The new X-Files will debut on January 24, 2016.
More info on this and the rest of Fox’s fall shows is here.
The new X-Files will debut on January 24, 2016.
More info on this and the rest of Fox’s fall shows is here.
This is my favorite episode of this season so far, mostly because it managed to not include anything that enraged me. What it did include was a lot of stuff that I love about Game of Thrones. “Kill the Boy” had dragons and plenty of Stannis and probably the most amazing awkward family dinner scene the show has produced so far. If, like me, you think Lannister family dinners make for great television, you will adore family dinner with the Boltons.
As always, spoilers for this episode and some book stuff are under the cut. Continue reading Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 5 “Kill the Boy”
I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time in 2004 and absolutely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it over again half a dozen times more, but it’s been at least five years since I last opened my now rather shabby and dog-eared paperback. Now, though, as the air date for the BBC miniseries based on this most wonderful novel approaches, I feel compelled to reread it again. Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging my reread, with new posts Monday through Friday each week. I plan to cover three to five chapters each day and should be finished just in time for the US air date (June 13) of the miniseries’ first episode.
For those who haven’t read the book before, I think the first thing to know about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that it’s not a book that is intended for e-readers. Almost from the first page, footnotes play an important role in the story, expanding upon the story mostly by expounding more upon the world that Susanna Clarke has created. These asides and stories simply must be read, and in my opinion they are best read in the places they appear. There aren’t many books that I think really need to be read on paper, but this is one of them. Indeed, I’d say that reading this novel on paper is an essential part of the reading experience. The only downside I’ve found to this so far is that (and perhaps I am just getting old) the type, at least in my 2004 paperback copy, is quite small and the footnotes are in even smaller print. I hope for the sake of new readers that newer print editions use a more reasonably sized font.
The Most Commonplace Question in the World
The book opens with neither of the two titular characters. Instead, we are introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, an organization of gentleman magicians who, we quickly learn, don’t actually do magic. Rather, they are simply scholars of magic, the last true English magicians having practiced some two or three centuries before the book’s setting in the early 1800s. I’ve seen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell compared to any number of 19th century comedies and gothic romances, but these opening chapters, introducing a cast of characters that range from absurdly silly to absurdly wicked-seeming, remind me of nothing more than William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, itself a similarly voluminous work that examined the early 1800s with a satirical eye.
The central concern of these early pages is given voice by John Segundus, a sensible young man of slim means who is new to the venerable Society. Why, he asks, is there no more magic done in England?
Honeyfoot and Segundus
Our Mr. Segundus finds a new friend in one Mr. Honeyfoot, a kindly fellow who takes some pity on the younger man after the other members of the Society reject the idea that magicians must do magic at all, one even suggesting that to actually practice magic would be ungentlemanly. Segundus tells his new acquaintance of an encounter with a London street magician–of the sort widely regarded as charlatans at best–who prophesied that magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Mr. Honeyfoot is of the opinion that there ought to be someone they could consult about the whole matter, and they finally settle upon writing to one Mr. Norrell, a rather reclusive person rumored to have a fabulous library of magical books and quite conveniently located in York, as the winter weather is quite bad for travel.
I absolutely love these early scenes. They’re full of wordplay as clever as anything in Austen, amusing names that would be at home in a Dickens novel, and quick character sketches as incisive as anything in the aforementioned Vanity Fair.
Rather Disagreeably Mysterious
Soon enough, Segundus and Honeyfoot make their way to Mr. Norrell’s home at Hurtfew Abbey. Mr. Norrell seems unassuming, “small, like his handwriting,” but it quickly becomes clear that he is no mean scholar. His library is even more magnificent than rumored, and he quickly disabuses Segundus and Honeyfoot of the notion that magic is no longer done. He, Mr. Norrell, is “quite a tolerable practical magician” himself. Segundus and Honeyfoot bring this knowledge to the next meeting of the Society of York Magicians, and together the group decides to put Mr. Norrell’s claim to the test.
Mr. Norrell’s Intentions
Mr. Norrell sends a solicitor, Mr. Robinson, to extract from the magicians of York a promise: if Norrell can provide them with proof of his claims, the Society must disband and cease all study of magic and its members must henceforth stop referring to themselves as magicians. All of the men agree to the terms except Mr. Segundus, and they soon gather at the York Cathedral for Norrell’s demonstration. Norrell himself doesn’t appear at the cathedral, sending instead his saturnine servant, Childermass. The demonstration goes off without a hitch, as Norrell casts a spell to awaken the statues of the old church, and the Society obeys their agreement, dissolving immediately and disposing of their shared library with a local bookseller from whom Norrell quickly buys all of the books, much to Segundus’s dismay.
The Last Magician in York
Childermass suggests to Segundus that he submit the story to newspapers in London, and the end of the third chapter sees Norrell himself on his way to London. Segundus is left in York, a magician in name only and unsettled by the recent events.
