An article that has almost nothing to say about “The Gift,” the seventh episode of season five of “Game of Thrones”[i]
by Miodrag Zarković
It’s fitting that, when discussing something originally created by the mind of George R. R. Martin, alliances are not so easy to form. Enemy of your enemy doesn’t have to be your friend in any way.
In the matters of “Game of Thrones,” a TV show that was supposed to be an adaptation of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, my enemies are David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners. Needless to say, they’re not really my enemies. I wish them no harm. I present no threat to them or anyone they love or care for. I’m just regularly appalled by the dismal results they produce in HBO’s hottest item of the decade and by the frustrating disrespect for the source material they display week in, week out. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s not a “life or death” situation, but it is a serious issue.
Is then the sudden, long overdue, and very strong critique of their show, that surfaced ten days ago, a reason to celebrate?
Well, no. Not really. For the same reasons one couldn’t enjoy those misplaced complaints some four years ago, following the second episode of the debut season of the show. The episode, titled “The Kingsroad,” ended with the execution of Lady, Sansa Stark’s direwolf, and immediately after the credits rolled internet went ablaze with accusations from thousands of viewers that the show is advocating animal cruelty and that they won’t watch it again. The controversy was so big, Martin himself had to react on his “Not a Blog” and remind everyone that: 1) the dog that played Lady was actually not hurt in the scene, and 2) the kid who played Mycah, the poor butcher’s boy who was also slain in the episode, was okay too, in case someone was wondering. Possibly ashamed by Martin’s sarcastic remark, the complainers stopped with their rage, but it was an early sign that something’s very off with the public perception of this show. A legion of viewers truly thought they had to defend the species of direwolves from the man who actually brought them back to life in his saga. Yes, GOT was a strange journey from the very beginning.
TV critics were not too different from common folks. See, ahead of each season, critics are given screeners, e.g. a certain number of episodes in advance, so they can prepare both previews and early reviews. For the debut season, they received the first six episodes. The vast majority of them expressed their positive impressions of the show, hailing production values, interesting plot twists, a grittiness that was surprising for a fantasy show, good acting, and especially Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion. Well, there was one exception on the last account. One critic was openly displeased with Dinklage’s performance, most of all with his accent. Some viewers also noticed the problems Dinklage, an American, had with the British accent and by extension with the delivery of some lines, but critics, apart from that one, reached the consensus that the Tyrion actor was a revelation. Here’s the catch: the one critic that disagreed was writing her reviews right after watching each episode. Opposite to other critics, she penned her reactions before watching the next episode, and she didn’t want to “correct” them afterwards, even if she changed her opinion on a particular issue later on. Her colleagues, on the other hand, just binge-watched the six screeners and only then went back and wrote respective reviews for each of the episodes. And, naturally, the sixth episode, titled “A Golden Crown,” left the biggest impression on them, because it actually was the last fresh material they’d seen. And, truth be told, it was the episode Dinklage excelled in, with his dealings with Mord and his trial at the Eyrie as high points.
In short, that may very well be the explanation for the Dinklage euphoria that accompanied the first season and practically lasts to this day. The critics, save that one (who was tastelessly attacked on show-dedicated sites as a “traitor”), simply didn’t pay too much attention to “details” like actors’ delivery and cared much more for their general feelings on the material. Because Tyrion was the unexpected hero of the last screener they received and watched, it was easy for them to single him out as the stand-out among the cast, even though his performance in the earliest episodes was far from remarkable.
At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if the critics were given seven instead of six episodes. Would Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo, who pretty much owned the seventh hour with his war speech after the attempt on Daenerys’ life, become the favorite of the critics and receive an Emmy later on? What would’ve happened if there were only four screeners? Would Michelle Fairley, with her striking turn in the scene in which her character Catelyn Stark captures Tyrion, receive the biggest acclaim in that scenario? We’ll never know, of course, but the fact that the strongest character in the last screener reviewers received ahead of the first season became the critics’ darling and, later on, favorite of the showrunners as well (who went on to write a number of invented TV scenes that seemed to serve Dinklage first, the story itself a distant second), could be more than just a coincidence.
