The season premiere of Game of Thrones was a dry start, in which the writers hurriedly resolved some plot threads and reminded us why we should care about the rest. Despite a few hackneyed “surprises,” the most characteristic term for the episode was “inertia.” In Episode 2, “Home,” we actually feel some momentum building, but what can we say about the overall trajectory of the series? In whom are we most invested at this point, and what about that ever-present misogyny?
It’s time we discuss all of that as we ponder this episode over a good cocktail or two.
On Misogyny and Millenarianism
Here’s the good the bad and the ugly about Game of Thrones: The good AND the bad is that we can’t expect any twists. We know who these characters are, what they want and just how nasty they will be to get what they want. Their desperation in an amoral world reflects a fatalism central to the GoT universe, in which supernatural forces are conspiring to bring everyone to a climactic battle. For all its interesting character studies and hodge-podge of cultures, the arc of GoT history bends toward the simplicity of Millenarianism.
The western world is rife with Millenarianism as we face specters of our own making: war, social upheaval, invasive technology and massive ecological disasters. A friend joked to me the other day that GoT is all about climate change. It’s not without a grain of truth; the Army of the Dead can stand for any impending catastrophe that has gripped the public imagination, or caused others to shut their ears. It works fine as metaphor, but it isn’t a terribly helpful metaphor. Game of Thrones is loaded with miniature morality plays, but it is still mostly just entertainment that has capitalized on our Millenarian culture by reflecting it (and our love of glamorous people being shitty to each other).
There are, in fact, many Millenarians who welcome catastrophe, as it would bring a more immediate transformation, a new order in which they imagine themselves as the chosen people. Damn the cost and all that would be lost; it is inevitable, so we may as well just pull that band-aid, right?
So the rationale goes, which is neither logical nor compassionate. It is the height of egoism, and the character in Game of Thrones who most explicitly represents it is The Mad King…and though he’s long dead, that madness persists to some degree in all who are hungry for power. Wanting sovereignty over our lives is universal, but obtaining absolute power through the shedding of blood on a grand scale is worse than prideful. To kill indiscriminately and even poison and scar the earth on which we depend is the antithesis of anything that we (and countless other cultures for millennia) would call feminine. In other words, this use of war and catastrophe to obtain power is an inherently misogynistic mode of being. Tough and sometimes fatal choices are inevitable in life, but anyone who has real respect for what it takes to make life will react very differently than one who believes a violent reaction is always justifiable.
And THAT is the ugly of Game of Thrones. As it reflects the Millenarianism of our time, the inherent misogyny of such beliefs comes parceled with it. What is worse is that the writers have at times indulged such misogyny as a form of entertainment. Much has been written already about GoT’s handling of rape, especially the depictions of it that do not advance the plot or enrich the characters. Game of Thrones is entertainment, and when something is included that is not central to the plot, it is received as just part of the entertainment, no matter how gratuitous. The writers have shown that they aren’t sophisticated enough to avoid low blows at the expense of some of its audience. The season premiere had several instances of it.
Dick Jokes and Headaches in King’s Landing
Episode 2 showed signs of self-awareness, but it wasn’t devoid of pointless vulgarity. There was that bit in King’s Landing, in which a drunk mocks Cersei Lannister then gets his brains bashed in by Ser Strong. We already know Cersei is loathed. We already know Ser Strong is a loyal death-dealing machine. It seems implausible that he would be out patrolling the streets to settle petty scores with the peasants when genuine threats abound. It was bad writing, and another cheap shot against a female character.
Jon Snow Lives at The Wall
At The Wall, the big cliffhanger and attempts at suspense were a rote mix of delayed reactions and last-minute rescues. (I can’t even muster a triumphant, “CALLED IT!” in response to Jon Snow‘s gasping resurrection.)
So what does that leave us?
A lot, actually. The real meat of the episode, was what was happening in the lives of several women, some of whom have been quite secondary to the lives of the royals.
Brianne and Sansa Have Real Talk
Sansa Stark and Brianne of Tarth are taking a rest in the woods outside of Winterfell, but it’s no picnic. Brianne is providing grief and war counsel to Sansa, who is grateful and receptive to it. When Littlefinger sent her to the Boltons, he insisted that it would allow her to stop running, stop being a victim of circumstances. He had reason to believe that she would be safer there; Roose Bolton saw the importance of Sansa in securing his rule, but his psychopathic bastard Ramsay Bolton victimized Sansa in the worst ways yet. Littlefinger overestimated the Boltons’ orderliness, and Sansa paid the price. Ever the murderous pimp, he used her as a bargaining chip, and his advice was useless under the circumstances he created.
Though she is still in dire straits, for the first time in a long time, Sansa may actually be somewhat empowered through the aid of Brianne, who puts herself on the line in ways that Littlefinger never could or would. Brianne, for all her chivalric strength, knows what Sansa and other women are facing and she has a true code of honor.
