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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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Game of Thrones 4.02: The Lion and the Rose


Hello all, and welcome once again to the great Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. This post is a very special post, as we say a sombre goodbye to one of the show’s best loved characters, someone who warmed our hearts with his gentle generosity and simple compassion for his fellow …

Nah, I can’t keep that up. Joffrey is dead! Ha!

But in the interests of professionalism, I will attempt to keep my gloating to a minimum. I’ll let Nikki do the grave-dancing. But first …


Christopher: This episode is an excellent reminder that, however much we might complain about GRRM killing off our favourite characters, every so often he kills the people we hate with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. The wee prick is dead! But because I knew that was coming, and because I have enjoyed your vitriolic loathing of the little shit lo these three years, Nikki, I will let you do the first jig upon his grave in this post.

Instead, I will begin by talking about the beginning of this episode: last season we left Theon in the throes of torture, mind-games, and castration. This season we see that young Ramsay Bolton—sorry, Ramsay Snow—was not merely tormenting Theon for his own amusement. Oh, make no mistake: he was totally amused by the whole process, the sick bastard … but it was all also done with an eye to breaking and subjugating Theon to the Bastard of Bolton’s will.


Poor Theon. I know you have very little sympathy for him, Nikki, but I wonder if the events of this episode have softened that perspective at all. We first see him hobbling along as fast as he can behind Ramsay and his (apparently) equally sociopathic lady friend (I think I heard him call her Miranda?) as they chase a terrified girl through the woods. I must confess that, watching this scene, I could not help but think the same thing as when similar moments occur in A Dance With Dragons—namely, a flashback to that moment in the Simpsons when Ranier Wolfcastle announces at the local community center that he will be teaching people how to hunt “ze deadliest prey … maahhn.” Apparently, Ramsay took the remedial course, in which he learned to hunt helpless terrified chambermaids (I’d like to see him try to hunt Brienne).

However much my mind may jump to such inappropriate allusions, this opening scene serves as a reminder later that Ramsay is only partially a calculating psychopath, and that at heart he takes perverse joy in inflicting terror and pain. For me, the most affecting—and horrifying—moment of this scene is when Ramsay sics his hounds on the wounded girl, which we don’t see but hear … instead we see Theon’s tortured face as she screams. Again, Nikki, you have to admit: however much you might not care about Theon’s torments, Alfie Allen shows his acting chops in this episode. He has little enough to say, but shows everything on his face. In those few seconds of hearing the girl’s screams mingled with the hounds’ growls, we see Theon’s own terror, horror, fear, hatred, and self-loathing … in short, we see Reek.

And we see Reek again when Ramsay commands him to shave him in front of his father. “Theon was our enemy,” he tells Roose Bolton. “Reek? Reek will never betray us.” Roose has not appeared in the series as he is in the novels: in the novels he is described as slightly built, rheumy-eyed, pale, and generally physically unprepossessing … and yet carrying with him cold threat and danger, a man who looks through you. In A Game of Thrones (the novel), when Catelyn suggests at one point that Robb needs someone with cold cunning to lead his southern forces, Robb presciently replies “Roose Bolton. That man scares me.” In the series, Roose (played by actor Michael McElhatton) is somewhat more physically imposing than I imagined the character, but he does a good job of conveying Roose’s cold, calculating nature. We meet his new wife briefly: Lady Walda, a daughter of the Frey clan, part of his reward for helping Walder Frey betray the Starks. I’m probably spoiling a point that will be revealed in a later episode, but the deal with Frey was that Roose’s dowry would be his betrothed’s weight in gold. And so without hesitation he chose the most corpulent of the Frey girls. Roose is not, in other words, a man swayed by anything so fickle as sensual appetites (a reason he was probably disgusted with Robb Stark’s willingness to betray a marriage contract for love); and so we see his disappointment at the pleasure his bastard takes in torturing and killing. “We’ve been flaying our enemies for a thousand years!” Ramsay protests when his father takes umbrage at his treatment of Theon. “The flayed man is on our banners!” “MY banners,” Roose corrects him abruptly. “You’re not a Bolton. You’re a Snow.”

But however much Roose might regret the trust he put in his bastard, Ramsay’s exhibition of Theon’s compliance impresses him in spite of himself, and he suggests that, if Ramsay can retake Moat Caillin, perhaps—perhaps!—that designation of Snow can be reconsidered.

I’ll ask you what you thought of the Ramsay/Theon scenes, Nikki, but first—please, do your Dance of Joy on the corpse of the Wee Prick.



Next appearing on The Walking Dead as zombie #7.

Nikki: Eeeeeeeeeee!!!

Ding dong, the little shit’s dead!
Which little shit?
The INBRED shit!
Ding dong, the lit-tle shit is DEAD!!

Ah. You know, I said last season that Joffrey deserved to die, and yet I didn’t want him to because I enjoyed hating him so much that my enjoyment in despising him outweighed wanting to see him die a horrible death. Now, I shall revel in the moment (even though I know I’ll probably miss him soon). Never has a mess of vomit and blood and snot been so… beautiful. I had no idea this was going to happen; as far as I’m concerned, GRRM kills off the characters we love, and the only time a bad guy dies is when it’s someone we haven’t much invested in (like Polliver in the previous episode). To take out the most despicable of the Lannisters? The king? The single worst person on television right now? Glorious.