Final Thoughts on Chapters 1-3
I had forgotten just how much story Susanna Clarke manages to squeeze into each chapter of this book. For such a long novel (my copy is a full thousand pages), however, the prose feels remarkably economical. These opening chapters introduce several important characters (Segundus, Norrell, Childermass), set the stage for the return of magic to England, and immerse the reader in an alternate history that feels very real and lived-in. Rereading this book so far feels just as magical to me as it did over ten years ago when I read it for the first time.
This blog has been living in my head for probably two years now, but I’ve finally gotten it out here where it belongs. The impetus for this sort-of move (although I expect I’ll still be doing some Tumblring and may even make an SF Bluestocking Tumblr to complement the longer writing I intend to do here) is twofold. Partly, I’ve become increasingly unhappy with Tumblr as a place for long writing. Partly, I have several longer writing projects that I’ve been planning for some time now, and sticking to Tumblr for the majority of my blogging was (perhaps stupidly) getting in the way of me actually pursuing those projects.
So, here is what I have planned:
I’m pretty excited to be working on something new, and I’m very excited to start really focusing on writing more in general. More updates to come as I get things set up the way I want them to be and settle into a new blogging routine.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself developing a real fondness for memoirs, so when I found out that Kate Mulgrew, who I’ve admired since the first time I saw her enter the bridge on Star Trek: Voyager, was publishing one, I was thrilled. Born With Teeth is not a book about Star Trek, so fans of the series hoping for that may be disappointed, but Kate Mulgrew has lived a full and interesting life and has a lot to say about art, love, and finding happiness by being true to one’s self.
From the first pages of this book, as she writes about growing up as a precocious and much-loved child in Iowa, it’s very clear that Kate Mulgrew is not cut out to be a conventional woman. Leaving home for New York, she pursues her career as an actress with a deep and abiding passion for her craft that sustains her over the decades of her life.
Early on, we learn that Mulgrew gave birth early in her career to a daughter who she gave up for adoption, and Mulgrew’s regret over this decision and her desire to be reunited with the child she lost figures nearly as largely in the story as her passion for acting. Mulgrew’s feelings about the adoption consume many pages, and even as she later marries and has two more children by her first husband, she never stops wanting to know her daughter.
I finished this book in just one day, I found it so riveting. Kate Mulgrew is a passionate, intelligent, driven woman who isn’t afraid to talk about her mistakes. She’s also wry and funny, but never cynical, even about her often disappointing relationships with men. Mulgrew’s love for her children and her attempts to stay true to herself while also doing right by them are relatable and compelling.
Born With Teeth is an excellent, fast read about a woman who struggles with balancing her personal and professional lives. The book is light on practical advice, but I think it’s a wonderful story to show that a life doesn’t have to be objectively perfect in order to be rich and fulfilling. I think one takeaway here is that mistakes shouldn’t define one’s life and that it’s never too late to make positive changes. The other takeaway is that it’s okay to not compromise when happiness is on the line, which is an excellent message, especially for young, creative women, to whom I would most recommend this book.
“The Sons of the Harpy” is another mixed bag of an episode. There’s a lot of story here, but there’s also a lot of exposition, and I think the greatest strengths of this episode are in its quieter moments. That said, this episode is one of the bloodiest of the series so far as shit hits the fan in King’s Landing and Meereen while Jaime and Bronn arrive in Dorne, and the bloodshed we see here promises to be just the beginning of the violence in store for us this season.
The show is doing a lot of interesting stuff and a lot of infuriating stuff, and there’s a lot to talk about, and, as always, spoilers are under the cut for both last night’s episode and book related discussion.
The episode picks up where the last one ended, as Ser Jorah steals a boat and absconds with Tyrion from Volantis.
Elsewhere, Jaime and Bronn are sailing south. I loved that we got a shot of Tarth (Brienne’s birthplace), although it’s brief. The conversation here between Bronn and Jaime sets up the first of several interesting narrative disagreements that are showcased in this episode, in which the central theme seems to be a meditation on the different ways in which we frame stories. In the story Jaime wants to tell, they are going to rescue his “niece,” Myrcella, although Bronn refers to it as “stealing” Dorne’s princess and seems to be well aware that Myrcella is actually Jaime’s daughter. Bronn also asks Jaime if it was Jaime who freed Tyrion, to which Jaime responds that it was Varys who did it–another difference between reality and the story that Jaime wants to tell, even though it’s obvious to Bronn (and the viewer) that this journey to Dorne is an atonement of sorts for Jaime, who can’t seem to shake his guilt no matter what story he tries to tell himself and no matter how much he wants to avenge Tywin’s death by killing Tyrion.
In King’s Landing, Cersei continues to whittle away at the Small Council. The Iron Bank is calling the crowns debts, so she sends Mace Tyrell to Braavos to negotiate better terms–with Ser Meryn Trant for protection. With Arya in Braavos and Meryn Trant still on her list, this could get interesting in the next couple of weeks.
