things, but maintain that if Canadian universities want to be competitive, they have to be willing to pay for talent at the top. That Chakma is a man of “vision,” that he has increased enrollments, secured grant money, and been a productive fundraiser.

What his defenders don’t mention is that, however much money he seems able to bring into the university, Chakma has also presided over increasing class sizes, huge cuts to staff, hiring freezes on faculty, and of course the concomitant rise in the use of part-time lecturers—all of whom are overworked and underpaid.

To anyone working in the academy today, this disjunction between the corporate rhetoric of upper administrators—for whom “excellence” is the watchword, though excellence in what form is never made clear—and the day-to day realities of teaching and research, in which professors are constantly enjoined to “do more with less,” to preside over ever-larger classes, and grind our teeth in frustration when retirements go unreplaced, has depressingly become the new normal.

To a certain extent, I’m not really in a position to complain: I am one of the few people who, upon graduating with my doctorate, were able to secure a tenure-track (now tenured) position. I am doing a job I love and compensated for it more than fairly. But when I look at the academy more broadly I get depressed and saddened by what seems to be an inexorable shift into a corporate model in which the foundational principles of academic freedom, tenure, and the intrinsic value of a liberal education are being eroded by such neoliberal preoccupations as austerity, utilitarianism, and profitability, and most perniciously the need to “synergize” the university with business.

The bellwether of this shift is administrative bloat: while faculty complements have contracted, administration has grown by a magnitude, with ever more positions for deans, associate deans, vice-presidents, provosts, and so forth being created, largely for the purpose of competing for a finite pool of students, donations, and grant money. And while faculty are being told to do more with less, that we have to tighten our belts, the salaries for administrators continue to grow along with their numbers. Amit Chakma’s base salary of $440,000 is at the higher end of presidential compensation, but is not unusual. Doubling up on this kind of money is outrageous, but a question that has been more or less overlooked in this kerfuffle is, quite simply: in what universe is a nearly half-million dollar salary not just acceptable but expected for a public servant? An Ottawa Citizen column chiding us for “salary-shaming” Chakma reminds us that “He’s running a $650-million institution with almost 30,000 students.” And yet he earns over twice as much as the premier of Ontario ($208,974), two hundred thousand more than cabinet ministers ($242,000), and about one hundred and twenty thousand more than the Prime Minister ($327,400). Yes, running a university is a big job, and we want talented people in those positions, but the inflated salaries of administrators are an insult to the legions of part-time professors earning barely above the poverty line and for whom the prospect of stable, full-time academic employment has become increasingly unlikely.

The tumult, over Chakma’s compensation and the moronic way he and Western’s Board of Governors has dealt with it, at least offers a few stirrings of hope. In my more optimistic moments, I think that the increasingly vocal response among faculty, students, and interested onlookers indicates a growing inclination to fight back; the recent TA and sessional lecturers strikes at York and U of T would seem to indicate as much, as did the furious backlash at the peremptory firing of Robert Buckingham at the University of Saskatchewan.

In my darker moments, I can’t help but feel that these events are just the extreme weather events in the climate change of our universities, and that we’re past the tipping point when it can be fixed.

But we must continue to be vocal and fight back. Chakma has pledged to engage with faculty and student concerns with “One Hundred Days of Listening.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are skeptical about just how much listening he’ll actually do. In response, an “Alternative Listening Tour” blog has been started for faculty, students, and alumni to submit their thoughts, questions, and criticisms. As an alumus, I submitted my own thoughts yesterday.

Earlier this week, a group of prominent Western alumni and benefactors published an open letter in The Western News that basically told everyone protesting “stop it now, this is unseemly,” and voiced concern that the attacks on Chakma and the bringing of the non-confidence motion were going to damage Western’s brand. This is my open letter in response to theirs:


Dear “benefactors, alumni and friends of Western”:

I am an alumnus of Western. I started my PhD in English there in 1997, and completed it in 2004. I then worked as a sessional lecturer for a further year, and had the great good fortune to get hired into a tenure-track position at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I am still at Memorial, having been granted tenure in 2011. I am very happy here in the company of extraordinary colleagues and students.

The fact that this career arc, which in generations past would have been unremarkable, is today the ever-receding exception to the rule, is but one of the ways in which the Canadian university system is broken. Too many talented academics I know, who have done everything right, done everything they were enjoined to do, now look at tenure-track jobs as vanishing possibilities. To remain in academia, as so many of them do in the hopes that things may change, they work back-breaking course loads for wages barely above the poverty line.