And by the way, Joffrey had to die for so, so many reasons, but chucking money at Sigur Rós and telling them to stop playing and get out? DIE, YOU LITTLE SHIT, DIE! (Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows my deep devotion for the Icelandic band, who play the minstrels at the party and then sing “Rains of Castamere” over the end credits; they are easily my favourite band and the best live band I’ve ever seen. How DARE he?!)


They’ve played to bigger, but quality counts for something …

But just in case it wasn’t clear that his death is definitely a good thing, they’ve really upped his dickishness these last episodes, especially in his despicable treatment of Tyrion. First bringing out a bunch of dwarf jesters to reenact the war between the kings of Westeros, once again beheading Ned Stark before his daughter Sansa, then treating Tyrion like garbage in front of the hundreds of guests, Joffrey’s sniveling face is the one every viewer most wants to smack, and has been since the first season.

Tyrion, I’ll let you have the honour:

However, beyond our personal grievances, and him being a horrible person in general, Joffrey is, quite simply, a terrible king. He’s weak, too scared to run into battle (as Tyrion brilliantly reminds him when he stands up at the wedding and tells Joffrey to reenact for all the guests how he had handled the Battle of Blackwater). He never, ever listens to any sort of counsel, whether it’s from Tyrion or Tywin or Cersei or Baelish. He knows very little about Westeros in general; remember in the previous episode where Daarios handed Daenerys the flowers and told her that in order to rule, she needs to understand the flora and fauna of the country, the people and what they need and want, and every bit of the landscape? Joffrey wouldn’t know what the difference between a flora and fauna was, much less have any sense of his people. The reason the marriage to Margaery was going to be positive was because she could stand before the people and say all the food was being given to the poor (an offer that Cersei quickly and privately repeals), which is the sort of thing Joffrey would never think of doing, but she tells everyone he did to make him look like a good and benevolent king. A king isn’t any sort of king if he doesn’t have one iota of support from his subjects.

The question now is, who could have done it? Was it Tyrion? He was holding the goblet, but there was really no time that I saw (having watched the wedding scene three times now) where he could have slipped something into that goblet. Could it have been Sansa, who holds the goblet at one point? (Again, she doesn’t seem to slip anything into it.) The final glass of wine was poured from the decanter sitting before Cersei, and she clearly didn’t do it, but that wine had to have been brought in from the kitchens. Sansa is quickly whisked away by the fool we’d seen in the previous episode, the man whose life she’d saved back in the second season, as if he’d known all along this was going to happen. Could he have poisoned Joffrey? Suddenly showing up the day before the wedding to say “heya” to Sansa and then grabbing her by the hand and telling her to run away seems a little suspicious. Could it have been the pie? Joffrey was drinking the wine the whole time, but it’s only after he takes a bit of the pie that he begins choking. Margaery is the one feeding it to him, and she never takes a bite (it’s passed around to others but you never see them bite into it, either). If someone had laced the pie, they would have been chancing killing everyone sitting up on the dais. It makes more sense to have put something in Joffrey’s goblet, but again, he’s using that goblet through the entire scene and it’s only at the end he begins choking.

In any case, there are so many people who would want him dead, the possibilities of who actually killed Joffrey are endless. Jaime for mocking him in the previous episode? (Jaime is his father, and seems to know that, so I doubt he’d kill his own son.)

The court jester?

Tyrion, just because he knows more than anyone what a sniveling little shit he is? (And for mercilessly slicing to bits the book that Tyrion had bought as a wedding gift, which had probably been handprinted and cost a fortune?)

Tywin? Seems like a long shot but since Joffrey’s such a horrible king, perhaps he was cleaning house with him the same way he was trying to do with Jaime? (If he’s willing to kill Shae, the woman Tyrion loves, why not kill the result of his twin children having an incestuous relationship?)

Lady Olenna? She seems pretty darn unfazed by the whole thing, and the goblet that he grabs right near the end is sitting on her table.

My money’s on Jónsi from Sigur Rós. As if I needed a reason to love that man more.

I’m sure the mystery will continue throughout the season, perhaps longer, perhaps just until the next episode, who knows, but at this point it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the king is dead, which will no doubt plunge all of Westeros into war once again. Although, we as viewers know that for all the talk of peace in the land and the war finally being over, there’s nothing but scheming and planning for more wars happening all around. That war will never be over.

I do want to add, however, one last time, that I think Jack Gleeson played Joffrey brilliantly. He was SO despicable, not just in his words, but in the way Gleeson held his lips in a constant sneer, in the way he always nonchalantly leaned against the sword on his hip, or crossed his arms in laid-back defiance, or flicked his hands about as if dismissing the one in front of him. I couldn’t imagine any actor playing him as perfectly as Gleeson did, and I really will miss the way he portrayed his character.