Next up, Cersei meets with the High Sparrow, who is now the new High Septon. The High Sparrow is definitely one of the most interesting new characters introduced in this season, and Jonathan Pryce continues to knock it out of the park in this role as a seemingly mild-mannered and reasonable man who nonetheless jumps at the chance of reviving the Faith Militant, a martial arm of the faith of the Seven that was disbanded hundreds of years ago.
The reinstatement of the Faith Militant immediately results in gangs of armed religious fanatics rampaging through the streets of King’s Landing, smashing stuff and beating and arresting people, culminating in the ransacking of Littlefinger’s brothel and then the arrest of Loras Tyrell.
While Cersei at least nominally had to have Tommen sign off on the Faith Militant, we find out that Tommen has no idea what is going on when an enraged Margaery confronts him about her brother’s arrest. This begins one of the show’s most fascinating departures from the books so far, as we see Tommen go immediately to Cersei to demand Loras’s release. Cersei, of course, disclaims responsibility and denies having any power to do anything about it, which sends Tommen himself to the Sept to seek an audience with the High Sparrow. Members of the Faith Militant bar Tommen’s entry, but Tommen refuses to let his Kingsguard kill the men, even as cries of “bastard!” and “abomination!” and “born of sin!” ring out in the background. A disheartened Tommen returns to his chambers, where he has to give Margaery the bad news: not only has he not managed to free Loras, he doesn’t even have a clear plan yet. Frustrated, Margaery leaves to be with her family, and she’s going to write to her grandmother about this.
I actually find this whole plot surprisingly compelling. I’ve never loved the way GRRM handled Cersei and the King’s Landing plot in A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, and I’ve been very concerned about how this would be done on the show, especially with an older Tommen and more mature and involved Margaery. In the books, Tommen is a very young child, so he’s not a player at all, and book!Margaery, at just sixteen herself, is much more vulnerable to Cersei’s machinations than the more adult Margaery of the show. I didn’t like the way the show handled Tommen’s marriage to Margaery, but I think I might love where things are going now. This Tommen is still very young (Have I mentioned how young this actor looks? My goodness, he’s like a baby!), but he’s starting to realize how fucked up his situation is. His mother is power mad and making terrible decisions, the city is turning against him, his wife is unhappy, and he’s just a kid that no one seems to take very seriously. I’m finding myself really looking forward to seeing how Tommen develops.
My only reservation (and it’s, admittedly, a major one) is that I’m now worried that Cersei’s storyline is going to be sacrificed in order to expand Tommen’s character and make the story all about him. I feel like there is a reason that characters like Joffrey, Tommen, and Robb Stark weren’t given POV chapters in the books while their mothers were, and I worry that the writers of the show might be missing the point of that by spending so much time focusing on Tommen. We already got to see Catelyn Stark’s story turned into Robb’s, and Catelyn was completely discarded by the show following Robb’s death, in spite of the thematic significance of Lady Stoneheart in the books. I’m torn between really enjoying the direction the show is taking and being unhappy at the prospect of Cersei being similarly sidelined in favor of her son’s character development.
All that said, I am unequivocally thrilled about Olenna Tyrell’s impending return, which is the only good news in this whole sequence.
Also, a note on costumes: the fabrics on this show are amazing. I always loved Joffrey’s outfits, and Tommen’s are very similarly gorgeous. Also, did everyone else notice that, while Cersei seems to have given up her armored look this season–I imagine because she feels more secure in her position as she’s weeding out her opposition–Margaery’s dress in this episode featured a metal overlay on the bodice that is definitely reminiscent of some of Cersei’s earlier looks.
Up at Castle Black, Selyse Baratheon is basically awful, hating on Jon Snow and on her own daughter, Shireen. Selyse suggests that Jon Snow is just a bastard of Ned Stark’s by some tavern wench, but Stannis insists that that wasn’t Ned’s way–the first tiny piece of this episode’s R+L=J preparatory exposition. Melisandre shows up to remind Selyse that Shireen is still Stannis’s daughter, which seems ominous. It’s interesting to see Stannis questioning Melisandre a little. He might need her, but it seems he might not entirely trust her, either.
Elsewhere in the castle, Jon Snow is writing to the lords of the North to ask for men and supplies. He’s not happy about asking Roose Bolton for help, but Sam sensibly reminds him that Lord Bolton is the most powerful of the northern lords, and Jon angrily signs the letter after all. He’s still stewing about it when Melisandre pops in to try and convince him to come south with them to Winterfell. Failing that, she tries to seduce him (probably to make another shadow baby, maybe to kill Roose Bolton) which he also rebuffs. So she settles for just freaking Jon out with a “You know nothing, Jon Snow” as she leaves the room.