Hence, your open letter in response to the outrage over President Chakma’s double-dip—when his regular salary is roughly double that of the premier of Ontario—epitomizes precisely the kind of neoliberal tunnel vision currently afflicting the academy. I quote your letter in its entirety:

We, benefactors, alumni and friends of Western, care deeply about this University.

But for weeks now, we have watched as the controversy surrounding Western President Amit Chakma’s pay threatens to tarnish the reputation of this great institution. We are disappointed and concerned this controversy has distracted from Western’s focus on achieving excellence on the world stage.

Today, we respectfully ask that it stop.

A vote of non-confidence is not only unnecessary, but reckless and divisive. We ask members of the university Senate to vote against the motions of non-confidence facing it Friday and embrace the president’s call to move forward as a united university.

We call on like-minded faculty, staff and students – and especially on like-minded alumni, benefactors and friends – to stand up, speak out and get behind this president and board chair.

We have had the pleasure of seeing first-hand as President Chakma’s vision and ideas have taken hold. But these accomplishments can only be built upon when faculty, staff, students and alumni are working together.

We fully endorse the leadership demonstrated by President Chakma and Western’s Board of Governors. We have the right people, for the right time.

It’s time again to reaffirm our place among the world’s best universities.

I respectfully reject one of your main premises, which is that you “care deeply about this University.” I have little doubt that you do care about Western, but our respective understandings of what Western is are dramatically different. I submit to you that you do not actually care about the university: you care about the Western brand, and your privileged relationship to it.

I know this because the long and short of your concern seems to be how the very vocal outrage both at Western and in Canadian academia at large will wreak havoc with Western’s reputation and diminish its “place among the world’s best universities.”

I know this because you do not address with any specificity Western’s principal missions, which are teaching and research. Instead, you worry that “this controversy has distracted from Western’s focus on achieving excellence on the world stage.” Two points: first, why is the “world stage” your concern here, as opposed to the quality of education for Western’s students, which has been denuded by larger classes, faculty contraction, and the ever-expanding role of overworked and underpaid adjuncts? Second, I challenge you to resubmit your letter—and instead of using the word “excellence,” use as many words as you need to explain what you mean by this.

The years I spent at Western were among the best years of my life. I came of age as a thinker and a scholar and forged the foundation for the career I have now, not because I was immersed in some abstract pool of “excellence,” but because I was taught, mentored, encouraged, and challenged by some of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Professors, fellow graduate students, and the students I myself taught, first as a TA and then as a sessional lecturer, all made indelible impressions on my life and my mind.

Perhaps you protest that this is what you mean by “excellence,” but I think we both know that’s patently untrue. I would not demean these people by calling them excellent; they were by turns brilliant, compassionate, arrogant, infuriating, hilarious, odd, or quietly ingenious. They ran hot and cold, they ran the gamut of perspectives and politics, loved each other, hated each other, schemed and partied, possessed enormous intellects and fragile egos. They were, in other words, academics—both established and aspiring, and they defined the university as a space for thinking and discovery, argument and critique.

These people were, and are, the university. Them. Not the administration, not the benefactors, and certainly not some abstract sort of brand loyalty, but the people who show up to think, to research, to teach, to learn. And in asking them to shut the hell up lest they taint Western’s image is to display a breathtaking ignorance not just about the nature of academics, but about the mission of the university itself, which is to question, challenge, critique, and above all to inculcate these stroppy tendencies in our students. When Immanuel Kant first conceived of the modern university in The Conflict of the Faculties, he said that the university’s mission was to produce good citizens. Today’s administrations see students not as citizens to be educated, but customers to be kept.

This uproar over President Chakma’s compensation is not, as you seem to think, an undignified temper tantrum, but the academic community both within Western and without reasserting not just its best character, but its very raison d’etre. President Chakma has pledged to engage in “One Hundred Days of Listening.” Rather than telling the rest of us to shut up, perhaps you should heed your own advice. And listen to what this unruly mob has to say.

Who knows, you might learn something.


Christopher Lockett
Associate Professor, English
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Western alum 2004.


University College, UWO. My intellectual home for eight years. I still miss this place, sometimes.


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Parsing “Freedom”

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been making passes at a screed against the Harper government’s so-call anti-terrorism bill, C-51. When I started this blog, this was the kind of topic I did not intend to address. But the more I think of it, and the more I watch the rhetorical crimes committed by Harper et al on this topic, the more I’m convinced this is a watershed moment in Canadian history.