Back to Theon, you’re right, I’ve never been a fan, and perhaps it’s just that I’m not a fan of Alfie Allen. I don’t know why, he just bugs me. But it’s never clouded my judgment about the character and what is happening to him; I think his life has been difficult, being taken from his father as a spoil of war and being a second-rate child to Ned Stark his whole life, constantly reminded he is not a Stark, but a POW, essentially. And then when he finally returns to his own father, Balon shows him even less love and respect than did Ned. He’s spent his life trying to prove he’s someone, and now he’s been tortured both physically and psychologically, and reduced to this sniveling, shaking thing we see before us. The scene of him shaving Ramsay Snow is masterfully executed, from Ramsay’s flippant way of telling him that Robb Stark was dead, to Roose’s very subtle look that he might actually be impressed by what his bastard son has done to the creature, to Theon looking one second like he’s about to lose his mind and try to take all of them out with a razor, then keeping it together and getting back to the task of shaving his slave driver, and calmly and politely telling them the truth about Bran and Rickon, probably the most important bit of information anyone in the Seven Kingdoms could have right now.

Now that you’ve allowed me to rejoice and kick up my heels with glee (I thank you for that, sir), how did the death of Joffrey on-screen compare to what you read in the books?

Meanwhile, I shall continue to do the dance of joy.


Christopher: No longer do the dance of joy, Numfar! For though we rejoice at our least favourite Lannister’s timely and appropriately agonizing death, it looks as though our favourite Lannister will be taking the fall for it—whether he did it or not. And obviously I know who was actually responsible for the assassination, and just as obviously won’t betray that fact … and even more obviously will watch in glee as you try and figure it out.

But one way or another, Tyrion has been accused, and suddenly all those images from the trailers of him in a small, dark room make more sense. Cersei is obviously unhinged by her son’s death, which creates a perfect storm between her mother’s grief, her general irrationality, and her hatred of Tyrion. Will Tywin (reluctantly) defend his son? Will Jaime intercede? Or is this the end of Tyrion? Stay tuned!

This was a very Lannister-heavy episode, which makes sense … the final scenes can’t help but echo the toast raised by Tyrion at the beginning, “To the proud Lannister children: the dwarf, the cripple, and the mother of madness!” Joffrey’s madness—or at least his complete and utter willfulness and petulance—is certainly at the forefront of this episode. There is a brief moment when he seems to have attained some semblance of grace and generosity, first when he is magnanimous with Margaery’s fatuous father Mace Tyrell, and then again when he manages to be gracious about Tyrion’s gift of a book. Of course, that lasts only until he receives Tywin’s gift, which is exactly the kind of toy his sociopathic little mind delights in and cannot resist from cleaving Tyrion’s gift in two (it’s probably just as well there wasn’t a hapless servant in reach). As you say, Nikki, the book looks expensive, and it is—in the novel, Tyrion is beside himself, murmuring that that had been one of only four copies of the book in the world. We know, of course, how much Tyrion loves books: that he gave such a rare and valuable tome to Joffrey probably wasn’t the wisest course. He must have known such a gift would goad him (in the novel, after he hacks it apart, he sneers at Tyrion that “You owe me another gift, Uncle”); it would have been smarter to have given him some sort of innocuous weapon, but I tend to see the gift of that book as a moment of genuine hope and kindness on Tyrion’s part, the infinitesimal hope that Joffrey might actually learn something from it, and a kind gesture from someone who knows the true value of books and learning. Whatever moment of sanity Joffrey appears to have had vanishes as he acts out like a spoiled child on Christmas morning, so outraged by a gift that displeases him that he breaks it.

I think it is this essentially childish nature that makes Joffrey’s madness at once so infuriating and so terrifying. Imagine giving a willful toddler power of life and death, and adding into that mix innate sadism, and that’s what we have with Joffrey. His petulance at his own wedding reception is emblematic of this, when he gets impatient with Sigur Ros; also in his planned “entertainment,” which is comedy of the lowest possible brow. Any more lowbrow and it would be underground. What is most interesting about this scene is less the show itself than the reactions of its audience: how everyone responds is a good insight into their character. Margaery at first looks amused and happy, smiling and clapping—probably relieved to see her new husband in good humour for the first time that day—but quickly becomes perturbed as she realizes the cruel intent behind it. Joffrey’s little brother Prince Tommen, who is sitting beside Tyrion, laughs until he also suddenly realizes that it is meant to mock his uncle (his quick, chagrined sideways look at Tyrion exhibits more humanity in a nanosecond than Joffrey has shown in three seasons). Loras Tyrell looks disgusted, and exits as soon as the dwarf Renly is humiliated; his father, Mace Tyrell, looks dismayed; Sansa is in shock; Tywin is at first mildly amused, but slowly grows more obviously impatient with the proceedings; Varys can’t quite keep an appalled expression from his face.


The only person who seems as amused by the show (besides a handful of sycophants in the audience) is Cersei, who watches the whole event with a smug, indulgent smile. “Mother of madness,” indeed—it’s as if she’s the only person watching who hasn’t realized what a monster, and a childish one at that, her precious Joffrey is. She’s even delighted and amused when Joffrey is so convulsed with laughter that he spits wine.