At any rate, this showed that TV critics aren’t to be too trusted either, at least when it comes to “Game of Thrones.”
The rest of the season only strengthened the feeling. The beheading of Ned Stark was universally praised as a revolutionary move for the TV industry, in that no show before GOT had killed its main character in the first season. Back then, however, critics weren’t asking the question that by nowadays seems like the most frequent one about GOT: was Ned’s death gratuitous, e.g. just for the shock value? Was it meant just to take viewers by surprise and send a signal that anything can happen on this show (a thought often rephrased as “Anyone can die in GOT”), or did it carry some higher importance?
A pity, really, because the answer was there all the time, offered by the showrunners themselves, in the now infamous “Inside the episode” videos and regular media interviews. In regards to Ned’s death, all they could talk about was how utterly shocking and disturbing it was supposed to be. (This is the exact quote: “It’s great to be surprised in that way, and I only hope that the people who come into this show without having read the books will have the same Holy shit response that I had when I read the book, because it was a big Holy shit for me.” Dan Weiss, eloquent as ever.) Not a word on some thematic importance, some sophisticated meaning, some subtle message if you will. No, TV Ned died solely to convey how dangerous and merciless the world of GOT is, which really is just a code word for a successful attempt to shock the viewers beyond their wildest imagination.
And pretty much the entire first season served that one purpose: to portray what a dark and unforgiving setting the show managed to create. “No good deed goes unpunished,” another direct quote, this time by Benioff, about Mirri Maz Duur effectively killing Drogo after Dany saved her.
But why would such a setting be interesting in the first place? Why would the audience care for the world in which no good deed goes unpunished? What artistic or philosophical significance could individual fates in that environment possibly have for the viewers? What was supposed to separate “Game of Thrones” from horror rides in amusement parks?
All those questions were left not only unanswered, but practically unasked, during the first ten episodes. Even the last scene, in which Daenerys stands up amidst the ashes with three little dragons on her, was hailed as a triumph and “the most effective” usage of a naked body in recent memory. Apparently, nobody had a problem with the obvious failure of the scene, e.g. its chronological discontinuity represented by the fact that Dany enters the pyre at night and emerges from it on daylight. Those rare viewers that didn’t particularly like such a break in continuity were easily convinced by the showrunners that it was a necessity, because of some difficulties with special effects.
As if it was impossible to insert the red comet as the reason behind the sudden light. Yes, the actual red comet: it appears in the books, too, and it was heavily shown in the very next episode, the premiere of the second season, so it’d probably be much more logical to have a bright comet shining on the site, instead of making the entire khalasar sleep for a few hours while Dany burns.
The critics and the viewers, however, were thrilled. It’s a fantasy show that doesn’t hesitate to kill its main characters, after all. Who gives a damn if there’s no logic for some of the most instrumental moments in the story? Who cares if a crucial political decision (King in the North) takes no more than 30 seconds to be reached, just so we can have that endless “Naked whore exits Pycelle’s chamber” scene, or that even more futile verbal sparring between Littlefinger and Varys? It’s a show about some dreaded world in which anyone can be killed at any given moment and honor is just a shortcut to an early grave and everything’s bleak and everyone’s cruel and nothing is sacred . . . We need that world, so we can favorably compare our own reality to it and feel great about ourselves. Therefore, it’s a brilliant show. It has to be. Right?
The sad truth is that, just like countless other shows and movies, the first season of GOT really offered not much more than pure escapism. And was hailed for it.
A very small minority was disappointed. The corresponding book (those days it was still possible to recognize one, at least) offered a multitude of finer explanations and explorations that went well beyond that “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” pettiness that is sometimes confused with good storytelling, but almost none of those found its way into the show. Those that did seemed to exist on screen despite the showrunners’ intentions and not because of them. But most were missing. There was no connection to the past (Ned’s dream, for example) that determines the present. The importance of one’s heritage was practically erased, most notably from Ned’s arc for which it was the most important aspect in the books; the one exception was the character who was only bound to appear inconsistent because of that later on—Tywin. There was no underlying humanity in, say, the Night’s Watch, where TV Alliser’s cheap “Come winter, you’ll die, like flies” speech had way more gravity than Jon standing up for Sam and securing him a place on the Wall (the second part was actually omitted).