Meanwhile, Stannis is busily doing paperwork when a bored Shireen comes in looking for validation. We get even more back story about Shireen’s greyscale, which makes me increasingly certain that we’ll be getting greyscale and not the Pale Mare in Meereen later on. Mostly, though, I think this is a great humanizing scene for Stannis, who is often cold and detached, even if he’s not evilly so like Roose Bolton. It’s nice to seen Stannis thaw out a little, and I audibly “aww”-ed when Shireen hugged him. This is probably my second favorite scene of the episode, and it continues the theme of different stories–Selyse may see Shireen as weak and deformed, but Stannis loves her and is proud of her regardless.
Next, we travel to the crypts below Winterfell, where Sansa is lighting candles and visiting her dead family. She’s in front of Lyanna Stark’s statue when Littlefinger shows up to take his leave before heading back to King’s Landing. Before leaving, however, Littlefinger provides the second part of this episode’s R+L=J exposition. He tells Sansa the story of Lord Whent’s tourney at Harrenhaal, where Rhaegar Targaryen passed over his own wife, Elia of Dorne, to choose Lyanna Stark as Queen of Love and Beauty. Sansa replies that Rhaegar might have chosen Lyanna, but then he kidnapped and raped Lyanna–Lyanna didn’t choose him back. Judging from Littlefinger’s sad, knowing look at Sansa, the story the Starks and Robert Baratheon have been telling about these events might not be the whole or correct story. The subtlety of Littlefinger’s look might fly over the heads of viewers who haven’t read the books, but I think everyone who has read ASOIAF got the message loud and clear.
Before leaving, Littlefinger apprises Sansa of the situation in the North and Stannis’s impending attack. He predicts that if Stannis is succesful, Sansa will be made Wardeness of the North in her own right. If Stannis fails, Littlefinger advises Sansa to secure her position by manipulating Ramsay. And of course Littlefinger can’t leave without creepily stealing a last kiss from Sansa, which felt gratuitous to me if the show expects us to believe that Sansa is anything more than Littlefinger’s pawn and completely in his power, but I don’t know why I would ever expect this show to not do the worst things possible with Sansa every chance they get.
In Dorne, Jaime and Bronn have finally arrived at their destination. Breakfast is a snake, and we get a lovely little chat about what the best way to die is. The start on their way, and as Bronn points out the flaw in Jaime’s plan to sneak into Dorne (paying off the ship’s captain), they are almost immediately spotted by a group of four Dornish riders that they have to fight.
Somewhere else in Dorne, Ellaria is riding a really pretty horse (SO pretty) along a beach on her way to meet the Sand Snakes. Of course, the captain of the ship that Jaime and Bronn were on has already spilled the beans (and gotten a face full of scorpions for his trouble). This is the only part of the episode that I think I seriously hated. It just didn’t work for me. Ellaria in the books didn’t want to avenge Oberyn at all, and while Arianne Martell and the Sand Snakes did, they were much smarter about it than they seem to be being here. Declaring Myrcella as Queen of Westeros in the books was an amazing, elegant, vicious plan that made a lot more sense than the plan these women seem to have on the show, which is apparently just killing Myrcella to start a war. I might be in a minority as a true lover of the books’ Dornish plot, but even if the show couldn’t put it on screen exactly the way it was in the books (which I agree would be basically impossible) I think they could have come up with something better than this.
The show also seems determined to flatten all these characters into nearly indistinguishable bloodthirsty martial types, which is absolutely infuriating. One of the strengths of GRRM’s books is that he showcases a wide variety of different female characters, and the Sand Snakes are no different. In the show, however, it seems like the writers really want to squeeze all of GRRM’s myriad multifaceted women into two boxes, labeled “badass warrior type women” and “inept politician type women.” Gone are the vastly different suggestions that Tyene, Obara, and Nymeria have for avenging their father. Gone is Ellaria’s sensible desire to protect her own children and live in a peaceful land. Gone is Arianne’s ambition and resentment of her father’s reticence, because Arianne is gone altogether. Basically, gone is all the depth and nuance that made the Dornish plot such an interesting addition to the books. I’d started to come to terms over the last few weeks with the omission of Arianne Martell from the show, and I’d even started to think that expanding Ellaria’s role was a good solution to some of the problems with introducing a whole new setting and cast of characters this late in the series, as it offered some interesting ways of handling the Dornish plot, but it looks like I’m just going to be disappointed. At this point, I’m no longer going to get my hopes up about it at all.
Back in Essos, Jorah and Tyrion are well on their way. Tired of hearing all the annoying noises Tyrion is making, Jorah finally removes the gag from Tyrion’s mouth. Except it turns out that Tyrion is just going to make some even more annoying mouth noises now. When he learns that Jorah is taking him to Daenerys, not Cersei, Tyrion can’t resist insulting and mocking Jorah until Jorah knocks him out to shut him up. While this scene moves things along and is thematically consistent with the rest of the episode, again picking up the idea of the duality of reality and the stories we tell ourselves, it’s hands down the most boring thing going on this week.