And then … well, the entire confrontation between Joffrey and Tyrion plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel, and if possible, it is even tenser. I’ve got to hand it to GRRM: you know something bad is going down from the moment Tyrion verbally smacks Joffrey down, but you assume it’s going to happen to Tyrion … that he’ll be driven past whatever reserves of patience and calm he has to say or do something that will be unforgivable. It’s one thing to smack Joffrey when he’s still just a prince, with only the Hound and the horses in the stable as witnesses. It would be something else entirely to cuss out the king, or worse, strike him in front of hundreds of witnesses at his own wedding. And I honestly thought, the first time I read it, that that would be Tyrion’s downfall.

Instead, it’s Joffrey’s. But also Tyrion’s, as the distraught Cersei—showing herself as unreasoning at her son’s death as she was blind to her son’s life—points the finger at him.

But as delightful as it is to dance on the little shit’s grave, I suppose we should address the other two key parts of this episode: the ongoing saga of Lady Melissandre’s purgation of nonblievers in Stannis’ household, and Bran’s evolving talents as a skinchanger and seer. What did you make of the Stannis bits, Nikki? That scene does not, to the best of my memory, appear in the novels.


Nikki: You mean something ELSE happened in this episode? I’ll have to consult my notes… why yes, you’re right. I wanted to note first the sheer beauty of the production of the wedding scene: from the fire eaters and jugglers to the music and the banners; from the gorgeous dresses and hairstyles to the setting (I believe they actually filmed this scene in Croatia), once again the production values and set design of this show just send it soaring above everything else on television. And you commented on the direction of this scene, which is so true: Joffrey’s antics with the little people dancing about in their silly costumes is one thing, but far more important are the reactions to those around him, and I think the look on Varys’s face is the most telling of all. He’s the spider, the one who flits from side to side, knowing exactly what to do or say that will keep him alive, but still performing his little Machiavellian machinations behind the scenes.

He’s the one who has arranged for Shae’s comfortable life across the sea; it just took Tyrion to be cruel enough to get her on the boat (another terrible moment in this episode that is overshadowed by the ending). Tyrion certainly looks devastated when Joffrey chops the book to bits, but much of his moroseness can be chalked up to the fact that he’s just overheard Cersei consulting with Tywin, and he knows what he has to do. He finally found someone who was able to look past his physical stature to love the man, and he has to give her up. “You’re a whore! Sansa is fit to bear my children, and you are not.” Watch the body language in this scene; he stutters and stammers his way through his speech, and is unable to look Shae in the eye as he does so. What he’s doing is saving her life, but he’s destroying her soul — and part of his own — in doing so.


But now… to Dragonstone! “Lord of Light protect us, for the night is dark and full of terrors!” As we know, his wife is more of an acolyte and devoted follower of the Lord of Light than is Stannis, and when we first arrive at Dragonstone in season 4, it’s to see Selyse’s own brother being burned at the stake as a heretic. While most sisters would be horrified, begging Melisandre to reconsider, Selyse is so filled with the spirit of the Lord of Light that her face is glowing, and she looks like she’s on the verge of ecstacy. “Did you see? Their souls. It was their souls. Our Lord took them, did you see?” Stannis turns in disgust and walks away. I don’t think he saw what Selyse saw. Davos catches up to him to remind him what a travesty this is, that Stannis’s own father had worshipped the Seven Gods, and he was turning his back on his own tradition. Stannis just bluntly states that he’d told his brother-in-law to tear down his idols, and he’d refused. There’s very little conviction in Stannis’s voice; he believes in the Lord of Light — he definitely saw something come out of Melisandre back in the second season — but the Lord did him no favours at Blackwater, and there is doubt on his face. If he keeps killing the soldiers who don’t believe in Melisandre’s religion, he won’t have any left.

“Did you see, Ser Davos? They’re with our Lord now, their sins all burnt away. Did you see?” says Selyse, still beside herself with joy. “I’m sure they’re more than grateful, my queen,” Davos responds with fake sincerity, to the chagrin of Melisandre.

It’s interesting how the rituals to worship the Lord of Light always seem to happen in the dark.

Later, Melisandre goes to see Stannis’s daughter, and she’s gentle and kind, and tells Shireen that she doesn’t believe in a heaven and a hell, just a heaven. The only hell, she says, is the one we live in now. It’s rather difficult to disagree with her on that one.

I’m fascinated by the religion on the show (and as I’ve said before, it’s explained much better in the books) simply because in our world, so much of the turmoil, war, and hardship seems to stem from clashes of religious beliefs, far more than territory or personal grievances. Each group seems to worship someone different in Westeros, and while it rarely comes up as a topic of warfare, when it comes to Stannis, the religion and his devotion to Melisandre (which is stronger than his devotion to the Lord of Light) has been helping him make decisions. There’s an uneasy look on his face, however, that he’s not so sure about the results of those decisions so far…

One quieter aspect of religion on the show is the weirwood, the white trees with red leaves and sap that the Starks have always turned to in times of sorrow. What did you make of the Bran scene in this episode, Chris?