More than that, we see her compassion shine through when Theon Greyjoy says farewell to Sansa. He knows he will be of little help, that there is nothing for him but ignominy at The Wall, and it may be now or never if he wants to get back “home” to the Iron Isles. He and Sansa have reconciled, and they know this is probably a final farewell. The camera could stay on them and no one would notice, but in that moment we cut briefly to Brianne, who grunts lightly and lowers her head, wordlessly communicating her compassion. The camera doesn’t linger, but in a flash we get a glimpse of Brianne’s inner life. She is a deadly knight, ready to chop down hostile hordes if need be, but she doesn’t take lightly these moments. She—and the audience—is quietly reminded that she is fighting for such frailty and vulnerability, not in spite of it.
Worst Baby Shower Ever at Winterfell
We get the brutal contrast of Ramsay, who predictably kills his father, then his stepmother Walda Frey and his newborn brother. Mother and child are torn apart by the infamous hounds, and we see on Ramsay’s face a different kind of recognition. As he watches the dogs take care of the last potential challenger to his rule within the walls of Winterfell, his face expresses an awareness that he is also hunted, and hounds of another kind are closing in. (Maybe even a Direwolf.)
Theon is, for now, leaving this brutality behind, but are the Iron Isles any better? They certainly won’t be much haven for him, the way things are going.
Rocking the Boat in the Iron Isles
His sister, Yara Greyjoy, is at odds with their father, Balon Greyjoy. The patriarch is driven by grudges and wounded pride as he seeks to control land beyond the Iron Isles. Yara, the one doing the actual fighting at this point, knows the limits of their power (the edge of the sea itself) and is more focused on fortifying their position. The Ironborn culture is about as nasty as they come. In lieu of doing work for oneself, it delights in raping, pillaging and enslaving. Yara is no convert to a more caring, productive way of life, but she recognizes that it’s not sustainable once it spreads too far. But Balon snidely tells her when she is in power: “You can wage all the peace you want.” It’s telling that anything short of imperialism is seen as “peace” to him, the last surviving sovereign of the War of the Five Kings.
Not surviving for long, though. In the next scene, he is crossing between towers on a rope bridge during a storm. And from the deluge appears his brother, Euron Greyjoy, who looks remarkably well-preserved despite rumors of his death. “What is dead may never die,” he says, but Euron proves to be more than an apparition as he hurls Balon to his death. And with a splash, the last of the Five Kings is gone. We can all stop fighting now, right?
Balon’s body is shipped out to sea for good, and Yara is told she might even become ruler if she wins the kingsmoot (a form of election used to determine the king in the archipelago). It seems more likely that Euron will attempt a coup, and if that’s the case, his castrated and disgraced nephew will probably not last long. It will be very interesting to see what choices Yara will be forced to make in the near future.
Bran Stark Digs the Past
Beyond the wall, the concern is more about the past. Bran Stark is diving into memories of his family, as he is trained by the ancient mystic, the Three-Eyed Raven. Bran is admonished by his desire to get lost in the past. He must find a balance between vision and action, lest the former consume him. One of Bran’s companions, Meera, is not privy to this, but she has her own opinions on the matter. She feels the urgent need for action and thinks that his visions are nothing but trouble. Given how they caused such suffering for her late brother, this is justifiable, and because his whole crew was absent from the last season, her impatience feels all the more understandable from the viewers’ perspective. And yet we are reminded that action without vision is reckless. It has cost a lot of characters their lives already, and it will no doubt claim more.
The Dragons Have it Figured Out
The characters who seem to most have it figured out are…the dragons. Tyrion Lannister rightly says they are smarter than men. That’s an apt way of putting it, but it might also be said they are just the creatures most naturally attuned to the brutal order of the world around them. They are a force of nature, whose birth causes red stars to appear in the sky. Their instincts allow for loyalty (especially to mama), measured action and devastating displays of power when necessary. They are not moral creatures; they have no qualms about barbecuing shepherd children. But they seem to know a good bit about politics, too. Big boy Drogon seems keenly aware of how ill-prepared Dany the righteous expansionist has been to rule, issuing fiats to end slavery and quell violence among people who have never known anything else. She has a lot to learn, but at key moments, Drogon has protected her and even appeared to show affection, waiting for her to strike the balance in herself.
The other dragons? Well, Tyrion thinks it’s time for them to be set free, and when he does, they just turn around and walk back into the darkness. It seems they are fed up with the whole situation.
I think Dany, the dragons and Jon Snow will end up being the keys to ending The Long Night, but this doesn’t mean they will be ideal rulers when it is all over. I suspect others will need to fill those roles. That is looking very far ahead, but we have to speculate far in advance at this point when we see the general chain of events that must proceed before the larger confrontation with the Army of the Dead (the inevitable climax of the series). In the absence of genuine intrigue, we really need the characters to show humanity and complexity, lest it all become a boring grind to the finish.
Episode two showed these moments are possible, especially when the writers don’t squander time on reminding us how cruel and misogynistic the world is. It built a little momentum, too, so let’s hope Season six provides more of that, less public dick-wagging. Or else, I might be inclined to turn and walk away like the dragons. They really are smart, after all.