In Meereen Daenerys is talking with Ser Barristan, which starts my favorite part of this episode. Through Ser Barristan, we learn some more about Rhaegar Targaryen in a direct counterpoint to the discussion between Sansa and Littlefinger earlier. The kind, charming Prince Rhaegar that Barristan describes, who loved to sing in the streets of King’s Landing, doesn’t sound like the sort of guy who would kidnap and rape anybody, and he certainly doesn’t sound very much like what Viserys told Dany about their brother. This pleasant interlude is interrupted by Hizdahr zo Loraq returning to pester Daenerys some more about reopening Meereen’s fighting pits.
While Hizdahr is waxing eloquent about the joys of blood sports, the Sons of the Harpy have coordinated a massive attack on Daenerys’s Unsullied forces in the streets of Meereen. Grey Worm and his group are in dire straights when Ser Barristan, now walking through the town, hears the commotion and comes to help. Together, Barristan and Grey Worm manage to defeat the remaining Sons of the Harpy, but the episode ends with both men gravely, possibly mortally, wounded. I loved finally getting to see Ser Barristan in a real fight, as he’s one of my favorite characters from the books, but my question is why are the Unsullied so easily defeated? They’re supposed to be these amazing super soldiers, and the show has already told us that most of the Sons of the Harpy are common men. The Unsullied should have a significant edge, being far better equipped and trained than the Sons, and yet they drop like flies. In the books, the Sons of the Harpy are restricted to sneak attacks and nighttime assassinations–they’re basically terrorists–but here they are engaging in full on guerrilla warfare in broad daylight with what looks like significant help from the regular people of Meereen.
It just seems weird to me, like the show is telling us one thing but showing something entirely different, which is ironic in light of this episode’s overarching theme about storytelling.
So, the good news about “High Sparrow” is that we’re finally starting to see some stories really moving along. The bad news is that the show is as hit-or-miss as ever.
My favorite thing about this episode is probably the wide shots of King’s Landing, Moat Cailin, Winterfell, and Volantis. The settings are absolutely stunning, and seeing these places this way really helps to bring the world of the show to life and help to make the viewer feel as if they could be real places. Least favorite thing? Well, I’ll elaborate more under the cut.
Spoilers under the cut for the episode and a bunch of book-related talk.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of sexual exploitation, sexual violence. and torture.
In Braavos, everything is dark and gloomy in the House of Black and White, where Arya has apparently been sweeping the floor for days. She’s impatient to start being a Faceless Man, even though she doesn’t seem to have any idea what that even means. On the one hand, this opening scene is a smart piece of exposition that explains to the viewer what this place is. On the other hand, I felt a little embarrassed for Arya here, as she really just doesn’t quite seem to understand what she’s gotten herself into. Frankly, I’m already finding myself a little bored with Arya’s storyline this season. She’s never been one of my favorite characters, and I’ve always felt like her chapters in Braavos were just a very elaborate way for her to cool her heels while all the interesting stuff in the books is happening elsewhere.
A gorgeous wide shot of King’s Landing and the ringing of bells herald the wedding of Margaery and Tommen. We hear the end of the couple’s vows, and then we cut straight from Margaery’s satisfied smirk to her and Tommen’s post coital chatting, which is awkward and something I was honestly blind-sided by. I know they’ve aged up Tommen for the show, and obviously teenagers are into sex, but damn. Natalie Dormer is my age (early 30s, although she might pass for late 20s), and Dean-Charles Chapman is a very young-looking 17 (although he would have been just 16 during filming). While we don’t actually see Tommen and Margaery do the deed, they totally did, and while the scene seemed to be going for sweetness (and succeeded to some degree), I am having a hard time not being skeeved out by it.
The thing is, people aren’t great at recognizing the sexual abuse and exploitation of teenage girls, but when adult women are having sex with teenage boys not only is it not generally seen as abuse or exploitation, it’s seen as something that should be a positive experience for boys–something they should be proud of or that makes them a man. And that’s exactly what is on display here. We’re shown explicitly that Margaery is exploiting Tommen’s naivete, that she’s manipulating him, that she’s subtly emasculating him to turn him against his own mother. But we also seem to be intended to see the sexual aspect of this manipulation as somehow not harmful to Tommen? And it feels like we’re being primed to really dislike Cersei this season, which makes it feel like we’re supposed to see Margaery’s manipulation as actually being for Tommen’s own good, when–really–I don’t see how Tommen will be any better off wrapped around Margaery’s finger than he would be under Cersei’s thumb. Cersei might not be mother of the year, but there’s never been any doubt of her commitment to protecting her children. Margaery, meanwhile, is on husband number three, and show!Margaery, as a mature woman with a seemingly large amount of agency, is very different from book!Margaery, a teenage girl who hasn’t even merited her own POV chapters so far.