Christopher: Frankly, the Bran scene was a bit of a relief. For so long he’s been carried and dragged northward, with Jojen and Meera telling him how important he is, but with only a few exceptions—mostly when he sees through his direwolf’s eyes—we haven’t really had much evidence that this is in fact the case … instead, we’ve been treated to a rather tedious and uneventful journey north. It is a welcome change to have such a vivid scene in which we see through Summer’s eyes as he brings down a kill, and be about as irritated as Bran to be yanked out of it. Jojen reiterates a point (I think) he’s made before: that it is dangerous to spend too much time in your animal’s mind, for the longer you’re in there the more tenuous your grasp on your own humanity. His little speech does a good job in reminding us of the temptation for Bran: to be able not only to walk, not only to run, but to hunt, and be the master of the forest … “It must be glorious,” Jojen acknowledges, and for crippled Bran, who suffers the daily humiliation of having to be carried everywhere, it must be like a drug. But one that is, as Meera warns, just as addictive and even more dangerous.

It is not, apparently, just Summer who offers Bran oracular sight, however—the weirwood he touches gives him a series of visions more vivid than any he has yet experienced: he has visions of the past (his father polishing Ice in the Godswood, the tombs beneath Winterfell, himself falling from the tower); he sees his three-eyed crow; he sees the massive shadow of a dragon over King’s Landing; and he has the same vision Daenerys did in the House of the Undying, of a roofless and snow-filled throne room in King’s Landing. And repeated several times is the image of a great weirwood, with the whispered words “Look for me beneath the tree.”

It’s the first time since the assassin attempted to kill the sleeping Bran that any part of his storyline has given me chills. Any final thoughts, Nikki?


Nikki: I, too, got chills, and it was a thrill to see Ned Stark again, even if it was just a flash of his face from some piece of stock footage. I still miss him…

I’m definitely excited about next week’s episode, and the fall-out of Joffrey’s murder. Tyrion is clearly in for a world of hurt, Tommen suddenly has a new and huge responsibility, and I hope Sansa’s able to get away before the Lannisters capture her. Until then!!

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Hic Sunt Dracones


There’s a moment in The Hobbit, before Bilbo and company arrive at Rivendell, when Bilbo sees the first of the Misty Mountains, the range that more or less runs the length of Middle-Earth. Gazing up at it in awe, he asks whether the mountain he sees is in fact Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the troupe’s ultimate destination. Balin the dwarf scoffs at him, setting him straight—informing him that they will have to go over those mountains and then through huge swathes of wilderness on the other side before they will arrive at Erebor.

It’s one of those fish-out-of-water moments, of which Bilbo has many over the course of the novel. It also emphasizes his parochialism and his complacent ignorance of the wider world. In itself, it is not much worth dwelling on, except that it is replicated by Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. As the Fellowship journeys south they come in sight of a spur of the Misty Mountains, prompting confusion on Pippin’s part, who assumed that the mountains should be to their left and not directly ahead. Exasperated, Gandalf says, “There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them.” And once again they are set aright by a dwarf, as Gimli comes forward, declaring, “I need no map” and naming all of the mountains in view. A little bit later Sam, unknowingly echoing Bilbo, says “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought at first that this here Redhorn, or whatever its name is, might be it, till Gimli spoke his piece.” Tolkien wryly observes that “Maps conveyed nothing to Sam’s mind, and all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

We can hardly blame Sam or Bilbo, for either their geographical ignorance or their wistful hope that the respective objectives of their journeys are much closer than they actually are. There might have been maps at Rivendell, but how useful would they have been to people who lack an understanding of the scope and scale of the wider world? In The Hobbit, Bilbo is excited by the appearance at his unexpected party of Thror’s map because he loves maps—and then we are informed that he had a large map framed in his hallway of the local land around him, with all his favourite hiking trails drawn in red ink. The juxtaposition of what is literally a treasure map depicting a mountain hundreds of miles away with one highlighting local hiking trails is almost touching, so great is the difference between the two—like a map of local parks placed alongside the map of a military campaign (which, when you consider how The Hobbit ends, is not an inapt comparison). By the same token, after Bilbo’s departure at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, “Frodo began to feel restless, and all the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders.” It is hard (for me, at least) not to read this passage without thinking of Heart of Darkness and Marlow’s fascination with “the white spaces on the map.” (Indeed, when talking about maps in my Tolkien class, I allude to Conrad’s novel enough that I’m starting to wonder if there’s an article there to be written).

Maps play a significantly different semantic role in fantasy fiction, however, insofar as they reverse the standard relationship between maps and the territory they depict. One way or another, maps are inherently fictional, in that they necessarily distort the material they seek to represent, even as they strive for scientific or mathematical accuracy. The actuality of the world, with all its intricacies, is translated into a set of lines on a flat surface, alongside a set of such overt fictions as national borders, other political designations, and place names. (To be clear: in calling borders and place names “fictional,” I am not saying they are not real, just that they are invented—they are fictions agreed upon by a consensus, and as such, are always subject to change). Mountains become gradations of colour or concentric lines on a relief map, cities and towns are rendered as dots, different nations are designated by a palette of striking colours and circumscribed by dotted lines. In this respect, maps are not dissimilar from fiction proper, which similarly seeks to render a given interpretation of reality but must needs deform it for specific purposes.

It is at this point in discussing maps that I like to pause and show a clip from The West Wing.

Maps in fantasy fiction, by contrast, are not depictions of extant territory. How could they be? They are rather outright inventions, but therefore have a drastically different relationship to their worlds than our maps. They are, in a word, deterministic. That is to say, the map determines the territory.