Sadly, rarely anybody seemed to care. Cersei speaks of some dead infant? The Trident scene was amateurishly filmed? Doesn’t matter, an alleged animal cruelty in the same episode needs be addressed. Ned was robbed of his dream sequence and given only one scene in the dungeon? Doesn’t matter, everybody just loved he was killed. People are going to be confused about battles and war strategies and army movements and secessions and complicated political relations between the kingdoms in the realm? Don’t worry, look how strongly everyone hates Joffrey!
The second season came with only bigger problems. Instead of delivering a rather complex but enlightening back-story about his troubled upbringing that left eternal consequences on his personal views on deities, TV Stannis was literally teased by Melisandre into a sexual intercourse. And on top of everything, Bryan Cogman, a trusted accomplice of Benioff and Weiss, was actually angry when asked about the decision to go overt with the Stannis/Mel sexual affair, opposite to the books where it’s only hinted at: he openly revealed that the two of them also have sex in the novels, despite the fact the positive confirmation is still to come in the source material, strong hints notwithstanding. He, who’s always so careful not to spoil anything from the future episodes, actually didn’t hesitate to spoil the books in order to defend the show’s need for nudity and sex scenes.
This is not about being a Stannis fan, of course. In case somebody’s interested, I’m not, by the way. Technically speaking, I’m a fan of all the characters. Even Ramsay: I literally can’t wait to read the next chapter he or some letter of his appear in, which probably makes me a fan of Ramsay, too. So no, I’m not a Stannis fan strictly speaking, but I was shocked by the sad truth that this “adaptation” is headed by the men who find Stannis’ alleged sex life much more interesting than his religious beliefs. He is the closest ASOIAF comes to Prometheus: he wants something given by the gods (the position of a monarch), though not to serve deities but the realm (e.g. humans), and there’s a fire involved heavily in his arc . . . And yet, in the show he’s reduced to a power-mad warlord who can’t control his sexual impulses. But, in battle he’s the first to climb the besieged walls, without a helmet even, so the show won that round, apparently.
Arya’s Harrenhal sequence was deformed into a vehicle for two actors to appear together on screen. Sansa’s arguably bravest deed (saving Dontos) disappeared after the initial gesture, along with some of Sandor’s lines that—again!—went Littlefinger’s way. Jon was learning how to be an idiot whom Ygritte can best in any way. Tyrion was busy with grammar dilemmas and not with actual ruling. Jaime was preoccupied with murdering his relatives for no reason at all. Theon was realizing the life without Ramsay has no closure—literally! Robb and Dany’s respective arcs were seen as improvements of the source material, because, apparently, it’s better to have moronic characters and nonsensical twists in more scenes than believable characters and tight stories delivered in less . . . sorry, fewer memorable scenes. And Bran and Rickon stopped being important to anyone. That’s the outline of the “season of romance,” as Benioff called it, and, again, hardly anyone complained. It was still the show with horrible things happening to everyone and bad guys were still winning. What’s not to like about it?
Season 3 came a year later, with the scene Benioff and Weiss always emphasized as the main reason they went in this “adaptation” to begin with. Without going into details, here’s just one, often overlooked example, of what the writing in the show looked like by then: when Robb is informed by Talisa she’s pregnant, she asks him: “You’re angry with me?” Seriously, someone in the writing team thought it’s a theoretically possible line in a world that has no idea of anti-baby pills and little of other forms of contraception. (The scene belongs to the episode written by Martin himself, but, until proven otherwise, I’m positive the man didn’t write a single line for the abomination called Talisa, and the scenes often get shifted between episodes anyway.)
By the way, Benioff and Weiss’ most beloved book scene, the Red Wedding, was so gratuitous in the show that in the end it was obvious the infamous Talisa was added mainly for the massacre to be even more shocking, by having her repeatedly stabbed in the belly.
Once again, the critics managed to largely miss or purposely avoid all the low points of the show. Occasionally, someone wrote about the assassination of this character or that one, which was a big step of course, but it was still an exception and not the rule. The vulgar honeymoon between GOT and the critics was still far from over.