I just don’t think this is okay. It’s not the worst thing this show has ever done, but it’s pretty messed up. We’re supposed to see Tommen as sweet and innocent and tractable, but we’re somehow not supposed to see Margaery’s use of sex to manipulate him as a violation? Oh, well, he’s enthusiastic about it? That’s supposed to make it okay, I guess. Having your youth and inexperience exploited by a woman old enough to be your mother can’t possibly be traumatic when she’s a total babe, apparently. And, see? Tommen’s standing up to his mother a little bit now, so Margaery really is making a man of him. Ugh. It’s just a gross example of a toxic and damaging ideal of masculinity, no matter what kind of veneer of sweetness and humor the show wants to slap on top of it.
And that’s all without even getting into the mess of the poisonous rivalry between Cersei and Margaery that is happening over and around Tommen. GRRM gets a lot of credit for subverting and upending ordinary fantasy tropes in his books, but the Cersei-Margaery competition in the books is a pretty straightforward young queen vs. old queen situation that is rooted in fairy tale traditions of women who conflict over sex and fertility. The show is playing this trope even straighter than GRRM ever did, kicking off this season with young Cersei being warned of a younger, more beautiful queen who will displace her. This is expounded upon in this episode as Cersei and Margaery take turns undermining each other in Tommen’s affections, Margaery hinting that Cersei might be happier away from King’s Landings and Cersei suggesting to Tommen that Margaery may not be as wonderful as she seems. Finally, Cersei goes to see Margaery herself, where she endures veiled insult after veiled insult about her age, her drinking, and her diminished role as Queen Mother. I’m not sure how much more I can handle of Cersei and Margaery trading barbs like this before it becomes completely insufferably silly.
Prophecy notwithstanding, it always seemed to me that Cersei and Margaery in the books would have been better allies than enemies, although the much younger Margaery in the books may not have seemed like a viable friend to Cersei. In the show, however, with both women so much closer in age and stature, it seems even more obvious that they would be a formidable team and even more irrational of both of them to be so constantly at each other’s throats. By playing up their conflict as being a petty one over beauty and sex, the show’s writers are diminishing and trivializing these characters even more than GRRM did and insulting women in general while they’re at it.
This episode gives us our first view of Winterfell this season, introducing it with a lovely–if slightly dour-looking–shot of it from afar. Ramsay has been out collecting taxes and flaying some guys alive, which he’s brought back to Winterfell for display, much to his father’s mild displeasure. The Boltons don’t have enough men to hold the North through might of arms, Roose informs his son, so they need to think smarter about how to maintain their new position in the wake of Tywin Lannister’s death. A good marriage is the key to holding the North, obviously, and Roose has found the perfect girl for Ramsay.
Cut to Sansa and Littlefinger, cresting a hill before Moat Cailin (another lovely scenery shot, although a little too reminiscent for me of Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Rings). It finally dawns on Sansa that they are heading towards Winterfell, which Littlefinger confirms. Suddenly she realizes that the marriage proposal he talked about back at the Vale wasn’t his marriage but hers. In a “twist” straight out of my worst nightmares of what this season could bring for Sansa, she’s meant to marry Ramsay Bolton. Even without knowing about Ramsay’s nastier traits, Sansa has good reasons to refuse this scheme, and she tries, only to be manipulated by Littlefinger into going along with it.
Littlefinger’s speech to Sansa about refusing to be a bystander and taking control of her life and getting revenge might be the most disgusting bit of abusive manipulation we’ve ever seen on screen in this show, and the worst part about it is that I don’t think this is what was intended by the writers. In a very sick and condescending way, I think this is intended to be an empowering moment for Sansa, but it also has the effect of making Sansa herself at least partly responsible for anything that might happen to her after this point. Because she’s now chosen to go to Winterfell, chosen to marry Ramsay Bolton, chosen to endure whatever indignities or abuses she might suffer going forwards. And this is presented as a noble decision, or at least as a brave one. But it’s not. It’s just infuriating, because the truth is that Sansa doesn’t really have a choice, and even if she did, she doesn’t have anywhere near enough information to make an informed decision.
On another hill, not far away, Brienne and Podrick are still tailing Sansa and Littlefinger, but their scene in this episode is not about anything in particular happening. Instead, it’s about learning more of who these characters are–about where they’ve been rather than where they’re going–and I mostly love it. I haven’t been very happy so far with the portrayal of Brienne and Pod’s relationship, but this scene actually rights a lot of the problems I’ve had with them up to this point. I don’t like that Brienne sort of minimizes her treatment of Pod as “always snapping at [him],” but it’s good to see their relationship actually evolving and in a positive way. After weeks and weeks of Brienne being so hard and cold, it’s nice to see that she does have a softer side. Her determination to avenge Renly’s death also gives her storyline a little more purpose, as we are about to find out that she and Stannis are soon to be on a collision course. They’re both on their way to Winterfell.
At the Wall, Jon Snow has to break the news to Stannis that he won’t be accepting Stannis’s offer of Lordship over Winterfell. A pragmatic man, Stannis forbears from criticizing or debating Jon, instead just advising (quite sensibly) that Jon send Alliser Thorne away from Castle Black. After Stannis leaves the room, Davos hangs back to plant the idea in Jon’s mind that maybe guarding the realms of men will mean leaving the Wall, one way or another.