Consider the history of maps of our world. The earliest known attempt to present a map of the world is one from Babylon, around 600 BCE. It essentially depicts the world as a disc, with a handful of lands and cities and landmarks surrounding Babylon, all of which is surrounded by a circle of ocean.


Consider, in turn, a series of maps down through the ages:


The Tabula Peutingeriana (ca. AD 500), a Roman illustrated itinerarium (road map) showing the cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire.


The Ebstorf Map (ca. 13th century), a medieval map of the world.


A map purporting to show Vinland (Newfoundland and the Maritimes–upper left corner), based on Viking exploration in the tenth century.


Can you see my house?

I suppose it could be argued that the movement of maps toward increasing accuracy contradicts my premise that maps are inherently fictional, but I would disagree; accuracy and reality are not the same thing. And as the (fictional) Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality would point out, the conflation of accuracy with reality can and has been deployed in the service of the powerful.

But I digress. Maps in fantasy fiction are paratextual, which is to say that—like prefaces, indices, appendices, annotations, title pages, afterword, and so forth—they work to circumscribe and define the text of the story. And by the same token, we are privy to them in a way the characters of the narrative are not. So when Sam grumbles about Caradhras not being Mount Doom, as he’d hoped, it is a moment not unlike dramatic irony—assuming, of course, the reader is anything like myself and obsessively consults the maps provided in order to know where in the world the characters are at any given point.

(This is not, I have been given to understand, a pervasive tendency—indeed, last year when I taught The Hobbit in my first-year English class, I polled the students to find out how many of them consulted the maps while reading. To my considerable shock, two-thirds of them did not look at the maps at all. And suddenly the more general geographical ignorance of our undergraduate population became a little bit more comprehensible).

The (quasi) dramatic irony of Sam and Bilbo’s misapprehension lies in the fact that readers know, far more indelibly than the characters, the geography of the world they inhabit.

Of course, such characters as Bilbo and Sam and Pippin are contrasted with Elrond and Gandalf and Aragorn (for example), all of whom presumably have a much greater and more thorough grasp of the extant maps of Middle-earth. But for a long time I have wondered—and yes, this is entirely speculative—do they consult the same maps as the readers? Over the Christmas holidays this past year I read Creation by Gore Vidal, which is about a Persian diplomat named Cyrus, a boyhood friend of the Emperor Xerxes, who over the course of his life travels from Persia to India, to China, and at the end of his life to Greece. At one point as he consults with the Emperor Darius about his first embassy to India, a map of the known world—etched onto copper shields—is produced. Part of Cyrus’ mission is to map the territory into which he ventures, with an obvious emphasis to be put on trade routes. His description of the maps makes it clear that they are only slightly more accurate than the Babylonian map pictured above.

However, the novel provides maps at the beginning, one depicting the entirety of the Persian empire around 500 BCE, and a detail map depicting Greece and the Greek colonies on Asia Minor. Maps of such accuracy are not of course available to Cyrus. And when we read histories of, for example, the Wars of the Roses or the Roman conquest of Gaul, we similarly have maps that the Yorks and Lancasters did not have; and the Romans were sojourning into (literally) unmapped territory. All of which is by way of observing that, if fantasy is in part a nostalgic escape to premodern, neo-medieval settings, I think it is a fair assumption that Middle-earth’s cartographers were no more accomplished than their medieval European counterparts.

Again, this is entirely speculative: I can no more determine the accuracy of the maps in Rivendell than I can definitively tell you how many children Lady Macbeth had. The point here is more to draw attention to the dissonance between the maps with which Tolkien provides us, and his characters’ experience of the territory those maps determine. (It makes me think that someone needs to write a fantasy novel that unfolds as a series of increasingly-accurate maps, with disputes over their validity and the theological arguments over the shape of the world providing the main conflicts for the narrative).

The point is also the epistemological certainty the maps of various fantasy novels afford. One could argue that a fantasy map isn’t meant to be seen as accurate, that it is in fact meant to be understood as replicating the distortions and inaccuracies of medieval maps … except that I cannot think of any reason The Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy novel gives us to make that assumption. Rather, maps of Middle-Earth, Westeros, Pern, Earthsea, and so forth—take your pick—provide a privileged perspective that is consonant with fantasy’s relationship to history. As Farah Mendlesohn observes in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, the genre tends toward a scholastic conception of the past—which is to say, like medieval Scholasticism, it treats historical accounts as straightforward fact rather then with historiographic skepticism. However much Tolkien characterized his writing of the tales that would become The Silmarillion (and the countless subsequent books edited by his son Christopher) as “creating a mythology,” in the context of The Lord of the Rings they comprise its history. Beren and Luthien, the voyage of Earendil, the fall of Gil-Galad—all of which we encounter in The Lord of the Rings through song—are not mere myth or legend like Gilgamesh or Odysseus, or legend embellished from history, like the Trojan War, but are indelible history. (In case we doubt their validity, we have such literally immortal figures as Elrond and Galadriel, who were actually around for much of Middle-earth’s “mythic” origins).