Language matters. The way we frame things to ourselves matters. And as much as I think this bill is a bit of political misdirection, keeping our eyes off the cratering economy, it still has real-world effects that terrify me. And should terrify you.


Several weeks ago I read a post by Conor Friedersdorf, a right-leaning libertarian blogger at The Atlantic. I admire Friedersdorf’s writing, though I often disagree with what he says: he’s a keen critic, the kind of conservative you want on the other side of the table, both because his intelligence keeps you sharp, but also because his is a voice of reason. And one of the things he frequently blogs about is the intellectual poverty and epistemic closure of the American Right, especially as far as talk radio and Fox News is concerned.

In the post in question, he took issue with the fact that too many bloviators on the right employ the term “conservative” uncritically, making frequent appeals to “conservative values,” staking out their own bona fides by invoking the word, and calling for Republican candidates who embody “true conservatism,” without ever explicating what they mean. The problem, Friedersdorf argues, is that “conservative” has become mere boilerplate and has lost meaning. The solution, he suggests, is that candidates and commentators should make the word Taboo. Not taboo in the religious or moral sense, but as in the game Taboo, in which players draw a card with a word on it and have to get their teammates to guess what it is without using that word or the most obvious words to describe it. Anyone presenting him or herself as conservative, Friedersdorf says, should avoid using the word and in the process be forced to articulate a series of positions, beliefs, and/or policies rather than invoking a term that has become increasingly meaningless except as a tribal badge.

I think this is a fantastic idea, and we should adopt it in a host of other spheres of political and cultural discourse. And apropos of the latest wind emanating from the PMO, I think “freedom” should be the word Canadian politicians make Taboo.

The drumbeat for Bill C-51 and the attendant rhetoric has been deeply depressing, not least because we seem to have gone irrevocably into Orwellian territory. When a spokesperson for the PMO can claim the bill “protects freedom,” and a Conservative fund-raising email can say it’s necessary because we’re at war with jihadists because “they hate us because we love freedom and tolerance,” I start wondering when Jason Kenney is going to start issuing assurances that we’ve always been at war with Eurasia. If the Prime Minister loves freedom so much, why is he so keen to radically curtail it in this bill? If he loves tolerance, where’s his reasonable accommodation for a new Canadian who wants to wear a niqab? How do you protect freedom by criminalizing protest and dissent?

I’m not going to parse the particulars of the bill—that has been done by a host of individuals far more conversant in legislative language than me. Do yourself a favour, however, and click those links and take the time to read. Like much of the legislation Harper has rammed through Parliament since taking office, he relies on obfuscation and the public’s short memory. This one is too important to let pass.

No, what I’m interested in today is playing Taboo with the concept of freedom. It’s one of those concepts that is central to our sense of ourselves as a liberal democracy—what is the point of democracy if not the promulgation of a free society?—but which too often gets cheapened in political discourse, used as an empty but resonant signifier to score rhetorical points. I want our politicians and our political bloviators to consider the term Taboo: instead of saying something like “our brave soldiers died protecting our freedom,” please replace “freedom” with as many words as you like describing precisely what you mean.

By way of example, I have heard more people than I care to count use that precise phrasing with regards to our fallen in Afghanistan. Which is not to say I don’t admire and respect their sacrifice—I do, in thunder. We owe anyone who puts him or herself in the line of fire our regard, even if we vehemently dispute the cause. But to say that soldiers were sent to Afghanistan to fight for our freedom has a fundamental misunderstanding of geopolitical realities. Canadian freedoms and liberties were denuded not a whit by the Taliban’s reign of terror in the decade or so before we joined the post-9/11 coalition. It might be more accurate to say that our soldiers fought for the Afghanis’ freedom, and indeed the most heartbreaking stories I heard of our incursion there were all about the valiant attempts by Canadians to establish schools and to keep the tide of theocratic fundamentalism at bay. But the primary purposes of our actions in Afghanistan are, when examined, an inextricably complex political morass. That we won (tragically ephemeral) freedoms for otherwise oppressed populations is a point of great pride for us as a country—but to suggest that that was the first and last purpose of our engagement is to deceive oneself.

Let’s consider what would appear a more straightforward example, the Second World War. Of all the conflicts of the twentieth century, the fight against Nazism stands as perhaps the most unalloyed example of struggle between freedom and tyranny. Surely, we’re correct to say our soldiers fought and died for our freedom there?