Back at the House of Black and White, Arya is struggling to find her place. To become a Faceless Man, she must become “no one,” and this is sharply at odds with her dreams of revenge for the wrongs she and her family have endured. To get her revenge, she thinks she needs to become Faceless, but to do that she has to give up being the girl who has wanted nothing but revenge for the last three seasons of the show. So Arya gets rid of all her things, except for Needle, which she hides in some rocks down by the sea, and returns to the House of Black and White to begin her training in earnest. Except, actually, this just means washing dead bodies in some dank corner of the temple, which is super boring.
Sansa arrives at Winterfell, where she seems almost overcome with emotion at first, but she manages to put on a smile as she meets Roose and Ramsay Bolton, which reinforces that we are supposed to see Sansa as actively choosing this, even though she is in no way prepared for this shit.
I hate that Fat Walda never gets any lines. I feel like she’s basically a sight gag–”oh, that Roose is so suave and evil-sexy, but look at his tubby wife.” Since the show is going so far away from the books this season, it would be nice if they would give Walda a lot more dignity and a bit more to do. I’d love to see her and Sansa become friends. I want to learn that Fat Walda has hidden depths.
And going back to my earlier complaint about the show’s bullshit treatment of woman on woman conflict, I hate the way this shot pans over to Ramsay’s girlfriend, who is staring daggers at Sansa. I am going to be incredibly angry if the show somehow tries to make Myranda more of a villain than Ramsay is, but that would be pretty par for the course.
I do like that Sansa seems to have at least some allies in Winterfell. The old serving woman who says “The North Remembers” is a tiny little beacon of hope that at least someone is looking out for Sansa’s best interests.
Back at the Wall, Jon Snow is giving his first orders as Lord Commander. As Jon talks about the need for a new latrine pit, Alliser Thorne looks like he’s absolutely certain of what his new job will be, but he needn’t have worried. That appointment goes to a ginger, and Ser Alliser gets to be the new First Ranger. Janos Slynt, however, isn’t happy to be told that he’s getting sent off to work on rebuilding another castle, and he refuses the order and insults the new Lord Commander to his face. Jon ends up chopping off Janos’s head, making it very clear that, while Jon might be young, he doesn’t intend to rule the Night’s Watch gently. While Thorne pointedly refuses to support Janos, moving out of the way of the men who take Janos to the block, I don’t think we can be ready any time soon to celebrate anything like a friendship between Thorne and Snow. Stannis, however, seems to approve of Jon’s firm hand. Overall, I really liked this sequence. It was very true to the books, and it does a good job of both establishing Jon’s authority as Lord Commander and hinting at what his challenges will be in the future.
If anyone thought the boob count so far in this season was disappointingly low, it seems that the show is making up for lost time in the next scene, where the High Septon is engaging in some religious-themed sex play at Littlefinger’s brothel. Just as he’s picking which of the “Seven” he wants to “worship,” however, Lancel and some other Sparrow cult members burst in to ruin his fun. The High Septon gets marched into the streets naked and is beaten as punishment for his sins, as he recounts to Cersei and the Small Council in the next scene. He insists that Cersei simply must do something about these religious whackos, but instead she tosses the High Septon in prison and seizes the opportunity to ingratiate herself to the “High Sparrow.” When she returns to the Red Keep, Cersei pops in to see how Qyburn’s “work” is coming along and to have him send a message to Littlefinger, and as she walks out we see whatever it is that Qyburn’s working on spasm under a sheet on the table behind him. Qyburn is such a wonderfully creepy dude, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite minor characters.
Back at Winterfell one more time, Sansa is walking around and Theon is avoiding her. Meanwhile, Littlefinger is trying to get to know Ramsay a little, although I’m a little confused at how someone as generally well-informed as Petyr Baelish could really have heard nothing about Ramsay so far. In the books, literally everyone knows about what a monster Ramsay is, and it doesn’t make sense that Littlefinger hasn’t even heard rumors about it on the show. Roose interrupts Ramsay and Littlefinger to let Baelish know that Roose doesn’t trust him. Baelish is a little upset that Roose is reading his mail, but he assures Bolton that they’re on the same side, at least for now.
I honestly can’t say enough just how much I absolutely hate what the show is doing with Sansa this season. It doesn’t even make sense. In the books, Sansa is still in the Vale, keeping her identity a secret and posing as Alayne Stone. The story she’s now being shoehorned into is actually Theon’s story, and Sansa is being forced into the role of Jeyne Poole, whose rape and torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton is used as a catalyst for Theon to have a sort of redemption arc.