The question of history versus myth in Tolkien is one I will return to in a future post. For now, let me return to his maps: I know I am not alone in having been enthralled by the geography of Middle-earth; certainly, the hugely popular multiplayer Lord of the Rings Online game exploits the detailed topography of Middle-earth to great effect (I recently signed up for an account, but haven’t yet had much chance to play—more on that when I have). I unfortunately don’t have anything resembling a proper conclusion to this post—like most of them, this is mostly my musings and little more—but I do mean to return to this topic in the future. Stay tuned.

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My top one hundred. Sort of. After a fashion. You know.

David Bowie recently listed his top one hundred must-read books as a part of his art show David Bowie Is, which has had spectacular runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and more recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He has, as one would expect of such an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person, some thought-provoking choices, and the list, overall, is endearingly eclectic. It is gratifying to see some of my own favourites there (Lolita, Herzog, In Cold Blood, Nights at the Circus, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), though he also includes On The Road (ick) … and there are a lot of Newfoundlanders who will not be pleased to see Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, a book that ranks even lower in people’s esteem than The Shipping News for its hackneyed and egregiously inaccurate depiction of outport Newfoundland.

That being said, reading the list got me thinking … not so much about what my one hundred “must-reads” would be, but which one hundred books have affected me the most profoundly over the years. I’m not sure why my mind went there precisely, when the practice of telling people what they should read is both a pedantic hobby and a professional imperative … but I suspect that in the aftermath of last week’s posts about David Gilmour and his insistence on only teaching what he loves had me reflecting on those texts that I love.

It didn’t really occur to me as I wrote those posts, but when I go back and reread Gilmour’s Hazlitt piece and his interview in The National Post, I find it a little odd that, if his personal mandate is to teach only what he truly loves, he seems to have such a narrow range of authors he’s willing to teach. As I sat and made my own list, I reflected that the books I have read that I love and which had affected me profoundly is massive. My favourite part of teaching is that I get to share some of these books with my students.

But then, perhaps I’m just undiscriminating.

I’ve been picking away at this list all week in my spare moments. I started compiling it partially out of curiosity, because I’ve never really done it before. I was also curious to see—after two posts in which I took issue with David Gilmour’s and Margaret Wente’s antipathy to women authors—whether I would prove myself a hypocrite. The one comment I received on those posts was someone pointing out that the banner image at the top of this blog is almost exclusively male, with only Zadie Smith and Marjorie Garber as exceptions. As I replied, my choice of banner image is actually quite random: I took a few pictures of the various bookshelves in my office at home, and that was the one that turned out best (if I’d posted the shelf beneath, you’d think this was a George R.R. Martin fan site). I quite deliberately did not rearrange books to be more flattering—I wanted something honest, if not necessarily representative.

So, a word on my list: my rules to myself were that I could choose one book per author. (If it was a list of books proper, regardless of author, you’d see an awful lot more of Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, and so forth). The representative book had to be the work by that author that affected me in a significant manner, not the book that I would later come to consider the best by that author. So for example, Love in the Time of Cholera is the entry here from Gabriel García Marquez, even though I believe One Hundred Years of Solitude is his masterpiece (and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century), because that was my first real encounter with Marquez. By contrast, the first book of Annie Dillard’s I read was The Writing Life, a slim volume in which she talks about the nature of writing and what the writer’s task is. I read that in high school and loved it, but it was eclipsed a few years later when I read A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read Jane Austen’s Emma when I was an undergraduate, and hated it. Later I read Pride and Prejudice, which made me grudgingly think maybe this Austen person had some game; but it was on reading Northanger Abbey as the urging of an Austen-mad friend that I truly grasped Austen’s genius. I then went back and reread the other two novels (as well as the rest of her books) with new eyes , but it was Northanger that had the greatest affect.

All this is by way of saying that these choices are entirely idiosyncratic.

Also: there is no poetry, for the simple reason that, for me, that is an entirely different category and an entirely different species of affect. What we have here are novels, histories, philosophy and theory, and a handful of plays.

I encourage other lists. Most of the people reading this probably came here from Facebook: if so, post a list there! Otherwise, for you other bloggers, post to your blog and I’ll link to you.

Isabelle Allende, The House of the Spirits
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina
Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
John Banville, Doctor Copernicus
Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door
Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Don DeLillo, Libra
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman
Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination
Paul Fussel, Wartime
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Homer, The Iliad
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism
Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Milan Kundera, Immortality
Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Toni Morrison, Paradise
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
Gloria Naylor, Mama Day
Edna O’Brien, The House of Splendid Isolation
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Terry Pratchett, Night Watch
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Bill Readings, The University in Ruins
Jean Rhys, The Wide Sargasso Sea
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity
Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Elaine Scarry, On Beauty
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Jane Smiley, Moo
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Sophocles, Antigone
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Art Spiegelman, Maus
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Monique Truong, The Book of Salt
Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor
Jeannette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Slavoj Zizek, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan, But were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock

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Of deck renovation, podcasts, and the art of lecturing


The deck, in process.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I’ve been renovating my home’s back deck and reminisced about the art of the mixed tape—an exercise largely lost in the world of MP3s and iPods, in which a playlist can be thrown together in minutes. As nostalgic as I got—exactly nostalgic enough to write a blog post about it, apparently—I do reiterate my protestation that I do not regret this particular evolution of technology. At all. Certainly, there is a lingering affection for handwritten playlists on those always-too-small card inserts in blank tapes, and the time and care that went into making them … but nostalgia is a dangerous thing, as it tends to elide the less-than-excellent elements of the past, in this case the crappy sound quality, heavy, chunky walkmans, the tapes that tended to get chewed up and tangled, and the space they occupied. As a friend of mine observed, people who grew up with iTunes will likely find excuses to be nostalgic about a time when you actually chose what MP3s you wanted rather than having Apple anticipate, based on an algorithm, what your next favourite songs would be. (Actually, I have a feeling that might be happening very soon).