Well, only if you’re historically illiterate enough to imagine that the Third Reich posed Canada an existential threat. We should be endlessly proud of our military’s role in defending Britain and winning the freedom of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. But we, as a nation, were never under genuine threat. And we need to always remember that in order to defeat Hitler, we allied ourselves with a totalitarian regime that was at least as evil, if not more so, than the Nazis—and as the price of that allegiance consigned half of Europe to forty-five years of darkness.

As for the First World War … anyone opining that we fought that war in the name of freedom has to go sit in the corner. We fought in WWI because we were obliged, as a Commonwealth nation, to enter into the conflict on the side of Britain. Canadians fought bravely; Canadians fought so well, in fact, that we became the shock troops of the Allies. But that doesn’t change the fact that tens of thousands of young men, almost an entire generation, were killed or crippled in the name of an unnecessary war. Freedom? There wasn’t much to differentiate monarchical Britain from monarchical Germany. This was a war fought largely in the name of the Great Powers’ colonial holdings: there was tension in Europe itself, but what put the powder in the keg was the encroachments of an ascendant Germany into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Call it cruel irony if you like: the former colony Canada (alongside Australia and New Zealand) sacrificing its young in the name of the mother nation’s other colonies.

All of which is by way of saying that “freedom” as a concept has become so abstracted that we don’t blink at its egregious rhetorical misuse. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that we’re so accustomed to the freedoms we do enjoy that we don’t notice them, and hence don’t notice when they’re eroded by a government so addicted to power and control that it is utterly cavalier in the way it snatches them away, all the while piously asserting itself as freedom’s last bulwark. The tempest in a teapot over Zunera Ishaq’s determination to wear her niqab at her citizenship ceremony is a case in point: whatever one thinks of this particular religious garment, one of our most basic freedoms as Canadians is the right to worship or not as we see fit. The bloviating by Harper and his minions that the niqab is anti-woman and oppressive is criminally disingenuous. The crucial difference between Canada and a theocracy that enforces strict dress codes is that here, Zunera Ishaq has a choice. Is the niqab, in and of itself, an oppressive garment? Not here. What would be oppressive here would be a government restricting one’s choice in the matter, which Stephen Harper is apparently determined to do—in the name, he says, of “freedom.”

The niqab controversy is also instructive because it is an object-lesson in our democracy. For the record, I find the more extreme Islamic dress restrictions for women abhorrent, in the same way I find any customs (religious or otherwise) designed to denigrate, vilify, or otherwise make women (or anyone) second-class citizens abhorrent. This, if you like, is one of my personal prejudices. In reading Zunera Ishaq’s own words on the subject, I come to understand that she makes this choice of her own free will and not because she has been compelled; but even if this were not the case, it is still our obligation to allow her this religious observance, to make reasonable accommodation, however much we might disagree. Because this is the most basic test of freedom: to make such accommodation even if it makes our blood boil with rage. For all of us, there are perspectives and arguments that offend and enrage: for someone like me, listening to Stephen Harper speak is a daily gauntlet of anger and apoplexy.

And what makes my blood boil most about Harper’s position on this controversy isn’t so much that I think he’s wrong, it’s that I’m certain he is being utterly cynical about it. He knows precisely how much the average white, tepid Christian or vaguely secular Canadian looks upon the signifiers of Islam with fear and suspicion. The western media and Hollywood culture industry has screwed up such fears well past the sticking-point. Why attack a woman set to become a citizen from the lofty pulpit of the PMO, and mobilize government lawyers to make the case as high-profile as possible? As an editorial in The National Post, of all places, observes:

[E]ven though it knows it will lose the case, the government thinks there is political gain in misrepresenting the legal issue and putting the niqab question at the centre of the upcoming election campaign. The next federal election will come before this appeal is decided. A government interested only in electoral success will be indifferent to the actual outcome of the case. When the case is eventually decided, the government can once again blame the courts for thwarting the will of the majority.

In the meantime the government can hope that enough voters will see its repudiation of the niqab as part of its larger campaign against terrorism — a campaign that too often trades on the idea that there is “clash of civilizations” involving Muslims and the West. The niqab becomes the symbol, not of religious freedom and diversity, but of a repressive culture that is incompatible with Canadian values.