And then, last year, something happened. The romance between the media and the show abruptly paused. The reason was the scene in episode 3 of Season Four, depicting the now infamous intercourse between Jaime and Cersei in the sept, right by Joff’s corpse.
“Rape!” yelled the critics in fury, every single one of them. And, if one didn’t know better from the books, it actually looked like a rape. Cersei’s resisting at first, but Jaime doesn’t want to stop and she eventually surrenders. For the unsullied eye, it could look like nothing but the forced sex in which one party was clearly violated. The crew, however, claimed something else. When the scandal broke, the showrunners, the director of the episode and the actors themselves kept saying the scene wasn’t meant to be seen as a rape.
I remembered the case with Lady’s death in Season 1 (not the least because Martin himself once more felt the need to react and remind everyone the scene in his book is written way differently), and realized once again there are two sides making strange claims, neither having any grasp whatsoever over whatever the hell they’re talking about.
Let’s start with the crew first. It’s truly something special, though really not in a good way, when you manage to film a scene and practically everyone sees it differently than you do. That’s quite a milestone in the history of TV incompetence. As far as memory serves, no other show, or movie for that matter, managed to unintentionally convey something so different from the original idea. There’s a lot of unintentionally funny moments in the history of motion pictures, but before this there was probably no unintentional rape scene. Everyone who wrote, directed and edited the said scene, should really go back to the basics of their jobs and start the career all over again. Some things really can’t be fixed, only reset, and this is obviously such a case.
On the other hand, even if we agree it was a rape (and, again, to anyone who didn’t possess the knowledge from the books the scene could look like nothing else), I’m still to hear why any Unsullied critic/viewer was upset over it. Isn’t this the show in which everyone can be killed, or maimed, or brutalized? Or raped? How was an Unsullied to know if such a scene will lead to any meaningful conclusion or not? If we look at the show as a separate entity from the books—which is a line every show lover, TV critics included, kept parroting all these years—there was simply no way to tell what the show intended to do with this development in Jaime and Cersei’s relationship.
As for book readers, this scene could be just the last straw in a long string of serious misinterpretations of Jaime’s character—similar to last week’s situation with Sansa. If one’s concerned with the way Benioff and Weiss are adapting Jaime Lannister, one was bound to be unhappy ever since the second episode of the first season (the scene in which Jaime, a member of the Kingsguard, mocks Jon and the very concept of the Night’s Watch), angry ever since the murder of cousin Alton in Season 2, and outraged after witnessing the humiliation Jaime suffered in that duel with Brienne in Season 3. To start attacking the show only then and there, over that one scene? That didn’t sound convincing to me back then, and it doesn’t sound any more convincing now.
And the best thing is, it’s pretty much evident Benioff and Weiss were speaking the truth when they said it wasn’t meant to be a rape.
I don’t believe them when they say they love and respect Martin’s books, because with every given episode they’re just proving they’re much more in love with the garbage they invent. I don’t believe them when they say they had to make this change or that one because the corresponding source material wouldn’t look good on TV: with every given episode they prove how little they know of any medium at all, be it literature or television. I don’t believe when they say weather conditions forced them to give Sandor’s lines to Littlefinger, because the scene itself proves it couldn’t be the case.
But when they say they didn’t write Jaime raping Cersei, I believe them. They were just trying to solve the mess they created with their Cersei. You see, TV Cersei loves her children. It’s not only she who recognizes it, but basically everyone around her agrees. Even Tyrion, who openly hates her, admits she’s a loving mother. Why they wanted her that way, I can only guess, but the fact is that a loving mother would never have sex right by her son’s dead body. No. Freaking. Way.