So, the massive library of music at my fingertips? All on a device so small, granted, I worry I might inhale it by mistake? Yeah, that doesn’t bother me so much.

But there’s also the amazing fact of podcasts. In the last several years I have become a podcast addict, discovering and downloading a whole assortment of stuff, political discussions and arguments, dramatic and comedic series, food shows, literary shows—and what’s so great about the medium is how, while many of these are professionally done by institutions like the CBC or Slate Magazine, many are also just done out of some guy’s basement … and often, the latter prove to be just as good or better.

I’m thinking as I write this that I’ll start doing a weekly podcast recommendation … starting with this one.

I listen to podcasts in the car, or when I’m doing dishes or housework. I like having something to occupy my mind at such times. I will also listen to them when playing Civilization V or a comparable strategic game on the computer, or when I’m working on something that doesn’t require me to write or comprehend sentences. And while the process of tearing up my old deck was best accompanied by eclectic mixes of heavy metal and Korean dance music, the process of framing and laying decking is much better accompanied by podcasts.

And because I’m a dork, many of the things I listen to are quasi-educational: podcasts about books and writers, about politics, and, most recently, I have discovered the joy that is iTunesU.

For the uninitiated, iTunes has a section dedicated to all things academic—or, well, some things academic. There is a lot of dreck to wade through, as many if not most universities posting channels have used it principally for advertising purposes. But there are some gems in there, and my favourite so far is Open Yale … which has put up podcasts of entire courses, mostly (so far as I can see) undergraduate survey courses. Which makes sense: a seminar course would not work on podcast, whereas as a series of lectures delivered to large classes fits the bill nicely. There have been two I’m listening to, a course on European history after 1645 by John Merriman, and an introduction to ancient Greece by Donald Kagan. I’ve only listened to a few of Merriman’s lectures so far; I’ve been entirely sucked in by Kagan’s. I’ll get back to Europe when my sojourn in ancient Greece is done. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the endearingly cantankerous Kagan’s narrative of Greece from the dark ages to the twilight of the city-state—not least because it reminds me of my time as a first-year university student taking a very similar class. For the record, Kagan is an academic rock star (a number of years ago, I read his magisterial account on the Peloponnesian War, and was entranced), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good lecturer. Kagan? Great lecturer. He may have a lot of harrumphs, both bronchial and political (he likes to refer to the contemporary university as the “Politburo”), but the story he tells of the rise and fall of Greek society is wonderfully compelling.

(Credit where it’s due: I learned of Open Yale by way of the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs for The Atlantic—someone whom, if you’re at all interested in American politics, you should read. One of the smartest and best writers currently blogging. The link is to your right).

Kagan had one lecture that sent me to YouTube, in which he uses students in his class to demonstrate the arrangement of a hoplite phalanx. This had me wracking my brain to think of novels I could teach that would allow me to make a similar demonstration. The fun stuff starts to happen at 17:30:

I like to think I’m a good lecturer, but then I listen to such things and am reminded that I can always get better.

So: Open Yale. My podcast recommendation for the week.

I can’t quite let this go, however, without a little more nostalgia—even though I inveighed against nostalgia at the start of this post. As I said, one of the things I love about listening to these podcasts is remembering how amazed I was by some of the lecturers I encountered in my undergrad. I really hope people reading this post had similar experiences, because there is really nothing, nothing, like sitting in a lecture hall and listening to someone who knows his or her craft blowing your mind with their account of, well, anything. I don’t discriminate: some of the best lectures I had in my first year were on the history of science. I suppose that is one of the things—or perhaps the thing—that makes me a dork. I just love learning stuff. Which is why I am so happy to be out under the blazing sun (well, sun that blazes as much as it can in Newfoundland) building a deck while listening to the vagaries of ancient Athenian politics. IF … and this, granted, is a big if … it can be done in an engaging and compelling way. If it can be done so that the story is good (see how I brought that around to this blog’s theme?).

On that note, I leave you with something I recently discovered. My undergraduate alma mater, York University, has discovered YouTube … and while much of its postings are of an advertising nature, they have also posted some lectures by prominent professors—including my favourite professor ever, and my first real academic mentor, Arthur Haberman. Arthur is now retired, but he is one of those people who affected me profoundly. Every time I teach—and I am not exaggerating there—I sense his influence. He was, and is, an extraordinary educator and academic, and a wonderful person. York has posted a lecture of his on Impressionism and society, broken into nine parts. Here is the first.

I watch this and think: students of mine will probably see echoes in my teaching. Believe me when I say they are just echoes. I could never live up to Arthur’s example.

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