This pretty much hits the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned. I think the Prime Minister is operating on several levels with this bill: catering to the politics of fear, playing to his base, distracting from the issue of his mismanagement of the economy, and laying groundwork for a new normal in which those protesting governmental policies—especially environmentalists and First Nations activists—can and will be legally redefined as terrorist groups (seriously, go read the language of the bill).

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Harper’s practices and agenda for the past nine years. Though he came to prominence as a wunderkind of the Reform Party shouting for transparency in government, and indeed was elected in part because he was able to paint the Liberals as obfuscatory and dishonest, he has done more than any Prime Minister in our country’s history to muzzle dissent, make government opaque, and quash dialogue.

In a slim book published shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, novelist Norman Mailer said that George W. Bush used the word “freedom” as if it was a button he could press to inflate his polling numbers, even as his administration brought the Patriot Act—as Orwellian a bit of naming as ever imagined—to Congress. He also did a bit of cold calculus about the event that gave rise to the Patriot Act. How many U.S. soldiers, he asked, have died in the name of “freedom”? How many hundreds of thousands in WWII alone, that war that has become the watchword for fighting for freedom? As it happens, just over four hundred thousand (Canada lost over forty-five thousand). So, Mailer asks: the three thousand deaths of 9/11—if America truly stands for freedom, why were these people not counted among those who died at Normandy, Bastogne, and Iwo Jima? As Americans who died for freedom, as opposed to an excuse for the government to clamp down on its citizenry?

We should be asking similar questions of our Prime Minister. The country was shocked and saddened by the deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Office Patrice Vincent, but what is the better tribute to these soldiers—to maintain our nation’s commitment to freedom, openness, and democracy, or allow a cynical government to play on our fears and enact legislation that is anathema to these values?

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Doing the ALS Hypothermia Challenge

I did the ALS ice bucket challenge this afternoon, having been challenged by the lovely but cruel Nikki Stafford. And, while this sort of thing isn’t really in this blog’s bailiwick, having a bucket of ice water poured over my head on a cold and rainy Newfoundland afternoon makes me inclined to think I have a few words worth saying about the whole thing.

There has been, predictably, an awful lot of hate and contrarianism directed at the ice bucket challenge, which of course began the moment it became obvious this thing was a THING. And I must confess I understand the initial instinct: suddenly, one’s Facebook feed is full of videos of people dumping ice water over their heads, all for a disease that doesn’t tend to get much mention in mainstream discourse. I will confess, I knew the acronym ALS and I knew of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but it was only recently I realized they were one and the same.

I’m also generally unimpressed with slacktivism and its close cousin hashtag activism. But the ALS challenge is, in my opinion, where social media gets this process right. Here’s why:

  1. Whatever the naysayers might say, it has actually succeeded in raising a significant amount of money. I mean, a LOT. I won’t quote numbers because they keep changing, but it is evident that we’re now in the tens of millions—not a paltry sum for any disease research.
  2. Yes, it’s now trendy. And there are, undoubtedly, huge numbers of people who are putting themselves on Facebook and YouTube because it’s the cool thing to do, all their friends are doing it, and it makes you look altruistic. And there are probably a lot of people posting who aren’t actually donating. Guess what? The charities don’t care. If charities limited their donations to people who actually cared, as opposed to seeking a tax deduction or wanting to look good in their social circles, they’d probably have to close up shop.
  3. As much as the whole idea of raising “awareness” on issues has become risible—the essence, really, of slacktivism—the ice bucket challenge has been quite effective in actually doing just that, both because of its proliferation throughout social media and the way in which it makes participants have some skin in the game (I wasn’t about to dump ice water over my head without doing some reading first). So: both an awful lot of money, and an awful lot of people more informed about a terrible disease. Not so bad, at the end of the day.
  4. As for the meme about wasting water while children in Africa go thirsty: seriously, grow up. When you can figure out a way for me to cheaply courier my ice water to those children, let me know; otherwise, recognize that different geographies mean different realities. And that we can be charitable to more than one cause.
  5. Ditto for those irked that the ALS challenge apparently distracts from Gaza, Ferguson, Ukraine, or any of the other horror stories at play in the world. Can we allow that we can be aware of all these other issues AND still want to dump ice water on ourselves? This isn’t a zero sum game.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the ice bucket challenge is that it has spurred a certain amount of creativity. I leave you with my three favourite videos, two of whom are celebrities, and one who really deserves to be: Neil Gaiman, Patrick Stewart, and my good friend Andrew Patterson.

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