In spite of all the praise GRRM gets for creating complex, dynamic characters, Ramsay is a character that doesn’t grow or change at all in the books, to the point that he’s almost a caricature of evil who represents every single bad trait that a man in a patriarchal feudal society could have. He’s cruel, misogynistic, selfish, a serial rapist and a torturer of men and women who is only kept (slightly) in check by his powerful father, Roose. In the books, this is useful (although still harrowing to read), as we know Ramsay almost entirely from Theon’s POV chapters, where the point of the story is Theon’s character development (such as it is). It makes sense, in the books, for Ramsay to be a demon and for poor Jeyne Poole to be a damsel in distress, because this is that story that Theon is telling about himself, the story where Theon eventually manages to get his shit together to try and rescue Jeyne from Ramsay’s clutches.
The problem I see with this on the show is that putting Sansa in Jeyne’s place seems like it will basically destroy all the character growth Sansa has had over the last four seasons. Because what Ramsay does to Jeyne in the books is systematic degradation and abuse. Poor Jeyne was just a girl in the books who had been groomed for this by Littlefinger, and she never had any power whatsoever. For Sansa in the show, however, who has grown into a young woman who is brave and clever and manipulative and who has at least some small semblance of agency, putting her through marriage to Ramsay won’t just be degradation and abuse–it will be a systematic disempowerment, presumably ending with her being reduced to the same kind of damsel in distress that Jeyne was in the books, in need of rescue by Theon (or possibly Brienne/Pod, who have still been following her). The only way this could even possibly be salvaged, I think, is if Sansa also fills the role that Wyman Manderly had in the books, weakening the Boltons’ hold on Winterfell from the inside, making them a softer target for Stannis, but even this isn’t really a satisfactory outcome for me.
Even if Sansa were to kill the Boltons and Theon with her bare hands and take the North in her own name, it’s not worth it to me if we have to watch her be raped and tortured. And, sadly, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see this season. Sansa’s story is already being twisted and subordinated in service of those of Ramsay and Theon, and I fully expect that whatever suffering she endures this season will be to further their character growth rather than her own. The fact that the show’s writers seem determined, most notably by framing this all as Sansa’s choice, to make us think that this is Sansa being a Strong Female Character makes me absolutely sick. Sansa’s story in the Vale isn’t particularly thrilling in the books so far, but GRRM gives her something that Benioff and Weiss have denied her–room and time to grow, without being under constant threat of rape and torture.
The episode ends by visiting Tyrion and Varys, who are arriving at Volantis. We get to see a gorgeous view of the city before we are taken on a short tour of it. They watch a Red Priestess giving a sermon heralding Daenerys as a savior. There’s another mention of greyscale, which (in combination with the exposition about it with Shireen and Gilly last week) makes me think that this illness is going to be important later in the season. Perhaps this will be the plague in Meereen instead of the Pale Mare? In any case, they make themselves to a brothel, where there is a Daenerys look-alike, and Jorah is lurking around in the background. Tyrion tries romancing one of the women, only to find out that he just doesn’t have the heart for banging whores like he used to. When he goes for a piss, Jorah grabs him and tells Tyrion that he’s taking him to “the Queen.”
I actually found this whole brothel scene to be an illustrative example of the way the show pulls its punches when it comes to making its male characters look villainous. The writers almost never shy away from torturing the show’s female characters (all in the name of character development, of course, because obviously women must be abused and raped to grow strong), but they seem loathe to explore the men’s most negative moments.
In the books, Tyrion arrives at a brothel in Selhorys still in a misogynistic rage after killing his father and Shae and ostensibly looking for his lost wife, Tysha. Amid tedious repetitions of “where do whores go?” Tyrion rapes a red-headed whore repeatedly, stumbles out drunk, and is promptly kidnapped by Ser Jorah. Ser Jorah, of course, has been banished by his queen, and he’s made his way to the brothel so he can pay to bang a girl who looks vaguely like Daenerys. He only comes across Tyrion by luck, and if he hadn’t he’d probably still be sad-fucking silver-haired girls all over Essos. In A Dance With Dragons, both of these men are shown as pathetic, but GRRM also isn’t afraid to show them being brutal, even evil. Although GRRM still manages to preserve some sympathy for the characters, I think the reader is meant to see their actions as parts of them as whole men who are capable of some pretty dark shit.
The show, on the other hand, mocks the Dany look-alike whore, having her flounce around in a silly manner and no where near Jorah, who seems awful disinterested in being in a brothel, despite being in a brothel. Tyrion approaches another girl, seemingly attracted to her disdain for the Dany look-alike, but he actually finds himself having an attack of conscience and unable to go through with fucking a girl who is charmed by him (in spite of his being such a sad sack) and clearly willing. Not only does Tyrion not rape this girl, he’s kind to her, and has apparently lost his taste for whores entirely.
Way to go, show. Sansa is all set to spend the next half season of the show probably being raped and tortured by Ramsay Bolton so Theon can redeem himself. And Tyrion straight up strangled his girlfriend to death but gets to be redeemed just three episodes later because he’s nice to one sad whore, even though he’s only nice to her because he wants to fuck her and then nice some more because he can’t get a boner. Excellent job, Benioff and Weiss. Fuck you very much.