Ahead of the fourth season, Benioff and Weiss figured it out, or more probably someone told them. And they saw they were in a trap. It was one of those butterfly effects Martin was warning them about. Book Cersei is obsessed only with herself and, while she doesn’t hate her children and, as Martin once told, she sees them as extensions of herself rather than as individuals she loves, she really sees no problem in having sex with Jaime right by Joff’s dead body. Jaime, who’s a POV character in that chapter, outright says he feels nothing for Joffrey, which is a clear signal Cersei also doesn’t, not really, because otherwise she wouldn’t engage in intercourse with her lover in the most inappropriate of moments and at the most inappropriate of places. Anybody who ever grieved for anyone can testify to that: just ask yourself if you would be able to have sex right by the fresh corpse of your loved one. That is why the intercourse in the book is clearly consensual, just like the author explained—because book Cersei doesn’t love her children, at least not in the most common meaning of the word.
TV Cersei, on the other hand, loves her kids. That’s how Benioff and Weiss created her pretty much from the start. And then, facing the sept scene, they realized they can’t have her in a consensual sex with Jaime in those circumstances. To the Unsullied viewers, who for years watched Cersei as this loving mother, that would be extremely odd. So, talented as they are, Benioff and Weiss tried to fix their mess by having Jaime somewhat more forceful at the beginning of the scene. And just at the beginning. That’s how they operate: a loving mother would never have a consensual sex with her lover right by their son’s corpse . . . but, if he pushes her a little . . . now we’re talking! It doesn’t start as consensual, but it ends like that. Problem solved!
Trying to preserve their twisted characterization of Cersei, they ruined the character of Jaime, once more. Granted, instead of dodging a little storm, they caught the big one. Butterfly effect. Martin was warning them. They didn’t listen. Their funeral. Not an atom of mine felt sorry for them. Remember, they’re my enemies.
But I also couldn’t side with the enemies of my enemies in that case. All those critics that crucified Benioff and Weiss obviously had some agenda, but their agenda was not something that in any way corresponded with one of mine: the love for the ASOIAF books. Book purism, if you will.
In that controversy from a year ago, book admirers were the only side that wasn’t represented, other than in Martin’s brief statement on “Not a Blog” and on fan forums. The scene was discussed either from the perspective of show apologists, who continue to claim there’s nothing wrong with it and everyone should just have complete trust in Benioff and Weiss’s skills, or from the perspective of politically correct media that pursued their own interest, which wasn’t much different from the already mentioned “animal cruelty” scandal after “The Kingsroad.”
Something similar happened last week, with the new controversy, this time around TV Sansa’s rape. Contrary to last year’s situation, there is no doubt this time—it was a rape. Theon’s face confirmed it clearly, along with Sansa’s own reaction in this week’s episode, “The Gift.” Contrary to last year, Benioff and Weiss are silent this time around. Contrary to last year, some media outlets are not only listing silly accusations, but openly declaring they’re going to stop covering/promoting the show from now on. Contrary to last year, some other media outlets are determined to justify Benioff and Weiss by throwing some silly accusations of their own about other people’s accusations. In short, everything seems different this year, except from one detail: again, nobody was talking on behalf of those who love the source material, both Sansa fans and the rest.
(to be continued before the next episode)
[i] Just like the headline and the subtitle say, this was not meant to be a standard review. However, it wasn’t a decision made just because of the gravity of last week’s controversy but also for practical reasons. “The Gift” was, truth be told, an unbelievably dull episode, in which the show reused all the nonsensical aspects that plague the current season. The one refreshing thing is that Dorne was probably not the most moronic part of the episode, thought they did try hard to preserve the status, both with Myrcella’s almost Talisa-like outburst at her “uncle” Jaime, that ironically contained the most truthful line of the entire subplot (“Why is it happening at all?”), and with the poison triggered by the sight of boobs. Alas, the stupidest sequence has to be the Tyrion/Jorah weekly adventure. That cheap attempt at a “Gladiator” rip-off, combined with Tyrion’s sudden martial prowess that was not an unintentional rape but was certainly unintentionally ridiculous (and don’t forget a complete nonentity releasing him at the most convenient of moments), has to be included in textbooks as a perfect example of dishonoring not just one but basically two source materials. Congratulations, Benioff and Weiss, you again managed to outdo yourselves. The rest of the episode was just a bridge between the nonsense seen in the first half of the season and the final three episodes, therefore, it will probably be addressed in the coming reviews, when it will be put in the context.